25 July 2013

In Any Fair System
They Would Flourish and Thrive

Non Sequitur, 21 Jul 2013

  • Detroit has declared bankruptcy. Pittsburgh has not. Leaving aside a few other foibles (such as the presence/absence of successful sport franchises recognized outside the local area), one fundamental distinction is educational achievement. It is perhaps most obvious in higher eduction — quick, name a nationally known research university that is actually in Detroit... compared to two in Pittsburgh — but should have been more obvious throughout. Both cities developed as "one-industry" towns; both suffered through the effects of post-Second-Thirty-Years'-War Asian development (very much like the entertainment industry is doing now, and there's a lesson in there somewhere); only one of them learned to diversify, to develop flexibility, to not rely upon continued defense-industrial-complex contracts as the foundation for everything. Hint: It's the one that's not in bankruptcy... but has substantially greater educational achievement.
  • Some financiers — I hesitate to call people who think that the only "job" of financial capital in an economic system is accreting more financial capital "economists" — would instead assert that Pittsburgh has avoided Detroit's current fate because, well, union-busting. Leaving aside that the facts don't support that assertion, that doesn't explain the heavily union-dominated audiovisual entertainment segment in Los Angeles, which overall seems to be doing just fine. More to the point, though, one must remember that the "purpose" of a union is to prevent financial capital from being the only acknowledged economic factor in an economic decision or system... even in the arts. Or, perhaps, especially in the arts, because — despite the mass-production-oriented means of distribution in the arts — the actual production of art is still much, much closer to that of Renaissance Italy and early modern Germany in its structure, even for collective works like film that require many supporting "craftspeople" behind every "artist"... and still ends up looking much more like guild dominance than unions.

    My point here is not that guilds are necessarily superior to unions; they're not, and they're at least equally subject to abuse (just ask anyone who watched any TV at all during the six months following the last WGA work-action). My point is that they're fundamentally different because advancement is not on a pure-seniority basis. After all, on a pure-seniority basis, the 1990s Jo Rowling would have been, at best, an apprentice!

    Neither is my point that "craftspeople" are not creative in how they enable "artists" to realize their respective artistic visions. Leaving aside that that's not true — just consider for a moment the creativity involved in not just erasing the wires in post-production, but in making available the systems for erasing the wires in post-production and minimizing the appearance of the wires during shooting to make that erasure possible — this is more a nebulous question of overarching control of the purpose of an artistic project. Even Michael Bay is creative in that sense...

  • Ultimately, perhaps, the problem is the power of the "gatekeeper" metaphor. Ever since the Star Chamber formalized the censorship practices relating to the printing press in the late fifteenth century, publishers have used a "gatekeeper" metaphor to describe how they ensure that only the best stuff gets published. Of course, this has never been entirely accurate, if only because "best" is a rather different concept from the perspective of accreting more financial capital than from the perspective of advancing the useful arts and sciences. That "gatekeeper" meme is slowly starting to crumble, revealing that it should instead have been treated as more of a toll-bridge (troll-bridge?): It is certainly more possible and convenient to use the existing bridge, but one always had the option to go miles up/downstream to another crossing; to attempt to ford the river; to build one's own bloody boat or bridge.

    This is another instance of the means of distribution being the dominant economic bottleneck. A toll bridge doesn't actually produce a damned thing; it enables a farmer living southwest of the Hudson River to more quickly and easily get to the existing farmer's market on the northeast side of the river, and get paid for his/her farming by the nonfarmers. There's no "gate" there that positively disallows that farmer from engaging in agriculture in the first place. And as more farmers find ways to market through better fords, cheaper boats, and other bridges, the trolls at the existing bridges will start looking more and more like Detroit.

  • And if you really need proof that the distribution systems are what matters, consider yesterday's ruling on The Hopper from the Ninth Circuit (PDF) between two distributors. The court ruled that Fox was not entitled to a preliminary injunction on the theory that a system that enables viewers to automatically skip commercials — tolls imposed by the troll, even on those who swim across and paid taxes that support the bloody troll — somehow infringes the copyright in the work(s) being broadcast. Frankly, this is a no-brainer. As the court implied, this is a contract dispute between Fox and Dish that is dragging in copyright claims solely because of the procedural and remedial advantages available in a copyright suit — not because there's an actual copyright right at issue. What that says about the trolls (really, this is just a fight between two trolls who live under different spans of the same bridge), and the ogres they've employed in court (because Armani makes ogre-sized suits, but doesn't do so well for trolls) are in the end just as reprehensible. Then, too, one must remember that this entire suit is at the accretion-of-financial-capital end of the bridge... and the irony that the highest-"rated" prime time program at issue was probably American Idiotol seems to have escaped everyone...