Automation and Art

I’m a decent writer. I can write a readable novel, full of relatable characters doing interesting things. My short stories are sharp and funny. I can even cobble together a poem or two. I’ve done well enough in competitions, and had enough positive feedback from readers and publishing pros (including sales) to be reasonably sure of my own ability.

So great, right? Good news. Fame and riches await!

Better yet, there are thousands of other people out there like me – all good writers. Maybe even a few great ones still waiting for their time in the sun.

Best of all? There’s paying work out there for literally dozens of us. Dozens!

Uh, yeah…

Thousands doesn’t fit very well into dozens, does it? Bye bye fame and riches.

When I talk to people about this sad phenomenon I suggest that 1 writer in 500 will succeed. By which I mean 1 in 500 will eventually sell some of their work, maybe some short fiction to a magazine, get a novel published, or sell a screenplay. But even that 1 writer in 500 doesn’t get to be a full time pro. For that you need to take all those 1 in 500s, squish them into a new 500 and take 1 of them again. That’s your pro – the full time writer who can maybe (on the back of a lot of hustling) make a middle class living from writing alone.

Do the same again and divide by ten if you’re talking about getting rich. There’s a reason almost everyone knows who Steven King and J K Rolling are.

So why do so many people chase such a tiny market? And it’s not just writing fiction. You could say the same thing about acting, art, or music. A lot of guys can shred guitar. Very few of them have recording contracts with Sony.

And that’s the answer – Sony Music, Random House, Penguin, etc. In other words, mass media.

Think of a tribe on the savannah. A tribe might be made up of 70 to 80 people on average. Every tribe needed its own singer to sing the songs of the ancestors, its own storyteller to tell the tales of great hunts and battles and romances, its own artist to paint the animals on the sacred cliffs.

But mass media means that one person can now supply stories or music or art to millions. In our pre-media past it would have taken thousands and thousands of artists to meet the same demand.

Automated reproduction has preemptively disemployed almost all the artists ever born. They inherited a vocation, burned gene-deep into them by a thousand generations, and technology has rendered them mute and inglorious.

So that’s all a bit tough on all those frustrated artists out there, but it’s a good thing for everyone else, right? It means they get access to the best possible stories, music and art. They’re not stuck with whatever the birth lottery might have spawned in their tribe of 80.

And it’s much fairer for the best artists. They are now properly rewarded for their excellence. In the pre-media age, when every audience was captive, the hacks got the same rewards as the geniuses.

All true. But a hard truth to swallow for the preempted.

When people talk about robots stealing jobs I often wonder why they don’t talk about mass media? Printing presses, recording, film, and photographic reproduction stole the jobs of most traditional artists long ago. After all, what is a record player (or even more so a DAP) but a robot who sings?

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