The last book report I wrote was my junior year of high school. I can’t really remember the particulars of structure or best practice for book reviews as well as I remember cutting class early to go Foster’s Freeze for a Chocolate-PeanutButter-Marshmallow Milkshake before swim practice. In a book report I would have been marked down for my unnecessary capitalization of Chocolate-PeanutButter-Marshmallow Milkshake, as well as my lack of spacing in PeanutButter, but it is necessary. Maybe not grammatically correct, but necessary. As was the milkshake.
One of the other things I remember about book reports was the art of stalling. The stall and the drag. You stall at the beginning to dramatically increase the length of your report, over-contextualizing your book to the point of it existing somewhere in the center of a fathomless and indescribable universe that is the orbital home to not only the book in review, but bizarre and deep mysteries of infinite reality. The drag is your postlude, your grandiose rambling that careens off the road of logical conclusion down the ravine of overly introspective filibustering.
So now we are at the meat of the matter. The book itself, and this time around the book in question is The Long Tail, by Wired Magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. Let’s reflect for just one moment though on what has already been accomplished with this review; 1) I have managed to add an entire two paragraphs on the front end of what would otherwise be a little shy of a post-worthy blog entry, and 2) I have cleverly tied in a book on economics to the Humanities theme of Food for Thought. Bravo, I say. I will do this again, later, in this very same book review.
Now I need to tie this book into the humanities. The Long Tail examines the notion that the nature of economy is shifting from one that deals with scarcity, to one that deals with abundance. It uses the examples of businesses such as Amazon, Netflix and Ebay as models for dealing with the ever growing “long tail” of tastes and wants. This long tail of business is a reflection and commoditization of our splintering niche interests. As a result we are no longer buying and selling more of less things, but less of more things. Of course the reality that for most goods scarcity is still an issue. This is clearly illustrated by last month being Hunger Awareness Month (note not only tie-in to Food for Thought but last month’s blog theme). But in our American market, especially in the area of entertainment, the long tail is indeed, a very long tail.
As Anderson points out, we are becoming less and less a “hit” driven market and audience. The hits sell less and less, and the market is made up of more and more “non-hits.” This can be seen in DVD rentals, Billboard Music Charts, and Amazon books sales. The non-hits are not only viable, but valuable and sought after. Anderson explores the implications of this long tail model as it plays out in other areas beyond the entertainment industry. He looks at the role amateur astronomers play in the long tail collection of data that helps professional astronomers observe and process a broader field of data. He also looks at Wikipedia and while admitting to its decreased accuracy, when compared statistically to any printed encyclopedia set it is probabilistically far more resourceful and accurate. In fact exponentially more resourceful.
What is making this new model possible is ever increasing efficiency in the delivery of both digital and physical goods and information via the internet. As shelf space is not an issue, inventory can begin to take on radically expanded possibilities. This “infinite” jukebox, this endless selection, this power of ten cornucopia is like an mixed-metaphor artesian well.
What interests me and is a concern to those in cultural collecting or promoting institutions is how do we respond when the shared dialog at the water cooler is no longer limited to short list of what was on the television the night before. Anderson discusses this briefly, but I would like to explore this a little deeper. As the paradigm shifts it will be impossible to assume your co-worker watched the same sitcom, read the same newspaper, enjoys the same hobbies. With infinite streaming on-demand choices our interests are amplified by the suggestion programming of Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon etc. Maybe your co-worker’s last read was a print on-demand micropress book on Andean butterfly behavior. Your only connection to butterflies are the bandages they put on the noses of the ultimate fighters you obsess over.
So what is left to talk about? Will the long tail of choice drive people further and further into their niches and cliques, into taste and cultural tribes? This can be a problem for someone who is trying to document cultural history. It can be a problem in trying to create programmatic themes that relate to these infinite varieties of special interests. The role of the filter, as Anderson points out, is crucial in this economy. The filters limit the information and help users and consumers to navigate the flood of products and information. But this new role of filter does fit as well with traditional cultural and humanities organizations.
Good news friends. Humans are still humans. They share the same body parts, the same powerlessness to gravity without the aid of a lot of fuel and aerodynamic planning. They need shelter, water and some form of visual stimuli. The role of our organizations need to focus on what these fractured taste sub-cultures share in common. The ability to effectively do this will create new conversations for the water cooler. Ones that invite the sharing and respecting of diverse taste cultures while providing the tools and language to unify individuals through the celebration of what makes us human. We love, we eat, we sleep, we dream, we fight, we forgive. And most every human being, if eating (or drinking depending on thickness) a Chocolate-PeanutButter-Milkshake too fast, gets a brain freeze.
This What-are-you-reading-Wednesday post was written by Michael Kaufmann, the Council’s programming director.