01 August 2011

Santayana Was an Optimist

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird's chirp.

George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905/1922; 2005 Gutenberg edition) (emphasis added; unconsciously sexist language retained from original).

  • Once again, the Hollywood Reporter is about half a decade late... this time in remarking on a decade-long purported gap between the experiences of the music industry and the experiences of the film industry. In reality, the gap is in this instance — and, historically, has almost always been close to — half a dozen years rather than a decade. This time, HR declares that

    The move [toward packaging online digital copies along with physical disks], say studio insiders, is the most serious effort yet to wean consumers away from the DVD, which has dominated home entertainment for nearly 15 years. "The evolution from a physical disc-based business to a digitally based business is inevitable," says [Disney distribution executive] Chapek. "I think the only debate is the period of time over which that will happen."

    thereby demonstrating that it wasn't paying attention in 2006 through 2009, or even in 2005 when the issue became statistically significant and therefore apparent to those of us who actually look at data instead of just reprinting press releases, or that the problem in music began showing up in 1999, not 2002 as HR implicitly claims. At least this story doesn't completely ignore consumer perceptions of "format wars" as a significant barrier. BTW, I know someone with a working LaserDisc player who still swears by it...

    Slate provides a slightly more balanced view that still misses the point — and particularly the point as it relates to e-books, which continue to have a format war and continue to fight DRM issues strangely reminiscent of computer software in 1983: That consumers want content, not packaging, and will make choices based upon their perceptions of the permanence of the content; and that they ultimately will not respect inconveniences based solely upon protecting a vendor's revenue stream from pirates.

  • The less said about yesterday afternoon's fun following the news from Foggy Bottom, the better. Perhaps the eminent philosopher Paul Simon (no, the one without the bow tie) provided the best aphoristic take:

    Sittin' on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon
    Gonna hear the candidates debate
    Laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose
    Every way you look at it, you lose

    That this song was written for a film about seduction by an alcoholic is all too appropriate after the various declarations of doom, "victory," and exhaustion over the budget "deal" that will be respun (and reneged upon) at 331/3 RPM — or, given the headnote and the faster pace of today's media, perhaps at 78 RPM — especially since this is the fifteenth time the debt limit has been debated and raised in the last sixty years. It is not a coincidence that averages out to once each presidential cycle... which brings us back to the specific debates in question in that 1967 film.

  • Speaking of tax "deals": It's hard to escape Sauron's destruction of news-media values these days. The problem I with that particular screed have is that most Americans only began bitching about Sauron's malignant influence on all media during this century, or at earliest in the late 1990s. I had the dubious privilege of watching him destroy English media in the 1980s, as he tightened his grip on The Times, destroyed its independence and willingness to call "bullshit" on hypocrisy, and forced the mainstream media in England to fairly closely align with political parties... which then proceded to change right out from under the various mainstream media outlets. All one needed do is follow the Poll Tax riots of 1990 in more than one outlet after a little personal observation; all of them got it wrong, with Mark Knopfler's take (actually listen to the linked video) closer to reality than any of them. It is more than a little bit disturbing to me that the Grauniad (which, to undiscerning Americans — and particularly those who believe that civilization stops less than 100km from their doors — is "very liberal") seems to be the only English media outlet constantly calling out other media for abusing the public... and that faux-news programs on Comedy Central seem to be the only American media outlets doing so over here. I may be a liberal myself, but I know enough history to be very concerned when only one viewpoint is willing/able to call bullshit over nonideological failings.
  • First it was commodity businesses moving offshore, making noises about "shareholder value" while really thinking about "tax advantages" and "lax white-collar-crime enforcement." Then defense contractors. Now it's IP licensing. And nobody is pointing out the historical parallels... or pitfalls.

Application of the head quotation to the link sausages above is left as an exercise for the student. It's sure as hell not going to be applied by either our media or our political "leadership"!