Did the internet ruin culture?
Thinking through boredom
“I have been rather bored” with culture, Michelle Goldberg writes in her Times column this week. There’s not enough “interesting indie stuff bubbling up,” she laments;
when I go to coffee shops where young people are hanging out, the music is often either the same music I listened to when I was young, or music that sounds just like it. One of the year’s biggest hit singles is a Kate Bush song that came out in 1985. I can think of no recent novel or film that provoked passionate debate. Public arguments people do have about art — about appropriation and offense, usually — have grown stale and repetitive, almost rote.
You hear complaints like this a lot from people in the cohort to which Goldberg and I both belong (yuppies, bo-bos, creative-class, PMC, whatever you want to call people like us). I’m of two minds about it: On the one hand, there’s a self-flattering conventional wisdom about the emptiness or unoriginality of contemporary culture crudescing among my peers that seems worth resisting, or at least attending to. Why would or should yuppie parents like us be aware of the “scintillating and new”? (Surely the most damning thing you can say about Dimes Square is that people like me are aware of it?) What are we doing ourselves to seek out challenging or even just adult culture, rather than just assume it should be served up to us or dominate whatever passes for “the conversation”? And boy doesn’t it seem like a convenient coincidence that culture was more dynamic at a time when we didn’t get tired at 8 p.m.?
(Possibly my own personal hang-up here is that I tend to find “boredom” to be an extremely annoying pose. As a parent, allow me to say: only boring people are bored!)
On the other hand, well… she’s kind of right, isn’t she? “Boredom,” I don’t know, but the music writer Ted Gioia, in a newsletter from January, pointed out that “the new music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.” And the film writer Farran Smith Nehme took a tour through the last 100 years of box-office hits and found that well-reviewed, popular movies aimed at adults have all but vanished from view:
Of the 120 top-10 box office hits for 2008–2019, 42.5% were aimed at children/youths; 25% were superhero movies; 11.7% were Star Wars/science fiction; 13.3% were thrill rides; 2.5% were whatever the Hobbit was supposed to be; 1.7% were poorly reviewed movies for adults; and 3.3% were well-reviewed movies for adults.
This is not necessarily evidence that there is no challenging or experimental music, art, or film anymore. (“Lots of people are looking for something scintillating and new and not finding it,” Goldberg writes; the problem may be in the “not finding it.”) But it does suggest that most of what we get these days, in terms of what’s most widely consumed and covered, is pap. Ross Douthat has described these trends as a symptom of cultural decadence. Goldberg finds an explanation for her cultural anomie in a new book by the journalist W. David Marx, Status and Culture:
Marx posits cultural evolution as a sort of perpetual motion machine driven by people’s desire to ascend the social hierarchy. Artists innovate to gain status, and people unconsciously adjust their tastes to either signal their status tier or move up to a new one. As he writes in the introduction, “Status struggles fuel cultural creativity in three important realms: competition between socioeconomic classes, the formation of subcultures and countercultures, and artists’ internecine battles.”
According to Marx, or at least according to Goldberg’s précis of Marx, this process of “cultural evolution,” in which the desire of artists and their audiences to be seen as cool or cultured (which is to say, to achieve some higher social status) drives the creation of the “scintillating and new” art that Goldberg misses, has been broken by the rise of the internet.
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Responding to Goldberg on his own website, Marx distances himself from Goldberg’s complaints of “boredom” -- “I want to state for the record that I don't believe that everyone is bored,” he writes. “Marvel, Star Wars, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and League of Legends have only achieved such popularity because millions love them.” -- and tries to redirect them toward a complaint about “stasis,” or the idea that the last 30 years or so have witnessed only mild aesthetic or stylistic changes, especially compared with the 30 years prior. Here’s Marx clarifying his own argument:
In the last few decades, mass culture successfully neutralized the constant aesthetic challenge of indie avant-garde experimentation, either by delegitimizing it as pretentious or quickly absorbing and defusing its innovations. The internet meanwhile promised to be weirder, more niche, and more interesting, and yet the zeitgeist is anchored to mega-moments, rehashed reboots, and lowest common denominator viral content. New culture also seems weak in its failure to devalue older culture the way that Bob Dylan and The Beatles instantly outmoded previous decades of jazz. Does Olivia Rodrigo make Avril Lavigne unlistenable or sound even more vital?
My book's explanation for this is that (1) status value was always key to the appeal of avant-garde and indie culture, and (2) the internet conspires against providing such content with status value. In the ensuing vacuum, the mass media and elite consumers spend their energy engaging with mass culture, which is more likely than niche content to be conventional. And mass culture, by definition, lacks cachet. The most savvy consumers will always desire pop culture that both breaks conventions and offers a sense of cool, and today's mass hits rarely do either.
Even if, as a scholar of the 1990s and 2000s, I take strong objection to the idea that there have been no significant stylistic or aesthetic changes over the last 30 years, I can see how Marx’s thesis, or at least the version of it taken up by Goldberg, would be appealing -- it confirms certain intuitions (“the internet ruined culture”) via a relatively counterintuitive argument, which just happens to center the consumption habits and social activities of the “savvy consumers” who are also the argument’s main audience. (To be clear, I haven’t read Marx’s book; I’m just riffing on his and Goldberg’s accounts of the basics of his argument.)
But I always have trouble swallowing accounts of taste or cultural production in which status-signaling plays a central role. It’s not just that there’s a whiff of reactionary essentialism about the idea that humans are for some reason compelled (hard-wired?) to signal group identity or jockey for status in a social hierarchy, nor that it seems like a crude and cold-blooded way to encounter the complexity of culture. (Sometimes you need to be cold-blooded about culture and face with sober sense the real conditions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) I think what gives me trouble here, actually, is that the account seems incomplete. It tells us about the demand side of cultural production over the last several decades: There is less demand for intellectually challenging culture (the argument goes) because it is less valuable to consumers as a means of rising in a social hierarchy. But what about the supply side? What about the companies and institutions that create culture? It would be unsophisticated to think that they’re merely responding to some natural market signal, wouldn’t it?
The word “money” doesn’t appear in either Goldberg or Marx’s posts, which seems odd to me for posts putting forward an argument about class. As big a story as the expansion of the internet over the last few decades has been the rise of a finance-led asset economy, in which rising asset prices (in stocks as in homes) are prioritized over wages, productivity, semiconductor chips, halfway decent 90-minute movies, etc. What role does all the investment-seeking money play in supposed cultural boredom? Major labels and movie studiostend to belong these days to public, integrated multinational conglomerates, which prize consistent returns -- whether from multi-season television shows, or established and wholly owned I.P. -- over any particular kind of innovation, creativity, or daring. (As Ted Gioia points out, music labels and investment firms alike are buying up old music catalogs rather than putting money toward A&R or marketing new artists; fear of copyright lawsuits, especially since the derided 2015 “Blurred Lines” suit, exacerbates their risk-averse strategies.)
It’s not that the internet has nothing to do with changes in cultural production. After all, it hasn’t simply expanded access to sophisticated art, it’s also given rise to new distribution mechanisms for music, film, and books; those new distribution methods mean new economic arrangements. You may have recently seen this viral clip of Matt Damon blaming the demise of the lamented Good Grown-Up Movie (the kind of movie in which he frequently starred) on the end of DVD sales, for example: You can quibble with the claim that the recession killed DVD sales, but he’s absolutely right that the way pay is structured with streaming is very different. The essential difference between streaming and what came before is that with streaming there’s no “backend” payments, where costs can be recouped as the movie moves to home formats'; it’s much harder to get funding for a mid-sized movie when you can’t guarantee that your funders will eventually make their money back. (It’s also, for that matter, much harder to compete for talent with streamers flush with cash from investors.)
Anyway. It’s 4:30 on the Friday before Labor Day, so I should probably just send this out to the 10 of you still working. I don’t know what my original point here, was, except maybe to say that I actually think Christian Lorentzen’s essay “On Political Boredom” is, I think, wrongly dismissed by Goldberg as a satisfying account for her cultural malaise. Lorentzen’s essay isn’t merely decrying “marketing” as such, it’s suggesting that “culture” is now on the whole treated as a marketing campaign for some underlying I.P. (a set of superheroes; a pop star persona; an authorial brand) -- a means of extracting rent from a particular brand. That is boring.
I’m not even touching publishing here because it seems like its own fucked-up thing, but I highly recommend Anne Kjellberg’s fascinating two-part series about romance novels and self-publishing, especially this paragraph, which touches on the problems and promises of “amateurization” in cultural production:
Jennifer Long of Pocket Books told Publishers Weekly back in 2017, shortly after the consolidation at Penguin Random House that Madeline McIntosh spoke of at the trial, that “mass distribution has transitioned to efficient distribution. This means fewer returns, but also fewer books in the marketplace.” As elsewhere in the industry, all the eggs are going into the basket of a few bestselling books, even though, as PW acknowledged, “little has shifted on the consumer side. The places where mass market books are consistently bought, and the people who buy them, have not changed. Bricks-and-mortar mass merchants continue to be the outlets where these books are most popular.” To me, the move by big publishers, driven by the corporate bottom line, to invest in maximizing their return on a small affluent readership has abandoned the much broader readership that mass market once served—bringing people into the reading fold from their train stations and drugstores and grocery lines—leaving those readers to a free-for-all where they only haphazardly get the benefit of professional attention to what they read and deliberate distribution. One keeps hearing that the price of physical books is likely to go up, furthering the divide between those who are exposed to vetted reading and those who are not. Self-publishing creates wonderful opportunities for authors, but it leaves a lot of work to the audience. The forces at work in romance publishing are, like the stories themselves, a heightened version of the rest of life, not only in book publishing but in journalism and education and the arts: market forces understood as “inevitable” are leeching the benefits of the work of culture more and more out of the world in which most people live.
If I can suggest a slight reframing -- the early internet had a different culture. Everyone was pretty much anonymous, pretty media-limited (text-centered), and sitting in front of a computer was something you could do for relatively short, discrete times of day. So no matter what you did (or even who you were) online, you were still pretty well-tied to your IRL identity most of the actual moments of your life. You could BE a node in a network, but the network could never take over and flatten you; you retained a texture and substance and meaning that the network couldn't erase.
What's most changed between then and now is that everyone online is tied to their real-life identities, we broadcast in such detail and so many details of the world have been documented that Twitch "stars" have to disguise the angles of their bedroom walls or someone will Zillow their way to their front door, and of course people are connected all the time. Which means you're now a node in a network that's been almost completely flattened and absorbed into the fabric of the larger machine. The machine is a profit-driven attention-attractor, with algorithms measuring "engagement" standing in for cultural mediators.
The "culture" this creates is one in which everyone is raised to believe they want to be famous. The desire for attention comes first, the "how can I GET that attention?" question comes after.
This is the flattening. Earlier un-flattened nodes (people!) had an idea of who they were and what they believed and what they wanted to create and if they created it they might step back and say, Yes, I want to Share This. But the new rules reversed that. Now it's "I share therefore I am; holy crap I haven't shared anything, I feel myself disappearing, I must share something or I will not exist, here I'll throw some crap together that caters to the algorithms' biases for grievance, conflict, memes, and *other things its seen before*, and oh sweet relief I've gotten likes, for five minutes I'll feel less insignificant.
So has our culture changed? Yes. I'd say MORE STUFF in general gets created (now that "content creation" is a phrase even eight year olds know), but MORE OF THAT STUFF is just sound and fury signifying nothing -- a tale told by an idiot, you might say. And I'd say those among us who are still somewhat grounded and aren't primarily driven by attention-seeking, who are creating art because we love it and mean it, we are kind of lost in that noise.
But I'd rather be lost in the noise than get my soul flattened into just more hype for ad-inflicted eyeballs. You look at the people who are most successful at internetting, and it's pretty clear, no one wants to become that.
This is a very uncool argument, but: on the one hand I'm sympathetic because a lot of stuff is admittedly very bland, and on the other hand I'm a Man of a Certain Age who grew up in an extremely uncool suburb and hearing other people talk about boredom makes me feel like Bane? Like, the new and scintillating is abundant, but it might require some effort that's a little at odds with the promise of the internet?
"Back in my day" I was excited to be able to buy an album at Blockbuster Music that I read about in an issue of Q at Barnes and Noble. My friends and I pooled money to buy overpriced anime at Suncoast. One Saturday afternoon one of our parents drove us into Houston to see Pi and we didn't shut up about it for at least a year.
Now I can watch a foreign gem like it's nothing. I can jump on Soundcloud or Bandcamp and hear a sound that has literally never existed before.