There’s a piece in the Guardian in which DJ and film-maker Don Letts dispenses a few observations about culture and society.
There’s one line in it that some friends of mine on Twitter (professional musicians and DJs, as it happens) have seized upon and retweeted as a bit of a ‘hell yeah!’ to the bumper sticker soundbite that Letts has come up with:
“The downside of affordable technology is mediocrity.”
The Letts Fallacy
Don’s right that an effect of affordable technology is mediocrity. He’s wrong that it’s a downside.
He goes on to explain his point:
Back in the 70s every three minutes of film cost £20. Now you can get a 90-minute digital tape for a fiver. The price used to weed out people who were just fucking about.
This is where our opinions diverge – because he says ‘fucking about’ as if that’s a bad thing.
Now, of course, to a professional, I can understand why craft skills, a high quality of output, creative vision and so on would be seen to be a good thing, and the lack of those things – or worse, a flood of produced items that displayed a lack of those things – would be considered bad.
It’s hard enough getting your voice heard as it is – but if you don’t filter out all the crap, then it makes it harder for the audiences and for the real professionals (or the real artists, depending on how you want to frame this).
Sure – that makes sense – but there’s a flipside. Three, actually:
1. 90% of everything is crap
It doesn’t matter how many cultural artefacts get made. You’re usually going to strike a ratio of about 90% garbage, and 10% good stuff (and only 3% great, one friend claims).
Assuming a low output, it’s easy to find ten good things in a pile of a hundred. Perhaps not so easy to find a thousand good things in a pile of ten thousand. But actually, I’d far rather live in a world in which there was a much bigger 10% – even if it means I have to develop my filtering and recommendation systems in order to get past the incredible mass of 90%.
Judging by MySpace alone, there are about 10 million bands out there. And yet, I can’t remember the last time I heard bad music – or at least, music I didn’t like.
It might, arguably, be harder for a musician to find an audience that likes them than it used to be (I disagree, but that’s another debate) – but the other way around is a dream come true. Show me one person that can’t find music that they really like nowadays.
2. This always happens, and it’s a good thing
In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky talks about the development of the printing press – and makes the point that before Gutenberg, every book published was a masterpiece. Because it had to be.
But with the development of mass production comes a drop in quality. The technology becomes more affordable, and we enter a world of romance novels, vanity press and tabloids. But with that comes new experimentation in styles and content, new forms (the ‘novel’ is so called because it genuinely was) and new ways of thinking.
We get masses of dross, but we also get widespread literacy, political activism and James Joyce. Seems like a fair trade to me.
These days, publishing is simply a matter of pressing the Publish button. Of course you’re going to get lots of inane nonsense – but you’re also going to get important and revolutionary shifts in media, music, literature, visual arts and all other types of culture.
It has become dirt cheap to make and record certain types of music. Let’s face it – most types of music.
If far more people than ever before are now making music (or films, or writing articles, or whatever) – whether or not they’re just ‘fucking about’ – I’m better than okay with that. I think that’s awesome.
3. Culture is not just a profession
The idea that having sufficient money to spend on creating cultural products is the bar you need to get over in order to be allowed to do so is not only problematic (distasteful, actually) from the point of view of class – it also completely overlooks the fact that not everyone wants to do things for a living.
Arguing that nobody should be picking up film cameras or mucking about with guitars unless they’re prepared to take it seriously and professionally, and drop 20 notes down every time they need the raw materials is absurd.
Access to the tools with which to have creative hobbies, make and share things – whether it’s a wonky knitted scarf, a slightly out-of-tune song around a campfire, or a 30-second HD YouTube clip of a cat falling down the back of the sofa might well represent a torrent of mediocrity – but it’s mediocrity with a massive social and cultural benefit, and not one that devalues the core values of professionalism that Don Letts is keen to preserve.
Don Letts and I
I like Don Letts. I’ve met him before at a music industry conference, and we’re going to be spending a couple of weeks together at a series of Un-Convention events in Brazil. We’ve had a beer together, and we got on (I like to think) reasonably well.
I even interviewed him for this blog once.
I have massive respect for what he’s achieved in music, film and the arts in general. The world would be a better place with more Don Lettses in it.
But the idea that an increase in mediocrity is a downside to cheap and widespread access to technology is something I can’t get on board with. It’s a positive thing. An amazing benefit to society. And, apart from anything else, it’s where punk comes from.
Punk says you don’t have to be ‘professional’ to be amazing. You can be what most other people around you consider to be deeply mediocre. Or much worse.
Besides, criticising cheap technology also overlooks the fact that all the mediocrity comes along with a whole bunch of stuff at greater levels of brilliance and creativity ever dreamed possible. Every single time.
I also mostly disagree with his assertion that “Youth culture in the west is increasingly conservative. Music has become a soundtrack for consumerism. It feels like punk never happened.” …but that’s another blog post – or perhaps another pint of beer.