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.
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. . .