The wealth of networks

Crooked Timber have just held an online seminar around a new book by Yochai Benkler on “The Wealth of Networks”. The theme is that new information technologies are reshaping opportunities for cooperation in cultural production and other forms of social action, but face obstacles in achieving them.

It’s good stuff, but I miss the grand historical perspective. So let’s have a go, in the new spirit of wiki amateurism. Are we seeing a cultural revolution? No, reversion to the mean.

In pre-modern societies, hunter-gatherer or agricultural, most cultural production is cooperative. Villagers organised fiestas like this. Pre-industrial farm workers, even serfs and slaves outside the tropics, had leisure simply because of the seasons. The ruling class amused itself with dances, hunts and games. Both classes sang in church or synagogue. Henry VIII composed, Frederick the Great played the flute, Queen Victoria painted watercolours. Professional artists like Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Mozart made a living on the margins of this big canvas of DIY entertainment. Of course, their production was much the best and is what has come down to us.

A new technology like printing creates new full-time professions – printers, writers – but also new opportunities for dilettantes. Exhibit 1 is a Renaissance scholar from the small Alsatian town of Sélestat (then Schlettstadt), known as Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547) – real name Bild of Rheinau. His father made a lot of money as a butcher, and sent his son off to the Sorbonne. He became a sort of groupie of star scholars like Erasmus; unsuccessful as a writer, he turned himself into the first expert editor – you can see in the delightful Bibliothèque Humaniste in Sélestat a mediaeval manuscript of a minor Roman author with Bild’s markings for the Venetian printers, together with the printed book.

Exhibit 2 is the Oxford English Dictionary, a monument of scholarship produced by an extraordinary collective effort. All over Victorian Britain, bourgeois leisure was turned into a blizzard of standardised citation slips, brought together in a big shed in James Murray’s North Oxford garden. The introduction to the Dictionary lists 130 volunteer readers: Col. R.E. Ardagh, The Misses B.M. and L. Bousfield, The Ven. Archdeacon Cheetham, Miss Jennett Humphreys of Cricklewood (18,700), H. Hucks Gibbs, M.A. (Lord Aldenham), W.F. Grahame (of Madras), Dr. W.C. Minor… The Introduction does not say that the last reader was a rich American bibliophile and psychotic, detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure in an asylum near Oxford after killing a man in 1872; his story is well told by Simon Winchester in The Professor and the Madman, 1998. The bottleneck in the OED’s long gestation was in the professional element of editing.

You say these are just interesting exceptions to an irreversible trend to professional culture? I reply that just as our consumption of oil is a historical blip in the long run (the “Hubbard pimple”), so, culturally speaking was the industrial society of the last two centuries. In the 19th century, industrial workers had negligible leisure and lost many (but not all) habits of self-entertainment. In the 20th, as workers regained leisure, it was overwhelmingly filled by the consumption of goods produced by professionals: sporting events, newspapers, magazines, genre fiction, film, recorded music, and TV.

For anyone brought up like ourselves in this world, the reinvention of cooperative cultural production through new technology looks like a revolution. It is, but in the Platonic not the Marxian sense. What we are seeing now, I suggest, is a move back towards the long-run historical norm. We will still need and appreciate professional writers and artists in all media. But there’s a lot of fun in doing it yourself. And it beats work.