The most important book of 2015

I have wrung my hands in the past, in this space and elsewhere, about the collapse of a workable market for digital goods.  I find it hard to get people as excited about this as I am–if I still had enough hair for anyone to notice it would be on fire–but I have some help from Scott Timberg now  so I am going to try again.  Short version: buy this book, Culture Crash, and read it. Now. I believe it is the Piketty of 2015, and the first book I’ve stayed up to read straight through at one sitting–sometimes literally in tears, both of pain and of rage– in years.  It is not just about culture, but about whatever really big issue you lie awake worrying about.

Long post (no, not a substitute for the book; read it), get a cup of coffee  .

Backing up for a running start: digital goods are basically all text, images, audio, and video embodied in computer files.  Not physical first editions of books, not oil paintings on canvas, not live music performances, not live stage plays and dance, but: newspaper articles, mp3 files of music, Kindle books, movies, this blog post. These goods are only made for us by creators of various kinds (reporters, composers, novelists, actors, columnists, performers, etc.) who traditionally have had distinctive competences and vision that make their work special, whether art or the kind of journalism that kicks off hearings and indictments, or gets legislation passed.  Absolute necessities for these creators are a roof over their heads and bread on the table; if we don’t pay them for what they are good at, the ones who don’t have trust funds go to work at WalMart, or the local cafe, or a bank. Too bad for them, but also for us: it means less of it (or none) for us, and worse because the creators’ concentration and focus is constantly broken.

All this content used to be distributed as physical stuff like CDs and books that allowed publishers of various kinds to charge for the product and pay the creators. Newspapers and magazines had a more complicated scheme that mainly sold consumers’ attention to advertisers.  We paid a quarter for a newspaper to get the content, Macy’s and hundreds of individuals paid the publisher to put their ads next to the content or in the classified section, the newspaper paid reporters, editors, artists, and printers to generate the stories and the physical product, and the system more or less worked. It delivered us so-so to excellent news and commentary, created by professionals who had time to interview, travel, read, and think, and did it full-time because they were paid enough for that work to put dinner on the table. Some of these pros were paid a lot, but most were middle-class with health insurance and some retirement.  Similar systems called forth and delivered us the Beatles, Of Mice and Men, Frank Sinatra, the New York Philharmonic, Partisan Review, and Casablanca.

It was protected from theft by copyright,  by reproduction technology, and by the economic structure of the production process.  Copying music from a CD or vinyl (or the radio) was a real-time (slow) one-by-one business with a cassette recorder, that made an inferior copy that didn’t compete well with CDs. Copying text was a matter of standing in front of a copy machine and ending up with something much less convenient than a real book.  Industrial copying, even after offset printing which didn’t require resetting a book’s type, had a high fixed cost for presses and equipment, same with business-scale cd piracy.  So large-scale theft happened at few places, and thus could be enforced against well enough to keep everyone fed.

Finally, the kludgy systems of the recent past carried price signals to creators that gave some idea of what to do more of (or less) to create the most value.  A big hit sold lots of records and royalties flowed, while money from a song few people liked dribbled in fitfully, and producers reacted.

These systems were far from perfect: musicians and writers were ripped off and tineared guys in suits had too much to say about what content would be published. The price signals were pretty noisy: to get a hit single, you had to buy a $14 CD with 11 b sides, and the CD you listened to over and over sent the same royalty signal as the one you heard one disappointing time and put on the shelf. But the systems worked–again, well enough.

When all this content became digital and the web and personal computers allowed instant free distribution and near-instant copying (Timberg enriches this one-chapter story usefully), the whole jury-rigged system fell apart, and Timberg’s book is a tour of the wreckage that is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Talented people, who want nothing but to give us the best art and news they can:  waiting on tables, losing their houses, and trying to make ends meet doing work that wastes their real abilities.  The personal cost, and basic injustice, of this slow catastrophe are reason enough to hit the street with pitchforks and torches, but there’s more, and worse.   Here’s an example from the world of music: as the income stream from recordings has dried up. Musicians (already beat about the head and shoulders by the operation of Baumol’s disease ) can only earn money from live performance.  Live performance is good, but requires an economically large audience in one place, so the great promise of the web, that artists could have small publics distributed around the world, is denied when web listening can’t be monetized. Furthermore, live performance doesn’t pay at all in small venues, so popular music (for example) is driven to acts that work in an arena so big that sound is a jumble and what you see is out of sync with what you hear.  String quartet, gal leaning on a piano singing a ballad? Fuggeddaboudid.

Perhaps the worst thing about where we are now is that we cannot see all the great stuff we don’t have, but could.  And young people can’t even remember what life was like when we did have lots of great stuff, and there were two real newspapers in town, both full of news reported, written, and edited by experts. When the LA Times model was “print it once and print it all.” We are frogs in a gently warming saucepan.

I think life without music and literature isn’t worth living. Your mileage may differ; fine; some people like Frescobaldi and some like football. But what about global warming; is that a big deal for you?  Do you think we need to do something about income inequality and refractory unemployment? Are you at all worried about US health care costing more and working worse than every other industrialized country’s? Care if we invade and occupy another Middle Eastern country? You might, then, think about how a democratic society (or any society, actually) can get on top of any of these problems in the absence of public deliberation and news (yes, that’s the aroma of burning hair).  I know, there’s a blogger with a readership that will fit in your living room out there, perhaps on an academic salary, saying something that needs to be heard to stabilize the climate, but it doesn’t matter, or help, if she can’t be found or read.  Deliberation, analysis, and plain news is what we’ve lost more than half of, by column inch or any other measure, as our newspapers, magazines, radio and TV news have crumpled and crumbled for want of a viable economic structure.

Impoverishing content creators, then, is not just a matter of hurting people who deserve better. It’s a matter of tearing at our own collective flesh like Saturn devouring his children. The crisis in media is not just a crisis of media, it is a creeping gangrene of the whole society. When we have no way to pay competent journalists to tell us the truth, the Koch brothers and Murdoch and the people they play golf with still have money to tell us what it’s good for them for us to hear, and what will get them a larger and larger slice of the pie.

Timberg has hit a home run here, but not a grand slam. His gritty, textured tour of desperate, stifled, sabotaged creators, maimed culture, and cheated audiences, arrayed on an erudite and thoughtful framework of intellectual/artistic/market convention trends is a tour de force, but it would have been even stronger if he had engaged with Howard Becker’s indispensable Art Worlds ).

His prescriptions get mushy and vague–not enough things someone can actually do, and too many hoped-for outcomes–partly because he never explains the basic economics of digital content, and because he doesn’t confront iron constraints on content consumption.  As to the first, we meet file-sharing teenagers as pirates who should somehow be paying to listen, but we aren’t reminded that people who breathe the common air and walk on the sidewalk for free aren’t thieves in anyone’s view.  Digital content, as Timberg would learn from an hour with an economist and a blackboard, is a public good, non-rival and pretty much non-excludible despite efforts at DRM technical fencing and RIAA own-foot-shooting litigation. It must be provided at a consumer price of zero, and it is that way essentially and intrinsically, not because someone decided it should be. The sidewalk would be a public good even if it didn’t exist, or if a crazy libertarian mayor tried to charge people to walk on it; gasoline is not a public good no matter how much of it Maduro gives away to Venezuelans.

Of course reporters are not going to write for us for free, any more than the contractor built the sidewalk out of charity. The other design specification for the salvation of a free society (sic) and world culture (sic) is to pay creators, with public funds, in a way that signals (more or less well) the value they create (and, of course, protects them from censorship and coercion and also preserves consumer privacy). I am mystified that Timberg never tripped on the work of Lawrence Lessig and Neil Netanel. Or Terry Fisher,  who sketched the first (and to my knowledge, only) model for a workable digital goods regime.

As regards consumption limits and how they constrain the size of content markets, the whole media economics world, as far as I know, regularly fails to recognize what it means that:

  • each consumer has only about 16 waking hours a day over a lifetime to listen, read, and do everything else;
  • each new consumer has to accumulate her own cultural and intellectual capital starting from scratch;
  • Ariadne auf Naxos to the contrary, Baumol’s disease on the demand-side precludes reading two books at a time, or listening to Handel’s Largo prestissimo, or seeing all of Vermeer at once by squashing thumbnails onto a single screen; and
  • it’s essential to culture that content be both shared (everyone should not have his own private novel and symphony–or newspaper) and cumulative.

Every new work thus has to displace something from this finite attention space–most tragically, something that the contemporary artist may be expecting us to know in order to best engage with his new work. The capacity of society to consume content (especially art) does not increase with population, and each generation has a larger repertory to winnow. We have to constantly let go of really precious stuff–not always old stuff–and this has fell implications for the content market.

Timberg hasn’t wrapped up this most-important policy-analytic challenge and tied it with a ribbon.  But if this book is taken the right way, he will have put the work before us in a way we can only ignore if we have both hearts and brains of stone.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

12 thoughts on “The most important book of 2015”

    1. Paul Krendler (played by Ray Liotta) in the film "Hannibal," sitting in his wheelchair at the table, blissfully unaware while eating his own brain.

    2. Re: the factual inaccuracy of frog metaphor: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”

  1. For decades, I have been a professional creator of content – now digital content. I have compared my profession to musical chairs – every now and then the music stops, and there are fewer seats.

    But I have also been a consumer of such content, and on balance, this seems to me to be the golden age of content producers. Modern music is both excellent and more accessible to someone like me who never much appreciated Top 40 radio. The newspaper op-ed page, which I used to find indispensable, has become absurd given the alternatives available.

    I'm confused about your invocation of Baumol here. I think the gist of Baumol is that musicians, who aren't paid quite as much as they used to be, are still better-compensated than at almost any other time in history.

    Right here at the Reality Based Community, I just read a carefully reasoned piece by a well-educated writer who is not asking me to pay a nickel. Moreover, despite working for free, I'm guessing that the writer is able to keep bread on the table. Reading the first part of the post, I was wondering if I should view the author as a scab – as someone taking a living wage away from people in a valuable profession.

    (Ultimately, the post's author acknowledges the inevitability of such free labor, and proposes an appropriate solution.)

    I should read the book, I know, and I certainly don't want to suggest that the new arrangement doesn't have important downsides, but I am skeptical that the modern media environment works out to be a net negative. At least for someone like me, I don't have any doubt that I'm a smarter, better person for having easy access to intellectual work. Whether that nets out to being good for society, I grant, is a more difficult question.

  2. I haven't read the book, but in general I am a skeptic. (I speak mostly as a consumer, but I once wrote a modestly successful book and was pleased to cash a few royalty checks.) First, "intellectual property" is effectively a euphemism, even though I don't know that the term was invented for that purpose; we are talking about government-granted monopoly licenses. Second, whatever the government tries to say, in any semblance of a free society intellectual property must be grounded in the technology of the time; railing against that is utterly pointless. We are in a time of change in that regard, but not the first one. There was no recording business until a century or so, which is why music publishing rights are still important despite the rarity of anyone buying sheet music; but music did exist and thrive before that. Third, the number and portion of musicians who did well in primary reliance on recording income was never that large; a huge swath of that always went to the recording companies. The new technologies have real beneficial effects for many music producers. I heartily recommend this article by a very knowledgeable music veteran, as well as his linked 1993 article:… In conclusion, I believe that the relevant technologies are on balance a very good thing, and writing and music-making will find ways to thrive. That those ways are still in creation, and will differ from those of recent decades, is not ultimately a bad thing.

  3. I must agree with RBC_commenter above. I have never enjoyed a richer creative world than the present, and I'm a frightful snob, intellectually. Never in the past could I have visited the iTunes store (where I DO IN FACT PAY $0.79 to $1.29 per song, some piddling pennies of which presumably reach an artist) and received generally spot on suggestions for new music I would never in a million years have encountered by listening to one of three available radio stations in my teenage summers. Oh, you recently bought some Molotov, you might like Calle 13 — and here is a list of their songs in order of popularity, so you don't have to download those "11 b-sides". Sure, I miss de-seeding pot on double albums and reading the lyrics and pulling out the posters (pot used to have seeds, you know), savoring the difference between the sides. But that's a very brief historical vanity we're talking about. The album, as concept, rather than delivery vehicle for singles or way to leverage radio popularity into bigger profits for the recording company, didn't really exist until about the time of Rubber Soul and Mr. Tambourine Man and Pet Sounds and Blonde On Blonde….let's say 1965. And then it converted to CDs, with no sides, easy to skip the lesser songs, no posters, no opening up and admiring the little booklets or photos inside, by the late 80s. So that "art form" that I miss so much was really just a 20-year blip of baby boomer consumerism. There will never be another Sgt. Pepper's or Exile On Main St., but that hardly means that musical culture has withered on the vine. Now I can hear anything I want to out of Brasil, Nigeria, Colombia, garages in Miami or LA, or a streaming performance of the Vienna Philharmonic.

    We once needed to save our money to take our best girl to the cinema on a Saturday night, and caught about 15 films a year, then saw a few old one NBC or ABC on Saturdays. Now you can watch a different classic or recent release on Amazon Prime or Netflix every freakin' day. I spent an underemployed two weeks last year watching the top 20 or 25 movies of Hollywood's Annus Mirabilis, 1939, when I had only seen Mr. Smith, GWTW, and TWOO before that busy fortnight. Could I have ever watched Ninotchka or Drums Along The Mohawk before this millennium? Not unless I happened across the precise weekend at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge. Then there's all the stuff on YouTube, 99 percent crap, but 1 percent sublime.

    Finally, the modern art world has become soooo open to new ideas that in any city on Earth you can find exhibits so arcane and challenging that even Solomon and Peggy Guggenheim would be scratching their heads.

    I really find it hard to believe that the best and most talented are being squeezed out. Yeah, some popular bloggers are pretty poor writers. Including several I admire — nobody will ever confuse Amanda Marcotte for Susan Sontag or Rebecca Watson for Joan Didion. But I don't get the impression that the fields of music and literature and art are now populated only by trust fund brats and part-time Wal-Mart clerks. And besides, that's what the acting and musician professions have ALWAYS been, waiting tables until you get your big break, or else submitting to the ignominy of community theater or occasional wedding band gigs. I knew the expression "don't quit your day job" by age 5 or so.

    1. Being semi-retired and a bit at loose ends in recent times, I've watched perhaps close to 1,500 hours of Asian, mostly Korean, TV dramas. A few years ago, I wouldn't have had access to any, much less, so much of this content. All for free.


      Viki (Subtitles are crowd-sourced in as many as 50 or more languages.)


  4. My framing of this issue is the shifting of the boundaries between the three modes of production in our economy: capitalist. socialist, and communist (in the sense of sharing with some anticipation of reciprocity not strict pooling; see this old blog post, corrected here). Mike's crisis of production of digital content is one within the capitalist mode. Blogs already run on the communist model (me) or the socialist (the bona fide academics who comprise the other RBC bloggers,to the extent that blogging is regarded as an extension of their teaching or public service employment duties).

    A lot depends on how far, and to what level of quality, cultural production can be run on an amateur or part-time basis. As RBC_commenter says, you can get as good commentary from free blogs as in paid op-ed pages. You can get very decent music, though not the very best. Poetry has been largely non-commercial since Gutenberg and the end of travelling bards. Some things absolutely need paid professionals: opera, film, shoe-leather reporting, full-length novels, science.

  5. Another big problem for today’s creators is the dead hand of the past. My kids are listening to the Rolling Stones! When I was in high school, wouldna been caught DEAD listening to Perry Como, nor Frank Sinatra. There are high quality prints of Monet paintings, so why am I going to look hard for current artists to like? It doesn’t map all that well to this excludibility issue, but it’s there: time I spend listening to Miles Davis is time I am not spending listening to Wynton Marsalis. Now that degrading quality of vinyl disks doesn’t keep us from listening to past greats, current performers have a wall of competition.

  6. Such wailing and gnashing of teeth. You’d think nobody made music or composed poetry and prose before vinyl records and paperbacks were invented.

    We are in a period of rapid cultural and economic change driven by rapid technological change. Old things are dying, new things are being born. Any piece of writing that is merely a laundry list of the former with no awareness or imagination for the latter, while useful and interesting, can hardly be construed as making a substantive argument.

    I’m sorry this affects you personally. I’m sorry that you’re frustrated. These are perfectly valid emotions. But if you think yours is the only profession to be profoundly disrupted by new technology, 90% of the workforce might have a few words to share with you. If you’re trying to convince us of the dire need for a well-remunerated class of full-time journalists, a little more perspective and emotional distance in your writing might be advisable.

    Industrial publishing made your job, and desktop publishing and the internet are re-making it. I don’t pretend to know if the outcome will be a net positive, but neither do you.

    The issue of music and art is really a separate one. But as others have pointed out, to those who really know and love music recognize that we are in a golden age. Could it be that multimillion dollar record deals are not a necessary incentive for great art? I have many good friends who are trying to make a living (or at least an income) writing, performing and recording music. It’s not easy, but it never has been anyway. And somehow they don’t display the same rabid luddism that you do. It’s a new world with new opportunities. I know it may seem alien and unfamiliar to you, but that’s what growing older has always felt like.

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