Containers

I was just reading this summation of the Nick Carr-Clay Shirky battle royale over whether the book is a valuable cultural artifact or simply a container for content that, in its physical limitations, shaped the forms of that content and could be dying out for good, digital or otherwise. To be honest, I was actually glazing over a bit reading it. It’s fascinating, don’t get me wrong, in a high-minded philosophical way, but I think I’ve intellectually moved past all these discussions of form and transition. Why are we still arguing any of this?

Anyway, one particular comment attributed to Carr temporarily pulled me out of my glazed meanderings:

“In response to an email from Wired magazine founder and author Kevin Kelly on the subject, Carr gives some examples of valuable forms of media that he believes have been lost or diminished: namely, “the oral epic poem, the symphony, the silent film with live musician accompaniment, the dramatic play, the short-form cartoon, the map [and] the LP.” And he argues that the book, the movie and the video game could also fall into this category.”

I think Carr has a fundamental misunderstanding about how, exactly, each of these forms of creative effort reached a point of widespread acceptance and popularity. He’s got something of a cart before the horse kinda argument, seemingly implying that media companies arbitrarily decided one day, possibly for higher profit, that CDs were better than LPs, and stopped making LPs. It was the people buying CDs en mass that made that decision for them.

Nothing, not one thing is stopping anyone from making LPs today. In fact, they’ve become quite the successful boutique business for some artists, Jack White comes to mind. But in doing so, you have to either admit that you’re creating a form with a notably smaller market to sell to or you also have to undertake efforts to build a market to go along with the product. The form isn’t obsolete or diminished in any qualitative sense (other than the strictly cumulative monetary decline from the height of the wax album era. But surely, Carr’s discussing high-minded art here, so simple free market economics can’t be what he’s referring to, can it?). The only problem the LP has is that most of its paying market has moved on to other content forms more convenient to their lives.

It’s not up to me as a writer to decide what the optimum forms of creative expression are, nor is it up to Carr, Shirky or any of thousands of other media industry pundits. Even publishers, movie studios and music companies (who have discovered this truth sooner and far more harshly than the others so far) despite their capital reservoirs and strengths of distribution and marketing, have only a limited, minuscule ability to direct those choices.

In fact, there is no one person who can make this decision. The forms of content that reach any level of social application do so beneath a critical mass of regular people deciding in unison what they’d like to spend their money on. CDs overtook LPs because the buying public wanted it so, because CDs had advantages that fit more cleanly into the conditions of their lives at the time. For that same reason, CDs have been usurped by almost totally ethereal electronic forms. Books, print or digital, will live or die by the same hand and there’s nothing Carr, Shirky or anyone else can do about it.

It seems more and more like the publishing industry is missing a very essential point of its existence: we all live at the whims of the people who buy the product. They seem to be forgetting that we in the creative fields of endeavor have to produce both content and form that large numbers of people value enough to pay for. Not just enough to want to watch, listen to or read, mind you, but actually lay down hard cash for. That decision is, has been, and will forever remain in the hands of our audience. The creative forms that service their needs, and most ably makes the case for that aforementioned exchange of currency, will win out. The ones that don’t will end up tacked on to Carr’s list of lost art forms. 

Frankly, I’ve always believed culture belongs to the people. If large enough numbers want print, there’ll be a market for it. The same for digital. And if a super-majority develops that wants some form of the written word that hasn’t been invented yet, usurping both print and ebooks, that’s as it should be.

Every new form that comes along adds new possibilities for the artist. Every old form pushed aside becomes part of a rich tapestry of history and experience that helps shape the use of new forms. LPs didn’t die, they become a foundation upon which mp3 players were eventually built.

If art is your only intent, the old forms still exist, have at it! But if you’re also trying to pay the bills, you’ve got to go where the money is. And that money is scattered about in the pockets of every person out there who’s looking for something to read. Nothing else really matters.

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