I know I’m a little late to the party in featuring this article by Jonathan Taplin, but anyone who has not yet read “Sleeping Through a Revolution” should find time to do so. Taplin is a former motion picture and music producer and has for the last 12 years been Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. This article is certainly among the best summaries of the challenges posed by the digital age — creative, economic, ideological, social, and existential. As others have done, Taplin emphasizes the point that the creative class is merely the proverbial canary in the coal mine, already passing out in an increasingly poisonous economic climate. Citing some chilling data, like the fact that wealth consolidation among the 1% is now more acute than it was immediately before the Great Depression, Taplin very efficiently paints us a comprehensive mural depicting the state of affairs. Unfortunately, it’s kind of like “Guenerica” if all the figures were holding smart phones. Writes Taplin:
“… within 20 years, starting with Peter Thiel’s cohort at Stanford University, the organizing philosophy of Silicon Valley was far more based on the radical libertarian ideology of Ayn Rand than the commune based notions of Ken Kesey and Stewart Brand. Thiel, the founder of PayPal, early investor in Facebook and Godfather of the PayPal Mafia that currently rules Silicon Valley has been clear about his philosophy.
He stated, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible”, his reasoning being that “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.”
One theme I’d like to highlight from Taplin’s article is the way he introduces the piece, citing a period in the late sixties when he says the most “critically acclaimed movies and music were also the best selling.” This has been a big theme of mine since starting to write about these issues. Because my own opinion is that Hollywood’s real golden era occurred between the late sixties and roughly the catalyst we call Star Wars. This was a transformative time when the movies that had the big runs, made the most money, and earned all the award nominations were the kind of films that today we would describe as “indie.” Obvious examples would be Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. It was a time when mainstream, American film dealt with sophisticated material in a way that created great works of art that also dominated at the box office.
Hollywood studios and audiences moved steadily away from that kind of mainstream fare, which is not to say that everything big studios produce today is “bad,” but it’s certainly different. The many reasons for the shift in material, at least initially, have little to do with the post-Napster market forces that have since exacerbated the problem by devaluing works across the board. But I think the point Taplin is making is not to decry the fact that today’s Annie Halls aren’t box-office leaders, but that they face limited opportunities to survive at all. And we can easily imagine that destructive model replicating across multiple sectors, as what used to be the middle of the economy is subsumed into the struggling 99%. In keeping with Taplin’s sleeping metaphor, I find it interesting that the “revolution,” which gave us the shorthand 99% and 1%, was typical of our times — just a little trend that made money for social media companies but that anyone in power could safely ignore.