Daniel Ford: We can buy books with one click. We can binge-watch our favorite television shows. The New York Times, and other leading news organizations and media companies, offer journalism in virtual reality and sleek mobile applications.
When do we hit the tipping point? When do we become so saturated everything plateaus and we feel like we're not seeing anything original or binge-worthy? Or does more content mean more writers are employed and making money, and we think the more the better?
Caffeinate and discuss.
Gary Almeter: About a decade ago, windmills were on the cusp of coming to my hometown in upstate New York. The townspeople were in an uproar. There was fear that the windmills would make children go cross-eyed and freshly laundered clothes would no longer dry on the clothesline. My grandpa, who revered the scenery and sanctity of the place he had grown up, was nonchalant to the point of being apathetic about the windmills. When asked about what I considered to be a disconnect, he said that these things happen, and noted that decades prior people had been in an uproar when electricity poles were put up. The same thing happened with telephone poles, water towers, and more sophisticated silos and grain containers.
We've been hearing a lot of this sort of thing this year in regard to the tectonic political shifts and imminent demise of the Republican Party. In some respects this is cataclysmic. In other respects, this sort of evolution has been happening consistently since 1776. We used to have Whigs and Federalists before we had Republicans and Democrats. White southerners used to be Democrats, and then Nixon and William Bennett began a family values crusade and, yada yada yada, Trump.
Same thing with books and media in general. The printing press changed everything. As did television. As did Netflix. As did Amazon. But there will always be something original, noteworthy, and spectacular. The methods by which people write and submit and transmit work will change, as will what we crave and find valuable. But there will always be something we crave.
Sean Tuohy: There are more outlets now then there were before. You can write for TV or movies, both for a streaming service or a network. You can publish a book online or through a publisher. We have access to content 24/7, and we need writers more than ever to come up with fresh ideas.
The downside to this is that we are going to get a lot more crap than before. Half-thought out ideas that were rushed because the content was needed. People who think they can write will hit the scene hard and crash and burn even harder.
But like Gary said, "There will always be something original, noteworthy, and spectacular." With change there is always going to be something noteworthy on the scene. You gotta put up with some junk before you get something really good. In the end, all this content is totally worth it.
Daniel: There is a wide variety now too. Before, the masses were stuck with whatever slop the networks decided to put on the airwaves. Now I don't have to waste time with "The Killing" (still awful), "Love" (I really tried, but blah), and "The Cobbler" (I'm just kidding, no one wasted time with that movie, right?). I can watch a show like "Frankie and Grace" and be perfectly content to ignore everything else.
The same works with fiction. I don't have to diligently read everything on the best-seller list to feel like I know what's going on in the publishing world. I would have missed authors like David Joy, Tania James, Dimitry Elias Léger, Brian Panowich, Kirstin Valdez Quade, and myriad others we've featured on our humble website. My reading experience has been enhanced by embracing the variety, not bemoaning it.
And Sean, you make a good point, there is a lot more crap out there (some of which sells quite well). We've read quite a lot of it (as evidenced by our recent Friday Morning Coffee). Weeding through it can be bothersome, but I'd rather have more writers experimenting right now than a stagnant publishing world afraid of taking chances.
Lisa Carroll: With the deluge of content and the range of quality, it's much harder to find the good stuff. It's like going to Goodwill, you have to sort through lots of crap before you find the Dolce & Gabbana. As a library media specialist, it's hard to teach kids how to be discerning users of the Internet. "Don't believe everything you read" has become even more important in the world where anyone can publish anything on the Internet. A Google search brings up fewer and fewer credible, relevant sources so getting to information that we can use is more and more difficult.
Matt DiVenere: Couldn't agree more. I'm currently trying to teach a team of bloggers the difference between a Pinterest DIY "article" and a credible source. These writers aren't too much younger than I am but yet would rather use BuzzFeed as a source than take two extra minutes to look for something credible. It's maddening.
Just because you're sitting in front of a keyboard doesn't give you the right to violate the written word. We won't learn this until the crap outweighs the content. And we're very close to that moment.
Dave Pezza: It’s possible that I am, astoundingly, the only one who doesn’t think a whole lot has changed over the last couple of decades. Sure the specifics are different, and in some cases only slightly. We watch TV over a different invisible signal. It’s broadcast through walls, bodies, lives, TV waves, Internet, and radio streaming services. Even the news hasn’t much changed. Daniel talked about The New York Times going digital. I bet when daily editions and extra editions first moved its way into the journalism, people were complaining about how it might saturate the business. Even our quality of journalism is just about the same. I know Daniel will bemoan that point, but the heyday of printed news ran boldface lies regularly. That is how they made their money and still do. Real change is hard, really hard. Ask the suffragettes or the civil rights advocates in the 1960s…or 1980s…or in 2016. But consumerism and capitalism would have us believe that true change is happening all the time, and if you are not up to date with it, you might be left behind.
As far as our medium is concerned, I think it is more of the same too. Rarely does a self-published or independent work get much acclaim. And hasn’t that always been the case? The argument now is that publishing digitally is so easy that every Tom, Dick, and Hairball can put out their worthless dross. But before digital, way before, there was small, independent publishers all over this fine country who would publish your shitty novella. The Internet might be a well of information, and Ms. Carroll might argue that so much information is dangerous if not culled and organized correctly. But again, that’s really how it always has been. There isn’t more information or more opinions. The Internet did not create more content from the past nor, I believe, did it create a significant amount of information or opinion that would not have existed without it. Horror vacui. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something else would have filled that space.
I think the literary or journalistic or visual media struggle for living in our contemporary time (I like to use “contemporary” instead of “modern” because I think it stinks less of pretentiousness) is finding what truly speaks to us in a way that informs or affects our internal and/or external lives. If that means holding back your man tears at the series finale of “Justified” while you’re watching it on Netflix, Blu-ray, or TV, then so be it. Your cathartic release is still genuine. Same goes for e-books vs. paperback, vinyl vs. digital, and so on and so forth.
What we need to watch out for, in my humble opinion, is ease of use. I’m a huge Jack White fan, and a quote of his from the 2008 documentary “It Might Get Loud” has always stuck with me. When asked about technology and digital and how that has affected music in general, Jack responded, “Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Auto-tuning doesn’t do anything for creativity. Yeah, it makes it easier, and you can get home sooner. But it doesn’t make you a more creative person. That’s the disease we have to fight in any creative filed: ease of use.”
Maybe that’s something we should be talking about instead. It could just be Jack’s and my Catholic upbringing that has made pain and suffering ideals instead of obstacles, but there is something to be said about the intrinsic value in something that was hard to do, that took work. Your wooden coffee table that you bought from Target or Restoration Hardware might hold some value to you. Might it not hold even more value to you had you bought it from the corner carpenter who you watch cut every leg, the shavings from the wood visible on the shop floor? Wouldn’t that be more impressive, more important than the table cut to specs by a machine halfway around the world? What about a novel you worked on for years, pitched for years, and now finally Farrar, Straus and Giroux is biting on it? When you go to the bookstore and hold a hardcover copy of that work in your hands, wouldn’t that feel better than watching the ticker go up on a website counter or seeing another sale of $1.99 from an e-book purchase?
So no, I don’t think we are moving to oversaturation. No, I don’t think there is a tipping point. I think we are just about the same. The real, important, and difficult things in this world are still about as good as it’ll damn get.