A few weeks ago, I was asked to talk on a panel about Marshall McLuhan in Bristol. One of the other panellists was Paul Morley, someone I greatly admire and who created many of the culture and ideas I grew up with in the 1980s (the first time I heard about Dada & Situationism was through his sleeves notes on Frankie Goes To Hollywood albums).
The panel was asked to discuss how relevant McLuhan was to 21st century digital culture, but quickly got sidetracked into a nostalgic eulogy for late 20th century culture, and in particularly Punk. Paul Morley was very dismissive of the landscape of digital culture, accusing social media networks of merely pandering to consumerist behaviours, and not creating anything of value or with real impact. From his perspective, the radical power of punk, and its impact on late 70s culture, was nowhere to be seen today.
Last night, Pete Townshend gave the John Peel lecture, and the people I follow seem divided between criticising his views on iTunes (which were really only a small part of the talk) and agreeing with his nostalgia for the role the record industry played in nurturing artists. The lecture was actually a pretty well-balanced view on the record industry today, with some specific insights into how the music business used to run, and how Apple and others could step up to play these roles.
But I think the nostalgia about the old days is misplaced. We are eliding a series of memories – about the way we consumed music, the role of companies in developing and distributing culture, and the physical artefacts themselves – into a set of assumptions about how culture should be supported, distributed and consumed. In doing this, we’re ignoring the fact that these assumptions were the product of a particular pattern of consumption, driven solely by the technical and economic drivers of the time.
In the late 20th Century, a world of limited channels for media distribution, achieving scale was incredibly hard, but the rewards were huge. With only a limited number of TV/Radio channels, or magazines, or shelf space in the shops, anything new had to displace the old. This led to a very predictable pattern of consumption, in which waves of ‘new’ content attempted, and occasionally succeeded, to break through into the main focus of audiences’ attention – the cover of NME, or Top of The Pops. Once there, the potential rewards from being in one of the few spotlights of attention were massive – easily enough to support artists for years, if they could manage to remain in the spotlight, or thereabouts.
This pattern – of working unknown in the shadows, and then ‘breaking through’ into the mainstream – is the thing we’re actually mourning when we talk about the last century. The media industries that were created around these patterns had the advantage of limited competition and stability, and as such could afford to indulge artists, or support bands over years, knowing that the reward of breaking into the spotlight would more than repay this investment.
If you grew up in this period, you learnt that this was the pattern of culture – a broad spectrum of niche, marginal culture, and a tightly defined mainstream that dominated attention. The positions of individual actors would periodically change, but the stage would remain the same.
The patterns now are very, very different. There are no technical limits to publication and distribution, but getting and focusing attention over a long period of time is a great deal harder. Scale is no longer a guarantee of stability. Production of culture is now open to anyone and everyone. Platforms and tools are becoming more central than publishers and distributors. None of this is new – our virtual book shelves are groaning with analyses of how the internet is changing content industries.
But in all of the studies of the technical and economic changes, we’ve missed the underlying shift that is driving these changes. The ways in which audiences’ attention can be driven to new culture is infinitely more complex than in the late 20th century, and its only been in the last 5 years or so that we’ve started to see what the new patterns of attention are. Some of them look familiar, with niche content organically (or calculatedly, in the case of shows like The X Factor) getting large amounts of attention. But these patterns are much more unstable that they used to be, and the rewards are nowhere near enough to offset hits and misses.
Alongside the familiar patterns of mainstream attention, there are a huge number of new patterns that could only exist in digital culture. Some of these patterns are very slow, with attention accruing over months or years, as social recommendation or small groups of fans gradually accrue around content. Some are extremely fast, synchronising audiences’ attention around a piece of culture within days, before moving on just as quickly. Some are driven by deliberate plans, orchestrated between broadcast channels and social media. Some emerge via the organic connections of lots of smaller drivers, from blogs and niche channels to SEO and twitter accounts.
But, regardless of the pattern itself, the difference is that they’re Spiky – there are no technical or economic constraints keeping the spotlight in one place anymore, so attention can move on as quickly as it arrived. This is the major shift that we are missing when we are nostalgic for the 20th century. We’re only just beginning to learn what culture looks like in spiky networks, and only just beginning to invent the companies and institutions that can survive long enough to support and invest in culture in this landscape.
Change no longer happens all at once for everyone, as it did with the rush of Punk puncturing the ennui of 1970s mainstream culture. In digital networks, change is happening everywhere, constantly, and the mainstream is a much more fragile and temporary consensus than it once was. There will still be moments when something breaks through to enough people at the same time to feel like Punk, but it won’t be the same thing. There are a hundred punk moments happening every day, if you look hard enough.
McLuhan would have understood this – he was, above all else, a master at recognising patterns in culture. What he did in the middle of the last century was point out that mass media was creating a phenomenal spotlight of attention through TV and other mass broadcast networks, and that the patterns of attention they created would be as important – financially, politically and culturally – as the content itself.
If he were alive today, I would like to think that McLuhan would be pointing out a slew of new patterns, and would be exploring the economic and cultural consequences as they emerged. Although McLuhan was a deeply religious man who resented the dominance of broadcast mainstream culture, his intellectual curiosity was fascinated by what these emerging patterns said about us. He didn’t mourn the patterns of the 19th century, but sketched out the landscape of the new culture, and was a prophet for the media industries of the last 50 years. We should take his lead, stop being nostalgic for the patterns of the last century, and start building the media industries of the future.