The Cult of the Audience

From: Andrew Keen To: Kevin Kelly Subject: Dylan went electric, and it wasn't your damn business Kevin, You are right, of course, that I’m being intellectually crude (what you call “fundamentalist”) in my polemic on behalf of intellectual property. And … Read More

By / May 31, 2007

From: Andrew Keen To: Kevin Kelly Subject: Dylan went electric, and it wasn't your damn business


You are right, of course, that I’m being intellectually crude (what you call “fundamentalist”) in my polemic on behalf of intellectual property. And you're certainly right that digital thievery seems pathetic when compared with “unjustified war, ethnicide, and infanticide.” However, I never suggested that today’s kleptomania on the Internet is ethically equivalent to human tragedies like Darfur. Indeed, I would happily steal songs myself if it eased the suffering of innocents in Africa. You write tendentiously about “no-middle” debates as if your own natural intellectual terrain is commonsense realism. But I don’t see a lot of middle in your arguments either. I see you as an un-commonsensical provocateur with the intellectual nerve to take outrageous positions while keeping a straight face. That’s what you did in New Rules for the New Economy. And you did it again with your “Scan This Book!” piece, in which you announced the death of the physical book, perhaps the key cultural product in human history. Your obituary for the publishing industry was politely articulated, but that didn’t make it any more palatable to the editors, writers, or publishers who depend on the economic value of physical books for their livelihood. Last May, I was at a prominent publisher’s office on the 50th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. It was the heart of the traditional media economy—ground zero of the print content business. As the publishing executives shuffled into the room, they all carried copies of “Scan This Book!”. In spite of its reasonable tone, your grenade of an article had offended these people to the core. I might be public enemy number one on the blogosphere, but you aren’t exactly a hero to the publishing moguls of downtown Manhattan. “This Kelly cowboy, he wants to get rid of copies. That’s the end of content. He wants to give away books for free,” one of the publishing execs said to me, open-mouthed in astonishment. “Is he serious?” Good question. Do you seriously believe that a “universal digital library” will soon replace the physical book at the heart of the ideas economy? That physical books no longer have economic value and that the author of the future will make money only by monetizing his own brand through public appearances and consulting? Are we really on the brink of what an indignant John Updike called a culture of digital “snippets”? I somehow doubt you genuinely believe any of this—especially since you are a bestselling author yourself. My guess is that your outrageous obituary was intended to provoke discussion about the future of printed content. Anyway, enough trash talk. Let’s get beyond all this good and evil. To regain your trust, let me try to discuss the copyright issue with more subtlety. I like your phrase “paradox of information,” so I'll offer my own paradoxical theory of information in the hope of clearing up our collective muddle over intellectual property. You are right that everyone is confused about what is rightfully theirs in this new economy. I love the elegiac manner in which you describe this bewildered generation:

“They are not cagey pickpockets, but aliens in a strange land; not pirates, but lost pioneers; not devilish, but generous.”

So what makes them aliens in this strange land? What has happened to transform Kevin Kelly into a poet and our youth into a band of intellectual pirates? The paradox is that technology and culture have become so entangled that what we think our debate about technology is actually a debate about culture. My book and my argument are part of a broader critique of popular culture. The ideas about narcissism are borrowed (legally, of course) from Christopher Lasch, my cultural critique of capitalism from Daniel Bell, my defense of high culture from Alan Bloom and Robert Hughes, my polemic against democratized mass media from Neil Postman. These issues have converged because today’s digital technology radically personalizes both the delivery and consumption of culture. Thus Time magazine’s celebration of “You” (as in, all of us) as their 2006 Person of the Year.

We—you and I and hundreds of millions of people with an Internet connection—are all Gutenberg now. But we are 21st-century Gutenbergs, weighed down by the baggage of the 20th-century culture industry. So what does all this have to do with the confusion over intellectual property ownership? The goal of popular culture, particularly in music, has been to make the consumer feel as if he is the rightful owner of the cultural product he is consuming. Mass media obsessively cultivates an intimate relationship between the artist and the audience. The real “cult” in all this is the cult of the audience. When Dylan went electric in July 1965, he was greeted by indignant fans who felt they knew him better than he knew himself. Why? Because, as a popular music icon, his followers felt they “owned” him, his sound, his brand. This pre-Internet confusion over ownership had nothing to do with technology and everything to do with culture.

Today’s Internet technology—with its interactive, personalized tools of intimacy—is simply catching up to cultural reality. Today, we (the culture businessmen and the alienated youth) are equally lost in a “strange land.” Today’s digital tools give consumers the means to appropriate content, which, in their minds, was rightfully theirs in the first place. Ownership and authorship have been turned on their heads. Thus the remix, mashup ideology in which the effort to free our culture from the grip of media oligarchies has been confused with a “free culture” campaign to completely eliminate the exchange value of cultural products. So what is the answer to this paradox of free culture? How can we escape from a mass culture in which intellectual ownership has been so radically democratized that it’s lost all economic value? I believe we should return to a more traditional understanding of artist and audience, one rooted in Locke’s idea of intellectual ownership. We need to remember that it is the artist who labors, and the audience who consumes. To subvert the 20th-century mass media subversion, we need to give up
the narcotic of cultural intimacy that muddles up author and audience. The most lasting works—by Hitchcock, Van Gogh, or Mozart—are owned and created only by the author himself. Sure, they were all influenced by other traditions, thinkers, and artists. But great art does not come from delving into the (il)legal grayness of intellectual property law to steal from others. You, I suspect, will disagree. And that’s the crux of our debate. You seem to believe that the ideas economy is a social phenomenon, driven by sounds, images, and words that are collectively owned. You don’t believe the modern artist can avoid intellectual theft. But why is 2007 different from 1907? Why should artists find the digital economy so much grayer than the analog economy of the early 20th century? Is the law really so different today than it was a hundred years ago? (And do you know anyone arrested for singing “Happy Birthday” in a restaurant?) You write:

“In the last hundred years, the mass—the physical weight—of exported economic goods has dropped in proportion to their economic value. We make more desirable and useful things with less material. As goods have dematerialized, they have become more valuable. However, it is not the loss of mass per se that makes them valuable; it is the acquisition of intelligence, design, interaction, and ideas. We are embedding our creations with a bit of ourselves: some of our mind, some of the intangible spirit that makes us alive. So, now, rather than having an economy governed by the movement and cost of matter, we have an economy that is increasingly governed by the movement and cost of ideas.”

This is a fascinating paragraph, and it deserves a book-length response. But I'll leave aside the metaphysical and industrial implications of your statements and just point out that you appear to have gotten sucked into the cult of the audience. When it comes to a contemporary book, a film, or other creative work, how is the product “lighter” than a hundred years ago?

I don’t agree that books or films today have any more “intelligence, design, interaction, or ideas.” In 1907, the physical or intellectual act of writing a novel, a song, a symphony, or a play was no different than it is today. Were these creations embedded with any more of “ourselves,” with our spiritual “intangibility”? No. (Btw, aren’t you stealing from Emerson and Thoreau here?) You might be correct in terms of the value of software, but culture is no more (nor less) valuable today than it was in 1907. Culture has always been unbearably light. That’s what makes it so hard to pin down. So can the Internet be saved? Yes, it can. But not with your argument that digital technology has revolutionized the economy of ideas. The Internet is a great marketing tool for the creation, distribution, and sale of ideas. But the Internet hasn’t changed the intellectual labor of creating ideas. Nor has it made intellectual products any more or less metaphysical. The physical copy of a book is neither ambiguous nor intangible. It has a cover, pages, and a lot of words. It is written by an author and read by an audience. And it is exchanged for cash. Long may that continue! ak

NEXT: You call them amateurs, I call them a miracle

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