07 August 2007

Sir Elton John, Andrew Keen, The Internet, and Bollocks

Just like the subject line says, here is a long, hard slog through the subjects mentioned therein, at least for the poor reader who comes across this.

The spark for this is an article about remarks made by Sir Elton John to Britain's Sun newspaper about the Internet, blogging and the like, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday.

In the article, Sir Elton's quoted as saying that Sir Elton said the internet had "stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff", and it compelled them to "sit at home and make their own records, which is sometimes OK but it doesn't bode well for long-term artistic vision".

Sir Elton confessed he was a "luddite" who did not have a mobile phone or an iPod, and wrote all his music at the piano.

"I do think it would be an incredible experiment to shut down the whole internet for five years and see what sort of art is produced over that span," he said."

The article also points out that his latest album, "The Captain and The Kid", has slumped badly in the music industry charts since coming out last September.

Whether or not, this has been due to Internet piracy of his songs, which he has denounced in the past, according to the Sun article, is unknown, but, the financial firm "PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted sales of "physical" formats such as CDs and DVDs would drop from 81 per cent of total sales to 40.5 per cent in 2011, as digital downloads took over."

Either way, Sir Elton's of the mind that, "We're talking about things that are going to change the world and change the way people listen to music and that's not going to happen with people blogging on the internet," or so he stated to the Sun.

The publication's article correlates Sir Elton's statements with similar remarks made by one Andrew Keen in his new book, "The Cult Of The Amateur", in which the author denounces the Internet for killing our culture and assaulting our economy. However, the article, at least as reprinted in the SMH, doesn't go into details about Keen's arguments on those scores.

However, it quotes this assertion in Keen's tome, which, the SMH notes, went on sale in Australia this month, that, ""[Anyone] can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels."

The Sun/SMH article also notes, however, that Sir Elton made his entire music catalogue of 400 tracks available for down-load on Apple's I-Tunes music store back in March of this year, and that a concert celebrating his 60th birthday and the 250 million albums he's sold world-wide was streamed live over the 'Net as well.

All right, you've heard from Sir Elton John and Andrew Keen about the Internet's deletrious effects on society, culture and the economy. Now, I'll have my very uninformed say about their stances, which can be summed up in one word-bollocks.

For those of you out there who've not even my very limited grasp of Brit-Slang, "bollocks" means "balls", as in the pair a-dangling between a male's legs. named therein.

In this context, "bollocks" also has the same meaning as a similar American expression, "balls", meaning not only that portion of the male genitalia, but that an argument, notion or line of reasoning is complete and utter nonsense.

It strikes me, from my worm's-eye point-of-view here, that Sir Elton has had a very long, generally distinguished, and quite profitable music career, certainly in comparison with most musicians, of whatever musical genre you could care to name.

With all due respect to that career and those accomplishments, it just strikes me that his arguments are those of a frustrated 60 year-old man, who's allowed himself to fall out of touch with what's going on in the rest of the world outside of his patch of it, sees, along with the recording companies, a declining revenue stream thanks to declining CD sales, and who understands the 'Net and its workings about as well as my cats do(with all due apologies to my cats, which neither know nor care about the Internet, except for the fact that their Human-Tom Mama's being on the Box-Thing takes a lot of time and attention away from the attention and time due them. That's as it should be, because they ARE cats, which, while they are often alert to many aspects of the world and living I'm not, do not understand computers or the Internet, because both are beyond their ken, and their capacities to understand. I don't expect Sir Elton to have an expert technical grasp of the 'Net and its workings, but I do expect something of an extremely basic layman's understanding from the fella).

That epic sentence out of the way, it just seems to me that, while some of Sir Elton's concerns about the 'Net and its effects on human cultures and socialisation may have some validity, his grasp of the 'Net, its actual effects, and its potential effects, on human socialisation, creativity and culture are, at best, more than slightly off the mark.

Yes, people, Yours Truly included, should perhaps be outside more, socialising with others constructively, and creating all sorts of new, wonderful, artistic masterpieces, etc, etc.

But, what he fails to understand is that, for many people, especially those like myself, who find the costs of going out generally quite expensive, in a variety of ways, or who are restricted by physical or mental conditions that impair their mobility, the 'Net can be, when wisely used, a great place to gather information about all sorts of topics, see and hear points of view, art works, films, television shows, radio programmes, and other cultural products they'd never get to see otherwise, or, at best, might hear of only by report, whether in print or in face-to-face conversation.

Also, to put it very bluntly here, there are often many times when one's neighbours, acquaintances, business associates, work mates, etc, AREN'T especially pleasant nor desirable company with whom to be around, especially when drunk or high.

Some of this assertion comes from unpleasant experiences I've had with neighbours here in my years in Vegas, some of it from bad experiences I've had, both in Reno and Vegas, in some of the low-level poetry and artistic circles I've been in, and some of it comes from the kind of hyper-sensitive personality I have.

I don't hate people, but, there are times when they can be a bit much for me, and I also know that I'm also not to many people's tastes.

I can talk too much and in far too much detail about subjects that I might find interesting, but which most people either don't know about, could care less about, or both.

My sense of humour can be extremely dark, rough and gauche, and I can, especially when drunk or stoned, if I'm not careful, over-familiar with people at times.

I also have a pretty wicked, bad temper, which, as a friend of mine described it on numerous occasions, "that can go from zero to sixty in 30 seconds"(not an exact quote, BTW), and, while I can and do sit on it much of the time, it can come rushing up, like a lava stream, extremely fast and hard when I feel provoked.

Have also been in a few physical fights(Generally, but not exclusively, when drunk)and confrontations in the past few years, and have generally very narrowly avoided getting into extremely serious trouble, thanks to a combination of other people's tolerance and charity, and just plain dumb luck.

Combine those, with the kind of party-down, have-another-drink, we-like-your-money-but-fuck-off-if-you're-broke culture we've here in Nevada, or at least in much of the Reno-Sparks and Greater Las Vegas areas of the state, and I think that you can get a fair idea of where I'm coming from, when I say that I'm bloody sceptical about Sir Elton's claims that, if the 'Net were shut down for five years, we'd see some sort of cultural and social Renaissance.

There are romantically-inclined sectors of the Left and the environmental movement that have similar hopes for the post-oil, post-car world they envision in the immediate future, once the big, bad economic order we've now, and which is very dependent on both, collapses, with locally-grown food, locally-made products, and locally-made culture combining with a sudden awareness on everyone's part that they should love, respect, and co-operate with their neighbours, thus ushering a new, far better social order, with everyone living happily ever after, and similar such-like rubbish.

It's the same sort of hyper-romanticised thinking as the dystopian fantasies of those on the Left, Centre, and Right, and especially on some segments of the libertarian and racist right, which envision a kind of free-for-all, Every-Man-For-Himself-And-The-Devil-Take-The-Hindmost, Mad Max sort of world, in which the biggest, baddest, most sociopathic or psycho-pathic(Excuse me, I should say "fittest", in deference to the tenth-rate sort of Social Darwinist thinking that often motivates this line of reasoning)individuals will come to dominate and prosper, while everyone else(because they're less "fit", or completely "un-fit")will go to the wall, so much the better, Amen.

Utopian and Dystopian thought and opinion are, based, depending on the individuals and groups involved, based in reality, or at least some parts of reality.

But, because they often tend to selectively portray various social ideals and goals in a heavily idealised form, without generally taking into account the simple fact that people are, quite often, very complex and contrary individual and social animals not always amenable to the pleas, protestations and punches given to them by those who "know better" about how the world should work than they, and, conversely, portray everything about the past and present as being horribly, irredeemably flawed and corrupted, both utopians and dystopians often miss a very basic point, which is that their analyses and projections, like most human analyses and projections, could be either wholly or partially wrong.

The reasons for their being wrong, or only partially right, could be because of flawed sample data, analyses based on either incomplete or very biased information, or other factors like those, and other factors that I neither know enough about, or not at all.

I also think that, in many cases, many utopians and dystopians, like most people, tend to forget that, quite often, what a person says, writes, creates, publishes, depicts, or just plain does in expressing him- or herself, can quite often say far more about the person or people doing the saying, etc, than the subject matter they're tackling.

The same, by the way, goes for this essay, too, and well it should.

I'm not as rigourously analytical and logical as I perhaps should be, but tend to be far more intuitive and emotional in looking at essays, art works, and in everyday life in general.

I can be quite inconsistent, and even hypocritical, and can be quite foolish and gullible at times.

I can be a bit of a pompous cunt, when I want to be, and when I don't mean to be, too.

That comes with being a human being.

Most of us are various combinations of all of these qualities, and far more, both desirable and undesirable, and how we express them depends on the social and other circumstances the individual finds him- or herself in in a given culture(and yes, that goes for rebels, recluses and hermits, too)and any given situation at various points in time.

There are some folks who, for one reason or another, or a combination of reasons, who tend to lean far more in one direction or another than most, but I believe them to be a relative minority of human beings alive and walking around on this planet.

Either way, this means that, whatever one says, does or creates, the sayings, deeds and creations that one makes are as likely to say more about oneself and how one sees the universe and the world around him- or herself at a given point in time, than they might necessarily say about the subjects at hand.

This is where this essay comes back to Sir Elton's pronouncements on the Internet and its effects, because this is a man who has, for reasons of his own, chosen to insulate himself from the 'Net and its effects, good and bad, on contemporary society and culture, and whom, I think, is also further insulated from much of the world around him by his great wealth and social position.

Some of his criticisms of the 'Net and its effects, as well as those of Andrew Keen's, which I shortly get to, may be quite valid.

But, I think much of his remarks are based more in ignorance and fear of something Sir Elton neither understands even a little, and I am no expert on the 'Net myself, so let me get that out of the way here, nor wants to.

Simultaneously, I'd also say that Sir Elton, his management team, and his recording label(Don't ask me which one, as I don't keep up with pop music developments)are, at least if the information about the availability of his music library via I-Tunes and the birthday/album sales concert being 'Net-streamed mentioned in the article are true, are rather hypocritical for turning right 'round(Yes, like a record, Baby)and making sneering remarks about the 'Net and its effects, while using it to make larger profits off of it, than they would have otherwise.

Sir Elton also mentions alleged musical changes that he thinks are coming within the next five years that will have absolutely nothing to do with the Internet, blogging, or anything else even remotely connected to them.

But, he doesn't specify what they will be, nor how they will work.

Now, some of that could be journalistic omissions on the parts of the Sun's or Sydney Morning Herald's reporters and editors, and the Sun is quite notorious for its brand of glaring headline, maximum-sizzle-but-little-steak style of yellow journalism, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Sun didn't mention what musical changes he envisioned(No, I've not read the original article, and don't really plan to, but probably should).

Some of it could be that he's just plain talking out of his arse, whether out of frustration, or a desire to get a quick bit of publicity by stirring up a bit of short-lived controversy.

I don't know, and will admit to that.

As for Andrew Keen's comments in the Sun/SMH article, let me just say this.

In every field of human endeavour, throughout our species' million year history, most of the artifacts produced in any field you care to name have varied greatly in quality, depending on who produced them, the materials used, etc.

This is especially true of human artifacts of all sorts, including cultural ones, produced since the rise of the printing press in the 15th Century, and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, beginning in the late 18th Century.

Many of the artifacts from the various pre-industrial stages of human history haven't survived, or at least only partially intact, and weren't produced in the vast quantities that we've seen from the late 18th-early 19th Centuries onwards, and this goes, again, for cultural artifacts, just as much as for house-wares, furniture, and other goods.

Even in the era of mass production, many cultural artifacts, like the vast majority of silent-era and pre-1950 sound films have either survived only partially intact or not at all.

The use of highly-flammable and easily degraded cellulose nitrate film stock, improper, careless and just plain lazy archiving and storage procedures on the parts of film producers and distributors, as well as accidents and the like, have further contributed to the decay and loss of many of these films, especially if these films weren't seen as having much of a shelf life beyond their original release dates.

What has survived has generally been what were considered to be valuable enough properties by at least one film distributor or film preservation society somewhere, or was just plain lucky in not being chopped to bits and pieces somewhere along the line.

Even then, of the majority of such films that have survived, many of those would be, at best, mediocre in quality, with sizeable minorities occupying their respective places on the spectrum of film quality, ranging from excellent to downright horrible.

All depends on one's tastes, I think.

I don't know.

What I DO know is that, while there's a ton and more of mediocrity and just plain junk out there on the 'Net, and doubtlessly I've contributed to my share of both, I've also found that there are interesting sites that contain valid, useful information, express artistic and other points of view I find worthy, and that contribute, even in microscopic ways, to the general human culture.

I enjoy being able to see, read and hear, and yes, down-load, music, video and other files of materials that I probably would have otherwise have had scant, if any, chance at all to access otherwise.

For me, the 'Net, as I've stated before, provides me with access to a far wider world than the confines of my own home, neighbourhood or locality, and I appreciate it for that.

It's also given me the chance to express myself, on however small a scale and badly, that I might not have had the chance to, otherwise.

Mr. Keen's charges, or at least what the Sun/SMH article mentions of them, strike me as being just so much effete, psuedo-intellectual eye-wash in the face of it.

Will have to read about Mr. Keen, his book, background, articles by and about him, to understand why and how he feels the way he does.

In the meantime, his rhetoric, as shown in the quote from "The Cult Of The Amateur" in the Sun/SMH article, and even the book's title, seems to be that of a common, garden-variety, urban, intellectual snob, concerned with the maintenance of "canonical" literary and other standards, and with the idea that only "qualified professionals" vetted, judged and attested by other "professionals", like himself, are fit to produce cultural products, since they've the background, training, experience and requisite skills to do that, and no one else need apply, thank you very much.

There's an entire class of gate-keepers, whether agents, literary and casting, editors, sub-editors, or any such similar professions you'd care to name, whose jobs entail that only those people whose appearance, background and work fit a certain desired profile and professional standards get into, and keep working in, the various cultural professions, and who might well feel their livelihoods threatened by the rise of the Internet, and especially by the fact that many musicians, artists, writers, etc, who would have otherwise had to do the rounds of begging art gallery owners, literary agents, and so on, to please, please, PLEASE take just an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny look at their work, and judge it to be acceptable, in the hopes of getting the work made and distributed in one form or another, now have possible outlets on the 'Net for their works, without having to go through the whole hat-in-hand procedure of begging someone else to take a look at the fruit of their creative loins.

Whatever positions, money and power, these gate-keepers have could, and, in the case of the recording industry in particular, are gradually declining, as increasing numbers of artists, professional and amateur alike, use the 'Net to show off their wares, and by-pass the layers upon layers of gate-keepers employed to limit access to production and distribution of cultural goods to a relatively select few.

Does this mean that much of, if not all of, these works being displayed on the 'Net are of a stunningly high standard of quality and professionalism????

Nope, not at all.

Many of them are staggeringly bad, and many more are mediocre at best, but, as far as I'm concerned, that's also par for the course, especially when you've large numbers of people producing anything.

The larger the quantity, the more variable the quality of various goods and services produced.

One doesn't have to like it, not at all.

But, I think that Mr. Keen's book more likely than not begs the following question; given that the vast majority of goods, including cultural goods, produced throughout human history, and especially since the Industrial Revolution, have been and are highly variable in quality, especially when produced in mass quantities, wouldn't the vast bulk of such goods, including those made by trained and qualified professionals, be subject to those same dynamics???

I think they would.

Therefore, one could reasonably ask, if the vast majority of goods and services provided by professionals can be expected to be mediocre at best, what is the good of valuing professionalism above all else, if all that results is the same, or only slightly better than, outcome, than if the playing field was opened to amateurs also????

I think it has to do more with preserving one's position, power, however limited and illusory, and making a living, more than with preserving some grand artistic, social and political set of ideals.

Yes, one can probably correctly say that there are many amateurs out there in the cultural sphere who shouldn't be making poems, paintings, films, videos, photographs, musical recordings, etc.

One could also say that there are also quite a few professionals out there who should also be kept from foisting their works on the unsuspecting general public as well.

But, that's just what I think.

In closing, am enclosing the link to the SMH article so you can see it for yourselves, and not just take my word for it. It's http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/08/02/1185648044623.html?sssdmh=dm16.272311&from=top5.

Here Endeth The Lesson.

Be seeing you.

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