A Long-Tailed Creative Yawp
(Note: This is a long one.)
Reading "The slow decline of the blockbuster" on Ars Technica reminds me that this Long Tail stuff is something on which I've been wanting to write something intelligent for a long time now. This might all just be techno-hippy michegas in the end, but I'm really excited about the possibility of living in a Long-Tailed age.
You see, if I were to pick a lifelong war cry and embroider it on my own personal flag, that cry would be "Follow Your Bliss!" And my bliss is found in the course of learning, in the act of creative work and making things, and in the continual effort of self-refinement as creativity recursively applied.
Now, the thing about bliss is that it's not just some hedonistic easy road paved with whipped cream. Bliss is a hard thing to follow—you've got to keep your eyes on it, and there's quite often a lot of pain involved. But, I believe that following bliss is the only way to get real, honest, unbounded joy out of life that builds in unfailing increment.
What does my bliss have to do with the Long Tail? Well, you see, it's easier to be creative and live creatively in the midst of a culture that is itself steeped in creativity—and I think that a Long-Tailed culture is the best bet for it. I see a Long Tail as the hallmark of a living artisan culture, as opposed to the slow death of a consumer culture that'll just leave us all fat and useless.
Why do we even have a culture that enshrines such a poisonous unidirectional flow of product to consumer? Scarcity. Mass production makes it cheap to make lots of the same thing—yet, the means of that production has historically been very expensive to acquire.
Thus, assembly lines are scarce. The same has goes for transmission towers, radio frequencies, movie theaters, and recording studios. As a perverse consequence, we've all just gotten used to the idea that almost no one is cut out to make much at all and common creativity is relegated to head-patted cottage niches who make their own soap.
What I think the growing Long Tail will tell us, though, is that for many areas of creative concern, scarcity in the means of production is evaporating. Many products of creativity—i.e. sound, video, and text—can be composed on a cheap computer and duplicated with negligible cost on the web. In fact, as things like BitTorrent take off, distribution costs actually fall with popularity and scale. (Just think, what if distribution costs can fall below zero? I'm not just talking money here.)
I've got a lot of hope in what I see happening with blogging, podcasting, and other such network-driven channels for creativity. I also have a lot of hope for the generations of kids not only growing up with computers, but also with Netflix, GarageBand, MySpace, LiveJournal, YouTube, and even YTMND. You can scoff at them all you like, but some of that stuff's got a little bit of genius in it.
We've got this entertainment industry with an ultra-rich royalty caste of supposedly super-creative celebrities, but it's all driven by the scarcity that technology is eroding away. Sure, you can find some really, truly brilliant people up there—but I'm willing to bet there are armies of people down here who just haven't gotten in the right place at the right time or who've abandoned creativity because they had no viable outlet.
So, imagine a more distributed entertainment universe populated by more creative people—with fewer big productions and even fewer gazillionaires. Creativity, attention, and time become the only significant scarcities.
Imagine more people just entertaining each other and goading each other on. Imagine making a decent living doing creative stuff you love, based on the moral and monetary contributions of intimate audiences filled with co-creators—who, while perhaps not quite friends are at least befriendable. No one gets so rich bankwise—they get by just fine, mind you—but everyone lives in a lot more bliss.
This is not unlike Orson Scott Card's description of The Crystal City in his Alvin Maker series.
I want to see a culture where restrictions on remix are given the same odd looks as powdered wigs. I want to see, as an entrenched tradition, future creative adults route around the network damage of old proprietary industries steeped in scarcity and control. After all, "the only long-term effect of copy protection is to ensure that those who defeat it are immortalized."
We'll still need professional editors and crews for the really good stuff—but that's creative work too. The same goes for everyone else who plays an honest role in getting visions realized—this isn't all just about the entertainment industry. Honestly, I see the entrenchment of universal creativity as one of the few ways the United States can cope with increasingly global markets—we've got a bit of a head start in some areas, if we take it. Digging in heels and protecting aging ways of business that have long since ridden out their respective initial creative Big Bangs just won't cut it.
I want to see the 10% left over from 90% of everyone's crud inevitably exceed the total output of today's entertainment industry and spill into other industries. I want to see a new industry spring up whose sole purpose is to sift through chaff and cultivate the naturally emergent creative best. And I want to see that industry as a distributed service (versus control) industry there to help what's already happening through the application of both machine and human intelligence to homestead the noosphere.
So anyway, that's the sort of stuff that gets me really excited lately. And, in excitement, I'm handwaving away a lot of stuff. But, I think there's something to all of this breathlessness that just might have something to do with my own bliss at the end of the day.