Dynamist Blog

Dynamism, Stasis, and Popular Culture at Pop!Tech

Dynamism, Stasis, and Popular Culture
Speech given at Pop!Tech, Camden Technology Conference 
October 23, 1999

Instead of talking about the Internet, I want to start with a technology we take for granted. This is a portable CD player. This particular one is a pretty fancy model and costs $70--you can get them for half that much. Seventy dollars is about a day's work, after taxes, for the average blue-collar American worker, or what the Census Bureau calls "production and nonsupervisory employees." You still have to buy the disks, of course, but a couple more days' work will supply a good collection, especially if you shop for used CDs. The sound will be perfect, and the disks won't wear out.

When you go shopping for those disks, you'll have plenty of choices. I stopped by my local Best Buy to do research, and found they stock something like 30,000 different titles. You get an idea of the range in the "Boxed Set" section, where the records aren't segregated by genre: Ray Charles, Maria Callas, Eric Clapton, The Clash, Patsy Cline...to pick a few from just one letter of the alphabet. You can buy boxed sets of "Musical Healers of Indigenous Cultures," the gospel collection "Testify!," and Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty performed by the London Symphony. If you don't have much money, you can go to another aisle and pick up a copy of Handel's Messiah or Beethoven's Fifth for $3.99. To handle this abundance, Best Buy also sells CD racks, one of which holds 322 disks.

I was inspired to go shopping for music by reading Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward, which was a monster bestseller when it came out in 1887. Its main character goes to sleep, under hypnosis, in the late 19th century and wakes up in the year 2000 to find a nearly perfect world.

One of the wonders he discovers is on-demand music, piped into everyone's home via the telephone system. It is incredibly exciting. He tells his host, "If we could have devised an arrangement for providing everyone with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained and ceased to strive for further improvements."

So here it is: the limit of human felicity--right in the palm of your hand.

What's funny about the novel's version of music "unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood" is how extremely limited that music actually is. Listeners can choose any one of four simultaneous live performances. You can choose between a waltz and organ music, but you certainly can't get The Clash or Patsy Cline, much less "Musical Healers of Indigenous Cultures." You also can't take the music with you--it's delivered, like water or electricity, through a utility tied to your house. It's music for people who stay put.

All of this is completely consistent with Bellamy's vision of how to achieve a perfect world: All the goods in Bellamy's economy are carefully planned and allocated by an efficient, beneficient, and incorruptible government monopoly. New goods are provided only when people fill out a form and ask for them, not through an entrepreneurial, creative discovery process. (Needless to say, no one puts in a request for hip hop.) Popular culture, like everything else in Looking Backward, is under control. And, consistent with that hypercontrolled vision, popular culture is static. Music, clothes, furniture, language, religion, and food have barely changed in 100 years. There are no culture wars in Looking Backward, because the proper shape of culture has already been decided. There are no cultural innovations either.

The difference between our musical world and Bellamy's is the difference between dynamic, open systems and static, closed systems: between creativity and control, markets and regulation, diversity and uniformity, innovation and stability. Our cultural world does not stay put. Unlike Bellamy's characters, we are not content with what we have. We have not "ceased to strive for further improvements." We are always looking to do better. The Internet promises to make music even cheaper, more abundant, more diverse, more portable, and ever more personal.

This is not a story just about music, or even just about popular culture or technology. The split between dynamism and stasis is, I argue in The Future and Its Enemies, the split that increasingly defines our intellectual, cultural, and political landscape. On issue after cutting-edge issue, it tells us more about who lines up with whom, and why, than do the old familiar categories of left and right.

Are you for learning, or for control? Do you value innovation, or stability? Are you comfortable with unpredictable, trial-and-error experimentation and competition, or do you want the shape of things determined in advance? Do you want plenitude, or conformity? Do you prefer to diversify risks and try to bounce back from them, a strategy of "resilience"? Or do you follow a "precautionary principle" that says try nothing new that might have dangers? Do you want "simple rules for a complex world," or complex regulations designed to make the world simple?

From trade to immigration, medicine to financial markets, education to urban development, biotechnology to transportation, the open-ended future has become the central issue of our time. How we feel about the "out of control" future, the future that evolves through creativity, competition, and choice, is as important as the Cold War once was in defining our political categories. And both popular culture and technology are smack in the middle of these debates.

Consider what happened when the Internet burst into public consciousness a few years ago. A split immediately developed: On one side were dynamists excited about the medium's potential. They emphasized the value of giving individuals much more access to information and much greater ability to create their own online voices. They talked about new ways of doing business, about evolving relationships between consumers and producers, about the ability to create worldwide niche markets. They identified emerging problems, such as the control of personal data, and sought to develop institutions to manage those problems through disclosure, choice, and contract--customized solutions rather than a single regulatory mandate.

On the other side were stasists who could see only chaos and threats. To them, the Internet was a source of pornography, fringe political views, bad journalism, hate speech, privacy violations, and "bomb-making instructions." They demanded that government step in and assert control.

These divisions cut across left-right lines. The conservative Weekly Standard ran a cover story called, "Smash the Internet," with the image of a sledge hammer crashing through a computer screen. The leftist "neo-Luddite" Kirkpatrick Sale ended his speeches by literally smashing computers on stage. The Communications Decency Act enjoyed bipartisan support. So did its opposition.

These alliances mark a change in our politics and our culture. Once our economic debates were mostly about the allocation of goods, and the concern about culture was, as Bellamy suggested, that cultural goods were not accessible enough. We also used to hear a lot about the dangers of homogenization and "mass culture." But the dynamics of the cultural marketplace addressed both issues. The cost of cultural goods went down dramatically, and the quantity and variety went up. Hence the CD player and much, much more.

Today, however, the objection is to abundance and change. Economic dynamism may increase living standards, we're told, but it's too disruptive. People can no longer count on doing the same job, filling the same role, for their entire careers. On the right, Pat Buchanan calls for a return to "the kind of social stability, rootedness...we all used to know." On the left, Richard Sennett attacks the "new capitalism" in a book called The Corrosion of Character. The old corporate hierarchies, he argues, gave people a sense of purpose and control, a "linear narrative" of their lives. Stripped of its feminist boilerplate, Susan Faludi's new book Stiffed reads like a Buchananite manifesto, a heartfelt plea for a return to the static social and economic roles of the 1940s and '50s. And it is loaded with attacks on popular culture, which Faludi portrays as victimizing and manipulating its consumers.

Our abundant music, our abundant popular culture--and the attacks that abundance inspires--are thus part of a more general pattern: a struggle between dynamism and stasis, between creativity and central control. Dynamists, too, find ourselves in interesting new alliances. A few months ago, the critic Tom Frank attacked cultural studies scholars like Henry Jenkins in an essay in The Baffler. Frank, who is dedicated to the idea that consumers are easily manipulated by evil corporations, suggested that emphasizing audience power is the first step down a slippery ideological slope. Scholars like Henry, he warned, are treating consumers as people who make meaningful choices. They sound like the market-loving editors of Reason magazine! (The next thing you know, they'll be speaking at the same conferences and maybe even eating dinner together.) I can only say that I hope Henry does not find the association too socially embarrassing.

Dynamists celebrate cultural abundance, and the technology that makes it possible. They do not have to like every product to find value in a system that gives people such great abilities to express and create personal meaning. Stasists, by contrast, see disruption and junk--with consumers as dupes in need of guidance and regulation. The culture boom, writes neoconservative critic Hilton Kramer, "impoverishes us by making the possession of worthwhileture increasingly difficult and increasingly fragile." (Emphasis added.) Worth is in the trained eye of the tastemaker.

The New York Times' Max Frankel frets that the multiplication of TV channels has shattered the "romantic experience of a nation united by a live comedy, a political convention or a Presidential funeral.... The more we have been wired together," he says, "the faster we have been spun apart." Frankel calls the Web "the ultimate slicing machine," which will leave us "equal only in our digital loneliness." The only shared culture Frankel can imagine is mass culture, preferably expressing consensus technocratic politics. He is nostalgic for the cultural equivalent of John Kenneth Galbraith's "technostructure," an oligopolistic industrial state where the future would be carefully planned in advance.

Economic markets haven't worked that way, and neither has popular culture. What upsets critics like Kramer and Frankel is that technology is dispersing the power to define "art" or "culture." It is reducing the number of technological chokepoints to expression--and, hence, breaking up the monopolies that once controlled cultural discourse. It is weakening the power of New York critics. It is allowing individuals to create new markets for self-expression and self-definition. These markets may or may not be profit-driven, but they are based on voluntary exchange between dispersed producers and consumers, not centralized allocation. Popular culture is indeed out of control.

We tend to think of music--or of popular culture more generally--as a product of art rather than commerce or technology. In fact, as the CD player suggests, it depends on all three. Together, these great dynamic systems match individual creativity and individual desire. They thus generate change, variety, and an endless array of critics--all determined that popular culture, like the rest of society, should conform to "one best way."

Dynamic, open systems--cultural, economic, scholarly, scientific, and artistic--erode central control. They rely instead on decentralized innovation, competition, and criticism. They have many characteristics, but today I want to spend the rest of my time exploring just one: the importance of dispersed knowledge. In my book, I use the metaphor of a tree to explain the dynamist and stasist visions of knowledge in society. To dynamists, knowledge is like a spreading elm tree in full leaf: a broad trunk of shared experience and general facts, splitting into finer and finer limbs, branches, twigs, and leaves. The surface area is enormous, the twigs and leaves often distant from each other. Knowledge is dispersed. It is shared through complex systems of connections. We benefit from much that we ourselves do not know but other people do. For stasists, by contrast, the tree is a royal palm, the sort that line the streets in Los Angeles: one long, spindly trunk topped with a few fronds, a simple, limited structure. Everything that is important to know can be easily grasped by those at the top.

The knowledge problem is where Bellamy went wrong. He imagined that all the necessary information about what people wanted could be easily collected and matched with production through a single centralized bureaucracy. He imagined that those wants would not change very often or very much. His system would eliminate the "waste" of experimentation and competition.

A century ago, this vision was all the rage. Today, few people would apply it to the whole economy--increasingly few apply it even to a single company--but its assumptions linger on, especially in cultural discussions. Among the loudest voices in our cultural debates, very, very few treat culture as a discovery process rather than a single, "worthwhile" and well-understood end state. Most imagine that we already know everything there is to know about cultural value.

In the dynamist vision, however, popular culture is a process of developing and sharing new forms, new aesthetics, and new identities--and of adopting and adapting old ones to fit the needs of the present. We find the particular values and meanings we need through a process that connects us to distant others. Because no one knows what exactly is out there--what ideas or desires are scattered throughout society--dynamic culture is full of surprises. People are always finding new combinations that no one would have expected.

Consider the CD player. This technology and others like it would never have emerged from a centralized system. Technocratic wise men would not have applied the awesome technology of the transistor to something as trivial as a pocket radio. They would not have wasted high technology on mere entertainment. They would not let videogames drive the development of more and more powerful computer chips. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects to me of today's culture wars is Silicon Valley's reluctance to defend the entertainment products on which its chip makers depend.

Those chip makers after all are themselves used to being second-guessed by experts. Back in the late 1980s, industrial policy was all the rage and we were told again and again that America's technology businesses were doomed unless they adopted coordinated plans to beat the Japanese in the memory-chip business. In a famous 1988 Harvard Business Review article, MIT's Charles Ferguson denounced the "fragmented, 'chronically entrepreneurial' industry" of Silicon Valley. He warned that "Most experts believe that without deep changes in both industry behavior and government policy, U.S. microelectronics will be reduced to permanent, decisive inferiority within ten years." His warning went unheeded, and that was more than 11 years ago. Ferguson and his mandarin contacts could not imagine a high-tech sector driven by microprocessors, software, and networks rather than memory-chip manufacturing--just as Max Frankel cannot imagine a meaningful, shared culture emerging without mass media.

As I listened to Henry Jenkins talk yesterday about the way technologies from the photocopier to the Web have allowed people to "archive, annotate, reconfigure, and retransmit" cultural images and ideas, I was reminded of yet another prediction that failed to come true. Back in the 1960s, the influential ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax warned that Western popular music and global media would wipe out indigenous traditions. He predicted a "global grey-out" and the "disappearance of human variety." Instead, you can now get "Musical Healers of Indigenous Cultures" in Best Buy stores throughout America.

More significantly, traditional musicians did not abandon their cultures. But they did, in many cases, reconfigure them--combining elements of the indigenous and the foreign to create entirely new genres. In Jamaica alone, cross-fertilization produced ska, rock-steady, and reggae, which itself became a global phenomenon, adding new elements to the popular cultures of many other countries. Lomax was wrong to predict the extinction of human variety. He was right, however, that cultural dynamism would encourage the world's musicians to depart from "the unified folkways of their forefathers." Cultural creation is a living process. And as technologies and markets allow ideas to spread from one culture to another, people transform those expressions in ways no one would have anticipated. Cultural vitality defies the wisdom of planners.

Cultural expression also depends on knowledge that is inherently difficult to articulate: Why does that song move you? Why do you find that joke funny? What's so great about that painting? Critics do, of course, develop vocabularies and references that help answer such questions. But cultural meaning still remains deeply personal and highly dependent on unarticulated, often tacit, knowledge.

That's one reason cultural hits are so hard to predict and so well rewarded. It's also why risk-friendly upstarts, like new TV networks, are more likely to take chances on experiments. To gain a foothold, they are willing to trust someone's hard-to-justify sense that a new idea can tap a new audience. Fox gave us The Simpsons and the WB backed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Max Frankel's static, mass-culture ideal, we would have neither of these great shows. (This phenomenon is even clearer when entirely new media emerge.)

The problem of articulation runs throughout our cultural debates. Critics often charge that the creators of commercial culture are "hiding behind the First Amendment" when they decline to justify their work to Congress. By protecting people from having to give a "good reason" for their artistic choices, the First Amendment in fact does allow creators to exercise judgment based on their difficult-to-articulate understanding of audience and storytelling. (What the audience itself does with the stories adds yet another layer of complexity to the knowledge problem.)

Consider Schindler's List . A few years ago, in the previous round of outrage about popular culture, there was a lot of talk about where to draw the line on violence in the media, particularly TV. Different people had different ideas, but the consensus was clear. As one researcher put it, "We should be distinguishing between Schindler's List and Terminator 2." Everyone agreed, over and over again, that banning a serious movie about the Holocaust because it contains violence and nudity was utterly absurd. No legal restrictions should cancel out the widespread sense that Schindler's List is a good, important movie, worthy of being on TV.

Yet the very first show to be broadcast with a TV-M rating--the rating that, once V-chips are installed, would block that show--was none other than Schindler's List. And the next day Congressman Tom Coburn , a Republican from Oklahoma, blasted NBC for the movie's "violence...vile language, full frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity." He said, "It simply should never have been allowed on public television."

The clash between Coburn's assessment and the general public sentiment that broadcasting Schindler's List was not just tolerable but morally good illustrates the significance of local knowledge to popular culture. Tastes and values differ, often profoundly. Some parents worry about sexual innuendo, some about violence, some about political or religious content, some about general mindlessness. No label can ever give enough detail. What's unacceptable sexual innuendo to one person is a mild joke to another. Nor can ratings of any sort evaluate how to trade off "redeeming social value," or just plain good art, against otherwise problematic levels of sex or violence.

Even if everyone did agree that that the V-chip should not keep viewers away from Schindler's List, what about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine , which has often been the week's most violent broadcast show? What about America's Funniest Home Videos? E.R.? The X-Files? What about Terminator 2? Some people treat it as a touchstone example of trash, but I think is a perfectly fine movie, though not as good as the original. The Schindler's List problem is simply inescapable. We cannot impose a single standard, even of labels, without denying the diversity and dynamism of popular culture.

In the end, the debate between dynamism and stasis is a dispute over how civilizations learn, and whether they should. It is a struggle between those who believe they already know "the limit of human felicity," and those who trust the pursuit of happiness to go in many different, and many unexpected, directions. And it is a conflict between those who believe culture is too dangerous to be left alone and those who believe it is too precious to be controlled.

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