A few years ago Wetmechanic Gary Gray and I interviewed my pal Cory Doctorow, the peripatetic author, hep cat, technogeek, futurephiliac, etc, etc, in the lobby of a hotel in Boston. We podcast the interview (in 3 parts) here on Wetmachine. (I’m too lazy to look for the links now, but you know how to use that search tool.) Anyway, Cory’s a good guy to interview because he has lots and lots of interesting things to say and he’s friendly & good natured. But conversations with Cory are half-duplex. (A term that any ancient geeks reading this post will remember. But for you young’uns I’ll explain: in full duplex communications, both ends of a link can send and receive messages. In half-duplex, one party sends and the other party receives. What I’m saying is that Cory is smart and nice and funny and interesting, but he doesn’t listen to a fucking word you say. (Or, in any event, he doesn’t listen to a fucking word *I* say.))

My favorite part of our conversation is where we’re talking about the costs and benefits of societal change, especially change brought about by technological advances. We’re talking about the possible end of the art form known as “the movie” as we know it today. What if digital duplication and peer-to-peer technologies make it economically infeasible for a studio to invest the sums necessary for a “real” movie like those we’ve become accustomed to for three quarters of a century or so (think: Lord of the Rings)? Cory makes the observation that with the Protestant Reformation came the end of the era of great cathedrals: because of the Reformation, no more grand cathedrals will ever be built. Cathedral-making is an art form that died because it had to die. But in exchange for that lost art, Cory says (I’m paraphrasing from memory), we got the Reformation. And then he asks “Was it worth it?”

If you listen closely, you can hear me responding, “that’s an interesting question.” (I know you’re not going to go find and listen to the podcast, but just pretend, OK?) Indeed, I thought it was a very interesting question. I was actually thinking about the costs, in blood and war and terror and murder and rape and rapine and starvation and hatred and blind tribal ignorance, that came with religious wars that accompanied the Reformation. And I was thinking about the mysterious awe-inspiring beauty of the (admittedly somewhat perverse) art form of the cathedral. And I was wondering, for the first time, what might have happened to the art form of the cathedral if the Reformation had never happened. I’m a technophobic & nostalgic guy, after all. I was thinking, “what if ever more and more beautiful cathedrals had been built?”

For Cory, of course, it was a rhetorical question, not a real question, and the answer was “yes”. Yes, losing the art form of the cathedral was an OK price to pay in exchange for the Reformation. Cory didn’t even hear, much less respond to, to my ambivalent response. He just steamrollered right over it. Of course the trade-off was worth it. Of course the new art forms that arise when old art forms are killed are “worth it”. The emergent art forms will offer new and unanticipated beauty and splendid insights into our human condition. So, he said (paraphrasing again), the old art must die so that that new and even more profound art can emerge.

As my 4 long-time readers might guess, I was skeptical about this. For I am given to worrying all the time about the wanton destruction of culture in the name of a bogus and ephemeral “progress”. I’m very skeptical about “progress.”

But then I saw the video embedded below, which I found on Spocko’s website — (and Spocko, in fact, actually discovered it on Cory’s own site Boing Boing). And now I’m starting to think, “Cory was right.” Not because this video is more beautiful and satisfying than (name your favorite movie (or cathedral)). But because this is a new art form. It’s shocking. It’s breathtaking. But it’s not shocking in the elitist “Épater la bourgeoisie” sense. It’s shocking because it’s so entrancing and fun, while at the same time implicitly raising a thousand deep questions (and I don’t even speak Korean). It’s just so unexpected, so friendly, so welcoming and so beautiful that I really can’t find words to respond to it. Sure, it’s just a little music video, and Lord knows a music video is not a new thing. But for now, tonight, this one feels to me like someting really really big. As big as the Iranian revolution on Twitter; or, more precisely, it’s an artistic exploration of the possibilities implicit in that revolution. And a big part of the reason for that is that it’s so human, so un-Godlike, so small.

UPDATE Below the fold, a minor elaboration.
UPDATE 2 On Ultrasaurus, Sarah Allen blogs about this post. I like what she has to say, and am impressed that she went back and actually listened to the interview.

The trade-off

If you had asked me, on the day of that conversation with Mr. Doctorow, if trading the art form of the 1.5 hour-long to 3 hour long motion picture produced at great expense by the traditional movie-making industry for the art form of the 3 minute video produced for virtually no expense by a bunch of untrained people who don’t even know each other was a good bargain, I would have said “No, of course not.”

Today I would say, “hmmm, that’s an interesting question.”

It’s not always a binary choice, of course. Video didn’t completely kill the radio star, and rockaroll did not kill opera or the symphony orchestra. Sometimes “competing” art forms can coexist & continue to evolve even as the new form becomes predominant.

But sometimes the old art form does, in fact, die. If not in the sense that all examples of it are obliterated (cathedrals still stand, for example), but in the sense that the art form ceases to evolve. In this sense, for example, motion pictures with sound killed the silent movie.

And sometimes the change produces a net societal loss. Sometimes the new form is just kudzu that chokes out the varied flora that had existed there before.

So the emergence of youtube videos and the web in general (with peer to peer, etc) does not necessarily mean that movies are doomed. But maybe it does. And if the art form of the movie dies, will the emergent web video be an adequate substitute, or even an improvement?

Hmm. . .


  1. I think some art forms certainly have lost prominence that they once had, like opera. This has to mean that it’s evolution has slowed since their seems to be less people participating in it.

  2. I would like to say this about that. Can’t we please have both?

    On the philosophical question, was the reformation worth it? Yes. And maybe we enjoy the cathedrals that much more because there are only a “few” of them and it is an art form that is gone. We get to explore and try to understand the philosophy of that era. I personally like the fact that all four sides of the stones in the cathedrals were carved. Even if we did not see the sides that were facing in, God saw everything. I also find it very intriguing that it would take several generations to complete these objects of art; that your life’s work would be carried on by artisans, unknown to you.

    So must we really loose one art form to make way for another? I do not want to loose the traditional movie art form. I would really miss things like the Lord of the Rings, or the Coen brothers’ movies, or David Mamet treats. And in the case of our family, we probably couldn’t carry on a single conversation since we use such conversational shortcuts as, “I think I need some pound cake”. (Al Franken’s character in Stuart Saves His Family, “ I would never ordinarily say this, but… is there any way you can get to a pound cake?”

    Maybe that art form is slipping away. As a tween, we met under the neon clock for a movie and a bit of experimentation. When I was a teen, most often we went to a movie as a date…maybe the drive-in. I don’t see many folks over 14 in the theatre. Maybe it’s because the drive-ins are gone? (Wasn’t it fun to try to find a movie that was playing at both the Sunset drive-in and the Loew’s downtown? In case your parents questioned you, you knew some of the plot at least.) I digress.

    Currently, folks seem to take up movie going when they are in their twenties or when they begin taking their children. The exception to this rule is of course, things like The Lord of the Ring. All ages attend. There are also the James Bond movies that I went to as a teen and now a new generation is viewing. By the way, are they as good? I think not. Where is Oddjob?

    I really enjoyed the video and other similar ones I’ve seen. I don’t want to give them up either. So for now I get to enjoy both. After all, concerning the expense of Lord of the Rings…I hope they have taken in enough revenue to cover the costs of the trilogy. I can’t imagine they haven’t. Other films may not make as much…but I am certainly doing my part to support them.

    Okay Johnny, get out your red pen.

  3. So many thoughts, so few limitations.

    * I had one of those odd, between-conference-sessions, first-meeting conversations with one of the way-odd anti-heroes of one of your famous Salon pieces (_part_one” rel=”nofollow”>http://dir.salon.com/story/…). He convinced me that most human conversation (regardless of medium?) is stateless in that it is without reference to the past beyond the last utterance of the present conversation nor to more than the last thing that the other person has said. If Corey can demonstrate but not discuss such half-duplex communication, I’m sure he could write well on art and technology that MULTI-plexes human interaction, as this video does.

    * Art is often destructive, but I don’t believe that it has to be. In the case of Italian and particularly Roman cathedrals, these monuments to The Church came at the cost of the earlier monuments to SPQR. The Church didn’t build itself from the ruins of Rome, it actively destroyed Rome to produce its materials.

    There’s an island in San Francisco Bay called Red Rock. Hundreds of thousands of tons of its manganese-laden rock was mined as convenient ballast for ships. Years later, the ballast was sold for paint pigment. I wonder what art was painted with it.

    There are two fundamental qualities to digital technology:
    1. It is cheap to fail.
    2. Previous material can be reused without destroying the prior art in any material way.
    Either quality is revolutionary. Both together should be a fantastic boon to art – unless we do something really stupid such as artificially decreeing against reuse.

    * I love money. But it isn’t real. It is only a means of distribution. Really I love distributing things and having access to (sometimes consumable) things. Digital tech can be destructive to the existing channels that supply Jackson and (the heirs of) Tolkien with money, but over time, eventually, I don’t see why it necessarily hast to be destructive to anyone’s ability to produce and distribute great art. Even, as the video shows, art that requires many people to cooperate to a common purpose.

    * In the short term, I bet this video becomes the basis for some commercial by Microsoft or HP or some such. It’s The Way Things Go. (http://wetmachine.com/i…).

    * Much is made of visual connectedness, cooperation, and collaboration. (For commercial purposes rather than art, this is the bulk of what my work on Croquet and Qwaq is about.) But there’s also a lot lately (NPR, Daley Show, House, and the like) about how music is such a uniquely deep, whole-brain activity. Like novels set in an English estate or a Nelsonian warship, I wonder if ‘net-collaborative audio art isn’t a more self-contained yet comprehensive domain in which to work out the ideas of realtime human interactivity at-a-distance. Something like the distance symphony in Rainbows End (http://wetmachine.com/i…). There’s a hint of this at the very beginning of the video, in which we see that the drummer is on the other end of an iChat link from the guitar player. (See also, http://wetmachine.com/i…) Indeed, at Qwaq we’re privileged to have some part-time help from a PARC alum and major Squeaker (http://opencroquet.org/inde…) who’s principal interest (e.g., the license plate on his car) is dedicated to this concept. Check out http://netjam.org/

  4. Dear Friends,

    Another busy day, so no time to respond right now to your interesting comments.

    But I hope to soon.

  5. Jonathan Simonoff

    Hi, John,

    Strange to talk to you outside ennui.

    One thing is that individuals or small groups have been making movies ever since the beginning–this really is nothing new, just another step in the development of techniques available without the resources of a studio.

    The question of whether big movies stay viable is really a question related to the future of newspapers, book publishing, or the entire idea of writing as a paying profession. Music has the same problem, where perhaps only live performance will make you money some day soon.

    Newspapers have been killed by Craig’s List; recorded music as a paying business by digital copying; books might go due to the same thing; magazines by free online content; DVD sales, currently half of movie revenue, also is deeply endangered.

    I suspect that an arms race of a kind will ensue in the film industry and will, at least for a while, save big movies. I’m thinking of the reappearance of 3D movies, which are really a reaction to home theaters. (Actually that is just the latest in a series: wide-screen movies and color came in because of TV, then enhanced sound.) As long as you can raise the costs of making state-of-the-art entertainment so only Hollywood can afford it and the cost of showing the entertainment so only theaters can give the full experience, Hollywood movies will continue to be made.

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