The New Media Frontier
- Thursday, October 23, 2008
These are trivial (and even somewhat frightening!) examples, but the same power will allow the creation of new drama, music, and art forms that cannot even be imagined today. Most of it will be of poor quality (of course, most of the old media was of poor quality too), but nearly universal opportunity to produce will lead to greater chances for greatness.
This much we know. The old media produced My Mother the Car and gave a variety show to Sonny and Cher. Broader access seems unlikely to do much worse in entertainment.
For the serious-minded the new media revolution is a paradise. Cut from the need to produce a mass audience, it is now possible to “publish” as much as one wants on Shakespeare or even Sheldon Vanauken. My piano-playing fifteen-year-old daughter downloads reams of sheet music every week that would have been unavailable to her before the new media revolution. The sounds coming from her analog piano are made richer by the digital revolution.
The ability to “transform” new media content has come with a radical lowering of costs in producing high-quality materials compared to the past.
When I went to high school, the school sent home dittos made on ancient mimeograph machines. These dittos were painstakingly produced by secretaries creating stencils on manual or primitive electric typewriters. The stencils were placed on drums of ink that whirled out copies that were often smudged and hard to read. But since the stencils were hard to make and the job was a daily one, a certain amount of errors were tolerated. This is no longer the case. The reports from my children’s school are stunningly professional compared to the old dittos.
New media are radically democratic, at least for now.
The Long Tension between Live and Preserved Performances
The new media are very important to Western culture because they promise to correct an imbalance between “live” and “preserved” performance. Early in human history almost all performance was live. A performance is live if you experience it while it is being produced, and in ancient times that was the way most people experienced music, storytelling, and education. If you wanted to hear music, you needed a musician. If you wanted to hear a good lecture on a topic, then you needed an expert present to give it.
The “old media” revolution changed this situation. With the rise of writing, painting, and other means of storing “performance” for later consumption, people were able (in some manner) to experience performances without being at the original performance. You did not need a rhapsode to recite the Iliad once Homer’s work was written down in order to hear the poem. If you could read, then Homer could travel with you everywhere, as one copy of The Iliad did with Alexander the Great.
I love theater, and I love film. One art form is live, and the second is (mostly) preserved. Of course, theater might use some “preserved performance” (if it uses pre-recorded sound effects), and film has a live audience interacting with what is happening on the screen. Still, it is safe to say that theater is mostly live and film is mostly preserved performance.
But the example of theater and film also demonstrates the obvious truth that for some time in the West live performance has been declining relative to preserved performance. The situation from ancient times is reversed. Most of us hear almost all our music in a preserved form while hearing very little live. Many of us get most of our information from books and programs that preserve the information distribution of others.
There are advantages to both live and preserved performances. If this is so, then a loss of either would be harmful to society. It is my contention that the new media will correct the favoring of the preserved performance at the expense of the live. Old media was about preservation. The new media favor something very much like incarnation.
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