If You Think We’re Just a Consumer Culture, Think Again

Tim O’Reilly posts about a New York Times article bemoaning the end of amateur draring, with the implication that our culture’s transition from producer to consumer is not necessarily a good one. I agree there is a tragedy to “how much we lose when we simply consume, and forget how to produce,” but I disagree strongly that our culture is headed down a one-way street of consumption.

Concern for that path is about thirty years too late. The domination of broadcast media’s ability to control the public conciousness, in forms such as radio and (especially) television, were clearly taking us in that direction. The existence of the couch potato and the continuning consolodation of mass media outlets (witness Clear Channel) are certainly evidences pointing to such a dystopian future of self-surrender to the memes of others.

But things have changed, and we have already turned around and are headed in the opposite direction from pure consumerism. The change was caused by the neutral, two-way medium for simultaneous consumption and publication that is the Internet and World Wide Web. Content creation has never been easier. Look around at the amazing range of content available on YouTube, Flickr, or (and I shudder to link to it…) MySpace. Every niche is filled, and the depth and range of creativity, frivolity, and utter garbage is almost immeasurable.

Sure, maybe “educated” people don’t draw anymore because they can take photos, but does it really matter? The creation doesn’t stop, it merely uses different tools. A brief look at something like the artsy tag on Flickr should be enough to prove it. Unlike our television-saturated past, now we can share our creativity with others - obtaining feedback and completing the cycle of culture that incents both ourselves and others to further create. Even better, nothing stops the people who draw because they like to from drawing and sharing, using the same tools as everbody else, and further enhancing the culture. Amateurism isn’t dead. It just isn’t limited to pencils and pads anymore. Creating a great film with iMovie still requires talent and vision and passion and time and practice. Only a fool, who is either afraid of or blind to change, would limit the definition of amateur to playing the piano.

It is ironic that Tim - of all people - fails to notice that the cornucopia of culture created and sustained by the web is a direct contradiction to the Times’ article’s author’s point. We are no longer relegated to be mere drooling video sinks. Now we are empowered to submit our own ideas back into the meme-pool, and it is easier than ever. When our parents’ generation has passed, we will wonder at how they could have ever sat and watched M*A*S*H so passively.