Techno Utopians II – Culture

If we define culture in the context of pro-piracy utopianism as described in Part I, then we’re really talking about movies, TV shows, music, and fiction literature. So, the first distinction I would make between these media and that which we’ve defined as information is that these are technically luxury goods, to which there is no natural right.  In the U.S., we generally agree that there is a natural right to information, and there is plenty of precedent for this assertion, but there is no inherent right to a particular volume of entertainment media in any of its forms.

The techno-utopian seems to want to conflate information and entertainment when it is convenient to make idealistic statements like the one quoted in Part I — “Imagine all the world’s information and culture…” and so on.  And while I agree that information and culture are interdependent and intertwined, this does not mean, for instance, that one’s right to know what Congress does without a cost barrier also implies a right to download Coldplay to one’s iPod without a cost barrier.  It’s patently absurd to compare these two actions, which is why I’ve separated what we’re calling culture from what we’re calling information.

As with information consumption, the consumer is still bound by linear time.  So, one truly avid consumer, whether buying or stealing, cannot consume all the culture there is and still function in normal life.  This is one of the fallacies of the digital age in general — that more is inherently better or even pragmatically accessible.  We have about 20 times the number of TV channels we had in the 1980s, but that doesn’t automatically give all viewers more time to watch TV.  And this limitation doesn’t reduce exponentially when technology affords us anytime/anywhere access.  I use Netflix streaming to catch up on stuff I haven’t seen or to re-watch favorites, and although the technology affords me the chance to increase my consumption, that time still finite.

With regard to time, the techno-utopian also tends to lump all cultural media into one big pile and fails to consider the time/cost investment relative to each medium.  Clearly, one can consume music faster than TV shows, TV shows faster than movies, and movies faster than books.  So, if we’re taking a utopian view and envisioning a well-rounded consumer digesting a diversity of media, then the time limitation becomes even more pronounced, which means the cost barriers are actually lower for the most culturally engaged consumers.  And to be honest, is that who we’re really talking about?

Still, the techno-utopian wants to assert that there are artificial barriers to access created and/or enforced exclusively by large corporate entities (Big Media) to the sole purpose of profiting from mediocre works while stifling innovation in the creative arts.  An oft-repeated sentiment is summed up by this quote from one critic on this blog:  “Record labels and movie studios are businesses out to make a profit. They don’t care about art, they care about sales.”

Setting aside the fact that all businesses large and small have to care about sales, or they’re not in business, this statement is really a component of the “junk food” argument used against Hollywood and the record labels. Folks like this commenter point to media like $100 million tentpole movies and corporate rock as overpriced, high-profit, low-value culture that somehow stands in the way of better work.  One problem with this position from a cultural standpoint is that, like quality information, the market doesn’t necessarily want “better” movies and music. One of the strongest examples of film directing I’ve seen in years is Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)Most viewers wouldn’t know why she’s done such a solid job, but the truth is very few people will even see the film because it deals with a serious, painful subject; and the general sentiment among viewers remains, “I want to go to the movies to have a good time.”

“But,” says the techno-utopian, “the more access Ramsay has to the global audience, the more likely she is to find an audience for her less-mainstream movies.”  Perhaps, but if that audience is exclusively watching her work for free, she won’t be making her next film.  More to the point, though, it seems that pirated work pretty well reflects the tastes of the paying audience.  According to TorrentFreak, the Top Ten most pirated movies of 2011 include eight films that can be called “tentpole,” with Fast Five and The Hangover II coming in First and Second respectively.

Speaking as a lifetime snob and student of all cinema, I’m hard-pressed to see how free access to these particular titles is a prelude to a new cultural enlightenment.  Were there overwhelming data indicating that the digital generation’s tastes are radically more sophisticated than mainstream content, then some of these utopian attitudes might have merit; but this does not appear to be the trend.  Not surprisingly, it seems millions of people still want Twinkies instead of tofu, but the techno-utopians want to justify stealing the Twinkies on the grounds that it’s just junk food.  This isn’t fertile ground for cultural growth so much as adolescent shoplifting.

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