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Grumpy Monday: Free information, bogus Gods, and HuffPo wastes more time.

December 5, 2011

Robert Levine: Delivering hard truths.

I woke up cheerful, but  a few minutes on the Internet took care of that. Stories about a white man’s search for God, how information “wants” to be free, and yet another utterly meaningless piece at HuffPo have soured my mood.

Let me start with Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times review of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, by Robert Levine.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

One of the governing maxims of the digital renaissance (or apocalypse, as I prefer to call it), is: “Information wants to be free.” To which I say there’s a more venerable maxim: “You get what you pay for.”

But Levine, a former editor of Billboard magazine, goes much farther: Tech companies like HuffPo, YouTube, and Google are “parasites,” sucking life out of the newspapers, movie companies and TV producers that actually pay to create our journalism and entertainment.

In other words, when media companies suffer, so do artists. Yeah, yeah, I know, supposedly we’re seeing the “democratization” of the arts and journalism but what’s really happening is more like mob rule. When everyone has a voice, then no one really does.

All creative products — from journalism to symphonies — are hand-made, and thus expensive to produce. Put the movie and TV production companies out of business and all you’ll see on YouTube are amateur videos and propaganda produced by business and government.

Just because you’re self-published doesn’t mean you can’t be pirated. See how much you hate copyright laws when your 99-cent digital novel is being reproduced and sold and you’re not getting any royalties.

This is back-to-the-future stuff. Thirty years ago, when I was a young magazine editor, freelance writers had finally won reasonable rights and protections after a long struggle. The bad old days of “write-for-hire” were vanquished, seemingly never to return. At least, not until the glories of the digital age.

Now almost everything is write-for-hire again, and most writers — if they can find work– labor in a sort of serfdom not seen since the 1950s. Some revolution that is.

Finally, that “information wants to be free” line comes from a 1984 speech by techno wizard Stewart Brand. Seldom does anyone quote the rest of it: “[I]nformation wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.”

I can only hope that Levine’s book, will “change the debate about the future of culture,” as the Times’ Rosen says. If not, then culture will be akin to what grows under the floorboards of a barn.

If outfits like HuffPo are “parasites,” they can also be monumental time wasters. In fairness, I do sometimes find worthwhile journalism and criticism at Arianna’s place. But more often I trip over sleazy, over-hyped stories that amount to nothing.

Consider this piece, aggregated (natch!) from Figment.com and titled “College Prep! Famous Authors Take the SAT!”

Okay, I bit. I did, expecting to be amused by some surprising result — the famous writers flunked! — or at least eating the spinach of some new information — the SAT tests are bogus!

The two writers, Loren McLaughlin and Scott Westerfield (first maybe we should define the word “famous”), were assigned essays that were then graded by a veteran SAT tester. The result: The professional writers produced excellent work that received top grades.

This is news? For this I wasted  several precious moments from the finite number allotted me? Moments I can never get back? Oh, and HuffPo brooks little criticism. I made a brief comment mocking the uselessness of the story and asking where I can apply for a temporal refund. That comment is nowhere to be seen. “Pending comments: Zero.”

You’d think any self-respecting publication would moderate comments for offensive language, racism, and other trollery, while welcoming impassioned criticism. But I suppose Arianna’s skin is too thin for that.

Finally, there’s this ridiculous NPR story about Eric Weiner’s new book Man Seeks God, which details his super-shallow globe-trotting search for genuine spirituality.

Some commentators rightly take Weiner to task as “an over privileged white person on a quest for spirituality Eat, Pray, Love style.” I guess if you’re too poor to visit Kathmandu  and (fail to) learn to meditate under your very own guru, then you’re doomed to a live without transcendence.

That’s actually not what irritates me about Weiner’s search for spirituality (he ends up with something he calls — kid you not — an “IKEA God”). No, it’s really about his search for a topic  to follow up his earlier bestseller, The Geography of Bliss.

Of the writing of bogus books by desperate writers there is no end. And like jellyfish in a sea devoid of sharks and turtles, they are going to multiply like crazy.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2011 1:50 pm

    Where we are certainly MUST (must!) be close to top of the pendulum’s swing Chauncey. At least, I hope it is. It will probably take a market devoid of quality (and independent) journalistic thought to re-establish the finance-backed public desire for such a commodity; while I’m certainly not implying it’s not available to those who know how and where to look for it the apropos general consensus seems to be that Yahoo! News rocks and The WSJ isn’t worth my time or dime (beyond the teaser blurb).

    Remember that it was only until booze wasn’t available did it skyrocket in price (and the parties got crazy!).

    As far as Weiner goes: a lame attempt is still an attempt.

    I once tried to find God through repeated hallucinogenic dosing; and while the meaning of life was revealed to me, I never did get to meet The Dude.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 6, 2011 7:22 pm

    It’s my belief that Weiner was not in any way looking for God, so much as a subject for a book. But I agree that the search is worthwhile. In my experience, the Dude is shy.

    I hope you’re right in your analysis of the future of journalism. I’m not so optimistic, but I’d love to be wrong. Just this once.

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