Tradition and Innovation, Part 5

This series of posts has dragged on far longer than I thought it would, and I’m in danger of drifting from the point I originally wanted to build upon, a point I haven’t yet stated clearly. I think it will be helpful to pause here and pound a stake in the ground.

Here is my three-part observation about social and technological innovation (which comes from Neil Postman):

  • Innovations are not additive, but transformational. Any innovation does not simply bring something new to the table, it changes the game. Some old options are closed off, and other options are opened up.

  • As activities adjust to the changes, further changes occur, resulting in further adjustments, and so on.

  • Because of the cascade of changes, the innovation is not reversible; undoing the original innovation will not undo the changes it caused but will instead lead to further changes, resulting in a new situation that may or may not resemble the original one.

This observation is far too abstract to ring true on its own, so I thought it would be helpful to put some flesh on it by looking at how it plays out in real life. I’ve chosen to focus here on music and writing, but there are abundant examples out there.

One is playing out right now among the Amish in northern Indiana. The community shifted its reliance from farming to manufacturing, which increased their dependence on cash income and led to many adjustments to traditional ways. Now that the jobs are gone the community finds itself ensnared by the new circumstances and unable to recover the earlier situation simply by shifting back to farming.

Which is not to say that the community could not simply shift back to farming. It may be the best of the available options. But it needs to be judged against the situation as it stands today, not against the golden age. Back then before the initial shift, when the community was a stable farming community, there was infrastructure large and small, blatant and subtle, which made the farming life livable. When the shift to manufacturing happened, the infrastructure was no longer necessary and much of it rotted away.

Merely shifting back to farming will not cause it to reappear; in fact, circumstances may have changed in ways that make such infrastructure difficult if not impossible to reconstruct. Laws have changed. Attitudes have changed. Critical knowledge and tools have been lost. Reclaiming the infrastructure may be a job for multiple generations, and some of it (e.g. the right to sell food to neighbors) may simply be prohibited.

Similar irreversible shifts have occurred with music. The invention of recording has changed our understanding of music. Originally a musical performance was an intimate, one-time, ephemeral event; recording transformed it to a portable aesthetic object that can be enjoyed repeatedly, studied at will, and even manipulated further. And this new understanding of music has actually changed the shape of it, as musicians turned their attention to crafting performance styles that are better suited to the constraints and possibilities of recording.

Has writing undergone similar shifts? Certainly. The most dramatic, perhaps, was initiated by the invention of the printing press and may end up being eradicated by the internet, namely writing for money. From a review of a biography of Samuel Johnson, the first man to make his living solely from writing:

Human beings wrote long before there were newspapers or books or even paper, and they will continue to do so when these have been replaced by pixels and bytes. But something precious may be coming to an end in our lifetimes: the age of the professional writer.

For the last three centuries or so, it was possible to make a living, and a name, by writing what the public wanted to read. The novelist, the essayist, the critic, the journalist—all these literary types flourished in that historically brief window, which now appears to be closing. In the future, if fewer people are interested in reading and few of those are willing to pay for what they read, all these kinds of writers may go the way of the troubadour and the scribe. [Emphasis added]

The shift away from professional writing will not take us back to the place we inhabited before the advent of professional writing. The printing press made it possible for writing to be consumed in mass quantities, which led to the creation of a reading public. The disappearance of the professional writer is not really an innovation, but the unintended consequence of another innovation, namely the ability to publish and consume writings for close to free without the need for professional intermediaries such as editors, publishers, printers, distributors, and book stores, or costly physical media such as magazines, newspapers, or books.

Now that anyone can publish their writings, many are willing to do so for free, and now that so much writing has been made available for free it turns out to have satisfied the appetites of readers whose cravings once made them willing to pay writers to write. Those professional writers who moan that unpaid writers will not be able to serve the reading public adequately are mostly deluded about what the reading public actually wants from their reading.

I think the shift to professional writing masked a deeper shift that will remain with us, but only becomes clear as pay leaves the picture, namely the shift to writing for an audience—and in particular, using one’s popularity with an audience to measure one’s success as a writer. Prior to professional writing I don’t think writers wrote for an existing audience so much as created one for themselves, namely the previously unspecified group of readers who were interested in what had been written. For example, the New Testament writers were not writing to please an existing group of readers, but for all future readers who would be interested in an account of early Christian doctrine and history.

Professional writers, though, are defined by their ability to sell their writings, and so a loyal and growing audience for one’s writings became an important measure of success as a writer—which in turn created a new factor in writing to be recognized, namely the power of catering to an audience as a way of building popularity with them. And, truth be told, making money is far from the only reason a writer might want a robust and growing audience. People write for many different reasons, money being only one, but what most writers have in common is a desire that their words be read, that their message be heard by as many as possible. This is not always a noble goal, but it can be one.

Even as writing for pay becomes a thing of the past, the real innovation of the printing press—the possibility of a wide readership—will continue to be an important consideration. How should it influence what a writer writes? There are two different approaches one can take. One is to write what will edify people, and trust that the writing will find its natural audience. The other is to write what people want to read, and trust that the resulting audience will be edified by it.

Both approaches are legitimate. Choosing to write what people want to read does not prevent a writer from edifying his readers. And choosing not to cater to an audience does not prevent a writer from having an audience. Moreover, the approaches are not completely incompatible. Those who choose to let their writings find its own audience can still strive to write engagingly and to avoid unnecessarily offending the reader. And those who choose to build an audience can sacrifice some potential readers so that the rest can be better edified.

Both approaches have dangers. A writer can justify the choice not to cater
to an audience by deciding that it is somehow ignoble to cater to one, that the reader should just get over any problems they have with the writing, that offending readers is actually a good thing since it shows that the writer has not catered to them, that a lack of readers merely indicates the depth of thoughtlessness and laziness of the reading public. Add to that a few vehement fans who are happy to join the writer in disdaining the public at large, and the writer ends up in a very bad place—catering to a very small audience while thinking he is doing just the opposite.

The dangers of catering to an audience are pretty widely understood. I’ll limit myself to describing just one, which seems to be taking down many of the newly enabled cadre of internet writers, namely punditry. In my mind a pundit is someone whose opinions are valuable (or at least perceived as such) simply because they are that person’s opinions; it is quite similar to being a celebrity, which Daniel Boorstin famously defined as someone who is famous for being famous. I don’t know from personal experience, but I am sure it is a heady thing to have people solicit your opinions, and even hang on them, not because of their substance but because you are you.

I’ve known just a few people who seem to have from the beginning set their sights on being a pundit, but I’ve watched many an internet writer begin with a clear and focused approach, writing only on those topics where he have something substantial to contribute, and then gradually succumb to the temptation of punditry as his growing fan base leads him to believe that it is not the content of his opinions that attracts readers but rather the force of his personality and the charms of his clever turns of phrase—really, that anything becomes interesting for having passed through his pen. Soon enough he is issuing a steady stream of glib, superficial opinions on events, cultural trends, whatever might pique the interest of his readership, without regard to whether he is knowledgeable about a topic.

To watch this process unfold with a good writer is a sad thing. To stumble upon a writer after it has happened is merely to go away puzzled as to why folks ever thought this was good writing—something like encountering Charles Schulz’s Peanuts in the final few years. And the writer to whom it has happened is generally immune to having it pointed out to him; the continued existence of a fan base is defense enough against such charges.

My own inclination these days is to write down just those things I think others might find worthwhile reading, and then let them find their own audience. This is not because I think it is inherently wrong to actively develop an audience, but only because I don’t trust myself to detect the line between courting and pandering, which I do think is wrong.It is also an easy choice for me to make, because I don’t think that I would be very successful at actively developing an audience, whether by proper or improper means. And so I’ve decided to invest myself more in the writing than the readers, using it to clarify in my mind and then record just those things that I think are worth sharing with others.

But even though I don’t try to leverage it, the potential of a wide readership cannot be ignored. Sir Isaac Newton had no such concerns, since his writings were intended for a small, known audience of colleagues. Clarity was not a primary concern, since his readers were certain to have both the skills and desire to ferret out his meaning. But to publish a piece of writing on the internet is to make it easily available to millions of readers, who are only a search result or a blog mention or a friendly recommendation away from clicking on a link to it.

I think I have an obligation to those unknown readers, not to lure them into my readership but to eliminate nonessential elements in my writing that might put them off. And so I try to state things in a clear and unadorned manner, to eliminate smugness and scorn and any other mannerism that plays to the choir, to let facts and concrete observations do the arguing for me. It makes my writing much less entertaining, but at the same time it increases the likelihood that a random reader will benefit from it.

I’m glad now that I began this post by driving a stake in the ground, because even though there is much, much more I could say about writing, I’ve said enough to illustrate my three-part point, which I’ll restate here and then fill in the blanks with recording and printing.

  • Innovations are not additive, but transformational. Any innovation does not simply bring something new to the table, it changes the game. Some old options are closed off, and other options are opened up.

    Recording did not simply introduce one more way of hearing a musical performance, it changed the way we heard music. The limitations and possibilities of recording required a new approach to performing music, which in turn affected the expectations of listeners from a performance (e.g. the new idea of a song lasting three minutes or less).

    Printing did not simply introduce an alternative form of writing, it made mass readership a possibility. Suddenly there were enough potential readers that one could make money selling them things they wanted to read, which in turn changed the expectations of readers about what writing could be (e.g. a vehicle for light, disposable entertainment).

  • As activities adjust to the changes, further changes occur, resulting in further adjustments, and so on.

    The short history of recorded music is an extended sequence of changes followed by adjustments to those changes. For example, dancing has changed repeatedly in response to changes in styles of musical performance, and styles of performance have changed repeatedly in response to changes in dancing.

    Writing styles have also shifted over time in response to changing tastes of readers, and the taste of readers has shifted in response to changes in writing styles. For example, just about all popular nonfiction these days is written in a breezy, anecdote-centered style that readers prefer and have come to expect. Ironically, the style was invented by the New Journalists of the late 60s and early 70s as a way of rebelling against the objective, fact-centered style of journalism that was dominant at that time.

  • Because of the cascade of changes, the innovation is not reversible; undoing the original innovation will not undo the changes it caused but will instead lead to further changes, resulting in a new situation that may or may not resemble the original one.

    Recording caused a shift from music as accompaniment to social activity  to music as a fixed aesthetic object to be contemplated. As a result, some of the things that people used to do while listening to music (e.g. dancing, eating, and visiting as a community on the weekend) have largely faded away or become museum pieces. Simply bringing back live folk music will not necessarily restore the activities that once accompanied it.

    Similarly, writing in an old-fashioned style will not necessarily bring back old-fashioned readers. Wendell Berry strikes me as a writer who is completely unconcerned with developing an audience, and who chooses to write in a plain and direct style that would have been unremarkable in the early twentieth century, but is definitely an acquired taste for the twenty-first century reader. Berry’s natural audience is gone, and those who are driven to read him must struggle with the clash between his old-fashioned style and their modern expectations.

Well, enough groundwork! In the next installment I plan to move on to the matter which originally inspired me to write this series, namely the tension between tradition and innovation in our approach to worshiping God.

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7 thoughts on “Tradition and Innovation, Part 5

  1. I think another quality of change that also changes the game, is how fast such changes happen these days. Technology “compresses” everything in time. For instance we can read written documents thousands of years old, over the centuries writing changed, yet it was always incribed “cuneiform”
    or painted or inked on papyrus or paper, etc. As long as it lasted, somebody had the time to try and decipher it. Now, since everything is in digital formats of various kinds, it can be unreadable, unless you have the software that wrote it. I understand there are still stored hundreds of data tapes from the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions to mars back in the late 60’s and 70′ that sit unread, because the machines the did that are not around anymore. Many historians are worried that much of our modern history will be unavailable to study in the future for the same reason. One wonders if 100 years from now, anybody will still be able to read a blog such as this. I for one think that will be a shame!

  2. I like these meta-thought (for lack of a better word) articles, Rick.

    You could add (among many other disciplines) art to the list. Photography changed painting irrevocably in the early/mid 19th C. Interestingly, at about the same time, painting was independently becoming more like photography. For a while, this seemed to cause a mini-golden age of oil portraiture, but now it seems to have killed it, and atrophied the skills and knowledge once used, not only for painters, but for sitters as well. Can you imagine any important person voluntarily sitting for long enough to have his/her portrait painted now?

    So, now the artist is in a sort of bind: He can try to develop the old skills, but he’s starting from behind and doesn’t have the audience. He can develop a modern business painting portraits, but he has to work from photographs (which makes for an inferior painting and almost makes the painting beside the point), and so far as I know, the only place where portraiture is really popular is the South. And then there’s “pure” art, which is idiosyncratic to the point of solipsism, when it’s not stomach turning, because its bound to current philosophy. This, incidentally, is why Paul Johnson, who wanted to become a painter, became a historian instead.

    Not only is folk music different than it once was, but recording and manipulation likely explain something about why rock music developed when it did, too. And cheap publication explains some of both pulp fiction and thin books publicized for and by pundits. When I walk into a large bookstore these days, I am so completely overwhelmed that I think, “If there were a first rate writer developing along the lines of a Bronte sister right now, how would anyone ever find her?” Can you imagine the Brontes with a publicist?

    And then there’s the web, which you have already covered quite nicely. I think most women who blog simply do so to have a sort of scrapbook, or record of days, that they share with others who are interested in the same daily things. Otherwise it seems that much of what they do is ephemeral. And I also read blogs to search for wisdom, which is much the same reason I read books, except that books in general are more poetic. No doubt this is partly because they encompass a bigger scope and are written over a longer period.

  3. Laura,

    Photography changed painting irrevocably in the early/mid 19th C. Interestingly, at about the same time, painting was independently becoming more like photography.

    If you haven’t read it already, I think you would enjoy reading Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, at least the parts that discuss how mass production of images has changed art and our perception of it. One thing he points out is that until recently you had to travel to an image in order to see it—and until recently travel was a difficult, dicey activity—so deciding to study, say, the works of Leonardo da Vinci was a whole other proposition than it is today.

    When I walk into a large bookstore these days, I am so completely overwhelmed that I think, “If there were a first rate writer developing along the lines of a Bronte sister right now, how would anyone ever find her?”

    My version of this is the realization that it no longer makes sense to talk about the best fiddler (or singer, or banjo player) in the county, because the ones who were any good at all quickly left in search of a larger market. The fellow who would have been the best fiddler in Adair county is now trying to eke out a living in Nashville, where fiddlers better than him are soaking up most of the work. Meanwhile, we all listen to the same five or ten best fiddlers in the world, and never have a chance (or a desire) to hear fiddlers further down the list.

    Of course, you don’t have to go to Nashville; you can try to establish yourself locally, like we’re doing. Unfortunately, the great exodus of musicians to Nashville, as well as listeners switching from live music to recorded performances, gradually destroyed local music venues. So in some sense there is no “locally” left to establish yourself in.

    And I also read blogs to search for wisdom, which is much the same reason I read books, except that books in general are more poetic. No doubt this is partly because they encompass a bigger scope and are written over a longer period.

    Do you find the poetry ebbing away from books? It strikes me that internet writing is almost anti-poetic—or anti-thoughtful, at least—which is causing changes in our tastes and standards concerning writing. I don’t read enough current stuff to have a sense for this.

  4. We started homeschooling our children in 1989, when our oldest was five years old. We copied some friends of ours and used the conservative Mennonite curriculum from Rod & Staff. We purchased, and still have, many of their novels. While I still enjoy reading their novels, my youngest children (ages 14 and 16) think that they are old-fashioned. I was told that, “if you let your children read modern books they will not enjoy the Rod & Staff novels.” Last month, I picked up an old Rod & Staff novel to use for our family reading. One of my kids asked my wife if I thought that they were still children. It’s hard to go back when you have moved on :(.

  5. Yes, Boorstin would likely be an interesting read, as I like to think about that kind of thing–thanks.

    About the poetic language, I don’t read a whole lot of modern fiction either, but what I’ve noticed from what I have read is that “the center doesn’t hold.” Increasingly, some centrifugal force has separated scientific prose from poetic solipsism, so that few people can do both. Just off the top of my head, I think of, say, B.F. Skinner and James Joyce. There are lovely exceptions, of course, but that’s the trend.

    I don’t know how the internet effects this, but I remember the first time I heard someone say that word processing had ruined prose. I think it was William F. Buckley, but I’m not sure. That may be the problem with some of these article to book deals that pundits do. But my main beef about the internet is that the conversation always “scrolls” off before I can give it any serious thought, much less get finished thinking about it. That could take years, or a lifetime.

  6. Good post, though I’m puzzled by your words about Wendell Berry. What makes you think he lacks an audience? Maybe he’s not as hot to pop culture as co-idealist Michael Pollan, but he’s hardly obscure. I certainly don’t struggle to read his “plain and direct style”. You think that’s gone out of style? But with both books and recorded music, it seems to me that the best styles never go away, they are always there to enjoy. To offer a quick example, I just popped over to Amazon and searched “Mozart” under MP3 downloads. There are 47,161 available. They also list 55 books published by Wendell Berry, and I understand he’s coming out with another one this year. Doesn’t sound like a writer whose “natural audience is gone”. Perhaps you are projecting your own literary tastes onto some imaginary quintessential 21st-century reader. I’m just so puzzled by the picture of someone “struggling” with his “plain and simple style”. He writes beautifully. He’s my favorite author!

  7. About Wendell Berry…

    I appreciate him a great deal, and have been known to rave about his poetry and novels to anyone who will listen. (And to people who won’t, I’m sorry to say.) Some listen, and come away more than satisfied. Others keep the book on the nightstand for months, until they are wooed away by someone else more “accessible.”

    Berry’s style is plain and direct, indeed, but you can’t go to Berry looking for a “hook” in the first 100 words. Those friends I mentioned have difficulty wading through the kind of careful (they would call it labored) exposition that Berry does in the beginning of, say, A Place on Earth. And these are not people just finishing the latest Twilight novel.

    What Berry requires, that even many literary novelists of today do not, is a bit of patience. He’s going somewhere, but not in the way modern readers expect. And for people reading for the last twenty minutes of the day, lying in bed, that’s an obstacle to reading and enjoyment.

    That said, Berry gets a lot of attention–a lot more than other similarly good writers–not for his writing but for his views. He’s “in,” not least because people like the more vocal Pollan (who is not a very good writer) sing his praises. And I’m grateful he gets the attention.

    Interestingly, while some people do read Berry’s novels, his poetry suffers with the rest of the poetry world. The poetry section in big-box bookstores is shrinking, while “Teen Fiction” seems to have its own weather system.

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