Saturday, August 9, 2008

Duffy and the Vanilla Internet

Perhaps 'iconoclast' is the best way to describe the Duffy view of the world. If we take a conventional definition, an iconoclast can be:

1. A breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration.
2. A person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions and so on, as being based on error or superstition.

Well we can ignore the origins of the word - Duffy's forefathers might have been active in the eighth and ninth centuries destroying religious images felt to be idolatrous, but it's hard to pin anything on him directly.

Yet it's not hard to think Duffy fancies himself as a destroyer of images and beliefs, a one man terminator amok in the temple of left wingers and liberals.

The smashing and the breaking and the vandalizing in his writing helps explain why Duffy lashes out rhetorically against all kinds of false gods and false images. And happily iconoclasm requires no coherent positives or  positions, just oppositional negativity, the destruction of false worshippers.

This week's Duffy musings "All those fabulous flavours, yet the world keeps choosing vanilla" is a classic bout of iconoclasm. The text requires careful deconstruction (a word Duffy would hate) because Duffy takes on the Internet, perhaps feeling empowered by his new status running a blog under the Sydney Morning Herald's banner.

First the straw dog. Believers in the Internet - those involved with technology and culture - have tended to be optimistic in seeing it as a force for increased diversity. Then Duffy rather fatuously and glibly attempts a summary of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, in a couple of lines, suggesting that Anderson argues for widening diversity of cultural experiences (when a lot of it is about selling and marketing and intellectual property in the kind of self help guru style Americans love - go here if you want to find out what Anderson's really saying).

Duffy seems to put himself in the position of a cultural snob when he suggests "One reason the idea was embraced was that it was very appealing to anyone who has ever resented the slop that makes up a lot of popular culture". But before you can tag him as a chardonnay drinker, he moves quickly to reassure us that he played rock music in the seventies (get down, I'm jiggy wit it), and back then it was impossible to buy recordings of most of the music of the sixties. (Just what planet Duffy was on when he found all sixties music had disappeared is a matter for speculation, but no matter, let's just go with the flow. Maybe he was looking for Charlie Musselwhite).

Anyway, Duffy desperately wants to believe in Anderson, wants to believe that our world of prosperity and free trade and globalization and technological wonder was also creating a cultural wonderland. But no, the iconoclast always finds a fly in the ointment, and this time it's Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School associate professor, who tested Anderson's hypothesis by looking at sales patterns for dvds, videos and music. Surprise, surprise, she found that most people tend to buy mainstream product. Lordy lordy, that must mean the new Batman movie is a hit because a lot of people are buying tickets to watch it. Who'd have guessed it, thank heaven for the power of the academy.

By the time Duffy had hit print with his column on August 8th on this topic, Anderson had long before responded to the article on June 27th, and Elberse had posted a response to him on July 2nd (Google it, ain't the Internet just wonderful). Both the response and counter-response are more insightful than Duffy, and they hit the ether a hell of a lot earlier.

Now here's where Duffy goes out on a self-invented limb. He thinks the problem is that Anderson mistook production for consumption, and argues that when presented with an abundance to choose from, customers all pick the same thing (basing his line on a 1995 book The Winner-Take-All Society). It seems that the Internet, while presenting us with choice, is also performing "some sort 'shepherding function' by giving us a better sense than was available in the past of the choices other people are making. And we react to this type of information not by forging our own paths, but by going with the crowd. This paradox, of convergence in the midst of abundance, is one of the phenomena of our world ..."

Well there goes the Internet. It offers us all this choice, and like sheep we just sit in the corner under the tree together soaking up the shade. Stupid sheep.

Pardon me if I mention the elephant in the room. Piracy. Just last week someone I know downloaded an obscure zombie picture made in Western Australia in 1989. It cost them nothing. It came about because one person thought to turn it into an avi file and put it up on the web; and in doing so she found one person interested in downloading it. That's all it takes. A one on one cultural exchange. She didn't expect millions to watch it, and if you're aware of the film in question, I marvel that she expected even one person to download it (and yes, it's out of print, commercially unavailable and all in the aim of research and science, and it's slop, and you must be Duffy to think this is a rare event).

Now the good professor constructs her argument against Anderson on the basis of data from Nielsen and from Quickflix. And if you stay on the vanilla path, and buy your goods, then you are one of the sheep. But you are not one of the millions doing what the Internet allows you to do - get your content for free (and no I don't mean going to Project Gutenberg and getting a free ebook or the Internet Archive for a PD show from the twenties). In fact Anderson's arguments are insular and bound up with American culture, and struggle to be applicable in markets outside America, especially in relation to intellectual property competing in domains dominated by American product, but that's another story.

The simplest survey of content made available on the Internet would conclude that it is now huge - beyond the level of comprehension and tracking  - and continuing to grow. And anybody with a half decent awareness of marketing would know that when confronted with infinite shelf space, we tend to revert to things we know and like, or things our friends like and recommend (where would the movies be without word of mouth, now complemented by Internet viral awareness). You could waste a lifetime just looking for things you might like.

It's always been the case that branding, and logos and tags and identifiers have been a key part of marketing - that's how a brand like the New York Times still gets attention paid to it, old media still poncing about on the new, just by putting on some new feathers and being there.

Now this is an interesting topic, and it exercises a lot of people's minds. After all, Amazon is not much more than a decade old, eBay not very old at all (remembering that direct selling goes back, way way back), and yet it's had a serious impact on shopfront selling, just as piracy has given the music business the jitters, and is about to give the film game serious indigestion. Free to air, pay, print newspapers, all kinds of information services and entertainment providers will have to look anew at their business models. Yet you can wander down the street and find plenty of Luddites who have yet to order anything from Amazon (thank the Lord a reality for Australians now we're no longer fifty cents in the dollar) or bought anything on eBay. But does this mean this new form of selling is just providing more of the same, say comparing my local dvd store catering to thirty thousand suburban dwellers to the thousands upon thousands of items available in a marketplace of 300 million consumers and now accessible anywhere in the world?

But Duffy really isn't interested in all that, and truth to tell, one suspects on reading him that he's not really that interested in the Internet and all that it offers now and might offer in the future. No, Duffy is just using all this as a set up for a bit of liberal bashing, without the need of facts getting in his way. First up is the futility of tourism:

"Increased mobility was supposed to enable us to experience a diversity of other types of human beings. But in reality it is used to travel halfway around the globe and spend time with people like ourselves."  I guess the new tendency to use the Internet to book cheap airline tickets must take a share of the blame for all those Pommie chicks having hen nights in Barcelona while the guys chew the magic mushrooms in Amsterdam. Yes, it's you he's talking about, you Pommie bastards.

But worse still are those damned professionals. "Most professional Australians today are more at home with foreign professionals than fellow Australians of another class." Say what? What's this got to do with the Internet? But when you think about it, could it be a cry for help? Is what Duffy really saying is that as a professional - well he's a public broadcaster and a newspaper columnist, so it's likely he wasn't working as a builder's labourer last week - he connects more with foreign professionals than he does with rough, hairy, beefy chaps who hang around the pubs, sink a schooner or two, then down a dog's eye with dead horse (Google it up, let the Internet enrich your cultural understanding of Australian slang, it'll only take a few seconds).

Perhaps he yearns for discourse with Anita Elberse, and the Harvard Business Review and respectable conservatives from various American think tanks, rather than following the course of common humanity - of people from another class. After all, we already know that what they like as popular culture is just slop, beneath the dignity of an old rock 'n roller. One thing's certain - Duffy wouldn't have cruising the Internet trying to dig up some fodder for his column, and stumbled on this month-old chestnut, would he? No way. 

Relax already. Duffy's not having an existential crisis. There's a greater insight on offer:

"This is one reason it's so hard to get Australian-born doctors to move to country towns any more." You see - that's it. Like those gits on the Internet, doctors (the Australian born ones, the ones with the silver spoons shoved up their arse) don't want to move to the country because they don't like the common herd, they don't like people of the lower classes. You hear that, you country folk, we don't like living with the likes of you because you're common muck, covered in pig shit most likely. 

Okay, it's mind numbingly confused and illogical and simple minded, but it does illustrate a profound neurosis Duffy has, about his relationship to the world and to class and to professionals and most particularly to fellow Australians of another class (only somebody aspiring to Turramurra or an ex-Marxist could come up with that phrase 'of another class' - my good fellow, I can't like you, because you see, you'se is from another class). 

But at least now we understand why Duffy's one hour radio show is littered with music from the thirties of the coy, lizardy jitterbuggy kind, unless it's varied a little with a jocular song allegedly about how liberals should give up drinking wine (Buddy Stay Off the Wine, by Betty Hall Jones which Bob Dylan ran on his theme time radio hour and was then picked up here by student and community radio, like RRR - does this make Duffy a fellow traveller with students, perhaps even a covert subversive?). 

Nonsense. He's just apart from the herd, relishing his own unique cultural path, insulated from all  that modern slop. They stopped making good music in the thirties, and by the seventies you couldn't buy any of it, and that's all there is to say.

As for the logic ... what a pity Duffy didn't read Chris Anderson's recent note when he wrote about thirteen words that lose their meaning when the denominator approaches infinity - citing five key words that he found meaningless, starting with "Most" at number one (average, typical, all, and none/no made up the other four in the top five).

But Duffy commits  many kinds of sins against logic. "Increased mobility was supposed to ..." But who said, who supposed? Duffy? "In reality it (mobility) is used ..." but by whom? Don't plumbers have the right to be tourists?  "... to travel halfway around the globe and spend time with people like ourselves ..." But who are these people like ourselves? Doctors who hate the country? Conservatives who hate liberals? Columnists who talk to columnists? Or columnists who treat all the people they meet as waiters and desk clerks? Wine-makers who make wine?Or wine-makers who get drunk in Barcelona and piss on stray Catalans? Or is that rugby league footballers? But don't they go to France to play Rugby Union. Which is definitely not league. It's all too confusing.

And then comes that word, 'most', as in: "Most professionals today ..." But where's the survey, the statistical data that backs this claim. Forget it Jake, it's Duffy town. Statistics are just damn lies, and not worth a pinch of shit up against intuitive insights.

As for doctors heading bush, dare I say that it might be as simple as the reason Sydney Morning Herald columnists and public broadcasters don't head bush. They don't like it. But then maybe Duffy's never actually lived in a country town. He should try it some time. He mightn't be able to afford his current airs and graces and confusions. They sort you out quick in the bush, especially if you sound like a wanker.

Sadly, poor old Duffy has to end on a truly destructive note. It seems all this behavior is instinctive - this slop, this lack of diversity, this failure to use the Internet, this going with the crowd, this misuse of mobility, this feeling at home with foreigners, this hatred of the bush. Yep, it's because we were 'hard wired this way during our evolution'. Duffy's identified the gene. It's going to be called "Duffy blood group, chemokine receptor FZ". Now there's knockdown science for you. No generalizations, pure scientific fact. 

Oh wait, it's 'only a possible explanation for the paradox'. Good scientist that he is, Duffy is still researching the situation. Postulate a theory, then back it up with good hard empirical, replicable evidence. It's the Duffy way. Meantime, you can write it up to scare us all with the way we're hard wired to show herd like behavior. Could this, gulp, even explain why we all rush off to war and kill people? 

Suddenly the meaning of the header for Duffy's article becomes clear. Out there on the Internet, there are all these fabulous flavours. Yet the SMH keeps printing, and Sydney-siders - well, at least some of them - keep reading Duffy. In all his iconoclastic vanilla glory. In hard copy. Note to self: must go to Crooks and Liars to watch a Colbert clip, expecting tradesman in the morning, it's all too much. He'll expect coffee ... goddam these workers, don't they know their place any more.

So it's on to the rating:

Insight into the functioning of the Internet: 1
Reliable and prompt use of Internet sources: 2
Understanding of herd mentality: 1
Understanding of marketing: 0
Confessional quality regarding alienation from the masses: 10
Resentment of popular slop and Australian-born doctors: 10
Dislike of fellow professionals and foreign professionals: 10
Insight into Duffy neuroses: 10

An exemplary column, rich in pickings.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a doctor could challenge Duffy to a deal. They both go bush for a year, say Alice Springs or Broken Hill or Mt Isa. Duffy files his columns and his radio show from the bush - if Phillip Adams can do it from Muswellbrook, why not. Duffy is under strict instructions not to use the Internet, not to mingle with professionals (including the doctor) but only with people of other classes, and not to travel via train, plane or bus to the city. The doctor's just doing a job so they'll get by. But it's a fair bet Duffy'll either go mad or become Buddha. Either way would be better. It's interesting the way the right wing kommentariat are always having a go at others but never have a go themselves - a bit like Bush and Cheney and the gang when it came to military service.