Kool-Aid and failure of nerve
—Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1963
Clarke was writing about unwarranted pessimism, but the same thing holds true for unwarranted optimism. Web 2.0 enthusiasts tend to be full of “isn’t this wonderful” faith that leaves no room for the possibility of any downside. Those who “drink the Kool-Aid” are not only convinced of the certainty of the 2.0 future but are closed to the possibility that this future might not be universally positive.
A good illustration is this post by Leila Boujnane, entitled The changing face of photojournalism. It nicely brings together two opposing views about the impact of the Internet on the incomes of freelance photographers, and I completely agree with her assessment. But then there is this:
Surprisingly I am very optimistic about the future of photojournalism. It may seem or feel like the changes in the industry are continuously eroding photojournalists’ markets - the situation is complex and there isn’t an easy answer but.... technologies for taking pictures have improved, cost of taking pictures have decreased, tools for an online presence and marketing have improved, technologies to allow individual photographers to track their images are entering the market and most importantly photojournalists today have an entire world market open to them and are no longer restricted (by technology or reach) to simply do business in their country.
Leila may be right to be optimistic about the future of photojournalism, but the topic she had been covering was actually the future of photojournalists. The improvements she mentions, such as access to an entire world market, generally don’t help these people because they are largely zero-sum: where one photojournalist gains, another loses. What would help would be a significant expansion of the market for commercially usable photos, but these “improvements” don’t do that. What they do instead is to dramatically expand the supply of such photos by letting amateurs enter the market. When the supply of something goes up while demand doesn’t, prices inevitably drop. Deflation 2.0, as I’ve been calling it.
I believe that freelance photojournalists are right to be worried. And so are the programmers in highly industrialized countries who fear losing their customers to people in India or Eastern Europe who can now do the work over the Internet. And the dealers in secondhand goods who can’t compete on price against the people selling the contents of their attic on eBay.
Kool-Aid drinkers rarely pay any attention to history. Situations like this have occurred many times. In the early 1800s, for instance, technological change in Britain made it possible to produce textiles much more cheaply than before. Good news for the wonderful new world in which ordinary people could, for the first time, afford to have many clothes and to replace them when they wore out. Not such good news for the Luddites who were absolutely correct about the threat to their livelihood. Some of them smashed the new machines. Their movement declined only after many of them had been hanged for this (yes, machine breakage was seen as such a problem that it was made a capital crime).
Will we see much public backlash against the Internet? I doubt it because this time around there aren’t such obvious physical targets for anger. It’s hard to smash the new machines when you don’t even know where they are, and hard to beat up the amateurs when there are so many of them and they are everywhere. Instead I expect massive frustration that will inevitably be taken out on innocent bystanders: people encountered in the normal course of life, but perhaps also convenient scapegoats such as immigrants. This is just a continuation of the process of frustration that began with job loss caused by globalization, frustration which I believe has so far been contained only because of the success of a debt-fuelled economy — which can’t last forever.