“I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.”
–Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Jonathan Taplin, who has plenty of cred in the digital media world, includes this quotation in his new book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.
Taplin is director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC and a former tour manager for The Band and, on occasion, Bob Dylan. He knows just about everybody in the music and film business that anybody needs to know, and he’s also produced films for Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and Gus Van Sant. He knows from digital media.
The book, essentially a look at how the big three have affected the creative world by making much of the artists’ work “free” while the big three reap great rewards for themselves in the process, is part memoir of Taplin’s days in the music and media world and part passionate concern about what’s become of the Internet in these latter days when algorithms are making all the choices for us.
He titled the book with Facebook’s former motto (now slightly revised but not much better) and includes a lot of quotations, citing various authors, pundits, clear thinkers, skeptics and those simply trying to make sense of a world that seems to go faster and break more things every day. Disruption is the game, and if there was ever a way to create chaos and confusion, disruption is it.
In politics, the workplace, the marketplace and in our every day lives, disruption and distraction rule. Too many people on the planet – or at least in particular parts of the planet – seem hell-bent on going faster, breaking more things and generally causing as many problems as possible. Smart people. People who might have once cared about something beyond the Kardashians or the Game of Thrones or how many followers/friends they have or getting the rock bottom best deal (even when it wasn’t the best deal).
We’re disrupting ourselves to death and, as Taplin points out, receiving our information from fewer and fewer sources that work with tighter and tighter algorithms as they busily and happily monetize every scrap of that information. Think about that for just a quiet moment.
One of the people Taplin quotes is Neil Postman who preceded today’s Internet world, but had his own things to say about what could happen to our future. Postman was a semanticist, an educator and a humanist not opposed to technology but definitely wary of the glib and glamorous promises made, especially by those holding the strings of the purses like the ones who lead the Big Three noted by Taplin.
I first ran onto Postman as a linguistics student when I read his pre-Internet book on general semantics, Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk: How We Defeat Ourselves by the Way We Talk and What to Do About It. It’s still a terrific book and makes significant points about context, among other things, which is a great determiner of crazy and/or stupid talk. Listened to any politicians lately?
Another of Postman’s books, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, has more than a little relevance to what we see and hear every day on the Internet. Again I ask, listened to any politicians lately?
I’ll leave discussions of the music industry to someone more knowledgeable than I. But here’s the Postman quote from Taplin’s book — a comparison between George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, the two writers who gave us the best-known glimpses of the future.
It’s from Taplin’s insightful chapter titled “What It Means to Be Human:”
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
And damned if it didn’t happen.