The Crisis of Proliferation

The demise of TV as we knew it seems to be approaching another landmark in the USA with news of falling ratings for that last bastion of broadcasting, the NFL. It has been a particularly heavy year for live coverage, from the Rio Olympics to the presidential election but as an analysis in the Washington Post suggests: ‘If football can’t survive the new age of TV, what can?’[i]

These days only the very biggest of occasions command mass audiences. The fact is that there is a lot of competition – in simple terms there is just too much stuff!

I said in a previous article that it is very difficult to forecast the future and so it is only fair to celebrate a lesser known but remarkable success in the prediction department. Those of us who are interested in innovation find the music industry a rich source of examples: cylinders to discs, shellac to vinyl, along with major disruptions like tape, CD and MP3. But most of the time we concentrate on what has already happened; what if we were to treat the music industry as a bellwether? The French social and economic theorist Jacques Attali suggested we should do just that, in his 1977 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Attali coined the phrase ‘the crisis of proliferation’ to describe a scenario in which endless repetition leads to too much content and too much of the same thing. Those of us who were there in 1977 remember it as the year that punk exploded. And not only punk; garage, indie, techno and all the rest in succeeding years fractured the way music was ‘done’. As Attalli put it:

‘Today [1977], a new music is on the rise, one that can neither be expressed nor understood using the old tools, a music produced elsewhere and otherwise. It is not that music or the world have become incomprehensible: the concept of comprehension itself has changed; there has been a shift in the locus of the perception of things.’

What has happened to music since then would appear to have proved him right, dramatically so when we consider new technologies: the means of production and distribution have passed out of the control of what was the established order. The pie has grown enormously, but the slices are getting thinner and thinner.

So to Attali’s wider thesis, that music presages changes in wider society. Think of TV in terms of the crisis of proliferation: remember ’57 channels and nothin’ on’ back in 1992. Nearly a quarter of a century later we have reached the point of hundreds of channels, many thousands when we include the Internet – there must be something on! Our attention spans have to be shorter just to fit it all in. Think of books: the crime writer James Patterson has recently released a series of highly compressed fictions, BookShots he calls them, with the terrifying tagline ‘What if someone wrote novels… without any of the boring parts?’

Some theories of entrepreneurial change suggest that crises engender change in two different ways, incremental innovations – the ‘adaptive response’ and radical innovations – the ‘creative response’. I would suggest that the adaptive response by the major players has been to try and outdo the insurgents, embrace the new technology and offer everything to everybody: bigger, better, faster, more. Their future is all about box sets, online streaming, bingeing on your widescreen TV at the weekend and catching up on your smartphone during the journey to work. And whilst that challenges the revenue model of ‘traditional’ entertainment, it does not shatter it.

Another response is to help consumers deal with the proliferation, because although everyone will say they are in favour of choice in reality we find too much choice a bit of a nuisance. One of the ways we can respond to this dilemma is to find someone or something we trust. This is ‘curated consumption’. If I want to pick up a bottle of wine from a supermarket I can nowadays choose from hundreds, but I usually select one I’ve enjoyed before, especially if it’s on offer, or follow a recommendation. Similarly for music; you don’t need to bother with Spotify if you stumble across a radio station you like.

One creative response that sounds counterintuitive is a return to the past – the live event. It used to be that bands would tour to promote their new albums, but now albums are recorded to promote tours. U2 gave away Songs of Innocence not because they were feeling uncommonly generous but because they were touring – and that’s where the real money is made now.

The performing arts in general have responded creatively, utilising new technology to deliver their traditional product to new markets. ‘Event cinema’, which started with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre in London streaming in HD to cinemas around the world, is now routine. Sure, it’s not the same as being there, but it’s the closest thing to it and something for which people are increasingly willing to pay.

And so, although regular sport may be disappearing from free-to-view, event TV is making a comeback. It’s Game of Thrones that offers the best illustration. Miss it today and you’ll be excluded from conversation tomorrow. And it’s not just a question of chatter around the water cooler: the discussion takes place online, immediately, even simultaneously. Marketing like this runs the risk of being a victim of its own success: it could be that the viewer is in grave danger of being left behind if they haven’t watched a pre-release pirate version.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 last year, Attali remarked: ‘The only thing that is rare is time.’[ii] And it’s time that’s at the heart of this shift back to the shared experience. Because time is limited: although we talk about ‘buying time’ all we can do is spend it more effectively according to our individual lights. The replacement of ownership of physical products with virtual ones emphasises this distinction – consumption takes time. Perhaps the most creative responses to the crisis of proliferation will be those that reappraise time itself as the unit of exchange.

But probably the most interesting are to be found when we go back to Attali’s ‘shift in the locus of the perception of things.’ He forecast that the new age of music would be characterised by composition and participation.

Social entrepreneur Iqbal Quadir has said that ‘In the past technology has been driven by business – nowadays the unit of business is the individual consumer of technology rather than the producer.’

Clay Shirky uses the phrase ‘cognitive surplus’ to describe the way people are no longer spending all their time in front of screens consuming, but are actually producing material. Just consider Wikipedia – it’s far more than a Tom Sawyer style fence-painting exercise.

As we saw in music, increasingly a distinction between consumers and producers no longer holds. We see it again with the phenomenon of fan fiction. Fifty Shades of Grey started out like that, self published and consumed surreptitiously on e-readers before it went mainstream. What will be the consequences if we have 3D printers in every home? And the point here is that whilst many of these producers would like fame and wealth, to be talent spotted by the big players, in the short term at least, they are prepared to do it for free.

Attali warned of the perils of the new age: ‘the dangers are immense, for once the repetitive world is left behind, we enter a realm of fantastic insecurity.’ Just look at the downward spiral of conventional news media as the percentage of user-generated content has risen. It is a vicious circle for the establishment – why would anyone pay to consume what they and their fellows are creating for free? It was a short-lived truism that if you weren’t the customer then you were the product but that doesn’t really apply in this new sharing economy. Think about what you are reading – isn’t this text an example of a curated academic cognitive surplus? Once we had gatekeepers who exercised authority and imposed standards over the rest of us; we might not have liked or even respected them but we knew (or thought we knew) who and where they were and that might have even given us a certain comfort. The issues provoked by Airbnb and Uber might be only the tip of the iceberg – when does sharing become a business? Who, if anyone, is employing whom? What will the taxman have to say? How can we recognise rights and responsibilities when we are not even sure of the nature of the relationship? Caveat emptor, especially if you weren’t paying anyway.


[ii] Sam York presents The Pop Star and the Prophet on Radio 4, at 11:30 on Thursday 17 September 2016

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

About The Author

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Paul Kirkham is a Researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity at the Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Nottingham University Business School. Prior to joining the institute he worked for 35 years in the manufacturing industry.