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August 26, 2018


Dave Timoney

I think you are forgetting the extent to which albums in the 70s would be borrowed, even before the advent of cassette recorders made home-taping practical. Likewise, books were often shared in the 18th century, though usually by visiting the owner's house.

The change in the political economy of culture has been the disappearance of the hybrid form of ownership amplified by sharing. Now we either own products exclusively or pay for shared experiences (theatre, football etc).

While digitisation had radically reduced unit costs and so led to profusion, I don't think the change from a small cultural treasury to a large one has been quite so sharp. Benjamin's point was made almost a century ago.


I remember being a teenager in the 1970s - quite a privileged one at that, as I lived an hour's journey from central London. "Art films" meant what was on that week on BBC2, or (privilege!) what was on that week at the Gate or the Screen on the Green. "Cult literature" meant what you'd heard people talking about at first hand, or else things that bands (and reviewers) bigged up in interviews in the NME. "Alternative music" meant staying up for John Peel and hoping he'd play that interesting track again so that you could tape it. Gatekeeping through scarcity was everywhere - and that created a kind of common culture.

But there have been other changes as well. Not only were we seeing the same four or five films, we were seeing them *in cinemas* - not sitting around at home with a book open, not squinting at a screen the size of a postcard. And perhaps a lot of kids carried around copies of Dead Souls or The Glass Bead Game as fashion statements, but some would actually read them - because there was so little else to do. No computer games, no Internet: no distractions, apart from whatever was on the three TV channels.

Digital abundance has created so many changes, the specific effect of the abundance of creative works is hard to identify.


As a teenager in the 2000s and early 2010s the closest thing I experienced in terms of tribe wars was games consoles. It was rare you could afford all of them and due to exlusivity of certain titles it creates a kind of needing to justify your purchase choice which makes you defensive.


The idea that "we now read...more widely but less deeply" goes back at least to the Romans. Ann Blair, in Too Much To Know, says that the Stoic response was to recommend sticking to a few texts and reading them repeatedly, and to ignore the abundance they felt threatened by.


Widespread culture? I look around at some quite middle class homes and see two types. Those with scarcely any books or newspapers at all and those with bookshelves rammed with gardening books, cookery books, pulp fiction and the occasional business or DIY manual. Outside the home football matches and musicals seem to be what most people go to.

This is culture of a sort but probably not the sort of culture a present day Adam Smith would have in their home. More the culture of well-off servants.

This sort of low level mass culture would be acceptable and indeed quite useful in a predominantly manufacturing and low level service economy. One might expect to have a better educated more cultured class running the show and a sufficient number of more able types to emerging from the mass to provide the doctors, engineers, designers, film producers and writers society needs.

But what happens when everyone else in the world has been following the same model and you start to ship manufacturing and services to cheaper locations. Obviously you get poorer unless you can find better value jobs for people to do. The question is what and how.

Not obvious that a diet of Proust, Milton and the LRB will cut the mustard of economic success. Not obvious we can become an exporter of mathematicians and quantum physicists. We could probably manage to export doctors and surgeons but other countries have got there first. The Bell Curve will probably limit that path to national riches.

Perhaps media stars, actors, porn stars and cage fighters would be more the ticket. The question is what influence can 'culture' have on the national well being. Is culture a driver or does it react.

Niels Lauritzen

I think the young people today do not make use of the vast back catalog of music available to them on demand. They grew up on music videos and single hits that they can download and play over and over or make them their ring tone etc.
It is all about fashion and peer pressure, what songs are my friends listening too? ok I'll download that and memorize the lyrics and we can sing them together and achieve twinship.

Since I am an oldster I rejoice in being able to add the best of every single singer over 5 decades into my library. There are some glaring omissions: cannot get most of my reggae songs from early 80s , they are only on vinyl it seems, and the mississippi blues artists of color of the 50s are very hard to find online. I do not like any 50s whitey pop music, sorry. And most 60s mono audio pop is simplistic and not good. Maybe that betrays my age but it is a blessing and great to be alive in order to shuffle play thousands of great songs!

N. N.


One important change: it's much easier than it used to be to start viral campaigns on behalf of one's own preferred reading (listening, etc.), or at least more realistic to expect to succeed.

Marshall Berman has an essay in which he tells how he discovered Marx's "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844" as a young student in New York City in the 1950s, and bought tens of copies (at the very low price subsidised by the Soviet Union), which he gave to all his friends and relatives, with a disarmingly gushing pitch about it being the next big thing. To no effect whatsoever.

Nowadays he'd only have to go on social media and link to the full text at marxists.org. Maybe it wouldn't work, but at least the statistical likelihood of this kind of thing working is much higher now.


In my view, Benjamin's artwork essay fails because technologies of reproduction can themselves become codified as "authentic". The revival of vinyl records, for instance, is largely about this phenomenon. But then again, it's truly remarkable how Benjamin never mentions a word about music in his whole essay, although the record industry had already existed for around 40 years at the time he was writing.

Ralph Musgrave

Advocates of multiculturalism will upset at being reminded of the very obvious point that culture is transmitted by books (not to mention radio, TV, the internet, etc). Reason is that one of the main arguments put for multiculturalism (i.e. the mixing of people of different cultural and racial backgrounds) is that it spreads culture. Certainly that’s the main argument put by Bhikhu Parekh in his long and extremely boring book “Rethinking Multiculturalism”.

Clearly there is a finite amount of cultural transfer derived from multiculturalism, but also plenty of cultural destruction: e.g. the world is losing minor languages at the rate of about one a week. As to what the cultural merits of Islam are, that’s a complete mystery, unless you think female genital mutilation and killing authors and cartoonists is worthwhile form of culture. All in all, if we had zero multiculturalism, the reduction in worthwhile cultural transfer would be about zero: the Chinese would have no trouble acquiring Western technology, which has quadrupled their standard of living. And there’d be no trouble at all in transmitting literature and music from one continent to another. In short Bhikhu Parekh and his ilk are useless windbags.


You state "We know that economic and technical change lead to cultural change." Do we? It is also plausible that culture can drive technical change as well as economic change.

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