Fear of the internet has been around longer than the internet itself. Computers taking over the world, the end of privacy, the dulling of creativity: for decades these have been the visions of impending danger from sci-fi novels to academic treatise.
Fear of the impact that the internet has on culture is not new either. Authors, journalists and musicians still have no idea how to deal with the digital age. Everything is changing and no one seems to know what we can do about it.
Now, two Davids, in their own way, have added to that fear – one imagining what it will lead to, the other explaining what it has already destroyed. Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle, based on a company that amalgamates the best and worst of Facebook, Twitter, PayPal and Google, creates a world where the urge to portray our lives online eventually blots out everything else. There is no time for thinking, for reading, for creativity – only communicating digitally.
David Byrne, less dramatically but no less urgently, describes the damage that Spotify has wrought on the music industry. You can read Byrne’s piece for free because the newspaper that commissioned him – and presumably paid him – doesn’t have a paywall. (I’m aware of the hypocrisy of saying that in an article that is also free – but as you will have noticed, our archive is available only to paying subscribers.)
Books aren’t free yet, though we can be sure that Dave Eggers isn’t paid as much for his novels as he would have been a generation ago. Over the weekend another author, Philip Hensher, rightly complained after being asked to write for a Cambridge University publication for free. Actually, it was worse than that. The professor who tried to commission him publicly berated Hensher as “priggish and ungracious” for refusing to write gratis. The professor, I should point out, made his comments on Facebook.
Byrne’s 1,000-word piece is little more than a series of questions, concluding with a shrug. “I don’t have an answer,” he writes. “I wish I could propose something besides what we’ve heard before.” But just because there isn’t an answer today, doesn’t mean there won’t be one tomorrow.
The final edition of the International Herald Tribune hit newsstands yesterday. An era has ended. Quality journalism doesn’t have to though. Mort Rosenblum, a former editor of the IHT and as old school as they come, summed it up perfectly when I spoke to him on The Briefing yesterday. “It’s not a question of delivery systems. Whether you read in print or online or they’re flashed off your eyelids, it’s not the delivery system – it’s the thing itself. A real newspaper is a real newspaper.”
The same is true of music. And of books. We just need to work out how to pay for it. There has to be a way to make money from creativity. We may not have come up with an answer yet but we will and for a very simple reason: we have to.
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.