There was a time, kids, back in nineteen tickety two, when people sincerely believed in the internet as the great democratising power of the twenty-first century. I, for one, thought it was the Second Coming of the Gutenberg Revolution. But then I'm one of the most naive and optimistic people I know. Gullible maybe, whatever. Now, in only nineteen tickety three, this promise has gone the way of … well, democracy itself. Just as a concentration of third-estate power has occurred in Thomas Carlyle's esteemed fourth estate, control of the online knowledge market is coagulating in the cloyingly, sickeningly sweet hands of our dear friend Google.
Sure, there are others (alternatives), but only in the same sense there are alternatives to News Ltd and Fairfax in Australia's traditional media industry: they're nominal alternatives, with no real power. Running a successful, independent newspaper in Australia would be much like going into farming against Monsanto in the United States.
The book-industry implications for this trend first dawned on me when I found another puff piece about cultural criticism, this time in the Guardian: "Is the age of the critic over?" Puff piece or not, the precis really got to me:
Critics reflect on how social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and myDigg, fit into the perennial debate on cultural elitism.
How Long Can we Look at Each Other?
It's that phrase 'cultural elitism' that worries me.
I had a bit of a freak out around the time I read this article, when a couple of sinister-looking Web 3.0 technologies burst into my corner of the internet: Google's Priority Inbox, which sorts your email, and a creepy website called voyURL, a site that turns your browser history into a public timeline much like Twitter's (if that gets up it will be in the hands of Google in no time).
With their fancy algorithm, Google will continue scanning all this data and selling it to advertisers, who will feed us back an approximation of our existing taste, further enabling our predilection for confirmation bias and empowering groups with already significant market share to dominate the advertising feed we consume according to that bias. Information will be delivered to us in the same way: Google even enables you to block results from particular URLs.
This is bound to lead to a concentration of market share and power, and the big guys will muscle out the small producers. Just as Monsanto has muscled out all the small farmers. The book-industry implications of these developments in technology scare the bejebus out of me.
If, in their fight with Google for a monopoly, Amazon gain an ascendancy in the production and distribution of literature to the same extent News Ltd has gained control of the world's news media, our literature will go the way of our journalism: as meat goes to domesticated dogs - cheap, nasty and homogenised.
This technology was supposed to free us from niche cultural elitism and monopoly power, not exacerbate them. But as I've written before, we're becoming trapped by this technology and, as Eli Pariser recently reiterated for us, it might be that this technology is actually make us more stupid – less discerning. This tweet I found puts it well: 'Your google search is curated, which isolates you into bubble & narrow world view.'
The book trade is already geared to service the interests of the few bestsellers published by the few big publishers, just as the agricultural industry is geared by Monsanto for Monsanto. Some of the literature produced in these upper echelons of the publishing industry is great (thought-provoking, challenging, progressive, entertaining, beautifully written, artful, delightful), but many big publishers are pedalling tripe (boring, generic, conservative, woefully written, artless, not delightful at all).
Small producers are producing artful literature, which is important for aesthetic reasons I always have trouble articulating, but you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't know those already. The industry importance is clear: these houses are bringing in the new crop – risking it on new talent, developing our future producers. Even this sector is a niche though, with its cliques, elites and cloisters. It's upsetting, then, you might agree, that the first great enabler of democracy since Gutenberg has begun to fuck out within a couple of years of it beginning to come of age.
When it grew up, the internet was going to take the power and responsibility of cultural discernment out of the hands of the few big publishers, and 'the critics' of the Guardian's article, (the cultural gatekeepers) and into the hands of the small press, and good criticism would move online. There was that whole thing about the long tail. But until at least its balls drop, the internet will continue passing that power into yet another set of hands.
Hang on. There I go again: using the present continuous tense, as though the internet were a sentient being, with free will and therefore the ability to do anything. All of these developments are contingent on us, on our will and our actions. The internet will not set us free, because it does not have free will.
These are not new ideas: I just want to reiterate that we (individuals) are responsible for democracy in all its forms, from governance to culture.
The moment we think we're off the hook because some clever bugger has come up with a harebrained doovalacky that cures cultural elitism is the moment we roll over and take it, the moment we accept our governments bombing the shit out of third-world countries in the name of … yep, there's that word again: democracy. The moment we defer responsibility for our literary culture to a machine we're all fucked, because literature helps us to understand how to live well in the world – how to stop fighting and start loving.
Maybe I'm being naive again, but I reckon we can harness our power as consumers to enable the broad dissemination of recommendations, that golden goose of books marketing: word of mouth. Even if Amazon doesn't go Monsanto on our arses, rolling over to Google's 'intuitive' recommendations leaves us at risk of cloistering ourselves into inescapable niches.
We must speak now or forever hold our peace: if you let the elites and the established publishers take over those niches and don't look elsewhere to stock your to-be-read towers, or start making your own literature, you lose the right to bitch about the Miles Franklin.
What Farnsy says is true: you're the voice. I'm going to quote some parts, in case you missed the relevant lyrics:
We have The chance to turn the pages over We can write what we want to write We gotta make ends meet, before we get much older
We're all someone's daughter We're all someone's son How long can we look at each other Down the barrel of a gun?
[Weird guitar sound? Bwow …]
You're the voice, try and understand it Make a noise and make it clear Oh-o-o-o, whoa-o-o-o! We're not gonna sit in silence We're not gonna live with fear Oh-o-o-o, whoa-o-o-o!
This time We know we all can stand together With the power to be powerful Believing, we can make it better
[Weird guitar sound? Bwow …]
[Instrumental: Bag pipes and tin whistle.]
[Weird guitar sound? Bwow …]
[Repeat chorus until end of song.]
So, where's this voice? In your: wallet, search engine, feed reader, pen, mouth, keyboard, etc.
Buy from independent retailers, who are generally more discerning about quality. Research publishers and consider buying directly from them if you like what they're doing. Or order their titles through your indie store if you want to support booksellers. Avoid buying loss-leaders. Buy classics second-hand and contemporary literature new. Buy your friends' novels, at least. Don't torrent books.
Find and read lit blogs covering books that don't get much fun from the corporate media. Sort out the wheat from the chaff. Tell people about great books you've found. Buy new books for Book Crossing. Review literature you like on blogs, or write Amazon reviews if you want to ride that bully. Share this essay. Go direct to the source: produce your own literature; Salt Publishing is soliciting recommendations of writers – nominate someone. Tell them who you want to read. Nominate yourself.
The internet will not do it for you.
Image of Farnsey's Statue by WalkingMelbourne