The War for Control of the Story
Over the last few months, I've been working on the release strategy for 2012 Time for Change, our documentary, with director Joao Amorim, producer Giancarlo Canavesio and the staff at Mangusta Films. This has been a great learning process for us, and it is still underway. The transformation of media that began with the launch of 'Web2.0' a number of years ago has continued, and is accelerating. At the same time, the old mechanisms for distributing and marketing independent films have broken down. The model of a new independent film debuting at a festival like Sundance or Toronto, then getting a decent deal with a distribution company that takes the film off the filmmakers' hands and brings them success and some financial reward has become a distant fantasy. Nowadays, very few films get such deals, and even when they do, the movies rarely pay back their investors, reward the creators, or make much of an impact in the mainstream.
In the new model that is still emerging, the creative energy of the filmmakers no longer ends with the completion of the film, but continues to be drawn upon for the entire life cycle of the project. The distribution and marketing of the film become a direct extension of the process of making it, and the creativity extends to every aspect of promoting, marketing, packaging, distributing, and showing it. On one side, this means that the artist can no longer be naive about business, or distanced from it, and hope to survive.
While artists have to become business savvy, on the other side, the business people have to become more like artists, sorting through all sorts of radical possibilities that didn't even exist a few years ago. In the film world and other cultural areas, business is becoming more like art, and art is becoming more inseparable from business. Art purists may feel this is a bad thing; although it is a bit exhausting for the creative person who might like to retreat to his studio, I like these new developments and find them promising as well as exciting.
We are in a new kind of Renaissance - a creative entrepreneurial gold rush. These days, at least half of the musicians and directors I meet seem to be developing "technology plays," new software systems and mechanisms for creating revenue and making their projects stand out in a blizzard of seemingly infinite options. The entire situation is maddening in it's intricate convoluted complexity, but also fascinating. In the breakdown of the old models, media has become incredibly liquid, like mercury that runs everywhere and can coagulate into any form, at least momentarily, before it flows away again.
The model of a discrete 90 minute film as the ultimate goal is beginning to give way as well. While theatrical release remains a happy outcome, many films, especially documentaries, may soon become more amorphous "projects," where the outtakes, extras, YouTube clips, video blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook fan pages, etcetera, plus whatever comes next to replace these evanescent things, are integrated from the outset as elements of the creative vision of the whole. In the new model of independent self-distribution, films are conceived of as campaigns similar to political campaigns that need to mobilize the support of their audience even before they are finished, if possible.
With music, Peter Gabriel was one of the first to recognize that a likely - and potentially very cool - shift of emphasis could be from focus on product, that perfectly finished single or album, to a focus on process, on the continual development of a group or artist. He foresaw a model where audiences would pay to subscribe to follow a favorite artist's progress toward a finished work, noting that the completed product was often only one version of many interesting improvisations. Gabriel foresaw that the changes in media would ultimately give more control and power to the artists, and although we are still in a transition phase where this often gets obscured, I believe that he is correct. How this will ultimately play out is still unknown, but it is entirely evident that not only information, but art, yearns to be free.
We see the new landscape, in which the creative innovator can now reach directly to a huge audience without need of a corporate intermediary, in those Youtube phenomena where an unknown puts out a series of comedy sketches or conspiracy theory videos and suddenly attracts an audience in the tens of millions, or more. Not just videos but new forms of social media and interactive technologies can rapidly explode. One recent example is Chat Roulette, created by a Russian teenager, now attracting over 30 million users a month. While much of what goes viral in this way is the usual vacuous trash, this cultural opening has also allowed for phenomena like the Zeitgeist Movement, where an effort is being made to transform cultural reach into a new type of social and political force, supporting the vision of a "resource based economy" developed by the Venus Project.
The Internet is a battleground right now, on so many levels. It is ground zero in the global consciousness war, between those entrenched forces that want to control consciousness and manage perception, to maintain their power and market share, and those other constituencies who represent a range of outsider perspectives, from far right to anarchist, spiritually enlightened to blindly enraged. Money is becoming increasingly virtual, vaporous, and abstract. Attention has become the new currency, as those companies able to focus the attention of the masses take the lead in a new intangible realm, redefining the boundaries of identity (what is private and what is public now? What is personal expression and what promotion?), transmuting culture and society at the core, and reaping extraordinary rewards in the process.
Shaped by the struggles of the revolutionary period, the founding fathers made "freedom of the press" and freedom of speech into key principles of the emergent American republic. Corporate dominance - and collusion between the defense complex and the media conglomerates - has eroded these freedoms in many subtle and overt ways. Today, Net neutrality is an issue that needs active support from an engaged citizenry, as the plausible prospect that the telecoms will be given more power to determine what content is available is a truly horrible one. The notion of protecting the "global commons" could become a rallying cry for civil society.
Although many of the major players avoid acknowledging this, the shaping of attention is an inherently political act. While I use Facebook all the time - to take one obvious example - because that's where the people (400 million of them) are now, I find it extraordinarily frustrating as a tool. Originally designed to fit the short attention spans of college kids, Facebook maintains the feckless ambience of television. It encourages a passively ironic attitude, for the benefit of the "flattered self" that expects all of the attention pointed in its direction, like a baby who knows it's mother can't help but coo over its every move. The architecture of Facebook does not allow for deeper discourse, collaboration or critique. Eventually, I believe it will be superseded by a network that encourages critical and analytical thought, that is carefully designed to support a rapid increase in collective intelligence and the evolution of civil society.
While all sorts of news items float aimlessly through it, Facebook has the overall effect of constricting communication to short, narrow, and superficial exchanges. It is a medium made for a culture of self obsession and distraction, where there is no accountability for ideas that trail away into the ether like comic strip thought balloons. Worst of all, Facebook takes a proprietary control over the data of its users, acting like a vast Panopticon. At the same time, the astonishing spread of Facebook reveals the awesome power inherent in this still-so-new, simultaneously silly and profound, communication medium.
The idea that has not yet surfaced in the mass consciousness is that a social network, or a group or ecology of them, could be designed to bring about a conscious evolution of society, a rapid reorganization of humanity's productive activities. In the next decade, increasingly severe environmental changes and depletion of resources will radically transform human civilization. Many countries may regress into despotism as frightened mobs fight to hold onto their comforts and privileges against increasingly dispossessed masses. We will either degenerate into barbarism or evolve into a radically unfamiliar post-capitalist and post-socialist state, where sharing, collaboration, and empathy become the norm.
We have a viable opportunity to make a nonviolent transition from a hierarchic to a "holarchic" form of social organization, from a social order that is vertically controlled by a manipulative elite to a horizontally distributed orchestration of power and resources for a new planetary culture. This shift will require not only a new set of cultural and societal practices, but the telling, retelling, and eventual imprinting of a new story. In this process, our fundamental concepts of "the good" and "the beautiful," our basic understanding of the nature of human freedom and the value of life, will be deconstructed and remade.
We can consider the global financial system, which lives in the same virtual and intangible space as other digital media, as a particular type of social network, an immaterial sheathe of connectivity, that uses an abstract metric to tabulate exchanges of goods and quantify other forms of human energy. The inherent problems built into this system - entirely controlled by private banking interests who issue money into circulation as debt, creating artificial scarcity and fostering cut-throat competition that leads automatically to tragic negligence and dire misuse of resources - are becoming increasingly self-evident. Because financiers devised and run the global markets and central banks, the work of a banker, derivatives trader, or currency speculator is valued at an exponentially, one can safely say obscenely, greater level than that of a kindergarten teacher, carpenter, or midwife. Labor that contributes nothing to the real economy, human freedom, or human knowledge and involves speculative movements of nonexistent capital is most prized, and almost all forms of honest and meaningful work are devalued by this system.
Propping up this deception, an entire mass media complex has developed to manage cultural perception and make people believe the current situation is somehow natural and good, and to keep the masses from developing the analytical tools to question it, and work together to create the alternative. As thinkers like Marx and Marcuse have noted, there remains a difference between false and true consciousness, whether or not individuals are aware of it. Recently, I spoke to a guard who works in the lobby of in an office building that contains a popular yoga studio. I had noticed the guard many times, as he sat still, staring straight ahead, without any reading material or distractions of any sort. I asked him what he used his time to think about. "I'm thinking about all the things I'm going to do when I become rich," he replied.
His answer startled me. I tend to forget that so many people in our society still believe, with a startlingly naive faith, in the Horatio Alger myth and have even extended this idea: it is no longer the case that people imagine they can become wealthy from hard work and ingenuity. It is more the case that they believe wealth to be their natural right, and expect it to happen to them in the same inevitable way that the sun rises each morning.
This is one reason that the developing situation is so extremely threatening and dangerous to the powers that be: through rigorous indoctrination via the media, they have set up unreal expectations in the populace, who may become irate when it finally dawns upon them that these expectations will never be met. Instead, in reality, the little that they have is being inexorably stripped from them. The recent riots in Greece and France, and the volatile student protests in California, reveal the potential for civil unrest on a scale that will, I suspect, ultimately dwarf what we saw in the 60s.
The proposition that only one form of economy, one type of money, is inevitable and innate to our human nature is a story that our culture tells us and constantly repeats and reiterates to compel our belief in it. In many arenas, a fierce battle is taking place for control of the story. A war is being waged to determine what type of cultural conversations are encouraged and what ideas get systematically suppressed, ridiculed, and rejected. Most people are unwitting participants - I am tempted to say victims - in this struggle.
Because this battle for control of the stories our culture tells about itself - the myths and beliefs that give form and structure to consensus reality - is so crucial and so intense right now, the new mechanisms for distributing, marketing, and promoting new art, challenging information, and radical content are extraordinarily important, not only because they define the culture in which we live, but for our near-term survival as a species. It is not likely that our environment can continue to withstand our primitive technological assault upon it, and our negligence of the basic support systems that give us life.
Part of the new myth that our culture needs to tell about itself, as many thinkers have proposed, is the story of how we became deluded into believing we were separate from the earth, rather than a part of her, and how this led to imbalance and discontent. Another, more controversial element of our new emergent myth, I believe, is the realization that the psychic and physical aspects of our being are not cut off from each other, but inseparable and inextricably meshed.
I began this essay by discussing media distribution, how the extraordinary mobility of creative content today poses challenges that are also amazing opportunities for new ideas to spread rapidly. The potential is for a real alternative, a substantively different paradigm, to emerge rapidly, as the old myths and accompanying belief structure become increasingly untenable. Right now, we have an opportunity to change the underlying story and operating system that runs global society, that determines its priorities and practices. I propose that there is a relatively short window in which we can bring about this change, for a number of reasons. Most intensely, because we are approaching a threshold of civilizational chaos, leading to authoritarian control and ecological collapse, or a reinvention of our world. Also because the controlling forces are seeking to trap the liberatory potential of the Internet in new static forms. This is what 'Facebook Connect' suggests to me, among other ways that the Internet is being homogenized.
"Freemarket" advocate Milton Friedman noted that when there is a major crisis, the ideas that get put into practice are the ones that happen to be "lying around." When the Soviet Union collapsed, neoliberal economists rushed into the void, and managed to institute a "gangsta" capitalism, with public resources sold off to the highest bidder or briber. If we are going to soon see the collapse of our debt-based financial system, it would make sense to plan for this in advance. Can we develop a different foundation, perhaps even a fully functioning prototype, that shows how society can be reorganized to mesh within the limits of the biosphere, while supporting the flourishing of our individual and collective gifts?
If we can create compelling art and media to express this different vision, we now have and are continuing to develop the distribution mechanisms to make a transformative and systemic approach to reinventing society 'pop' to the global level of awareness.
Image:"black square sun..." by quapan on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing.