Cloud Street

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Who took the money?

This is a fascinating post (in Italian) by Pietro Speroni on the relationship between authority, communities and markets. This is an interesting and controversial area; the fact that Pietro also invokes the Long Tail (which, as you'll recall, is not what it seems) makes it all the more compelling (to me at least).

I'll translate as I go along; hopefully Pietro will correct me if I go wrong.
I don't believe that the ruling class has vanished. I believe that it has simply been transformed - just as the world itself is being continually transformed from day to day. Decades ago, our world was simpler - more homogeneous, less diverse. If you followed a martial art, it would be judo or karate. A game? Chess. A religion? Christian, Jewish, perhaps Muslim at the outside.
...
on the Net, via Google (and wikipedia), you can find the specific branch of the specific religious tradition which best meets your needs. ... And this is not true only of religions, but of everything: interests, political groups, passions, games, ways of life.
...
Now, every one of these groups has its own implicit hierarchy. ... And everyone is a member of more than one group. And in every group you listen to some people, and what you say influences other people.
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[In every area of my life] I have leaders: people I trust; people who I admire and learn from. But they're not the same people as your leaders. Not only that, but there are other people who come to me to learn (worse luck for them!), in some fields more than in others. The process of diversification tends towards having as many groups as people - and every one of us, of necessity, becomes the small-scale leader of a small-scale group, scattered around the world.
...
This whole process mirrors what's happening in the economy, where a market consisting of niches is growing explosively ... The key phrase is Long Tail.
...
So I don't believe that the ruling class is vanishing, but that we're seeing a gradual diversification of interests, which leads to the diversification of the ruling class - accompanied by the redefinition and contraction [ridimensionamento] of the role of traditional leaders.
There's a lot that I like about this - I think Pietro's right to say that there's a new kind of process of diversification under way, and to trace it back to the Internet's basic sociality, its nature as a medium for conversation.

But... a transformation of the ruling class? Non tanto. Pietro's larger argument is undermined by a couple of strange elisions. Firstly, it's true that we all have multiple 'authorities' - the topics of folk music, statistics, Belgian beer and operaismo are all important to me, for instance, and in each case I could name an authority I'd willingly defer to. But those people aren't the people who enforce the laws I obey, or set the level of tax I pay, or price the goods I buy, or write the newspapers I read, or appear on the news programmes I watch. The ruling class, it seems to me, is still very much in place, and whether I'm a tequila-crazed Quaker or a tea-drinking Tantric Buddhist is a matter of sublime indifference to it. Roy Bhaskar has written that historical materialists, by virtue of starting from the material facts of social existence, cannot propose absolute freedom, "a realm free of determination"; what we can envisage is moving "from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination". The world Pietro describes is a world which is governed only by those needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination. It sounds good, but I don't think we're there yet.

Secondly, on the matter of niche marketing. Pietro assumes that a proliferation of niche markets will lead to a proliferation of niche suppliers, and hence the dilution of the authority of the big suppliers. I don't see any reason to believe that this is the case. Indeed, one of Chris Anderson's own preferred examples is based on Amazon sales rank - and there's nothing very diffuse about Amazon, or the authority wielded by Amazon. Much of the buzz around the 'Long Tail' seems to derive, ultimately, from this confusion of the two meanings of 'niche'. Clearly, mining niche markets can be profitable, if you're a monopolistic behemoth like Amazon; but, equally clearly, it doesn't follow that niche suppliers can make a living in the same way. Indeed, making niches visible to companies like Amazon actually threatens existing niche suppliers. (Ask your local bookshop, if you've still got one.)

Of course, Long Tail proponents tell a different story. Back in July, Scott Kirsner quoted George Gilder thus:
His central thesis is that Internet-connected screens in the home – whether it’s the PC in your den or the plasma screen on your living room wall – are going to change the way we consume video by offering us infinite choice.
...
“The film business will increasingly resemble the book business,” he says, with a few best-sellers that achieve widespread popularity, and lots of publishers making a profit selling titles that no one’s ever heard of.
Lots of who doing what? Run that past us again, could you? While you're at it, send the good news to the novelist A.L. Kennedy, whose wonderful FAQ includes this:
SO, WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF PUBLISHING?

Fewer publishing houses concentrated in conglomerate hands, trying to produce more books of less quality. No full time readers, no full time copy editors and therefore missed newcomers and pisspoor final presentation of texts on the shelves, silly covers, greedy and simple-minded bookshop chains, lunatic bidding wars designed to crush the spirit of unknown newcomers, celebrity “tighten your buns and nurture your inner pot plant” hard backs and much related insanity.
Mass markets are where the units get shifted; niche markets - like literary fiction - are where survivors linger on (until they're bought out) and upstart competitors emerge (and hang on until they're bought out). It's the logic of the monopoly, which is to say that it's the logic of the market. Some years ago a McDonald's spokesman, asked if the fast food market had reached saturation point, responded that, as far as his company was concerned, the market would only be saturated if there were no cooked food outlets anywhere on the planet apart from McDonald's. I don't think Amazon, or the publishing conglomerates, or the media companies who would source Gilder's 'infinite choice', think any differently.

But Pietro's half right: there is something interesting going on, even if it doesn't mirror what's going on in the economy; there is a process of diffusion and diversification, even if it doesn't affect the main sources of authority over our lives. In fact, what's significant about the Net is that it can host conversations which escape the marketplace and evade pre-existing ('unneeded and unwanted') forms of authority. That said, it can also reproduce the marketplace and reinvent old forms of authority - just like other conversational media.

In short, what's good about the Web is - or can be - very good; what's bad about is - or should be - very familiar.

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