The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore thinks the digital economy is destroying creative careers.
But the digital economy operates as a kind of sophisticated X Factor. Someone will make it, sure. For more than 15 seconds even, maybe. But most won’t. This is why Lanier says the internet may destroy the middle classes, the people who can’t outspend the elite. And without that middle group, we cannot maintain a democracy.
He sees musicians and artists and journalists as canaries in the mineshaft of this new economy. Who will pay them? “Is this the precedent we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because, eventually, technology will get to everybody.”
I’m not completely convinced, even though I’m writing this as someone whose music writing for Trebuchet Magazine is, bar the odd freebie, unpaid. Much like many of the musicians I write about, it’s all fitted around the demands of a day job that pays the bills.
Historically disruptive techologies have destroyed jobs, and sometimes entire industries. But in the longer run those same technological changes have created just as many new ones. I’m not convinced the ‘good old days’ were as rosy as Suzanne Moore claims.
The truth is that there have always been far more aspiring musicians and journalists than the market could ever realistically support, and most of them never ‘made it’. What we’re seeing is the internet eroding the power of the traditional gatekeepers in the mass media and record companies to decide who’s successful and who is destined never to be hired or signed.
Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest, in the music business at least, that opportunities for up and coming musicians has actually increased thanks to the internet, as both overheads and barriers to entry have fallen. Although this inevitably results in greater competition for a finite audience, the biggest losers appear to be those who work elsewhere in the distribution chain.
There are wider issues about whether economic models that evolved for physical goods are appropriate for intellectual property, and how individual creativity ought to be rewarded in what has become a post-scarcity economy. And then there’s the even bigger issue of whether 21st century neo-liberal capitalism is fundamentally broken, with a dangerously disproportionate amount of wealth and power concentrated in the hands of those at the top of the economic food chain, which is how you end up with vastly profitable corporations expecting people to work for nothing in the first place.
I’m not pretending to know the answers, probably because there are no easy answers. But I think it’s important both to ask the right questions, and look at the bigger picture.