In a July 2006 edition of Wired magazine, cyber-punk author William Gibson suggested, “Today’s audience isn’t listening at all. It’s participating.”
In all my reading and research in and around the subject of modern culture, creativity and technology, I find that this particular observation to be one of the most astute I’ve come across.
It’s the kind of sentence you read, then re-read, then put your book down and think about.
If you still read books, that is.
Today’s audience isn’t listening at all.
Gibson observed this in the summer of 2006, in the good old days before the ubiquity of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Back when musicians didn’t know enough to be scared. Back when artists didn’t really believe that the meaning they created through their work could be seriously threatened. Back when newspapers still sold on street corners.
It’s almost 8 years later, which in internet terms is about 37 light years. Whatever may have been pending in 2006 is now very much a reality, and it’s only just begun. I’m speaking primarily, of course, of the devaluation and imminent demise of all forms of cultural expression as a result of the rampant digitization of humanity.
Web 2.0 champions like Wired’s Chris Anderson, and even Gibson (who really should have known better), trumpet the democratizing effects of the internet on human culture. Observers like Andrew Keen, Nicholas Carr and Robert Levine, on the other hand, are tarred and feathered and dismissed as Luddites for daring to sound warning bells about the net’s destructive potential.
Well, no-one, these days. As influential public relations firm Edelman PR’s founder Richard Edelman pointed out (also 37 lights years ago), “In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself”. Extend that observation to culture: there is no music except the music you create yourself. There is no informed opinion except the opinion you create yourself. There is no [fill in cultural form of expression here…]
The days of talented people with years of experience and gifted insights creating meaning for the rest of us, if not over, are at the very least in danger of extinction.
There’s no point trying to fight it. It’s a tidal wave of banality, mediocrity and amateurishness that is already swamping all that was established before it. Most celebrate this tsunami as a leveling of a playing field, while others decry the loss of value and wanton destruction of everything once held so precious.
The audience is participating.
It’s taking pictures and tweeting during live performances of music or theatre. It’s animating the Mona Lisa on YouTube. It’s collating beats on GarageBand and making millions with hit songs. It’s making music videos on cell phones. It’s put the contributors to the Encyclopedia Britannica out of work with every Wiki entry. It’s no longer up to the talented, the experienced, the qualified, the wise gatekeepers; we’re all experts now.
T.H. Huxley’s famous ‘infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters’ are frantically bashing away in an effort to heed YouTube’s call-to-arms: “Broadcast Yourself”.
The audience is no longer listening.
I write this as a creative person also threatened by the wave. Obviously, no talented person will cease to be talented, and no truly creative artist will be able to stop creating. But the fact that there may no longer be an audience for the music or words I craft, or that the audience that used to appreciate my music will have been transformed into a narrow niche audience of a handful of like-minded Luddites, is distressing. I now have to compete with anybody with a laptop, a microphone and an internet connection for the attention of the audience. I have to market and sell myself as a product. I have to spend more time on social media than I do getting better at my craft. I have to outdo other highly-driven, competitive infinite monkies.
Is it worth the effort?
Is it worth participating?