Culture Is Not About Esthetics

Aesthetically & economically, maybe there is too much new art. Don’t take this too seriously.
philosophy, psychology, survey, music
2009-07-162015-07-05 in progress certainty: unlikely importance: 7

“The cli­mate of our cul­ture is chang­ing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species dis­ap­pear and are replaced.”


The ignited mar­kets by pro­vid­ing a inter­face which is visu­ally com­pet­i­tive with paper, and easy access to a remark­able frac­tion of Ama­zon’s inven­to­ry. It’s very nice.

The pric­ing of ebooks is con­tro­ver­sial2; why should an ebook cost as much as the book? The Kindle’s ebooks are small dig­i­tal files, as opposed to mul­ti­-pound slabs of exact­ingly man­u­fac­tured wood and cloth3. The for­mer is deliv­ered wire­less­ly, while the lat­ter requires globe-s­pan­ning trans­port net­works. Surely there is vast over­head for the paper, and ebook prices should reflect their mar­ginal cost of pro­duc­tion of 0 cents?

Not many expect ebooks to be priced in cents, since the author expects to be paid a fair bit for her writ­ing, and the pub­lisher expects to be paid for edit­ing & for­mat­ting it, and Ama­zon is there dis­creetly cough­ing for its share45. So it won’t be 0¢, but why not $3 or less?

The price is not right

In a sense, this is a ques­tion. The right price for ebooks is what­ever the mar­ket will bear. If $3 is not the right price, then con­sumers will not buy, and the price will con­tinue to fall until they do.

In another sense, it’s a diffi­cult ques­tion as some peo­ple seem to be think­ing in medieval terms with the moral con­cept of the ‘’, which is inap­plic­a­ble to books. (Just prices are easy to set for neces­si­ties - eg. if any­body is starv­ing to death, then the price of food is not at the just price - but this does­n’t work for lux­u­ries. And most of Ama­zon’s mer­chan­dise must be clas­si­fied as a lux­u­ry. One is not going to die with­out the lat­est video game or nov­el.)


But the pre­sup­po­si­tion of a dis­cus­sion of how to ensure a profitable price level mutu­ally accept­able to con­sumers & cor­po­rate pub­lish­ers is that the pub­lish­ers should sur­vive. That is: if books are not eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able at nat­ural e-book prices (eg. $3), will soci­ety be worse off? Should pub­lish­ers or nov­el­ists be sub­si­dized67? They cer­tainly are sub­si­dized in many ways direct & indi­rect. Some areas of artis­tic endeav­our seem to try to prove that art is worth­less and a joke; it’s a lit­tle hard to explain some areas of mod­ern or post-mod­ern art8 in any other way, and who are we to dis­agree with them? But that’s a cheap way out. What about art that is quite seri­ous and aspires to the age-old goals of art?

The more I think about it, the harder I find jus­ti­fy­ing any sub­sidy.

We value high author roy­al­ties because this allows authors to spe­cial­ize in being authors; spe­cial­iza­tion is a good thing because it allows authors to pro­duce more than they oth­er­wise would; and higher pro­duc­tion is good because we value the fruits there­of.

But higher pro­duc­tion isn’t always good; pro­duc­tion can be mis­guided or wasted 9. (And strength­ened copy­right law may not be an effec­tive sub­sidy regard­less.10)

100 apples in the barrel

“Where words are scarce, they are sel­dom spent in vain, / For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.”

William Shake­speare11

Sup­pose we all have 100 apples. Our lives do not revolve around apples, though we like them well enough. But still, 100 is too many; even if we ate 5 a day, the rest would go bad before we ate them. And of course, it’s unlikely that any of us will go to the green­gro­cers and buy more. Our of apples has plunged to zero12.

From our per­spec­tive, the farmer bring­ing a truck of apples to the green­gro­cers has wasted his labor. Let’s hope he’ll find some­thing to do with those sur­plus apples so the resources that went into mak­ing them were not wasted - maybe bake some apple pies, or com­post them all.

Now sup­pose this was­n’t a one-time gift. We live in a magic world where every­one gets 100 apples a week. Here the farmer’s entire career is wast­ed. Isn’t he wast­ing his life? He’s a smart fel­low; no rea­son he could­n’t go do some­thing more use­ful.

We could invent ways to employ this farmer. Per­haps every week he breaks into every­body’s kitchens and steals their apples so they have to buy apples from him. Per­haps he’ll run a large mar­ket­ing cam­paign to con­vince every­one that his apples are supe­rior to the mag­i­cal apples. Per­haps some peo­ple get but really wanted , and he runs an apple-trad­ing hub, fill­ing in deficits with his apples. Per­haps he lives on gov­ern­ment sub­sidy checks & farms apples as a hob­by. Or some­thing.

But nev­er­the­less, these apple-farm­ers rep­re­sent a . That’s bad.

100 books on the shelf

“Do tech­nol­ogy and eco­nomic growth cre­ate prob­lems? Cer­tain­ly. But as Mau­rice Cheva­lier said about the dis­ad­van­tages of grow­ing old, con­sider the alter­na­tive…if you chose to live in Renais­sance Flo­rence you would not be able to enjoy and . In ’s Lon­don, you would not be able to lis­ten to Beethoven or Brahms. In La , you would not be able to read or . To live in today’s world is not only to have access to all the best that has come before, but also to have a breadth and ease of access that is com­pa­ra­bly greater than that enjoyed even by our par­ents, let alone ear­lier gen­er­a­tions.”

, Human Accom­plish­ment

Now, can we apply this anal­o­gy? I don’t have 100 apples, but per­haps I have - 100 nov­els.

Not any nov­els, but nov­els. Nor any 100 Sci-Fi nov­els, but the win­ners of the 2 most pres­ti­gious SF awards for the last 50 years: the and s.

Reading them

“Del­i­cacy of taste is as much to be desired and cul­ti­vated as del­i­cacy of pas­sion is to be lament­ed, and to be reme­died, if pos­si­ble. The good or ill acci­dents of life are very lit­tle at our dis­pos­al; but we are pretty much mas­ters what books we shall read, what diver­sions we shall par­take of, and what com­pany we shall keep­…When a man is pos­sessed of that tal­ent, he is more happy by what pleases his taste, than by what grat­i­fies his appetites, and receives more enjoy­ment from a poem or a piece of rea­son­ing than the most expen­sive lux­ury can afford.”

, 1777 (Essay I: “Of The Del­i­cacy Of Taste And Pas­sion”)

“…in an infor­ma­tion-rich world, the wealth of infor­ma­tion means a dearth of some­thing else: a scarcity of what­ever it is that infor­ma­tion con­sumes. What infor­ma­tion con­sumes is rather obvi­ous: it con­sumes the atten­tion of its recip­i­ents. Hence a wealth of infor­ma­tion cre­ates a poverty of atten­tion and a need to allo­cate that atten­tion effi­ciently among the over­abun­dance of infor­ma­tion sources that might con­sume it…A rel­a­tively straight­for­ward way of mea­sur­ing how much scarce resources a mes­sage con­sumes is by not­ing how much time the recip­i­ents spends on it.”

, “Design­ing Orga­ni­za­tions for an Infor­ma­tion-Rich World”, 1971.

“…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, imme­di­ately or in the long run.”

Thore­au, Walden

Sup­pose I read the 100 at the rate of 1 a week13, or 52 a year. I will fin­ish them in ~2 years.14

It will take an appre­cia­ble frac­tion of my life to read a van­ish­ingly small frac­tion of one small fic­tion gen­re, that itself has existed for less than 2 cen­turies and been writ­ten almost exclu­sively in 2 coun­tries15.

And what if I want to read the pre­quels and sequels? Not all win­ners are as pro­lific in sequels & pre­quels as , but these win­ners include many duolo­gies and trilo­gies (or more)16. I can prob­a­bly expect to lose another 2 or 6 years to them. Cer­tain­ly, I can expect it to take another 4 years to read the 2 top run­ner-ups for each award. And did I men­tion that these awards have mul­ti­ple cat­e­gories? Many of SF’s great­est works are short sto­ries or novel­las, which com­pete for differ­ent Neb­ula & Hugo awards.

And of course, it’s not like the Hugo & Neb­ula awards are the defin­i­tive list of SF ‘books to read’ - treats of hun­dreds of writ­ers, and men­tions thou­sands of works; has more than 4000 entries. Like Man­del­brot’s , the more thor­oughly I search, the longer my read­ing list becomes.

New = bad

“It is worth seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion how great an amount of time—their own and other peo­ple’s—and of paper is wasted by this swarm of mediocre poets, and how inju­ri­ous their influ­ence is. For the pub­lic always seizes on what is new, and shows even more incli­na­tion to what is per­verse and dull, as being akin to its own nature. These works of the medioc­re, there­fore, draw the pub­lic away and hold it back from gen­uine mas­ter­pieces, and from the edu­ca­tion they afford. Thus they work directly against the benign influ­ence of genius, ruin taste more and more, and so arrest the progress of the age.”


The list is now 8 years in length; if the SF indus­try had imploded the day I start­ed, I would not have noticed.

I would be bet­ter off, actu­al­ly, if the indus­try did implode! The last SF or Fan­tasy I read was tril­o­gy. It was good, but I know there are bet­ter18. My read­ing time is finite, and read­ing Mist­born pushed out read­ing tetral­ogy - which I ulti­mately enjoyed more. If the indus­try had imploded before Mist­born was pub­lished, I would have read Long Sun instead19.

It would­n’t be diffi­cult to spend the rest of my life read­ing only SF pub­lished before 2009, and it would be more effi­cient as time is the keen­est crit­ic.

The con­nec­tion to other aspects of mod­ern life and is appar­ent: there’s a whereby cheap yet unsat­is­fy­ing works will push out more sat­is­fy­ing but more demand­ing enter­tain­ment. Humans suffer from ; we may know that in the long run, Mist­born will be for­got­ten when Long Sun is remem­bered, and that once we get start­ed, we will enjoy it more - yet when the moment comes to choose, we pre­fer the choice of imme­di­ate plea­sure.

Why is this? For that mat­ter, why do so many dis­crete flour­ish around fic­tion and seem to out­num­ber sub­cul­tures based on non­fic­tion top­ics like guns? Why does fic­tion seem to sab­o­tage effec­tive­ness in real-life? Rather than enhance it as seems plau­si­ble and as it could very well do since inter­ac­tive fic­tion is capa­ble of slip­ping enor­mous amounts of infor­ma­tion into one’s mind (eg. What video games have to teach us about learn­ing and lit­er­acy, Gee 2003). Right now, we can only spec­u­late; I sus­pect the answer lies at the con­ver­gence of highly abstract inter­pre­ta­tions of cre­ative expe­ri­ence, mod­ern video-game instan­ti­a­tions of , and the neu­rol­ogy of fic­tion20. Robin Han­son sug­gests, based in part on analy­sis of 201 major British nov­els21, fic­tion is closer to sig­nal­ing and wish-ful­fill­ment - serv­ing to edu­cate us about group mem­ber­ship or inter­ac­tion, and send­ing mes­sages about what groups one is in (it’s hard to fake a real knowl­edge of , eg.) It’s an inter­est­ing area, but not strictly rel­e­vant to the topic of whether new fic­tion should be sub­si­dized and its mer­its com­pared to old (ex­ist­ing) fic­tion.

Generalizing this

“Read­ing any­thing less than 50 years old is like drink­ing new wine: per­mis­si­ble once or twice a year and usu­ally fol­lowed by regret and a headache…I defi­nitely have fol­lowed that dic­tum. Maybe a lit­tle too much so, in that I rarely read any­thing mod­ern at all. When it comes to books. I don’t fol­low that rule when it comes to music or movies or blogs. But on the level of books, there is so much good stuff out there that has stood the test of time, I don’t run out of inter­est­ing things to read.”

topol­o­gist 22

But read­ing only SF is impov­er­ish­ing. I always wanted to get into mys­ter­ies and French lit­er­a­ture. But those will take at least 2 decades. Now I’m in my 50s. I’d bet­ter hurry if I ever want to read Eng­lish or Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, or any non­fic­tion!

So, why do I care what hap­pens to the SF mar­ket? How does it con­cern me that the short story mag­a­zines are col­laps­ing and will train no new writ­ers? I have no need of them. I already have 100 apples.


Or how about the genre of clas­si­cal music? I once saw a com­plete col­lec­tion of in 160 CDs. I’ve no idea how many hours of music that is, and am too fright­ened to cal­cu­late it. And how many lis­tens would it take to rea­son­ably appre­ci­ate it? A life­time per­haps.

Why should I care about some pub­lisher try­ing to record another CD of the ? I’m not a con­duc­tor, I will hear no improve­ment. To me, there is no differ­ence between the world’s great­est vio­lin­ist and the 10th-great­est.


Or con­sider another medi­um: movies. Have you seen the ’s Top 250 movies? There are excel­lent movies in there. Some are pro­found, oth­ers mov­ing, and not a few pro­foundly mov­ing. Why are you going to watch or ? For enter­tain­ment val­ue? But there are movies in that list which are far more enter­tain­ing, I assure you.

Even if you’ve seen the top 50, there’s another 200 to choose from. If you think the IMDB is too fad­dish and Inter­net-cen­tric, there’s no short­age of other lists - the New York Times would be happy to tell you all about “The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made” (6 years at 3 movies a week). And what about tele­vi­sion? If we ask IMDB about movies by year or all the movies and TV episodes it knows about, it’s happy to tell us: 1,111,244 episodes; 263,524 movies; and 1,920,757 works in total (as of 2011-06-28). We can also look at movie pro­duc­tion over time, where we find that as early as 1917 there were 5,490 movies made. (A cur­rent esti­mate for the EU is “1100 fea­tures and 1400 shorts per year”.) So even if we got in at the begin­ning, we never had a chance at watch­ing so much as a small frac­tion.

Here’s a thought prob­lem: sup­pose an inten­sive study revealed, author­i­ta­tive­ly, that remov­ing all sub­si­dies and ‘intel­lec­tual prop­erty rights’ would cause movie pro­duc­tion to fall by 95%. Would you regard that as a dis­as­ter, some­thing to be decried and abhorred and leg­is­lated again­st? I sus­pect so. Sup­pose the study found that, specifi­cal­ly, this 95% fall was com­posed par­tially of movies never get­ting made, but also par­tially of movies get­ting made and then lost or never dis­trib­uted or never shown at all (per­haps because in the absence of copy­right, pirates would under­cut them and take all profit­s); would this change your opin­ion much? Prob­a­bly not for the bet­ter - if any­thing, it’s even more hor­ri­fy­ing, in the same way almost win­ning the lot­tery but miss­ing by 1 num­ber is more sad­den­ing than miss­ing it by 2 num­bers.

But the inter­est­ing thing is that this is already hap­pen­ing: less than 5% of movies are avail­able to the pub­lic23, and only around 10% of silent films sur­vive in any sense any­where24. So that 95% fall has already hap­pened; civ­i­liza­tion seems to have sur­vived25. (A reflec­tion on the ‘movie canon’: if you believe the canon is aes­thet­i­cally invalid and has not suc­cess­fully picked out the best movies made, then that implies any­where up to 90% of the best movies ever made are lost for­ever to you.)

Genres in general

“When will we real­ize that the fact that we can become accus­tomed to any­thing, how­ever dis­gust­ing at first, makes it nec­es­sary to exam­ine care­fully every­thing we have become accus­tomed to?”

George Bernard Shaw, A Trea­tise on Par­ents and Chil­dren, 1910

Any field over a cen­tury old has built up a stock of mas­ter­pieces that could fill a life­time.26

Fields that are new, or still tech­ni­cally devel­op­ing, may not have enough. For exam­ple, video games - even the great­est arcade games from 20 or 30 years ago such as or _ has a hard time com­pet­ing against mediocre con­tem­po­rary games. Some­thing sim­i­lar may be true of mod­ern tele­vi­sion pro­grams27 (although pre­sum­ably the devel­op­ment and sophis­ti­ca­tion is fin­ished in still other mod­ern for­mats like movies, which draw the most capa­ble and most mon­ey).

Grant­ing that new/developing argu­ment, one only delays the day of reck­on­ing, and as time pass­es, new fields are nec­es­sar­ily an ever smaller frac­tion of the gen­eral sur­plus of art. After all, while we may not be able divide up all art into cat­e­gories of ‘paint­ing’ or ‘Russ­ian novel’, there is some­thing we can count and which is absolutely cru­cial to the argu­ment: time. Our lives are only so long, and they are denom­i­nated quite pre­cise­ly, sec­ond by sec­ond. We have 500,000 hours28.

Does it mat­ter whether it’s a bal­let or a novel if we devote 3 of those hours to it? Art­works may be as non-com­mod­i­fied or incom­pa­ra­ble or sub­jec­tive as we please, but we can’t get around our own lim­its. For our finite lives, it’s good enough if we call it art. And we don’t nec­es­sar­ily need to assume sub­sti­tu­tion of works across gen­res; given enough time, any genre will out­run your lifes­pan. As gen­res mul­ti­ply, it becomes ever more diffi­cult to argue that some new and small genre is the only one that can sat­isfy one and that it mer­its sub­sidy. (And yet, despite the scarcity of our atten­tion, we frit­ter it away and value our time at next to noth­ing: some­one watch­ing an hour of TV is so worth­less that after nearly a cen­tu­ry, the most an adver­tiser can afford to pay the TV sta­tion for that per­son’s atten­tion is 20 cents.)

Media shock

“The soul has no assign­ments, nei­ther cooks Nor ref­er­ees: it wastes its time. It wastes its time. Here in this enclave there are cen­turies For you to waste… The books, just leafed through, whis­per end­less­ly.”

Ran­dall Jar­rell29

I hope I’ve made my point: we live in an age of utter media abun­dance. Like none before us, we can par­take of the great­est works in all medi­ums of all ages. We do not sip from a foun­tain labo­ri­ously sup­plied by hard-work­ing artists & authors, nor even guz­zle from a fire-hose hooked up to a print­ing press; we are being shot off Nia­gara Falls. The impact alone will kill us.

This has been true for a very long time. Even medi­ums dis­missed as dead pro­duce astound­ing quan­ti­ties; the Amer­i­can mag­a­zine receives 100,000 poem sub­mis­sions a year. The has been run­ning out of space since the 1970s; it ordered a 13-acre ware­house with 153 miles of high­-den­sity shelv­ing - and expects this to suffice for just 20 years30. This abun­dance may have been invis­i­ble to most peo­ple before the Inter­net. The largest col­lec­tion a per­son would ever run into would be his local library, and that is reas­sur­ingly small. It has a few dozen thou­sand vol­umes, per­haps, of which some­one will want to read only a small frac­tion. A good reader could get through 1 book a day on aver­age, and so one could encom­pass the whole in a life­time. Who vis­its the Library of Con­gress and is struck by the phys­i­cal real­ity of dozens of mil­lions of items? No one. Between 2002 and 2009, pub­lish­ing ana­lysts esti­mated 6,785,915 were assigned31. ( esti­mates there are >130 mil­lion book­s.) One could­n’t hope to buy more than one could con­sume either, as books and media are expen­sive per hour. (Niche con­sumer can expect even worse prices; at one point, Amer­i­can anime fans were pay­ing more than $40 for <30 min­utes32.)

But the Inter­net puts the equiv­a­lent of mul­ti­ple Libraries of Con­gresses at one’s fin­ger­tips. One only has to visit a Bit­Tor­rent tracker web­site and see the entries scroll off the screen for hun­dreds of pages, each rep­re­sent­ing a mas­sive col­lec­tion soak­ing up end­less weeks and years. All of it is there for the tak­ing. It can’t be ignored. Every­one who wants a par­tic­u­lar web­page or album or movie is forced to see the results of their search queries and muse, ‘if my nar­row request turned up this much - how much must there be in all?’ The num­bers become numb­ing if one projects out just a lit­tle way into the future:

“So far humans have cre­ated 500,000 differ­ent movies and about one mil­lion TV episodes. At least 11 mil­lion differ­ent songs have been record­ed…If the cur­rent rates of inven­tive­ness con­tin­ue, in 2060 there will be 1.1 bil­lion33 unique songs and 12 bil­lion differ­ent kinds of prod­ucts for sale.”34

1.1 bil­lion unique songs beg­gars the imag­i­na­tion. When I was a child, I would some­times see how high I could count before I lost track, men­tally count­ing in a blur; over a peri­ods of many months, occa­sion­ally writ­ing down the cur­rent num­ber before bed­time, I man­aged to count to 2 mil­lion. The num­bers began to appall me - ever since I have never seen the word ‘num­ber’ with­out see­ing ‘numb’ in it. But 2 mil­lion is tiny. It is barely 1⁄600 of the raw numer­i­cal count of songs that I will live to see pro­duced.

Even indi­vid­ual sites or writ­ers now sur­pass the human. Who has the time to read and under­stand all of ?35 Who can view every arti­cle and doc­u­ment and pho­to­graph and edit that streams through Wikipedia every sec­ond? I have seen sober esti­mates that if one were to start at the first Wikipedia arti­cle and read alpha­bet­i­cal­ly, the per­cent­age of Wikipedia one has read will go down over time, the arti­cles were cre­ated so fast. Who can watch the 35 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every min­ute?

This is a sit­u­a­tion that old nos­trums do not address. We do not need more cre­ativ­ity for the sake of cre­ation36.

Let’s ban new books

“Con­se­quent­ly, it is soon recog­nised that they write for the sake of fill­ing up the paper, and this is the case some­times with the best authors… As soon as this is per­ceived the book should be thrown away, for time is pre­cious. As a mat­ter of fact, the author is cheat­ing the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of fill­ing up paper; because his pre­text for writ­ing is that he has some­thing to impart…It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the sub­ject that writes any­thing worth writ­ing. What an ines­timable advan­tage it would be, if, in every branch of lit­er­a­ture, there existed only a few but excel­lent books!”

Arthur Schopen­hauer, “On Author­ship and Style”

“By this, my son­ne, be admon­ished: of mak­ing many bookes there is no end, and much studie is a weari­nesse of the flesh.”

Eccle­si­astes 12:12

With our too too short lives, and so much to see, one does one­self a great dis­ser­vice by con­sum­ing any­thing but the best.

And thus, do not authors & artists do us a dis­ser­vice by cre­at­ing medi­oc­rity we, being only human, will at least try? Maybe these authors & artists are only cre­at­ing s!

Let’s look back on the argu­ment:

  1. Soci­ety ought to dis­cour­age eco­nom­i­cally ineffi­cient activ­i­ties.
    At least, it ought not to encour­age ineffi­cien­cy. It may not do this per­fect­ly, but this is still a desider­ata; spe­cial plead­ing for some activ­i­ty, say­ing that some other activ­ity or mar­ket is far more eco­nom­i­cally ineffi­cient, is not a good rea­son.
  2. If some good a can be cre­ated to fill a need, and there is an exist­ing & avail­able good b that fills that need equally well, then it is eco­nom­i­cally ineffi­cient to use a and not b.
  3. Con­sumers of new art would be equally sat­is­fied by exist­ing art.
  4. By 2 & 3: it is eco­nom­i­cally ineffi­cient to pro­duce new art.

∴ By 1 & 4: Soci­ety ought to dis­cour­age new art

In short: old stuff is as good as the new, and it’s cheap­er; so mak­ing new stuff is waste­ful.


One of the basic tac­tics with any objec­tion­able argu­ment is to see whether any of the infer­ence steps are faulty. In this case, we can see that there is noth­ing wrong with the log­ic. So we’re left with reject­ing premis­es, or accept­ing the con­clu­sion.

Here’s what we can reject:

  1. that soci­eties ought to encour­age effi­ciency
  2. that cre­at­ing some­thing when there’s an exist­ing object is ineffi­cient
  3. that old books can replace new ones.

Society doesn’t care?

Now, #1 seems unob­jec­tion­able. To reject that premise is to argue either that soci­ety ought to dis­cour­age eco­nomic effi­cien­cy, or be neu­tral about effi­cien­cy.

The for­mer is false. There are gov­ern­men­tal pro­grams and poli­cies acknowl­edged to be eco­nom­i­cally ineffi­cient, but every­one agrees that their ineffi­ciency is a flaw, and the pro­grams are jus­ti­fi­able not because of, but despite the ineffi­ciency - they sup­pos­edly deliver some other ben­e­fit which com­pen­sates for the cost. If there were some alter­na­tive which was effi­cient, it would be bet­ter.

Neu­tral­ity may not be wrong. But vot­ers con­sis­tently elect can­di­dates who promise to grow the econ­omy & make things bet­ter; and gov­ern­ments have a long his­tory of sup­port­ing projects - like bridges & high­ways - whose jus­ti­fi­ca­tions are that gov­ern­ment ought to help make the econ­omy more effi­cient. So it seems wrong as well.

What’s efficiency anyway?

Premise #2 is weak­er. To me, this premise about sub­sti­tutabil­ity seems so fun­da­men­tal that I’m not sure how to defend it. If you need a glove, and you have a per­fectly good one already, isn’t spend­ing $20 on a new glove the same thing as throw­ing your money away? Isn’t #2 a gen­er­al­iza­tion of this prin­ci­ple?

If you reject #2, I’m not really sure what eco­nom­ics you’re work­ing under. But there are a few objec­tions we could clas­sify under this head­ing, gen­er­ally pos­tu­lat­ing , such as Key­ne­sian think­ing about stim­u­lus spend­ing.

They Snatched Society’s Brain!

"When one reads the verse of peo­ple who can­not write poem­s—peo­ple who some­times have more intel­li­gence, sen­si­bil­i­ty, and moral dis­crim­i­na­tion than most of the poet­s—it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy god­mother who says to the poet, after her col­leagues have show­ered on him the most dis­con­cert­ing and ambigu­ous gifts, ‘Well, never mind. You’re still the only one that can write poet­ry.’

[Ran­dall Jar­rell, “Verse Chron­i­cle”37

An inter­locu­tor might sug­gest that per­haps the cre­ation & con­sump­tion of new fic­tion or nov­els serves some laud­able pur­pose beyond swelling libraries.

Now, what good deeds could only new works pro­duce? Cer­tainly it’s not edi­fy­ing & edu­cat­ing our youth; it is not as if the ped­a­gogy of Euclid­ean geom­e­try has changed much over the last mil­len­nia, nor is 20th cen­tury fic­tion known for teach­ing moral lessons.

But new fic­tion could be an impor­tant soci­etal mech­a­nism for dis­cussing new devel­op­ments and for pon­der­ing the future. SF would be an excel­lent exam­ple of this; the name pre­ferred by con­nois­seurs - ‘’ - points straight to this ben­e­fit, and cre­ators often cite this as the non-en­ter­tain­ment value of their works38. Who but knows that the con­stant under­cur­rent of com­put­ers & cloning & space travel in SF has not helped soci­ety pre­pare for the future? Has­n’t SF directly inspired any num­ber of young men & women to enter the hard sci­ences (as opposed to ded­i­cat­ing their tal­ents to, say, finance), with ben­e­fits redound­ing to all human­i­ty? What’s a dead­-weight loss of bil­lions a year com­pared with land­ing on the Moon?

I find this argu­ment uncom­fort­able. It’s argu­ing that fic­tion is jus­ti­fied inas­much as it makes supe­rior pro­pa­ganda39; , an age-old use of art and one par­tic­u­larly promi­nent in the 20th cen­tury. It may be pro­pa­ganda in the ser­vice of a noble & good cause, and sway­ing some­one to choose a career in sci­ence is not as evil as into clear­ing Iraqi mine­fields with their bod­ies - but the moral­ity of it is diffi­cult.

And a util­i­tar­ian might cavil about the ben­e­fits.


“The read­ing of sto­ries and delight­ing in them made Don Quixote a gen­tle­man: the believ­ing them lit­er­ally made him a mad­man who slew lambs instead of feed­ing them.”

, (“A Touch­stone For Dogma”)

“If some­one does not believe in fairies, he does not need to teach his chil­dren ‘There are no fairies’; he can omit to teach them the word ‘fairy’.”

, 40

Fic­tion can be unfairly per­sua­sive, bypass­ing our ratio­nal fac­ul­ties41; it may be that we default to believ­ing what we’re told and dis­be­lief is only a late­com­er. Infor­ma­tion from fic­tion can sub­sti­tute for non­fic­tion (time con­sump­tion is zero-sum between fic­tion & non­fic­tion) and in suffi­cient vol­ume, dis­credit it, which can lead to direct harm - TvTropes’s “Real­ity is Unre­al­is­tic”, which is about self­-re­in­forc­ing unre­al­is­tic fic­tional depic­tions of real­i­ty, claims that “…Nonethe­less, the pub­lic is largely con­vinced that cars present a seri­ous dan­ger of explo­sion after a crash, which has resulted in many, many cases of well-mean­ing mem­bers of the pub­lic pulling injured vic­tims out of cars, caus­ing fur­ther injury to them, to get them away from the car before it explodes.” (SF, in par­tic­u­lar, is often good inversely pro­por­tional to how much sci­en­tific truth it con­tain­s.) The author’s motive may be malign as eas­ily as benign; read­ers can read a bla­tant alle­gory of Nazi­ism like Spin­rad’s with­out cot­ton­ing on, and the generic fantasy/medieval and sci­ence fic­tion settings/plots are intrin­si­cally hos­tile to almost all mod­ern val­ues (see for exam­ple “The Sword of Good”, or Brin on Lord of the Rings & Star Wars). The author’s intent may not even mat­ter; one’s default reac­tion to being told some­thing is to believe it42, and psy­chol­ogy has found that unre­lated input still affect sub­stan­tially our beliefs (these effects are known as , , etc). This effects are not triv­ial; instances like hypo­thet­i­cals change what pur­chases you make or whether you dis­like some­one, prime for­eign goals, affect mood, and they can lead to the for­ma­tion of . Prim­ing & con­t­a­m­i­na­tion is very bad news for any­one who wants to think that they are not affected by the fic­tion they read. Peo­ple seem to believe what they dream, the more engross­ing a fic­tion the more you blindly favor the pro­tag­o­nist and believe the story real­is­tic, peo­ple who watch TV believe43 poetic jus­tice actu­ally hap­pens out­side sto­ries and the world is more dan­ger­ous than it is and TV (which may explain why it’s eas­ier to brain­wash peo­ple with TV into sup­port­ing the death penalty rather than gay mar­riage), per­haps because view­ers can emo­tion­ally treat char­ac­ters on screen as real44 and replace­ments for real rela­tion­ships with neg­a­tive con­se­quences like reduc­tions in fam­ily size or preg­nancy rates

When we read thor­ough research on nar­ra­tives that lead to changes in behav­ior and reduc­tion in stereo­typ­ing, we should not for­get that this makes fic­tion a dou­ble-edged sword.

Every­one tells kids that what they see on TV isn’t real - of course! But what makes you so sure that you don’t believe what fic­tions you read?

“The human brain evi­dently oper­ates on some vari­a­tion of the famous prin­ci­ple enun­ci­ated in [Lewis Car­rol­l’s] ‘’: ‘What I tell you 3 times is true.’

, Cyber­net­ics: Or the Con­trol and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the Ani­mal and the Machine (1948)

As a soci­ety, is it good to have our dis­cus­sions and views about incred­i­bly impor­tant mat­ters like space explo­ration hijacked by fic­tion? It’s hard to see why fic­tion would yield dis­cus­sion of equal or supe­rior qual­ity to dis­cus­sions based on non-fic­tion. Fic­tional evi­dence is par­tic­u­larly fal­la­cious. Con­sider dis­cus­sions of ; if one sees any men­tion of fic­tional enti­ties like or , one can stop read­ing imme­di­ate­ly, for the exchange is surely worth­less. A dis­cus­sion about the non­fic­tional enti­ties or , though, might be worth­while.

So either fic­tion is effec­tive as pro­pa­ganda and set­ting soci­etal agen­das, or it isn’t. If the lat­ter, then the loss is nil; if the for­mer, then fic­tion is dan­ger­ous!

Two sides of the same organ

“It is a good rule, after read­ing a new book, never to allow your­self another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own out­look. It is spe­cially good at see­ing cer­tain truths and spe­cially liable to make cer­tain mis­takes. We all, there­fore, need the books that will cor­rect the char­ac­ter­is­tic mis­takes of our own peri­od. And that means the old book­s…Noth­ing strikes me more when I read the con­tro­ver­sies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usu­ally assum­ing with­out ques­tion a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as com­pletely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united - united with each other and against ear­lier and later ages - by a great mass of com­mon assump­tion­s….None of us can fully escape this blind­ness, but we shall cer­tainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only mod­ern books.”


“And there never was a time, I believe, when those who read at all, read so many more books by liv­ing authors than books by dead authors; there never was a time so com­pletely parochial, so shut off from the past…In­di­vid­u­al­is­tic democ­racy has come to high tide: and it is more diffi­cult today to be an indi­vid­ual than it ever was before.”


Maybe there’s a differ­ent exter­nal­i­ty. Instead of pow­er­ing deci­sion-mak­ing, or fun­nel­ing peo­ple into sci­ence, maybe fic­tion serves as kind of a global brain - enabling cre­ative think­ing and break­throughs that a more sober soci­ety will not.

This the­sis reminds me of the quote from that goes:

“…in Italy for thirty years under the Bor­gias, they had war­fare, ter­ror, mur­der and blood­shed, but they pro­duced Michelan­gelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renais­sance. In Switzer­land, they had broth­erly love, they had five hun­dred years of democ­racy and peace - and what did that pro­duce? The cuckoo clock.”47

The evi­dence for this idea might be that every great sci­en­tific or tech­no­log­i­cal power was also strong in the human­i­ties, and excep­tions like Soviet Rus­sia only prove the rule by cre­at­ing sci­en­tific enclaves mim­ic­k­ing the freer coun­tries.

But of course, this might be con­fus­ing cor­re­la­tion with cau­sa­tion. What char­ac­ter­izes those coun­tries is a gen­eral free­dom of action & thought. Some incline to the arts, some to the sci­ences. Suc­cesses in both domains spring from a com­mon cause, not each oth­er. After all, if the arts could fer­til­ize the sci­ences, one would expect some reci­procity - and the human­i­ties have made 48 of sci­ence’s tech­niques, world­view, or results.

Con­cep­tu­al­ly, I see no prob­lem with a nation of sober hard-headed engi­neers and sci­en­tists doing quite as well with­out the nov­el­ists.

If we think of specifics, the idea of cross-fer­til­iza­tion retreats. What Eliz­a­bethan plays helped Isaac New­ton? When Ein­stein thought of rid­ing a beam of light, did the nov­els of Thomas Mann play any role? What hath to do with ?

Won’t someone think of the chemists?

One could worry that the fail­ure of fic­tion mar­kets to find a sus­tain­able model might mean the end for non­fic­tion mate­ri­al, which includes texts & research on things pre­cious to us all such as vac­cines.

After all, many of the same argu­ments seem to apply to the flood of non­fic­tion mate­r­i­al. data­base includes 1.023 mil­lion PhD the­ses pub­lished in the last 30 years from just 151 Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions;49 and it says says that its full data­base of PhD and Mas­ters’ the­ses runs to over 2 mil­lion, and is increas­ing at more than 70,000 works a year. Much of this mate­r­ial would seem to be ster­ile and unpro­duc­tive, as can be sci­en­tific papers in gen­er­al.505152

But this worry is unnec­es­sary. There are sev­eral pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The non­fic­tion mar­ket could be sub­si­dized. This is quite jus­ti­fi­able. Sci­ence, after all, is heav­ily sub­si­dized already. Why? Because it has enor­mous value 53 and new research can’t be replaced by old, almost by defi­n­i­tion. There’s intrin­sic value to pop­u­lat­ing new chap­ters and books with new results, value that isn’t there with fic­tion.

The non­fic­tion mar­ket could sur­vive as the fic­tion mar­ket with­ers away. Fields might lose the sub­sidy of stu­dents forced to buy the lat­est triv­ial­ly-changed edi­tion, but that’s a preda­tory sub­sidy and more valu­able to the pub­lish­ers than the aca­d­e­mic authors, so the loss would be min­i­mal.

Accept no substitutes, or, I can’t believe it’s not Octavia Butler

The claim of #3 is that we can, with­out loss, switch every­one over from read­ing con­tem­po­rary fic­tion to not-so-con­tem­po­rary fic­tion. I dare­say this is the premise every­one will ques­tion imme­di­ate­ly. The clas­sics are an essen­tial part of an intel­lec­tu­ally bal­anced break­fast, but can they be all of it? That is, would cre­at­ing new works move us to a opti­mal selec­tion of works, a move large enough that it pays for all the costs involved?

This imme­di­ately seems true, but is it? Why can’t new works just rearrange rank­ings, and merely dis­place equally good works?

Lost works

In many respects, much of fic­tion is worth­less. For exam­ple, the medieval Japan­ese believed that was miss­ing sev­eral chap­ters. Sup­pose this were true? How exactly has the world been harmed? Peo­ple seem to enjoy Genji mono­gatari quite well enough. Would the dis­cov­ery of 3 or 4 con­clud­ing chap­ters improve the work? Clearly it would lead to a great deal of work being done, since text­books and papers would have to be updat­ed, but how likely is it that the extra chap­ters will make Genji a greater work? Genji isn’t the most tightly plot­ted work. If an act were cut out of , it would be a poorer play for it, and many poems would suffer for los­ing a stan­za; but plays and poems are usu­ally writ­ten with an eye to per­for­mance - there’s a pre­mium on length that isn’t there with nov­els. Con­sider . If 100 pages dropped right out of the mid­dle, do you think any new read­ers would notice? Or if a few heroic hexa­m­e­ters dropped out of the , would our enjoy­ment be any less? ‘Even Homer nods’; it is the entire work that is valu­able.

Peo­ple might say that they would derive much less enjoy­ment from an incom­plete, edit­ed, or abridged ver­sion, but I don’t know how much we can trust such utter­ances. They might just be mak­ing a rit­ual gen­u­flec­tion to the emi­nent author, or uphold­ing a social image as a per­son who cares about accu­ra­cy, com­plete­ness, and authen­tic­i­ty. If we can’t, if there is some ceil­ing of n utilons of enjoy­ment which is reached by many books, then premise #3 is saved.

Fur­ther, there is a great deal of his­tor­i­cal evi­dence that we have lost awe-in­spir­ing works, yet no one but schol­ars par­tic­u­larly lament them. There is the and , to cite two famous mass loss­es, but in gen­eral the great clas­sics sur­vive in sur­pris­ingly few num­bers; sur­vived only in one (fire-dam­aged) copy, and the Eddas (al­most the sole sources for ) like­wise. The Greek plays suffered sim­i­lar losses (7 of >123, 7 of 90, 19 of 92), and what sur­vived were not always the best works54. And lit­er­a­ture is favored as words can be repro­duced; the Greek music Plato & Aris­to­tle con­sid­ered so impor­tant, or the Chi­nese music Con­fu­cius con­sid­ered equally vital? Gone. Greek art is lit­tle bet­ter - who even knows that Greek stat­ues were not aus­tere mar­ble but painted?

But can we assume that there’s a com­mon val­u­a­tion for how enjoy­able all books are? is quite differ­ent from . Alice may value the for­mer much less than the lat­ter, while Bob wants a nau­ti­cal drama & not a com­edy of man­ners. In this case, because both works exist, both Alice & Bob can be sat­is­fied and we reach an opti­mum.

But what if the book Bob desires has­n’t been pub­lished, but would be soon if there were a mar­ket? He will be sad­dened to have to read of but­lers and har­poon­ers instead of the shadow war of . In this binary case, Alice will still be fine, but Bob will be worse off.

The full exam­ple is not so bad for us, though. It’s plau­si­ble that Bob would enjoy Pirates vs. Nin­ja: The Stabben­ing more than Moby Dick if those were the only 2 choic­es. But there are over 32 mil­lion books in the ; is Bob so extra­or­di­nar­ily picky that not a sin­gle exist­ing book would be as or more enjoy­able than Pirates vs Ninja?

This is not so implau­si­ble; Amer­i­can cul­ture stag­nated in many ways dur­ing the 20th cen­tu­ry. The econ­o­mist con­sid­ers a read­er’s thought exper­i­ment:

…what if the law said we could­n’t make any new art (movies, nov­els, music etc). And per­haps said we ought to rere­lease each year the art that first appeared 50 or 30 years ago. How would peo­ple’s leisure activ­ity and soci­ety’s cul­tural evo­lu­tion change?

And replies 55:

After the adjust­ment process, I believe that mat­ters would set­tle in an orderly fash­ion, although whether we pick the art from 30 or 50 years ago would make a big differ­ence in terms of the required rejig­gling of our aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties. We would pick out best­sellers from 30 or 50 years ago and some of them would be in demand, if only because peo­ple wish to share com­mon cul­tural expe­ri­ences. Over­all it is the more obscure books from that era that would likely rise to be the best­sellers today.
1979 is barely an aes­thetic leap; could not be a hit today? How about ? Is it so ridicu­lous to think that peo­ple still might go hear or in con­cert?

In the same vein, ( for ), who is unhappy with the “slow down”56 of “inno­v­a­tive cul­ture” (and music in par­tic­u­lar), admits that:

Most stu­dents I know have an extremely broad appre­ci­a­tion of music…My step­son is at New York Uni­ver­sity (NYU) and he was telling me how he’s cur­rently into Cole Porter, music from the 1920s and swing music from the 40s. So the avail­abil­ity and acces­si­bil­ity of music on the inter­net today is truly incred­i­ble, and I applaud any­thing that can inspire inter­est or curios­ity in any­one.
But this also means that those of us who before would have been look­ing towards the cur­rent cul­ture for inspi­ra­tion are now often to be found, like my step­son, in var­i­ous back­wa­ters of older music.
This rel­a­tive lack of need for cur­rent, inno­v­a­tive cul­ture can cause, has caused, is caus­ing - maybe - the inno­v­a­tive cul­ture to slow down, much as an assem­bly line in Detroit slows down and lay-offs have to be made when the demand for a new model recedes.57

Pejo­ra­tive lan­guage aside ( is a back­wa­ter?), does Tay­lor’s grand­son sound unhappy with old music? Would he be unhappy if his choices were uni­ver­sal­ized and less new music were cre­ated as a result?

In-progress works

But, you say, & Wolfe are fine, but dammit you have a hunger for some , and can’t help but be curi­ous as to how the deuce The Wheel of Time will end. OK, fine. There are ~300 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who could­n’t care less if a mar­ket dis­so­lu­tion balked you. And of course, the prob­lem of work­s-in-progress is a prob­lem that solves itself: Doc­torow must one day die, and if he shuffles off the mor­tal coil tomor­row, then your sit­u­a­tion was the same as mine - except with a slightly higher upper bound.

And even if you were balked, or in-progress series per­mit­ted to fin­ish, that’s a fixed one-time cost58. It may cost quite a bit to liq­ui­date all the com­pa­nies and shift their assets into more pro­duc­tive occu­pa­tions; some peo­ple will never shift. But that’s for you: the long-term ben­e­fits win in the long run.

New book smell

Maybe there’s some­thing intrin­si­cally bet­ter about new books. Not that they deal with new sub­jects - we addressed that ear­lier - but per­haps it’s about the style, or appear­ance, or appar­ent nov­el­ty. Maybe when one looks at , the antique lan­guage instantly sub­tracts 10 utilons even if it’s still com­pre­hen­si­ble.

But the lan­guage can’t be the rea­son. Maybe Shake­speare and Chaucer aren’t as enjoy­able and this explains why they aren’t as pop­u­lar as they should be given their emi­nence, but for this to explain why books from the ’50s or ’60s are very unpop­u­lar or why books from the ’00s sell bet­ter than books from the ’90s - despite them all read­ing much the same59, we need to posit large penal­ties and attribute to read­ers remark­able pow­ers of dis­crim­i­na­tion. (And we could argue that the exist­ing rel­a­tively low level of sup­port for new works com­pared to other forms of recre­ation like pro­fes­sional sports indi­cates that new book smell is even less valu­able than one might expect just from sales.60)

Could it be due to ‘’? Some spoil­ers, like King Kong dying or Darth Vader being Luke Sky­walk­er’s father, are so uni­ver­sal as to ‘spoil’ pretty much any­one who would watch those movies. A new work, how­ev­er, has a long lag before the ‘spoil­ers’ escape into the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, and so if spoil­ers destroyed the plea­sure peo­ple take in works, one would nat­u­rally expect peo­ple to grav­i­tate towards newer works.

While com­monly voiced, this sug­ges­tion can only be part of the pic­ture. Only the very most promi­nent works can be spoiled inad­ver­tent­ly; ‘Snape killed Dum­b­le­dore’ or ‘Aeris dies’ were suc­cess­ful spoiler only because the book and video game (re­spec­tive­ly) sold mil­lions of copies and were major cul­tural events. By defi­n­i­tion, there are only a small num­ber of such works. Per­haps a hand­ful of such books or movies or games would be invol­un­tar­ily spoiled each year, leav­ing thou­sands of other new works being pro­duced despite no anti-spoiler advan­tage. Fur­ther, if this were the sole rea­son for new works, we would have the odd sit­u­a­tion that peo­ple appar­ently are will­ing to spend many bil­lions to encour­age pro­duc­tion of as-yet-un­spoiled works, but will do noth­ing else to stem the spread of spoil­ers - even though a in the bil­lions calls out for pre­ven­tion or reg­u­la­tion of some sort. Soci­ety quite suc­cess­fully stems the spread of other cat­e­gories of unde­sir­able infor­ma­tion like pri­vate infor­ma­tion or infor­ma­tion on weapons of mass destruc­tion or child pornog­ra­phy, and spoil­ers would seem to be far eas­ier to sup­press than any exist­ing cat­e­gory of infor­ma­tion. Final­ly, and most damn­ing, the min­i­mal research on the topic of spoil­ers sug­gests that the net dis­plea­sure caused by spoil­ers is unclear, with one study find­ing ben­e­fits to being spoiled61 and another find­ing harm.

If there is a new book smell, and it can explain why books from the recent past are less pop­u­lar than new book, then that means it is noth­ing intrin­sic about the books them­selves. Which sug­gests that it’s a mat­ter of con­sumer per­cep­tion; mar­ket­ing has a long his­tory of alter­ing con­sumer per­cep­tions for fun & profit. There may be no new book smell at all: it may sim­ply be that new mate­ri­als ‘crowd out’ pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions in cat­a­logs or loca­tions with lim­ited space62. This would then feed into the habit-for­ma­tion or intro­spec­tive views of fic­tion con­sump­tion: one either hard­ens into lik­ing only the music one heard as a teenager which is a tiny (com­mer­cial­ly-driven) selec­tion of the total cor­pus, or one is sim­i­larly locked into a small sub­set of works because they are the ones pre­vi­ously con­sumed and give the proper sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence63 (re­gard­less of aes­thet­ic­s).

If new books ceased to be writ­ten, then the pub­lish­ers of the exist­ing books will have to com­pete on other grounds, such as price and mar­ket­ing - which would include fak­ing new book smell. If peo­ple are so fre­quently mis­taken about what they would enjoy most now, surely they can be mis­taken in the future about new book smell. The mod­ern suc­cess of Jane Austen and of lightly edited ver­sions such as demon­strates that the cen­turies need be no bar.

The experimental results

Exist­ing research on things like the sug­gest that much of esthet­ics might be trained and essen­tially arbi­trary:

In a 2003 study, psy­chol­o­gist James Cut­ting (2003, 2006) briefly exposed under­grad­u­ate psy­chol­ogy stu­dents to canon­i­cal and lesser-known Impres­sion­ist paint­ings (the lesser-known works exposed four times as often), with the result that after expo­sure, sub­jects pre­ferred the lesser-known works more often than did the con­trol group. Cut­ting took this result to show that canon for­ma­tion is a result of cul­tural expo­sure over time. He fur­ther took this to show that the sub­jects’ judg­ments were not merely a prod­uct of the qual­ity of the works. “If observers were able to judge qual­ity alone in the image pairs, their judg­ments should not have been con­t­a­m­i­nated by appear­ance differ­ences in the class­room. To be sure, qual­ity could still play a role, but such an account must then rely on two process­es- mere expo­sure and qual­ity assess­ment (how­ever that might be done). My pro­posal is that these are one-process results and done on the basis of mere expo­sure inside and out­side the class­room” (Cut­ting 2003, 335).64

A fol­lowup found that in some cas­es, expo­sure to art decreased lik­ing65 (a result seen in some of the stud­ies); expo­sure to low­er-qual­ity for­mats can cause the devel­op­ment of active pref­er­ence for the arti­facts of the low­er-qual­i­ty, a phe­nom­e­non we may be see­ing with the MP3 audio for­mat66, and one won­ders how much social pres­sures play a role in per­cep­tion, given his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes like Edis­on’s phono­graphs being hailed as indis­tin­guish­able by (his con­tem­po­rary, not mod­ern) audi­ences67. Other stud­ies demon­strate spe­cific con­nec­tions to such con­tin­gent prop­er­ties as per­ceived pres­tige; we’ve all heard of the many hilar­i­ous where even indi­vid­ual judges flatly con­tra­dict them­selves, but there are more val­ue-neu­tral exam­ples like the where what you expect is what you get. And fMRI stud­ies are reveal­ing inter­est­ing things like the neural cor­re­lates of pleas­ant­ness increas­ing with price or spikes in val­ue-assess­ment regions and increased acti­va­tion in regions which look like sub­jects try­ing to find some­thing to crit­i­cize and jus­tify their prej­u­dice.68

But we can to some extent get a han­dle on what degree pop­u­lar­ity or rank­ings cor­re­sponds to any intrin­sic esthetic qual­ity by run­ning exper­i­ments using very obscure works. If there is a very close con­nec­tion between qual­ity and pop­u­lar­i­ty, then that under­mines my case: new works are extremely pop­u­lar and often ranked very high (as a per­cent­age of all work­s), so any reduc­tion in new works would come at a cor­re­spond­ing esthetic loss­es. But con­verse­ly, the more ran­dom and uncon­nected to qual­ity our rat­ings are, the less we should care about pro­duc­ing new works. We don’t know what qual­ity is, or don’t care, or have some sort of self­-dis­ci­pline prob­lem and can’t make our­selves pre­fer what we ought to, or some­thing.

What do we find in the exper­i­ments? We find the results are not com­pletely ran­dom, but they’re pretty close.

The 2006 study “Exper­i­men­tal Study of Inequal­ity and Unpre­dictabil­ity in an Arti­fi­cial Cul­tural Mar­ket” (and also Sal­ganik & Watts 2009), took 14,300 online par­tic­i­pants and pre­sented them with a screen full of songs and asked them to rank them. Half were pre­sented with infor­ma­tion on how pop­u­lar a song was (as mea­sured by down­loads after lis­ten­ing), and half were not. The rank­ings differed dras­ti­cally between the two groups. This is a major blow to any belief that the jew­els will rise to the top, since both groups can’t be right. But which? The researchers were clev­er, and fur­ther sub­di­vided the 7,000 shown the pop­u­lar­ity infor­ma­tion into 7 sub­sec­tions, which were shown the pop­u­lar­ity infor­ma­tion for their own par­tic­u­lar sub­sec­tion (each sub­sec­tion start­ing with 0 down­loads for each song); each sub­sec­tion pop­u­lar­ity rank­ing clashed with all the oth­ers. In other words, the social-in­flu­enced rank­ings were sub­stan­tially ran­dom. They dis­agreed with the aggre­gated inde­pen­dent rank­ings of qual­i­ty, and with all the other social-in­flu­enced rank­ings. (If 2 con­tra­dic­tory rank­ings can­not be cor­rect, what about 9?) The most assur­ance the authors can give us is that “The best songs rarely did poor­ly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was pos­si­ble.” This matches well with ran­dom­ized mod­els of cul­tural diffu­sion. A 2008 fol­lowup, , found that with a sub­se­quent 12,000 par­tic­i­pants, songs could be made pop­u­lar just by lying to par­tic­i­pants that they were pop­u­lar (although again the best songs tended to recover some­what).

One might hope that cul­tural experts like lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sors and crit­ics would give us true rank­ings of qual­i­ty, and so we could at least trust the canon­i­cal rank­ings, but that seems quite des­per­ate; such experts have more social pres­sures avail­able than a mere down­load count, pro­fes­sional pres­sures, etc. If ethi­cists are not more eth­i­cal (to cite just one of many exam­ples), why would we expect crit­ics to be more crit­i­cal?

There is a fun­da­men­tal ten­sion in these dis­cus­sions, between the revealed pref­er­ences of peo­ple and a claimed enjoy­ment or esthetic fac­tor; if the lat­ter really are greater for older works, why do peo­ple choose the infe­rior goods? One gen­eral obser­va­tion is that peo­ple in gen­eral may not ben­e­fit from addi­tional choic­es, as they suffer . This ties into the obser­va­tion that some stud­ies point to an par­a­digm in which peo­ple do not eval­u­ate choices based on the total ben­e­fits each choice deliv­ers (with a fixed time penal­ty, ), but rather based on a con­stantly mutat­ing time fac­tor which short­-changes the future for the present (); with hyper­bolic dis­count­ing, an oth­er­wise ratio­nal agent can know he would receive many more utilons from read­ing his Dick­ens nov­el, but because Dick­ens would pay off slow­ly, he would choose the trashy mag­a­zine, again and again, wind­ing up with a lower total utilon score - by his own reck­on­ing! - than if he had just sat down to Dick­ens.69 An imag­ing study70 found that they could pre­dict sales data for songs by mea­sur­ing acti­va­tion in the (a very low-level part of the brain, strongly linked with emo­tions & weakly linked to instinct­s), and pre­dict bet­ter than ask­ing the par­tic­i­pants what song they liked. All this sug­gests to me that esthetic works is one of the rare sit­u­a­tions where tak­ing away choices can make peo­ple bet­ter off.

At the end of the day

“There is noth­ing so absurd but that some philoso­pher has said it.”


“The point of phi­los­o­phy is to start with some­thing so sim­ple as not to seem worth stat­ing, & to end with some­thing so para­dox­i­cal that no one will believe it.”

(“The Phi­los­o­phy of ”)

“But I had become aware, even so early as dur­ing my col­lege life, that no opin­ion, how­ever absurd and incred­i­ble, can be imag­ined, which has not been main­tained by some on of the philoso­phers; and after­wards in the course of my trav­els I remarked that all those whose opin­ions are decid­edly repug­nant to ours are not in that account bar­bar­ians and sav­ages, but on the con­trary that many of these nations make an equally good, if not bet­ter, use of their rea­son than we do.”

René Descartes

We’ve cov­ered quite a bit of ground here. There are a num­ber of differ­ent the­ses I’ve tried to argue for here:

  • There’s more fic­tion than any­one could hope to con­sume
  • Peo­ple would be hap­pier read­ing only the best fic­tion
  • It’s eas­ier to fig­ure out what the good old fic­tion is, than it is new fic­tion
    • there’s also more good old fic­tion than good new fic­tion
  • peo­ple write too much new fic­tion
    • they also read too much
  • Soci­ety should­n’t sub­si­dize eco­nom­i­cally ineffi­cient things like new fic­tion
    • We might go so far as to sug­gest a on new works because they encour­age their own con­sump­tion
  • The uses of fic­tion are much less than one might think, and many of those uses are pro­pa­gan­dis­tic, dan­ger­ous, or both
  • Sub­si­diz­ing the non­fic­tion mar­ket may be jus­ti­fi­able

I hope you’ve been con­vinced of at least 2 or 3 of these the­ses. I want to reject the idea that new works should not be encour­aged, but the only class of objec­tions that can hold any water is the non-sub­sti­tutabil­ity one, and I don’t see any solid argu­ments there.

Peo­ple are bet­ter off read­ing the best books, and the best ones are pre­dom­i­nately the ones that already exist, there is more than can be read, and new books have no com­pelling advan­tage over the clas­sics. The eco­nom­ics place me against new fic­tion. And when I remem­ber how peo­ple are beguiled by new fic­tion into read­ing crap, I find myself placed against new fic­tion on esthetic grounds as well!

I have started with com­mon-sense grounds and wound up some­where strange.


Musical instruments are not about music

To get a rough esti­mate of how many musi­cal instru­ments (like the piano) are we can look through Wikipedi­a’s Cat­e­go­ry:­Mu­si­cal instru­ments. Lots of non-in­stru­ments and notable exam­ples of a kind of instru­ment, but it makes the num­bers pretty clear - there are hun­dreds of instru­ments if not thou­sands, from most cul­tures, even if we com­press the vari­a­tions.

Sup­pose one had a well-de­fined aes­thetic pref­er­ence - a (or at least a with a ) - so we can speak of an ‘ideal instru­ment’ for that per­son, an instru­ment which gives them the great­est aes­thetic grat­i­fi­ca­tion of all known instru­ments.

If we picked a ran­dom instru­ment for them from our set of thou­sands of instru­ments, the odds aren’t good we’ll pick the ideal one. Thou­sands to one, after all. If a par­ent inflicted such a choice on their kid, the kid ought to believe the choice is sub­op­ti­mal from his aes­thetic point of view (with a con­fi­dence of >99%). if he cares about the mat­ter, then he should prob­a­bly go look­ing as an adult for a bet­ter choice.

Depend­ing on how much he cares and how easy it is to ‘search’ through thou­sands of instru­ments, he might search quite a bit.

Strange­ly, you don’t see much of this. Most peo­ple seem pretty happy with their cur­rent instru­ment and even music nerds don’t spend as much time as one might expect sam­pling instru­ments and pon­der­ing their mer­its. How to explain this? into learn­ing the infe­rior instru­ment? Maybe the aes­thetic differ­ence between an aver­age and the ideal isn’t that great (de­spite a theremin sound­ing very differ­ent from a syn­the­sizer or a key­board or a piano, or even vio­las and vio­lins sound­ing quite differ­ent, and the of antique high­ly-re­garded indi­vid­ual instru­ments going for hun­dreds of thou­sands or mil­lions of dol­lars to per­form­er­s)? Or maybe it’s…. sta­tus.

Maybe peo­ple don’t search through all man­ner of rare instru­ments because musi­cal instru­ments aren’t about aes­thet­ics as much as they are about social and and pres­tige. There can only be a few pres­ti­gious instru­ments (per­haps less than 10; surely not as high as 20), after all, and we all hear them quite a bit. By the time a kid hits mid­dle school, he’s spent many years watch­ing movies and TV where there’s a lot of instru­men­tal back­ground music and he’s learned whether he likes piano bet­ter than vio­lin or cel­lo.

There’s just not many options to think about. If you aspire to WASPy high soci­ety, you learn piano; if you aspire to pres­tige among young peo­ple, the gui­tar or drums. And so on. This is so ingrained it can be diffi­cult to see; West­ern soci­ety does not, that I know of, have any stan­dard expres­sion like the (which man­dates a scholar know the and such rules of eti­quette as the or ). But nev­er­the­less, the are not pres­ti­gious and sim­i­larly one can point out the mid­dling sta­tus of the (which only avoids being low by its use in the blues and jaz­z). Note that in the stereo­type of Asian par­ents in Amer­ica forc­ing their kids to learn instru­ments, the par­ents are not choos­ing odd­ball instru­ments you’ve never heard of (you know, one of the thou­sands of instru­ments not included in your stan­dard West­ern-style orches­tra), they’re choos­ing ones as famil­iar as dirt:

Let’s go back to her crazy list of why her par­ent­ing is bet­ter. #9: vio­lin or piano, no other instru­ments. If Chua is so Chi­ne­se, and has full exec­u­tive con­trol over her kids, why does she–and the real Chi­nese par­ents out there–­make their kids play vio­lin, play Bach and not Chi­nese music? They’d be happy to edu­cate you on the beauty of Chi­nese music, I’m sure, but they don’t make their kids learn that. Why not?

She wants them learn­ing this because the West­ern cul­ture deems clas­si­cal music as high cul­ture, and there­fore any­one who can play it is cul­tured. Some­one said Beethoven is great music so they learn that. There is no sense of under­stand­ing, it is purely a tech­ni­cal accom­plish­ment. Why Beethoven and not Beethoven’s con­tem­po­raries? The par­ents have no idea. Can her kids write new music? Do they want to write music? It’s all mechan­ics. This isn’t a slan­der on Asian musi­cian­ship, it is an obser­va­tion that the par­ents who push their kids into these instru­ments are doing it for its sig­nifi­cance to other peo­ple (e.g. col­leges) and not for itself. Why not gui­tar? Why not paint­ing? Because it does­n’t impress admis­sions coun­selors. What if the kid shows some inter­est in dra­ma? Well, then kid can go live with his white friends and see how far he gets in life. That’s why it’s in the WSJ. The Jour­nal has no place for, “How a Changed My Life.” It wants piano and vio­lin, it wants Chua’s col­lege-re­sume world­view. –“Are Chi­nese Moth­ers Supe­rior To Amer­i­can Moth­ers?”, The Last Psy­chi­a­trist

William Weir in The Atlantic, “Why Is It So Hard for New Musi­cal Instru­ments to Catch On?”:

As com­poser Edgard Varese put it in 1936, “It is because new instru­ments have been con­stantly added to the old ones that West­ern music has such a rich and var­ied pat­ri­mo­ny.” So what hap­pened? Why has there been such a drought of new instru­ments-e­spe­cially in rock and pop, which thrive on nov­el­ty?

Inven­tor Aaron Andrew Hunt blames it in part on the “music indus­trial com­plex.” He cre­ated the Tonal Plexus in 1996 and has since sold, by his count, “not many.” With 1,266 keys, the instru­ment is designed espe­cially for micro­tonal com­po­si­tion, so it would be a tough sell at just about any time. But Hunt said the deck is par­tic­u­larly stacked against new instru­ments now that a stan­dard reper­toire has been locked in, as has the pop­u­lar idea of what a proper instru­ment is. “The biggest bar­rier is the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of West­ern music and the mass mar­ket­ing of all the instru­ments,” he says. “The prob­lem is that no one can break though this mar­ket­ing bar­rier and this edu­ca­tion bar­rier because it’s become this machine.” In the past, sup­port from the estab­lish­ment has made a differ­ence in whether new instru­ments find a mar­ket. The research and back­ing of uni­ver­si­ties and cor­po­ra­tions like RCA helped make the syn­the­sizer hap­pen. In Hec­tor Berlioz, the sax­o­phone got a major boost from a major com­pos­er. But many instru­ments have risen from very hum­ble ori­gins. The steel drum evolved from fry­ing pans and oil cans after the Trinida­dian gov­ern­ment banned other musi­cal instru­ments. Folks of lim­ited means also turned house­hold objects into music mak­ers with wash­boards and turnta­bles.

Or Amy Chua her­self:

That’s one of the rea­sons I insisted [her two daugh­ters] do clas­si­cal music. I knew that I could­n’t arti­fi­cially make them feel like poor immi­grant kids. … But I could make sure that [daugh­ter #1] and [daugh­ter #2] were deeper and more cul­ti­vated than my par­ents and I were. Clas­si­cal music was the oppo­site of decline, the oppo­site of lazi­ness, vul­gar­i­ty, and spoiled­ness. It was a way for my chil­dren to achieve some­thing I had­n’t. But it was also a tie-in to the high cul­tural tra­di­tion of my ances­tors.

It’s sim­ple logic that the less pop­u­lar an instru­ment, the eas­ier it is to become world-class in it - because the “world” is small­er. I was shocked to one day down­load an album of Stu­dio Ghi­bli music as played on a nose-flute (Sound Of Nose­flute 4 (Song Works Of Stu­dio Ghi­b­li)), and even more shocked that the title implied there was a whole series of nose-flute albums; but in ret­ro­spect, it makes sense: is it eas­ier to make a career as a nose-flute per­former where you are com­pet­ing against per­haps a few thou­sand peo­ple at most, or as a con­cert pianist where one’s com­pe­ti­tion is mea­sur­able (if at all) in the mil­lions?

Stan­dard­iz­ing on just a few instru­ment and turn­ing them into s also trag­i­cally turns them into an arms race (and anec­do­tal­ly, admis­sions offi­cers have begun to dis­re­gard them because of their pop­u­lar­ity72):

On the whole, dis­ci­pline makes life eas­ier and bet­ter. On the other hand, who the fuck cares about the piano and vio­lin? If all tiger moth­ers push the piano, say, the win­ner-take-all race for piano becomes utterly bru­tal, and the tiger-moth­ered pianist will likely get less far in the piano race than a bun­ny-moth­ered . That just seems dumb! Gam­ble on the ! The West­ern ethos of hyper­-in­di­vid­u­a­tion pro­duces less of the sort of hugely ineffi­cient posi­tional pileup (not that there aren’t too many gui­tarists) that comes from herd­ing every­body onto the same rut­ted sta­tus tracks. It also pro­duces less dis­ci­pline and thus less vir­tu­os­i­ty, but a greater vari­ety of excel­lence by gen­er­at­ing the cul­tural inno­va­tion that opens up new fields of endeavor and new sta­tus games. It’s just way bet­ter to be the world’s best acro­batic kite-surfer than the third best pianist in Cleve­land. –“Amy Chua”,

The defense for these prac­tices?

There are defi­nitely aspects of my upbring­ing that I’d like to repli­cate. I’m never going to be a pro­fes­sional pianist, but the piano has given me con­fi­dence that totally shapes my life. I feel that if I work hard enough, I can do any­thing. I know I can focus on a given task for hours at a time. And on hor­ri­ble days when I’m lost and a mess, I can say to myself, “I’m good at some­thing that I real­ly, really love.” –“Q&A: elves, dirt, and col­lege deci­sions”, Sophia Ruben­feld-Chua

The point of learn­ing the piano is NOT about acquir­ing the skill of play­ing the piano so that the stu­dent can earn a liv­ing as a pianist. It is about build­ing the char­ac­ter of the per­son. Here is the thing about char­ac­ter – you can’t build it by explic­itly set­ting out to build it. Char­ac­ter is not a skill like tying your shoelaces. If it must be put in terms of “skill”, char­ac­ter is a “meta-skill” – a foun­da­tional human skill that is nec­es­sary to per­fect any num­ber of mechan­i­cal skills. And the only way to develop this meta-skill is to develop at least one highly sophis­ti­cated mechan­i­cal skill, such that the stu­dent may acquire the meta-skill in the course of build­ing the mechan­i­cal skill.

So, once again: the point of learn­ing the piano is NOT about acquir­ing the skill of play­ing the piano. As Ruben­feld-Chua put it, it is about acquir­ing gen­uine con­fi­dence and iron dis­ci­pline. With such con­fi­dence and dis­ci­pline, she can move on and do any­thing she wants in her life because there is no task in life in which con­fi­dence and dis­ci­pline hin­der suc­cess. THIS is the whole point of Tiger Par­ent­ing, and the rea­son why Tiger Par­ent­ing is so suc­cess­ful. –“Con­fu­cian­ism and Korea - Part V: What Can Con­fu­cian­ism Do For Amer­i­ca?”, The Korean

The cyn­i­cal ques­tions almost ask them­selves. Would Sophia love piano so much if she had­n’t had ? How unlikely is it that piano would just hap­pen to be the per­fect instru­ment for her? And like the old argu­ment that learn­ing Latin was worth­while because it sped up sub­se­quent lan­guage learn­ing, are even the basic facts cor­rect - does the build­ing-char­ac­ter prac­tice actu­ally build char­ac­ter? have gen­er­ally failed to show any notice­able improve­ment in their inmates, and sol­diers fre­quently dis­cuss the diffi­culty of adapt­ing to civil­ian life (de­spite decades of self­-dis­ci­pline)73. Were we to grant the char­ac­ter-build­ing nature of piano, that raises a fur­ther ques­tion - don’t other instru­ments build char­ac­ter as well, and so why not learn the flugel­horn and gain both ben­e­fits - char­ac­ter and use­ful skill build­ing? Why must we all pile into the same high­-pres­tige occu­pa­tions like being a rock star or actor74? This may be good for the tiny sub­set of “insid­ers: pianists, con­cert pre­sen­ters and pianophiles” who are actu­ally able to notice the differ­ences and value highly small improve­ments, though even they seem to be a bit jaded and no longer very inter­ested in tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency75 - but every­one else?

But hey, there is one ben­e­fit to all this human cap­i­tal poured into nar­row sta­tus sig­nal­ing. We get a ton of anime operas76 and music played with clas­si­cal instru­ments on YouTube!77

Good and Plenty

Extracts from Good and Plen­ty: the cre­ative suc­cesses of Amer­i­can arts fund­ing, by Tyler Cowen 2006, ISBN 978-0-691-12042-3. See also Saun­der­s’s The Cul­tural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Let­ters (orig­i­nally titled Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cul­tural Cold War) and the CIA involve­ment in Dr. Zhivago, dis­cussed in The Zhivago Affair (excerpts).



Art lovers some­times write or talk as if eco­nomic costs do not mat­ter. They tend to eval­u­ate regimes in terms of the qual­ity of the art that is pro­duced, with­out con­sid­er­ing the oppor­tu­nity costs of that art. More and bet­ter art is equated with a bet­ter soci­ety. We are never told how many bags of potato chips, or how many antipoverty pro­grams, we should sac­ri­fice to receive another great artis­tic per­for­mance, or how we might hope to find out such an answer. The eco­nomic approach reflects the view of the com­mon man that art is not every­thing, or even the most impor­tant thing.

The Fed­eral Writ­ers’ Project of the New Deal sup­ported Saul Bel­low, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, among other indi­vid­u­als who later became noted writ­ers (see chap­ter 3). Many lit­er­a­ture lovers then con­clude that the pro­gram was a good one. The econ­o­mist, in con­trast, could point out that the Fed­eral Writ­ers’ Project spent $27 mil­lion for about one thou­sand books and pam­phlets, at a cost of $27,000 per pub­li­ca­tion. Trans­lated into dol­lars for the year 2000, this amounts to $337,500 per pub­li­ca­tion, or $337.5 mil­lion for the total. While some of the pub­li­ca­tions were of very high qual­i­ty, they cost a great deal. It is hard to believe that offer­ing indis­crim­i­nate lit­er­ary advances of $337,500 per work is a worth­while invest­ment, even if it pro­duces some first-rate books. , writ­ing in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, argued that pro­po­nents of arts sub­si­dies typ­i­cally focus on what is seen and neglect what is not seen, namely the other projects and out­puts that would have been funded with the mon­ey.78

These art­works ben­e­fit rel­a­tively small num­bers of peo­ple, includ­ing the artist, but the ben­e­fits are [sub­stan­tial] for each recip­i­ent. Most of the ben­e­fits lie well above the thresh­old of notice­abil­i­ty, and thus they increase human hap­pi­ness. The less extreme form of the argu­ment, rather than find­ing a free lunch, relies on ant­ie­gal­i­tar­ian intu­itions. We take small amounts from many indi­vid­u­als to give con­cen­trated ben­e­fits to a few, and indeed often to the rel­a­tively wealthy. The dis­tri­b­u­tion of good­ness in soci­ety becomes less equal, but our peaks of aes­thetic achieve­ment become more beau­ti­ful. Sub­sidy sup­port­ers do not like to pub­li­cize this real­i­ty, but these ant­ie­gal­i­tar­ian intu­itions are cen­tral to many of the argu­ments for sub­si­dies.

Accord­ing to fig­ures for U.S. sym­phony orches­tras, 33% of their income comes from pri­vate dona­tions; endow­ments and related sources account for another 16%. Con­cert income gen­er­ates 42% of rev­enue, and direct gov­ern­ment sup­port pro­vides only 6%. Look­ing at non­profit arts insti­tu­tions more gen­er­al­ly, indi­vid­u­al, cor­po­rate, and foun­da­tion donors make up about 45% of the bud­get. 12% of income comes from foun­da­tion grants; this is two and a half times more than the con­tri­bu­tion of the NEA and state arts coun­cils com­bined. While these num­bers fluc­tu­ate each year, they pro­vide a rough mea­sure of the rel­e­vant mag­ni­tudes.79

That being said, the U.S. gov­ern­ment sup­ports the arts far more than these fig­ures would indi­cate. Let us now turn to indi­rect sub­si­dies in more detail, start­ing with the role of the tax sys­tem. Amer­i­can pol­icy pro­vides sup­port for artis­tic non­profits but lets donors decide which insti­tu­tions will receive the funds. The gov­ern­ment is removed from the role of judg­ing artis­tic qual­i­ty, yet cre­ative activ­ity receives a spur nonethe­less.

The tax sys­tem pro­vides the most [im­por­tant] arts sub­sidy in the United States. Rough esti­mates sug­gest that Amer­i­cans donated over $29.4 bil­lion to the cat­e­gory Arts, Cul­ture, and the Human­i­ties in 2003. This amounts to about $100 for each indi­vid­ual in the United States. In con­trast, indi­vid­ual pri­vate phil­an­thropy to the arts is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent in most Euro­pean nations. If we look at indi­vid­ual donors, Amer­i­cans give almost ten times more to non­profits, per cap­i­ta, than their French coun­ter­parts give.80

We do not know, for instance, how much very large changes in tax rates would affect dona­tions and non­profits. Nonethe­less if we take this fig­ure as a work­able and avail­able esti­mate, the U.S. gov­ern­ment is mak­ing a fis­cal sac­ri­fice in the range of $26 bil­lion to $41 bil­lion to sup­port the arts.81

The estate tax also boosts arts dona­tions. To avoid pay­ing taxes on bequests, many indi­vid­u­als leave money to non­profits and arts insti­tu­tions.82

Euro­pean gov­ern­ments do not offer com­pa­ra­ble tax ben­e­fits to their arts. France, for instance, lim­its tax deduc­tions to 1% of tax­able income for indi­vid­u­als and 0.1% for cor­po­ra­tions. Other coun­tries, such as Ger­many, have allowed tax deductibil­ity in law but made the deduc­tion unwork­able through bureau­cratic restric­tions. In par­tic­u­lar, indi­vid­ual donors had to give through com­plex inter­me­di­ary insti­tu­tions and endure heavy paper­work. In 1999 Ger­many took steps to move closer to the Amer­i­can mod­el, but the fun­da­men­tal nature of Ger­man arts pol­icy has yet to make the tran­si­tion. France is begin­ning to make sim­i­lar steps. Eng­land allows tax deduc­tions but also makes the require­ments more diffi­cult than in the United States. Typ­i­cally a tax­payer has had to agree to make pay­ments for at least seven years to earn the deduc­tion. Fur­ther­more, the dona­tions have not always been deductible at the top mar­ginal rate, but rather at a lower rate.83

For these rea­sons, some Euro­pean arts insti­tu­tions, espe­cially in Great Britain, find their lead­ing pri­vate donors in the United States. In the mid-1980s, J. Paul Getty donated $62.5 mil­lion to the National Gallery in Lon­don, the largest dona­tion the insti­tu­tion has received.

Cor­po­rate giv­ing, like pri­vate and foun­da­tion giv­ing, has been influ­enced by pub­lic pol­icy deci­sions. Cor­po­ra­tions have received tax breaks for sup­port­ing the arts since 1936. As with indi­vid­u­als, the evi­dence sug­gests that cor­po­ra­tions give more to the arts when they receive tax ben­e­fits for doing so.84

Con­sider the Min­neapo­lis Art­space group, which wanted to ren­o­vate a decrepit ware­house and turn it into artists’ apart­ments and stu­dios. They started by going to the State Hous­ing Finance Agency and apply­ing for low-in­come tax cred­its, avail­able for ren­o­va­tion pro­jects. These cred­its are paid for by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment but allo­cated through state gov­ern­ments. The project had an esti­mated value of $20 mil­lion, which meant that the avail­able tax credit was about $900,000 per year. This sum is paid out yearly for ten years, or $9 mil­lion in total. Art­Space used these tax cred­its to get a bank loan of $7 mil­lion and then set up a cor­po­rate part­ner­ship, in essence sell­ing the tax cred­its to the cor­po­rate part­ner for cash. Art­Space also financed 20% of the $20 mil­lion cost from the his­toric tax cred­its avail­able through the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or, again sell­ing these tax cred­its for 93¢ on the dol­lar. Eleven mil­lion of the $20 mil­lion total was now in hand, and con­struc­tion could begin. County and state tax pro­grams served to com­plete the financ­ing, and the remain­der was raised from pri­vate foun­da­tions, again with an implicit tax break for the dona­tions.85

In fis­cal year 2002, U.S. libraries had bud­gets of over $8 bil­lion, most of which came from gov­ern­ment sup­port, usu­ally at the local lev­el. This is the largest and best-de­vel­oped pub­lic library sys­tem in the world.86

Since the 1920s, U.S. for­eign pol­icy has ensured that for­eign mar­kets stay open to Hol­ly­wood exports. In 1926 the Depart­ment of Com­merce added a Motion Pic­ture Sec­tion. After the Sec­ond World War, Amer­ica used for­eign aid and its mil­i­tary mus­cle to dis­cour­age Euro­pean cul­tural pro­tec­tion­ism, espe­cially in Italy, France, and Eng­land. The strug­gle con­tin­ued through insti­tu­tions asso­ci­ated with the Gen­eral Agree­ment on Tar­iffs and Trade and then the World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion. The State Depart­ment also sup­ported the carteliza­tion of Hol­ly­wood export efforts through the major stu­dios. Hol­ly­wood cur­rently receives export tax sub­si­dies, which of course sup­port the pro­duc­tion of films at home. Note that this sup­port has involved an implicit trad­ing of favors. Hol­ly­wood might not have received gov­ern­men­tal assis­tance in open­ing mar­kets had it not strongly sup­ported the Amer­i­can role in World War II.

Some trade sub­si­dies arise through the fail­ure to enforce laws. The U.S. gov­ern­ment has helped make Amer­ica a cen­ter of the art world by rel­a­tively lais­sez-faire impor­ta­tion poli­cies. Imported art­works, unlike most other forms of com­merce, are exempt from import and export duties in the United States. This pol­icy has stim­u­lated Amer­i­can art col­lect­ing and has helped make New York a cen­ter of the art world. Note that in 1883 Amer­i­can artists lob­bied suc­cess­fully for a heavy tax on the impor­ta­tion of art­works, fear­ing com­pe­ti­tion from Euro­pean cre­ators. The famous Armory Show of 1913 intro­duced mod­ern art to the United States and stim­u­lated an entire gen­er­a­tion of painters. The show became pos­si­ble only when this tax was repealed shortly before its stag­ing.87

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has sub­si­dized postal mail­ings since the begin­ning of the Postal Ser­vice in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. News­pa­pers, which car­ried lit­er­ary install­ments and informed the pub­lic about the arts, received espe­cially favor­able treat­ment. Start­ing in 1851 the Postal Ser­vice offered sub­si­dized rates to book mail­ings. The period 1874 to 1885 brought fur­ther rate changes that gave a huge boost to the mail­ing of mag­a­zines. By the end of this time mag­a­zines were cheaper to mail than were adver­tis­ing cir­cu­lars. The result was a mag­a­zine boom, which gave writ­ers a new way to reach audi­ences and make a liv­ing. Between 1885 and 1900, the num­ber of mag­a­zines with 100,000 cir­cu­la­tion or more rose from 21 to 85; by 1905 the fig­ure was 159. By 1903 Ladies’ Home Jour­nal had gar­nered more than one mil­lion sub­scribers.

The first artist-in-res­i­dence in an Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity was Amer­i­can painter John Steuart Cur­ry, who worked at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin in the 1930s. The pianist Gun- nar Johansen joined him there in 1939. Robert Frost received sup­port from the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, which in fact offered him a stipend for life. For the most part, how­ev­er, the artist at the uni­ver­sity is a post-World War II devel­op­ment, most of all from the 1960s. [Mor­rison, Jack. 1973. The Rise of the Arts on the Amer­i­can Cam­pus. New York: McGraw-Hill]

Cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams, often at state or state-sub­si­dized uni­ver­si­ties, train Amer­i­can writ­ers or help them con­nect with pub­lish­ing hous­es. John Barth spent the first twenty years of his career at two state uni­ver­si­ties, Penn State and SUNY Buffa­lo. A study of the New York Times Book Review found that 31% of the reviewed authors earned their liv­ing from the aca­d­e­mic world (although this fig­ure includes non­fic­tion books as well).88 Uni­ver­si­ties sup­port the arts in many ways, not just through ful­l-time fac­ulty hires. In the world of clas­si­cal music, almost every com­poser serves as a guest com­poser at a uni­ver­sity for some period of time. Uni­ver­si­ties also are a venue for clas­si­cal music per­for­mances. They bring per­form­ers to audi­ences, includ­ing to smaller towns such as Ann Arbor, Michi­gan, and Bloom­ing­ton, Indi­ana. The recent boom in world music is due, in part, to the con­certs held at uni­ver­si­ties. The Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis alone spends $7 mil­lion a year on the per­form­ing arts.89 Roughly two dozen uni­ver­si­ties are cur­rently active in com­mis­sion­ing new art­works. The list includes Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa, the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, and the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, all state schools. The Uni­ver­sity of Iowa is arguably the leader in this regard, hav­ing com­mis­sioned more than eighty works since 1986.

The uni­ver­sity poetry anthol­ogy - required read­ing for many intro­duc­tory sur­vey classes - pro­vides the pri­mary mar­ket demand for the writ­ings of poets. Con­tem­po­rary poets receive roy­alty income and some mea­sure of fame from these vol­umes. Uni­ver­si­ties also sub­si­dize many lit­er­ary mag­a­zines. DePaul Uni­ver­sity has pub­lished Poetry East, and South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity has pub­lished South­west Review. Uni­ver­sity presses pub­lish many works, includ­ing fic­tion, that com­mer­cial houses reject.

The Col­lege Art Asso­ci­a­tion lists over seven hun­dred art muse­ums at Amer­i­can col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. Yale, Chicago, Berke­ley, Michi­gan, Howard Uni­ver­si­ty, Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty, and Williams Col­lege are among those with the best-known col­lec­tions, but many smaller insti­tu­tions fill impor­tant nich­es. They cover areas - such as ethnog­ra­phy, ceram­ics, or prints - that get crowded out of many larg­er, nonuni­ver­sity muse­ums. They also show many local artists, or artists in spe­cial gen­res, who oth­er­wise might not receive exhi­bi­tion space.90 Col­lege radio sta­tions, and the col­lege tour cir­cuit, are crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of inde­pen­dent rock bands and do much to help musi­cal diver­si­ty. A com­mer­cial radio sta­tion, for instance, might play only five hun­dred or so songs a year. WHRB-FM, at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, esti­mates that it plays sev­enty thou­sand to ninety thou­sand songs a year.

Sub­si­dies to higher edu­ca­tion remain [sub­stan­tial]. In 1995, the United States had over 14 mil­lion stu­dents enrolled in higher edu­ca­tion and approx­i­mately 915,000 fac­ul­ty, spread out over 3,706 insti­tu­tions. Pri­vate schools receive large sub­si­dies; fed­eral direct sub­si­dies to higher edu­ca­tion cost $11 bil­lion year­ly, with another $18 bil­lion allo­cated to research sup­port, mostly going to pri­vate schools. Fed­eral sup­port alone (not includ­ing stu­dent loans) accounts for about 14% of higher edu­ca­tion expen­di­tures. Henry Rosovsky (1990, p. 262) esti­mates that 20% of Har­vard’s bud­get comes directly from gov­ern­ment funds.91

If we take the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors togeth­er, National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion fig­ures from 1995 indi­cate a total income for research uni­ver­si­ties at slightly over $87 bil­lion. Six­teen bil­lion of this total comes from state and local gov­ern­ment appro­pri­a­tions, and $12 bil­lion comes from fed­eral grants and con­tracts, for slightly less than a third of the total.92 Tuition rev­enue relies heav­ily on fed­eral and state sub­si­dies. In 2000 fed­eral direct and fed­er­ally guar­an­teed loans amounted to about $41 bil­lion, cov­er­ing more than six mil­lion stu­dents.

Non­profit uni­ver­si­ties are tax-ex­empt, and their char­i­ta­ble bene­fac­tors can deduct dona­tions to uni­ver­si­ties from their tax­es. These var­i­ous tax deduc­tions are esti­mated to be worth at least $11 bil­lion to uni­ver­si­ties each year.93 His­tor­i­cally uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges ben­e­fited greatly from the Land Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment gave free land to uni­ver­si­ties with few restric­tions. The area of this land was equal to the size of Switzer­land, and helped schools such as Cor­nell, MIT, Yale, and Texas A&M, among oth­ers.94


Gen­eral direct sub­si­dies:

Much of the Smith­son­ian bud­get comes from Con­gress (in fis­cal 2004 the net bud­get author­ity was $488 mil­lion); addi­tional gov­ern­ment con­tracts and grants can run up to nearly $100 mil­lion per year. The endow­ment has stood as high as $755 mil­lion. Unlike most other gov­ern­ment arts pro­grams, the Smith­son­ian receives [sub­stan­tial] pri­vate funds; in 2003 the Smith­son­ian raised over $200 mil­lion.95

The National Gallery of Art, one of the pre­mier art muse­ums in Amer­i­ca, received $79 mil­lion in 2003 from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment (this allo­ca­tion is inde­pen­dent and not on Smith­son­ian ledger­s)…The Mel­lon fam­ily gave much of the art; it has been spec­u­lated that the gift was in return for the IRS stop­ping a tax fraud suit against Mel­lon.

The CPB [Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing] appro­pri­a­tion for 2004 is $380 mil­lion. That being said, pub­lic tele­vi­sion relies on many other sources of sup­port. In a typ­i­cal year the fed­eral gov­ern­ment sup­plies no more than 15% of the pub­lic tele­vi­sion bud­get through grants and another few per­cent­ages through direct con­tracts. State and local gov­ern­ments, often work­ing with pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, put up 30% or so.

The Insti­tute for Museum and Library Ser­vices (cre­ated in 1976, and for­merly the Insti­tute for Museum Ser­vices) spends $262 mil­lion a year (circa 2004) on muse­ums, zoos, botan­i­cal gar­dens, and most of all libraries. The Arts and Arti­facts Fund insures for­eign objects lent to Amer­i­can muse­ums and enables many art exhi­bi­tions. The Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts receives a direct con­gres­sional appro­pri­a­tion, cur­rently in the neigh­bor­hood of $17 mil­lion

Since that time the com­mis­sion­ing of sol­dier and civil­ian artists has been com­mon, even in peace­time. The army has no per­ma­nent art muse­um, but many of these art­works are on dis­play at var­i­ous army bases, instal­la­tions, muse­ums, and the Pen­tagon, and some­times go on tour. The navy has an art muse­um, based at the U.S. Naval Acad­emy at Annapo­lis. The mil­i­tary art held by the gov­ern­ment includes works by such notable artists as Jacob Lawrence, Regi­nald Marsh, Horace Pip­pin, and Thomas Hart Ben­ton.96 The USO (United Ser­vice Orga­ni­za­tions Inc.) enter­tains sol­diers by bring­ing in movie stars, musi­cians, and other celebri­ties. Dur­ing World War II the USO employed 5,424 salaried enter­tain­ers and had a total show atten­dance of 172 mil­lion. The USO is not for­mally part of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, but it is char­tered by Con­gress and endorsed by the pres­i­dent, who is typ­i­cally the hon­orary chair­man. The USO today is smaller than dur­ing pre­vi­ous wars, but it still has 120 cen­ters around the world and serves an aver­age of 5 mil­lion indi­vid­u­als each year.97 The Depart­ment of Defense bud­get con­tains an allo­ca­tion for mil­i­tary bands; this sum is now infa­mous for exceed­ing the entire NEA appro­pri­a­tion. On at least one occa­sion these bands sup­ported art in the con­ven­tional sense; John Philip Sousa was con­duc­tor of the Marine Corps band from 1882 to 1890 and drew his later pri­vate band mem­bers from this time. The mil­i­tary band appro­pri­a­tion dates back to 1790; a 1995 esti­mate cites eighty-five mil­i­tary bands in total, with an aggre­gate bud­get usu­ally in the neigh­bor­hood of $200 mil­lion.98

There is no com­plete esti­mate of total arts expen­di­tures at the local lev­el. Nonethe­less the U.S. Urban Arts Fed­er­a­tion con­ducts peri­odic polls of its mem­bers. It fore­cast 2003 expen­di­tures of $338 mil­lion at the local urban lev­el. The sin­gle largest spender is the New York City Depart­ment of Cul­tural Affairs, which in 2004 spent $118.8 mil­lion; the San Fran­cisco Arts Com­mis­sion was next at $25.5 mil­lion.99

In most Amer­i­can [op­era] hous­es, in con­trast, only a few operas are staged a year. Even the Met has a sea­son of less than eight months, shorter than the sea­son in a typ­i­cal provin­cial Ger­man opera house. In Ger­man opera hous­es, 50% of the singers employed are Amer­i­can; these houses thus com­prise a [sub­stan­tial] por­tion of the demand for Amer­i­can singing tal­ent.100

The auteur films may not turn a com­mer­cial profit, but Euro­pean sub­si­dies often sup­port greater direc­to­r­ial inde­pen­dence, thus allow­ing the auteurs to demon­strate their tal­ents. In other words, Hol­ly­wood uses Euro­pean cin­ema as a train­ing ground for tal­ent, which it then hires on the cheap. For all its past com­plaints about Euro­pean sub­si­dies and unfair com­pe­ti­tion, Hol­ly­wood ben­e­fits from those sub­si­dies. First the sub­si­dies keep the Euro­pean film­mak­ers com­mer­cially weak and limit their threat to Hol­ly­wood. Sec­ond, and more impor­tant for this con­text, the sub­si­dies allow Euro­pean cin­ema to serve as a research and devel­op­ment lab­o­ra­tory for Hol­ly­wood.101

Nor has twen­ti­eth-cen­tury French his­tory pro­vided a reas­sur­ing case for direct sub­si­dies. Arguably no state in his­tory has spent more on the arts per cap­i­ta, since the 1960s, than has France. Late-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury France did not, how­ev­er, attain world lead­er­ship in many artis­tic fields, in com­par­i­son to the nine­teenth cen­tury or the pre­war era. French cul­ture has become highly bureau­cratic and dri­ven by Parisian insid­ers, rather than by con­sumers or by up-and-com­ing cre­ators.


Fund­ing for the New Deal pho­tog­ra­phy pro­grams came from the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps in addi­tion to the WPA. These sub­si­dies helped make the 1930s a golden age of doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, sup­port­ing such notable pho­tog­ra­phers as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Rus­sell Lee, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Mar­ion Post Wol­cott, and Arthur Roth­stein. As with so many of the New Deal pro­grams, the motive was often nonartis­tic. The USDA pho­tog­ra­phy pro­gram, in par­tic­u­lar, pro­duced pro­pa­ganda for New Deal pro­grams. They encour­aged pho­tog­ra­phers to depict fed­eral bureau­crats as sym­pa­thetic friends of the farm­ers, and as con­cerned with help­ing ordi­nary Amer­i­cans make a good liv­ing. Accord­ing to one account, The gov­ern­ment always appeared as friendly advi­sor, and the changes it intro­duced were best.102

…The WPA did not lead to a per­ma­nent arts agen­cy, but gov­ern­ment extended its hand in the arts through for­eign pol­i­cy. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers saw the arts as a pri­mary weapon in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and a means of spread­ing the Amer­i­can way. Once again, arts pro­grams were dri­ven by nonartis­tic motives. Cul­tural impe­ri­al­ism has dri­ven gov­ern­men­tal sup­port, and destruc­tion, of the arts through­out his­to­ry. The Roman and Chi­nese empires viewed accul­tur­a­tion as a means of spread­ing their rule, and encour­aged the arts toward this end. The Euro­pean colo­nial pow­ers, espe­cially France, sought to carry their cul­tures to their colonies. The set­tle­ment of the Amer­i­can West and Mid­west, and the cor­re­spond­ing treat­ment of the native Indi­ans, was a form of cul­tural pol­i­cy, often enforced by vio­lence.

The United States gov­ern­ment insti­tuted com­pre­hen­sive cul­tural con­trol in Ger­many, Aus­tria, and Japan. In Aus­tria and Ger­many, the U.S. Infor­ma­tion Ser­vices Branch con­trolled the pre­sen­ta­tion of vir­tu­ally all cul­tural activ­i­ties, includ­ing films, the­ater, con­certs, radio, news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and books, adver­tise­ments, cir­cus­es, balls, and car­ni­val fes­tiv­i­ties. The Amer­i­can occu­piers saw cul­tural con­trol as essen­tial to denaz­i­fi­ca­tion and the recon­struc­tion of a healthy soci­ety. Broad­cast­ing sov­er­eignty was not returned to West Ger­many until 1955. In Japan cen­sor­ship and con­trol cov­ered every form of media and enter­tain­ment, at one point sup­press­ing Tol­stoy’s War and Peace, as well as any Japan­ese cul­tural prod­uct that might appear mil­i­taris­tic.103

As the Cold War devel­oped, politi­cians sup­ported the per­for­mance of Amer­i­can arts abroad to counter Soviet pro­pa­ganda about the vital­ity of com­mu­nism. They believed that if Amer­i­can cul­ture could be shown to be strong and cre­ative, democ­racy would look good. The Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tion of Eisen­hower spent more on cul­tural out­reach pro­grams, in real terms, than was later spent on the NEA. These pro­grams were spread out over sev­eral agen­cies (see below), but the best avail­able esti­mate of their scope is as seen in table 1104. For pur­poses of con­trast, note that NEA expen­di­tures hit a max­i­mum of just over $175 mil­lion in 1992. If we con­vert the 1953 expen­di­ture on for­eign cul­tural pro­grams to 1992 dol­lars, the sum is roughly $690 mil­lion.

At its peak, the United States for­eign pro­pa­ganda machine spent $2 bil­lion a year, employed a staff of more than ten thou­sand, and reached 150 coun­tries. These oper­a­tions were larger than the twenty biggest United States pub­lic rela­tions firms com­bined.105

This act called for the spread of infor­ma­tion abroad about the gov­ern­ment and cul­ture of the United States, thereby cre­at­ing the Office of Inter­na­tional Infor­ma­tion and Edu­ca­tional Exchange (OIE) and the United States Infor­ma­tion Ser­vice (USIS). The Voice of Amer­ica (VOA), expanded in the late 1940s, trans­mit­ted radio pro­grams, often of a cul­tural nature, as did Radio Free Europe and Radio Lib­er­ty. In 1953 the United States Infor­ma­tion Agency (USIA) was cre­ated to spread a favor­able Amer­i­can image around the world.106 …typ­i­cally they sought to pro­mote enter­tain­ing cul­ture, if only to keep their audi­ences and thus their bud­gets. Through pure acci­dent, this was the most cus­tomer-driven Amer­i­can arts pro­gram in his­to­ry. State Depart­ment and USIA pro­grams sent lead­ing Amer­i­can orches­tras, singers, jazz musi­cians, musi­cal shows, and instru­men­tal­ists on tours of the world, at U.S. gov­ern­ment expense. The United States gov­ern­ment ran its own 120-piece sym­phony orches­tra and a swing dance band, both said to be among the best of their kind in Europe.107 The later domes­tic arts pro­grams, such as the NEA, pale in com­par­i­son. Over nine­teen years (1948-1967) the Mar­shall Plan had a Media Guar­an­tee Pro­gram that dis­trib­uted 134 mil­lion copies of Amer­i­can books to Europe. In 1970 the United States Infor­ma­tion Agency was pub­lish­ing 140 mag­a­zines with a total cir­cu­la­tion of approx­i­mately 30 mil­lion; dur­ing the 1980s the USIA oper­ated 135 libraries in eighty three coun­tries (in­ter­est in that agency peaked under the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion). A 1969 esti­mate noted that 25 mil­lion peo­ple vis­ited these libraries annu­al­ly.108

By 1980 there were 101 gov­ern­men­t-spon­sored radio sta­tions, often directed toward the Iron Cur­tain. In one year, 1983, Voice of Amer­ica alone received $1.3 bil­lion in gov­ern­ment funds for mod­ern­iza­tion. In the 1980s the sta­tion was esti­mated to reach 80 mil­lion lis­ten­ers a day, exclud­ing Chi­na. The pro­pa­ganda broad­cast by these sta­tions usu­ally included cul­ture; the USIA has claimed that half of VOA broad­casts are devoted to cul­ture and edu­ca­tion, rather than to pol­i­tics in the nar­rower sense.109 Jazz pro­mo­tion, through VOA and other gov­ern­men­t-spon­sored radio sta­tions, has been one of the most suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can arts pro­grams. Willis Conover emceed the VOA Music USA pro­gram for twen­ty-five years and was the sin­gle most influ­en­tial ambas­sador for Amer­i­can jazz in East­ern Europe. A Cold War sur­vey indi­cated that Conover was the best-known liv­ing Amer­i­can in Poland. Amer­i­can jazz spread as far as the Soviet gulags, where pris­on­ers started their own bands. These jazz pro­grams can be thought of as a form of artis­tic famine relief.110

The State Depart­ment funded tours by Leon­tyne Price, Dizzy Gille­spie, Mar­ian Ander­son, and the Martha Gra­ham Dance Troupe. Gersh­win’s opera Porgy and Bess, with a pri­mar­ily black cast, toured for over a decade with gov­ern­ment sup­port and received an enthu­si­as­tic recep­tion around the world.111 The United States, of course, received Soviet cul­ture in exchange. Amer­i­cans were able to see the Moi­seyev Folk Dance Ensem­ble, the Bol­shoi Bal­let, and the Kirov Bal­let, in addi­tion to numer­ous clas­si­cal pianists and vio­lin­ists.112 Cul­tural out­reach pro­grams con­tinue today, but their scope has declined. Even before the end of the Cold War, the bud­get of the USIA and the cul­tural activ­i­ties of the CIA had been pared back. The fall of the Soviet Union only con­tin­ued this trend. The USIA, how­ev­er, still runs artis­tic ambas­sador pro­grams that sup­port per­for­mances by U.S. artists abroad. The Arts Amer­ica bud­get, for instance, has run in the neigh­bor­hood of $3.4 mil­lion annu­ally for the last five years.

The recently estab­lished Radio Sawa received a $35 mil­lion grant from Con­gress to broad­cast pop­u­lar Ara­bic music, and news from an Amer­i­can per­spec­tive, in the Mid­dle East. The sta­tion has reached num­ber one among lis­ten­ers under thirty in Amman, and is very pop­u­lar in Bagh­dad and Kuwait. It is esti­mated that the sta­tion reaches 86% of the tar­get audi­ence (sev­en­teen- to twen­ty-eight-year-olds) each week. If any­thing, the sta­tion has been crit­i­cized for con­cen­trat­ing too much on music rather than too lit­tle.113 Con­gress also has allo­cated $62 mil­lion for an Ara­bic-lan­guage TV sta­tion, Al Hurra (Free One), to broad­cast through­out the region. In addi­tion to news and doc­u­men­taries, the sta­tion offers movies, music, and cul­tural com­men­tary.114

Albert Ailey’s dance com­pany used gov­ern­ment spon­sored tours to stay in busi­ness. Gov­ern­ment sup­port allowed Dizzy Gille­spie to assem­ble and main­tain an expen­sive big band, which led to some of his most impor­tant music.115

Given pro­gram secre­cy, the extent of CIA involve­ment is diffi­cult to gauge, espe­cially since the money was usu­ally laun­dered through pri­vate foun­da­tions. A 1976 con­gres­sional study of foun­da­tion grants in the mid-1960s found that of the 700 grants involv­ing more than $10,000 (1963-1966, and not just for cul­ture), at least 108 involved CIA fund­ing. Half of the large grants for inter­na­tional activ­i­ties dur­ing this same period involved CIA fund­ing. The New York Times esti­mated that the CIA sup­ported the pub­li­ca­tion of at least one thou­sand books, includ­ing such odd choices as trans­la­tions of the poetry of T. S. Eliot. Frances Saun­ders (1999, pp. 1, 129) describes the effort in terms of vast resources, and describes the CIA as Amer­i­ca’s Min­istry of Cul­ture dur­ing this peri­od. Michael Jos­sel­son, head of the CCF, was a CIA agent dur­ing that time.116

…The for­eign-pol­icy moti­va­tions of these cul­tural out­reach pro­grams led inevitably to cen­sor­ship and selec­tive pre­sen­ta­tion. For instance, the Amer­ica House insti­tu­tion brought books and records to Euro­pean audi­ences, but only on a selec­tive basis. Sher­wood Ander­son, Leonard Bern­stein, Pearl S. Buck, Aaron Cop­land, John Dewey, John Dos Pas­sos, Theodore Dreis­er, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Ein­stein, George Gersh­win, Dashiell Ham­mett, Nor­man Mail­er, Arthur Miller, Rein­hold Niebuhr, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Mickey Spillane, Vir­gil Thom­son, and Frank Lloyd Wright, among oth­ers, were all cen­sored from Amer­ica House. (Note that some of the banned cre­ators, such as Cop­land, had received sup­port from ear­lier New Deal arts pro­gram­s.) From Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture, Boc­cac­cio, Flaubert, Sten­dahl, and Thomas Mann were kept out as well. Most iron­i­cal­ly, Thomas Paine’s Com­mon Sense and Thore­au’s Walden were banned, despite (be­cause of?) the sta­tus of those books as paeans to lib­er­ty. For a while, the USIA refused to fund the exhi­bi­tion of any art pro­duced after 1917, the year of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion.117

Fur­ther read­ing;

New Book Smell

The book trade shows the impor­tance of sym­bolic demands. To put it blunt­ly, most peo­ple do not read the books they buy. In Jan­u­ary 2000 Mar­cel Proust’s Remem­brance of Things Past was num­ber 544 on the U.K. best-seller list, yet few of its buy­ers fin­ish a sin­gle vol­ume. Many of them never start the book. High­brow best sell­ers by authors such as Stephen Hawk­ing and Camille Paglia are read by only a small frac­tion of their pur­chasers. Most cook­books are never used. Pop­u­lar-fic­tion best sell­ers and self­-help books are widely read, but much of the book trade is about sell­ing image and sym­bols, rather than words on paper.118 Non­read­ing buy­ers are not always wast­ing their money out of stu­pid­i­ty, as an elit­ist per­spec­tive might sug­gest. Rather most peo­ple buy books for rea­sons other than the desire to process the infor­ma­tion. Peo­ple buy books to put them on the coffee table, to show their friends, or as a mea­sure of expres­sive sup­port for some idea or celebri­ty. Buy­ing a book bears some resem­blance to indi­vid­ual vot­ing, root­ing for a sports team, or donat­ing to a char­i­ty. Per­haps most of all, peo­ple buy books to sup­port their self­-im­age as a kind of per­son who likes a cer­tain kind of book. For these rea­sons, books as we know them will not go away any­time soon. Book super­stores have rec­og­nized this fact, and they offer the book-buy­ing expe­ri­ence, replete with Star­bucks coffee, sin­gles night, live con­certs, high ceil­ings, styl­ish inte­ri­ors, and celebrity lec­tures. Super­stores have increased the sym­bolic val­ues asso­ci­ated with book shop­ping, and in a man­ner that dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and the Inter­net can­not eas­ily repli­cate…One of the biggest early web suc­cesses in the book mar­ket came when 400,000 peo­ple down­loaded Stephen King’s Rid­ing the Bul­let in the first twen­ty-four hours it was avail­able. Yet most of these peo­ple appear to have taken more inter­est in the down­load­ing expe­ri­ence, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in a new trend, than in read­ing the work. One indus­try source esti­mated that three­-quar­ters of the down­load­ers did not read the book.119

…the free pub­lic library does not put the book trade out of busi­ness. Books must be returned to the library within three weeks, and the library book expe­ri­ence is usu­ally lack­ing in glam­our. The book trade can coex­ist with freely avail­able book copies, pro­vided the book­sellers bun­dle their wares with attrac­tive sym­bols and appeal­ing com­ple­men­tary expe­ri­ences.

…That being said, legal prod­uct sup­pli­ers hold some key advan­tages in pro­duc­ing cer­tain kinds of aura. Aura often comes through the asso­ci­a­tion of a prod­uct with given insti­tu­tions, given celebri­ties, or a given his­to­ry. This favors prod­ucts sup­plied by iden­ti­fi­able insti­tu­tions with well-estab­lished rep­u­ta­tions. Book super­stores, con­cert halls, and art muse­ums have auras because insti­tu­tions have invested resources in mak­ing their venues attrac­tive, inter­est­ing, or oth­er­wise focal. Out­law or hacker sup­pli­ers, who wish to remain anony­mous or at least low pro­file, are unlikely to make com­pa­ra­ble invest­ments. They can­not eas­ily turn aura-pro­duc­ing invest­ments into rep­u­ta­tional or finan­cial gains for them­selves.

In other words, cus­tomers often do not want prod­ucts sup­plied by anony­mous insti­tu­tions. This truth lim­its the dan­gers from copy­right-dam­ag­ing Web sites. If the copy­right-dam­ag­ing insti­tu­tion is truly anony­mous, and thus imper­vi­ous to legal sanc­tion, it will have a hard time pro­duc­ing aura. Other copy­right-in­fring­ing insti­tu­tions have a cen­tral and trace­able iden­tity and thus can develop aura more eas­ily and effec­tive­ly. These same insti­tu­tions, how­ev­er, usu­ally can be reached by the law.

…It is a mys­tery why fans spend almost all their music money on prod­ucts of very recent vin­tage. Until we untan­gle this puz­zle, and we have not yet, we will not under­stand how Inter­net music is likely to affect con­sumer wel­fare. Most con­sumers are not inter­ested in buy­ing much music from 1950, regard­less of its objec­tive qual­ity in the eyes of the crit­ic. Music from 1650 is even less pop­u­lar. Few peo­ple search the his­tory of music for the best record­ings and focus their buy­ing on those. Rather, in any given year the most recent record­ings dom­i­nate the charts. At a typ­i­cal moment, all the Bill­board Top 40 sin­gles, or albums, come from the most recent two years of recorded out­put. Every now and then there is a Bea­t­les revival, but such events are the excep­tion rather than the rule. Con­sumers evince an over­whelm­ing pref­er­ence for music pro­duced in the very recent past.

Most likely the music mar­ket is about more than sim­ply buy­ing good music, as a critic might under­stand that term. Peo­ple buy music to sig­nal their hip­ness, to par­tic­i­pate in cur­rent trends, or to dis­tin­guish them­selves from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Buy­ers use music to sig­nal their social stand­ing, whether this con­sists of going to the opera or lis­ten­ing to heavy met­al. Oth­ers value par­tak­ing in nov­elty per se. They find new­ness excit­ing, a way of fol­low­ing the course of fash­ion, and the music mar­ket offers one handy arena for this pur­suit. For some peo­ple music is an excuse to go out and mix with oth­ers, a coor­di­na­tion point for danc­ing, stay­ing up late, drink­ing, or a sin­gles scene. Along these lines, many fans seem to enjoy musi­cal pro­mo­tions, hype, and adver­tis­ing as ends in them­selves, and not merely as means to hear­ing music. They like being part of the next big thing. The accom­pa­ny­ing music can­not be so bad to their ears as to offend them, but the deft­ness of the har­monic tri­ads is not their pri­mary con­cern.

In other words, the fea­tures of the mar­ket that mat­ter to the critic may not be very spe­cial to con­sumers at all. Most of all, con­sumers seem to care about some fea­ture of new­ness and trendi­ness, more than they care about music per se. So how much does it mat­ter, from a con­sumer’s point of view, if weaker copy­right pro­tec­tion reshapes the world of music? Under one hypoth­e­sis, the spe­cific musics of our day are eas­ily replaced or, in eco­nomic ter­mi­nol­o­gy, highly sub­sti­tutable. All other things equal, peo­ple will buy the new, but they could get along with alter­na­tives almost as well. For instance per­haps ravers could use Gre­go­rian chants to define their cul­tural sta­tus. Indeed one chant CD (Chant) had a very long and suc­cess­ful chart run. Young rave and techno fans were among the largest buy­ers of this record­ing.

…Con­sider two fur­ther exam­ples. First, in the for­mer Soviet Union, dis­si­dent rock and roll bands per­formed many pop­u­lar-cul­ture func­tions and com­manded a fer­vent fol­low­ing. These bands fell short of the objec­tive crit­i­cal qual­ity of their West­ern coun­ter­parts. Still they pro­vided con­sumers with many use­ful ser­vices, includ­ing a means to sig­nal rebel­lion against the Soviet state. Sec­ond, in 1941, the major radio sta­tions refused to carry the cat­a­log of the music pub­lisher ASCAP, in a dis­pute over fees. At that time ASCAP, the lead­ing music pub­lisher and clear­ing­house in the United States, dom­i­nated the music mar­ket. The sta­tions instead played BMI music, which was more ori­ented toward rhythm and blues and offered less Tin Pan Alley, croon­ing, and big band. Radio lis­ten­ers seemed to take the sud­den change in stride; there is lit­tle evi­dence of a seri­ous prob­lem. Music fans con­tin­ued pretty much as before, except for the change in styles and asso­ci­ated music pub­lish­ers.120

…Fur­ther­more pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions already have claimed older musics, mak­ing them less well suited for social differ­en­ti­a­tion. Per­haps musi­cal taste is a game of seces­sion and repu­di­a­tion more than any­thing else. So the music of Chuck Berry no longer fits the world of 2005, and can­not be made to fit it. Crit­ics still love the music, and some niche con­sumers will be drawn to its mer­its, but it can never hold the cur­rent place of Brit­ney Spears. That is why hit reis­sues are rare.

“Pericalypsis”, Stanislaw Lem

Pg157-168, , (trans­lated by Michael Kan­del, 1979)

Joachim Fersen­geld

(Edi­tions de Minu­it, Paris)

Joachim Fersen­geld, a Ger­man, wrote his Per­i­ca­lypse in Dutch (he hardly knows the lan­guage, which he him­self admits in the Intro­duc­tion) and pub­lished it in France, a coun­try noto­ri­ous for its dread­ful proof­read­ing. The writer of these words also does not, strictly speak­ing, know Dutch, but going by the title of the book, the Eng­lish Intro­duc­tion, and a few under­stand­able expres­sions here and there in the text, he has con­cluded that he can pass muster as a reviewer after all.

Joachim Fersen­geld does not wish to be an intel­lec­tual in an age when any­one can be one. Nor has he any desire to pass for a man of let­ters. Cre­ative work of value is pos­si­ble when there is resis­tance, either of the medium or of the peo­ple at whom the work is aimed; but since, after the col­lapse of the pro­hi­bi­tions of reli­gion and the cen­sor, one can say every­thing, or any­thing what­ev­er, and since, with the dis­ap­pear­ance of those atten­tive lis­ten­ers who hung on every word, one can howl any­thing at any­one, lit­er­a­ture and all its human­is­tic affin­ity is a corpse, whose advanc­ing decay is stub­bornly con­cealed by the next of kin. There­fore, one should seek out new ter­rains for cre­ativ­i­ty, those in which can be found a resis­tance that will lend an ele­ment of men­ace and risk - and there­with impor­tance and respon­si­bil­ity - to the sit­u­a­tion.

Such a field, such an activ­i­ty, can today be only prophe­cy. Because he is with­out hope - that is, because he knows in advance that he will be nei­ther heard out nor rec­og­nized nor accepted - the prophet ought to rec­on­cile him­self a pri­ori to a posi­tion of mute­ness. And he who, being a Ger­man, addresses French­men in Dutch with Eng­lish intro­duc­tions is as mute as he who keeps silent. Thus Fersen­geld acts in accor­dance with his own assump­tions. Our mighty civ­i­liza­tion, he says, strives for the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties as imper­ma­nent as pos­si­ble in pack­ag­ing as per­ma­nent as pos­si­ble. The imper­ma­nent prod­uct must soon be replaced by a new one, and this is good for the econ­o­my; the per­ma­nence of the pack­ag­ing, on the other hand, makes its dis­posal diffi­cult, and this pro­motes the fur­ther devel­op­ment of tech­nol­ogy and orga­ni­za­tion. Thus the con­sumer copes with each con­sec­u­tive arti­cle of junk on an indi­vid­ual basis, whereas for the removal of the pack­ag­ings spe­cial antipol­lu­tion pro­grams are required, san­i­tary engi­neer­ing, the coor­di­na­tion of efforts, plan­ning, purifi­ca­tion and decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion plants, and so on. For­mer­ly, one could depend on it that the accu­mu­la­tion of garbage would be kept at a rea­son­able level by the forces of nature, such as the rains, the winds, rivers, and earth­quakes. But at the present time what once washed and flushed away the garbage has itself become the excre­ment of civ­i­liza­tion: the rivers poi­son us, the atmos­phere burns our lungs and eyes, the winds strew indus­trial ashes on our heads, and as for plas­tic con­tain­ers, since they are elas­tic, even earth­quakes can­not deal with them. Thus the nor­mal scenery today is civ­i­liza­tional drop­pings, and the nat­ural reserves are a momen­tary excep­tion to the rule. Against this land­scape of pack­ag­ings that have been sloughed off by their prod­ucts, crowds bus­tle about, absorbed in the busi­ness of open­ing and con­sum­ing, and also in that last nat­ural pro­duct, sex. Yet sex, too, has been given a mul­ti­tude of pack­ag­ings, for this and noth­ing else is what clothes are, dis­plays, ros­es, lip­sticks, and sundry other adver­tis­ing wrap­pings. Thus civ­i­liza­tion is wor­thy of admi­ra­tion only in its sep­a­rate frag­ments, much as the pre­ci­sion of the heart is wor­thy of admi­ra­tion, the liv­er, the kid­neys, or the lungs of an organ­ism, since the rapid work of those organs makes good sense, though there is no sense what­ever in the activ­ity of the body that com­prises these per­fect parts - if it is the body of a lunatic.

The same process, declares the prophet, is tak­ing place in the area of spir­i­tual goods as well, since the mon­strous machine of civ­i­liza­tion, its screws hav­ing worked loose, has turned into a mechan­i­cal milker of the Mus­es. Thus it fills the libraries to burst­ing, inun­dates the book­stores and mag­a­zine stands, numbs the tele­vi­sion screens, pil­ing itself high with a super­abun­dance of which the numer­i­cal mag­ni­tude alone is a death­blow. If find­ing forty grains of sand in the Sahara meant sav­ing the world, they would not be found, any more than would the forty mes­sianic books that have already long since been writ­ten but were lost beneath strata of trash. And these books have unques­tion­ably been writ­ten; the sta­tis­tics of intel­lec­tual labor guar­an­tees it, as is explained - in Dutch - math­e­mat­i­cally - by Joachim Fersen­geld, which this reviewer must repeat on faith, con­ver­sant with nei­ther the Dutch lan­guage nor the math­e­mat­i­cal. And so, ere we can steep our souls in those rev­e­la­tions, we bury them in garbage, for there is four bil­lion times more of the lat­ter. But then, they are buried already. Already has come to pass what the prophecy pro­claimed, only it went unno­ticed in the gen­eral haste. The prophe­cy, then, is a retro­phe­cy, and for this rea­son is enti­tled Per­i­ca­lypse, and not Apoc­a­lypse. Its progress (ret­ro­gress) we detect by Signs: by lan­guid­i­ty, insi­pid­i­ty, and insen­si­tiv­i­ty, and in addi­tion by accel­er­a­tion, infla­tion, and mas­tur­ba­tion. Intel­lec­tual mas­tur­ba­tion is the con­tent­ing of one­self with the promise in place of the deliv­ery. first we were onanized thor­oughly by adver­tis­ing (that degen­er­ate form of rev­e­la­tion which is the mea­sure of the Com­mer­cial Idea, as opposed to the Per­son­al), and then self­-abuse took over as a method for the rest of the arts. And this, because to believe in the sav­ing power of Mer­chan­dise yields greater results than to believe in the effi­cacy of the Lord God.

The mod­er­ate growth of tal­ent, its innately slow mat­u­ra­tion, its care­ful weed­ing out, its nat­ural selec­tion in the purview of solic­i­tous and dis­cern­ing tastes - these are phe­nom­ena of a bygone age that died heir­less. The last stim­u­lus that still works is a mighty howl; but when more and more peo­ple howl, employ­ing more and more pow­er­ful ampli­fiers, one’s eardrums will burst before the soul learns any­thing. The names of the geniuses of old, more and more vainly invoked, already are an empty sound; and so it is mene mene tekel upharsin, unless what Joachim Fersen­geld rec­om­mends is done. There should be set up a Save the Human Race Foun­da­tion, as a six­teen-bil­lion reserve on a gold stan­dard, yield­ing an inter­est of four per­cent per annum. Out of this fund mon­eys should be dis­pensed to all cre­ators - to inven­tors, schol­ars, engi­neers, painters, writ­ers, poets, play­wrights, philoso­phers, and design­ers - in the fol­low­ing way. He who writes noth­ing, designs noth­ing, paints noth­ing, nei­ther patents nor pro­pos­es, is paid a stipend, for life, to the tune of thir­ty-six thou­sand dol­lars a year. He who does any of the afore­men­tioned receives cor­re­spond­ingly less.

Per­i­ca­lypse con­tains a full set of tab­u­la­tions of what is to be deducted for each form of cre­ativ­i­ty. For one inven­tion or two pub­lished books a year, you receive not a cent; by three titles, what you cre­ate comes out of your own pock­et. With this, only a true altru­ist, only an ascetic of the spir­it, who loves his neigh­bor but not him­self one bit, will cre­ate any­thing, and the pro­duc­tion of mer­ce­nary rub­bish will cease. Joachim Fersen­geld speaks from per­sonal expe­ri­ence, for it was at his own expense - at a loss! - that he pub­lished his Per­i­ca­lypse. He knows, then, that total unprofitabil­ity does not at all mean the total elim­i­na­tion of cre­ativ­i­ty.

Ego­ism man­i­fests itself as a hunger for mam­mon com­bined with a hunger for glo­ry: in order to scotch the lat­ter as well, the Sal­va­tion Pro­gram intro­duces the com­plete anonymity of the cre­ators. To fore­stall the sub­mis­sion of stipend appli­ca­tions from untal­ented per­sons, the Foun­da­tion will, through the appro­pri­ate organs, exam­ine the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of the can­di­dates. The actual merit of the idea with which a can­di­date comes for­ward is of no con­se­quence. The only impor­tant thing is whether the project pos­sesses com­mer­cial val­ue, that is, whether it can be sold. If so, the stipend is awarded imme­di­ate­ly. For under­ground cre­ative activ­i­ty, there is set up a sys­tem of penal­ties and repres­sive mea­sures within the frame­work of legal pros­e­cu­tion by the appa­ra­tus of the Safety Con­trol; also intro­duced is a new form of police, name­ly, the Anvil (An­ti­cre­ative Vig­i­lance League). Accord­ing to the penal code, whoso­ever clan­des­tinely writes, dis­sem­i­nates, har­bors, or even if only in silence pub­licly com­mu­ni­cates any fruit of cre­ative endeav­or, with the pur­pose of deriv­ing from said action either gain or glo­ry, shall be pun­ished by con­fine­ment, forced labor, and, in the case of recidi­vism, by impris­on­ment in a dark cell with a hard bed, and a can­ing on each anniver­sary of the offense. For the smug­gling into the bosom of soci­ety of such ideas, whose tragic effect on life is com­pa­ra­ble to the bane of the auto­mo­bile, the scourge of cin­e­matog­ra­phy, the curse of tele­vi­sion, etc., the law pro­vides cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment as the max­i­mum and includes the pil­lory and a life sen­tence of the com­pul­sory use of one’s own inven­tion. Pun­ish­able also are attempted crimes, and pre­med­i­ta­tion car­ries with it badges of shame, in the form of the stamp­ing of the fore­head with indeli­ble let­ters arranged to spell out “Enemy of Man.” How­ev­er, grapho­ma­nia, which does not look for gain, is called a Dis­or­der of the Mind and is not pun­ish­able, though per­sons so afflicted are removed from soci­ety, as con­sti­tut­ing a threat to the peace, and placed in spe­cial insti­tu­tions, where they are humanely sup­plied with great quan­ti­ties of ink and paper.

Obvi­ously world cul­ture will not at all suffer from such state reg­u­la­tion, but will only then begin to flour­ish. Human­ity will return to the mag­nifi­cent works of its own his­to­ry; for the num­ber of sculp­tures, paint­ings, plays, nov­els, gad­gets, and machines is great enough already to meet the needs of many cen­turies. Nor will any­one be for­bid­den to make so-called epochal dis­cov­er­ies, on the con­di­tion that he keep them to him­self.

Hav­ing in this way set the sit­u­a­tion to rights - that is, hav­ing saved human­ity - Joachim Fersen­geld pro­ceeds to the final prob­lem: what is to be done with that mon­strous glut which has already come about? As a man of uncom­mon civil for­ti­tude, Fersen­geld says that what has so far been cre­ated in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, though it may con­tain great pearls of wis­dom, is worth noth­ing when tal­lied up in its entire­ty, because you will not find those pearls in the ocean of garbage. There­fore he calls for the destruc­tion of every­thing in one lump, all that has arisen in the form of films, illus­trated mag­a­zi­nes, postage stamps, musi­cal scores, books, sci­en­tific arti­cles, news­pa­pers, for this act will be a true clean­ing out of the Augean sta­bles - with a full bal­anc­ing of the his­tor­i­cal cred­its and deb­its in the human ledger. (Among other things, the destruc­tion will claim the facts about atomic ener­gy, which will elim­i­nate the cur­rent threat to the world.) Joachim Fersen­geld points out that he is per­fectly aware of the infamy of burn­ing books, or even whole libraries. But the autos-da-fé enacted in his­tory - such as in the Third Reich - were infa­mous because they were reac­tionary. It all depends on the grounds on which one does the burn­ing. He pro­pos­es, then, a life-sav­ing auto-da-fé, pro­gres­sive, redemp­tive; and because Joachim Fersen­geld is a prophet con­sis­tent to the end, in his clos­ing word he bids the reader first tear up and set fire to this very prophe­cy!

  1. “A Sad Heart at the Super­mar­ket”, Daedalus, vol. 89, no. 2 (Spring 1960)↩︎

  2. “E-books spark bat­tle inside the pub­lish­ing indus­try”, Wash­ing­ton Post, 27 Decem­ber 200↩︎

  3. Sur­pris­ing­ly, the cost of print­ing a first edi­tion of a book is only about 10% of the pub­lish­er’s final whole­sale price, and ship­ping isn’t much more. The money is going into other things. The New Yorker breaks the costs down as fol­lows (em­pha­sis added):

    Tra­di­tion­al­ly, pub­lish­ers have sold books to stores, with the whole­sale price for hard­cov­ers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid roy­al­ties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price. A sim­pli­fied ver­sion of a pub­lish­er’s costs might run as fol­lows. On a new, twen­ty-six-dol­lar hard­cov­er, the pub­lisher typ­i­cally receives thir­teen dol­lars. Authors are paid roy­al­ties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price; this accounts for $3.90. Per­haps $1.80 goes to the costs of paper, print­ing, and bind­ing [$1.80 of $26 is ~7%], a dol­lar to mar­ket­ing, and $1.70 to dis­tri­b­u­tion. The remain­ing $4.60 must pay for rent, edi­tors, a sales force, and any write-offs of unearned author advances. Book­stores return about thir­ty-five per cent of the hard­cov­ers they buy, and pub­lish­ers write off the cost of pro­duc­ing those books. Profit mar­gins are slim.

  4. I sus­pect, as does author (“Why the com­mer­cial ebook mar­ket is bro­ken”), that book pub­lish­ers and Ama­zon are tak­ing a con­sid­er­able per­cent­age of the ebook rev­enue, since in this arti­cle, Ama­zon expected a news­pa­per pub­lisher to agree to give Ama­zon 70% of the sub­scrip­tion fees; Ama­zon has monop­oly con­trol over the Kindle, and it is rea­son­able to think that they are sim­i­larly demand­ing of book pub­lish­ers. From “Priced to Sell: Is Free the Future?”, 2009-07-06, by :

    At a hear­ing on Capi­tol Hill in May, James Moroney, the pub­lisher of the , told Con­gress about nego­ti­a­tions he’d just had with the online retailer Ama­zon. The idea was to license his news­pa­per’s con­tent to the Kindle, Ama­zon’s new elec­tronic read­er. “They want sev­enty per cent of the sub­scrip­tion rev­enue,” Moroney tes­ti­fied. “I get thirty per cent, they get sev­enty per cent. On top of that, they have said we get the right to repub­lish your intel­lec­tual prop­erty to any portable device.”

    The idea was that if a Kin­dle sub­scrip­tion to the Dal­las Morn­ing News cost ten dol­lars a mon­th, seven dol­lars of that belonged to Ama­zon, the provider of the gad­get on which the news was read, and just three dol­lars belonged to the news­pa­per, the provider of an expen­sive and ever-chang­ing vari­ety of edi­to­r­ial con­tent. The peo­ple at Ama­zon val­ued the news­pa­per’s con­tri­bu­tion so lit­tle, in fact, that they felt they ought then to be able to license it to any­one else they want­ed.

  5. A arti­cle takes the oppo­site view: that Ama­zon is los­ing a great deal of money on each ebook:

    Ama­zon pays the same whole­sale price for Kin­dle books as it does for real books - gen­er­ally 50% of the list price. For a typ­i­cal hard­back that retails for $26 - say, E.L. Doc­torow’s Homer & Lan­g­ley - Ama­zon pays $13 and then sells it for $9.99 on the Kindle, tak­ing a $3 loss on each sale. (The longer-term strat­e­gy, pub­lish­ers fear, is that once the Kin­dle gains [sub­stan­tial] mar­ket share, Ama­zon will nego­ti­ate lower whole­sale prices for dig­i­tal ver­sion­s.)

  6. I’m using ‘sub­sidy’ in a broad sense. Intel­lec­tual prop­erty laws are sub­si­dies; stronger IP law or more vig­or­ous enforce­ment is more gov­ern­ment sub­sidy of the pro­tected ren­tiers; uni­ver­si­ties hir­ing pro­fes­sors of cre­ative writ­ing or Eng­lish and enabling them to write their books on sab­bat­i­cals or sum­mer vaca­tions, and pub­lish­ing them at or below cost - those are sub­si­dies as well. Tax breaks are sub­si­dies, etc.↩︎

  7. IP has other effects, some of which directly reduce artis­tic pro­duc­tion, since so much art is based on exist­ing art. This point has been made at length by many authors such as , but a short exam­ple from Tyler Cowen’s Good and Plenty:

    Leg­is­la­tion in 1976 brought copy­right pro­tec­tion to new extremes, namely the life of the author plus fifty years, and for a com­pany sev­en­ty-five years from pub­li­ca­tion or one hun­dred years from cre­ation, whichever is soon­er. The renewal process was elim­i­nated alto­geth­er. Over time the large cor­po­ra­tions of the enter­tain­ment indus­try have cap­tured Con­gress in this mat­ter, and the copy­right period has now been extended eleven times in the last forty years. The most recent exten­sion was the Sonny Bono Copy­right Term Exten­sion Act of 1998, which expanded copy­right pro­tec­tion to the life of the cre­ator plus sev­enty years, rather than fifty. Cor­po­rate copy­rights also were extended twenty years to a total of nine­ty-five years, as were copy­rights for all works pro­duced before 1978. The cam­paign to change these laws was led by Dis­ney, which had feared the forth­com­ing expi­ra­tion of copy­right on Mickey Mouse and other lucra­tive car­toon char­ac­ters.6

    Copy­right can restrict out­put in other ways as well. Many artists bor­row heav­ily from each oth­er, often with­out pay­ing roy­al­ties or receiv­ing per­mis­sion. Dis­ney char­ac­ters are fre­quently drawn from Euro­pean fairy tales or Amer­i­can folk­tales, with­out pay­ment of any licens­ing fee. Some of Bob Dylan’s songs are so close to the works of Woody Guthrie that Dylan would lose a law­suit, had Guthrie received con­tem­po­rary copy­right pro­tec­tion. Of course Guthrie bor­rowed heav­ily as well, most of all from blues musi­cians. This did not stop Dylan, once a pop­ulist 1960s rad­i­cal, from join­ing the lob­by­ing effort in favor of copy­right exten­sion.7 Copy­right also makes it harder for rap artists to sam­ple music. Look­ing back into his­to­ry, many Shake­speare plays draw their plots from other works; , for instance, was based on . Large sec­tions of Chaucer’s poetry are bor­rowed from other writ­ers, through either trans­la­tion or para­phrase. Blues, jazz, coun­try music, and rap are all based on wide­spread bor­row­ing of melodies and riffs, usu­ally with­out any acknowl­edg­ment and cer­tainly with­out any pay­ment of licens­ing fees. It is debat­able whether these artis­tic forms could have devel­oped as we know them, had today’s copy­right laws been enforced all along.

  8. The exam­ples are legion; from “Buy­ing the Con­cept of Art” (‘Talk­ing Phi­los­o­phy’, ):

    Since I have taught Aes­thet­ics since 1994, lit­tle that occurs in the strange world of art sur­prises me. One of the more recent trends is the sell­ing of the ideas of artists, as opposed to the sell­ing of an actual work of art. For exam­ple, Lawrence Weiner put a $160,000 price tag on his idea of “2 Metal Balls + 2 Metal Rings (Set Down in the Groove).” For the $160,000 you do not get any balls, rings or a groove. Rather, you would receive a cer­tifi­cate that per­mits you to write the phrase in a room or create/commission the sculp­ture that you think it hap­pens to describe.

    Works, if that term can be used, were also sold by Sol LeWitt before his death. While he did cre­ate art objects, he also cre­ated “works” that were just vague instruc­tions for cre­at­ing a piece. For exam­ple, “Alter­nate Yel­low Ink and Pen­cil Straight, Par­al­lel Lines, of Ran­dom Length, Not Touch­ing the Sides.”

    Tino Seh­gal tops both DeWitt and Wein­er. Seh­gal does not even offer a cer­tifi­cate or set of instruc­tions, he appar­ently just makes odd things occur and per­mits no record­ing of the event. These “works” are sold for cash in front of wit­ness­es, but no doc­u­men­ta­tion is pro­vid­ed. One of his “works”, which was pur­chased for around $100,000 is the con­cept of a museum secu­rity guard slowly undress­ing. Nat­u­ral­ly, the money does not buy an actual secu­rity guard or an undress­ing, merely the con­cept as put forth by Seh­gal.

    Or “Woman Pays $10,000 For ‘Non-Vis­i­ble’ Work Of Art”:

    Franco and Praxis also warn that, “When you con­tribute to this Kick­starter pro­ject, you are not buy­ing a vis­i­ble piece of art!” Yes, after con­tribut­ing real mon­ey, buy­ers will not receive any tan­gi­ble piece of art and will instead be pre­sented with a writ­ten descrip­tion of their pur­chase. With prices rang­ing from $1000 to $10,000, you might ask your­self, “who would actu­ally will­ingly donate money for pretty much noth­ing?” Answer: Mon­treal web pro­duc­er, social media mar­keter, model and actor Aimee Davi­son.

    Davi­son’s expla­na­tion is at least some­what sen­si­ble:

    Also, I wanted to note that I bought Franco et al’s art because I want to pro­mote the ben­e­fits of big­ger brands spon­sor­ing new media artists and social media art (or Inter­net pro­ject­s). My patron­age is fund­ing Fran­co’s project but it is equally a spon­sor­ship; it is a mar­ket­ing tool to pub­li­cize my own pro­jects. Spon­sor­ing a social media art project allows a brand or indi­vid­ual to attach their name to a project wher­ever it appears online, co-cre­ate, gain agency and cred­i­bil­ity in the social media sphere and share in the buzz, audi­ence, and cul­tural impact of a work.

  9. cf.↩︎

  10. The aca­d­e­mic lit­er­a­ture is mixed; for exam­ple, some find lit­tle to no detri­men­tal effect to Inter­net-borne copy­right infringe­ment: from , Ober­holz­er-Gee & Strumpf 2010 (media cov­er­age):

    Data on the sup­ply of new works are con­sis­tent with our argu­ment that file shar­ing did not dis­cour­age authors and pub­lish­ers.2 The pub­li­ca­tion of new books rose by 66% over the 2002-2007 peri­od. Since 2000, the annual release of new music albums has more than dou­bled, and world­wide fea­ture film pro­duc­tion is up by more than 30% since 2003. At the same time, empir­i­cal research in file shar­ing doc­u­ments that con­sumer wel­fare increased sub­stan­tially due to the new tech­nol­o­gy.

  11. ↩︎

  12. Or below; I dis­like clut­ter.↩︎

  13. A rate which, if sur­veys are to be believed, puts me in a quite rar­efied per­centile; eg “One in Four Read No Books Last Year” (), and men­tions the aver­age for Amer­i­cans was 4 books a year, and the median among those who read at least one book was 7, roughly 1 every 7 weeks.↩︎

  14. Another writer (Linda Holmes, “The Sad, Beau­ti­ful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Every­thing”, NPR) con­sid­ers if you read 2 a week:

    If we assume you start now, and you’re 15, and you are will­ing to con­tinue at this pace until you’re 80. That’s 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot. Let’s do you another favor: Let’s fur­ther assume you limit your­self to books from the last, say, 250 years. Noth­ing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enor­mous swaths of lit­er­a­ture, of course, but we’ll assume you’re will­ing to write off thou­sands of years of writ­ing in an effort to be rea­son­ably well-read.

    Of course, by the time you’re 80, there will be 65 more years of new books, so by then, you’re deal­ing with 315 years of books, which allows you to read about 20 books from each year. You’ll have to break down your 20 books each year between fic­tion and non­fic­tion - you have to cover his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, essays, diaries, sci­ence, reli­gion, sci­ence fic­tion, west­erns, polit­i­cal the­ory … I hope you weren’t plan­ning to go out very much…We could do the same cal­cu­lus with film or music or, increas­ing­ly, tele­vi­sion - you sim­ply have no chance of see­ing even most of what exists. Sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, you will die hav­ing missed almost every­thing.

    , “The Year of Read­ing Differ­ently” 2011:

    All of this has restricted the read­ing time I have been able to devote to our exist­ing col­lec­tion of books - the only one of my vows I was really look­ing for­ward to. I began by revis­it­ing Eve­lyn Waugh and Gra­ham Greene, and hon­esty com­pels me to admit that I have got no fur­ther. Indeed, I find that I am in no great hurry to get fur­ther…Here is a cheer­ful con­clu­sion: on the basis of the exper­i­ment to date I am per­suaded that, if I have to, I can go on re-read­ing my exist­ing library with­out ever get­ting bored - I esti­mate I have enough good lit­er­a­ture in the house to last me for the rest of my life.

  15. Amer­i­ca, and Great Britain. France con­tributed a lit­tle to SF with , and Japan’s SF is copi­ous (but unin­flu­en­tial). Besides that, fur­ther sources of SF can be named on one hand. Poland offers us , Rus­sia has… some­one, no doubt. And that’s about it. SF isn’t pro­lific even in the Anglo­phone First World, much less the rest of the globe.↩︎

  16. By a rough count of , 14 of the 43 win­ners were part of some fran­chise or series of works. To account for Hugos, we dou­ble that to 28 for the 2 awards; if each is part of a tril­o­gy, we need to add 84 more works to our read­ing list, for another 2 years.↩︎

  17. , sec­tion 51, foot­note 41↩︎

  18. And the rea­son I was read­ing Mist­born at all was curios­ity as to how his nov­els might go - and Wheel of Time is itself an excel­lent exam­ple of a mediocre work that sucked time that could’ve gone to some­thing bet­ter, but which I could not quit because the curios­ity would kill me.↩︎

  19. See the later dis­cus­sion of hyper­bolic dis­count­ing and exper­i­men­tal results with songs.↩︎

  20. “Your Brain on Fic­tion”, Annie Mur­phy Paul 2012, NYT:

    Researchers have dis­cov­ered that words describ­ing motion also stim­u­late regions of the brain dis­tinct from lan­guage-pro­cess­ing areas. In a study, led by the cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Véronique Boulenger, of the Lab­o­ra­tory of Lan­guage Dynam­ics in France, the brains of par­tic­i­pants were scanned as they read sen­tences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activ­ity in the motor cor­tex, which coor­di­nates the body’s move­ments. What’s more, this activ­ity was con­cen­trated in one part of the motor cor­tex when the move­ment described was arm-re­lated and in another part when the move­ment con­cerned the leg.

    The brain, it seems, does not make much of a dis­tinc­tion between read­ing about an expe­ri­ence and encoun­ter­ing it in real life; in each case, the same neu­ro­log­i­cal regions are stim­u­lat­ed. Keith Oat­ley, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto (and a pub­lished nov­el­ist), has pro­posed that read­ing pro­duces a vivid sim­u­la­tion of real­i­ty, one that “runs on minds of read­ers just as com­puter sim­u­la­tions run on com­put­ers.” Fic­tion - with its redo­lent details, imag­i­na­tive metaphors and atten­tive descrip­tions of peo­ple and their actions - offers an espe­cially rich repli­ca. Indeed, in one respect nov­els go beyond sim­u­lat­ing real­ity to give read­ers an expe­ri­ence unavail­able off the page: the oppor­tu­nity to enter fully into other peo­ple’s thoughts and feel­ings.

    …Ray­mond Mar, a psy­chol­o­gist at York Uni­ver­sity in Canada, per­formed an analy­sis of 86 fMRI stud­ies, pub­lished last year in the Annual Review of Psy­chol­ogy, and con­cluded that there was sub­stan­tial over­lap in the brain net­works used to under­stand sto­ries and the net­works used to nav­i­gate inter­ac­tions with other indi­vid­u­als - in par­tic­u­lar, inter­ac­tions in which we’re try­ing to fig­ure out the thoughts and feel­ings of oth­ers. Sci­en­tists call this capac­ity of the brain to con­struct a map of other peo­ple’s inten­tions “the­ory of mind.” Nar­ra­tives offer a unique oppor­tu­nity to engage this capac­i­ty, as we iden­tify with char­ac­ters’ long­ings and frus­tra­tions, guess at their hid­den motives and track their encoun­ters with friends and ene­mies, neigh­bors and lovers.

    It is an exer­cise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research sug­gests. Dr. Oat­ley and Dr. Mar, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with sev­eral other sci­en­tists, reported in two stud­ies, pub­lished in 2006 and 2009 [see also their 2008 review], that indi­vid­u­als who fre­quently read fic­tion seem to be bet­ter able to under­stand other peo­ple, empathize with them and see the world from their per­spec­tive. This rela­tion­ship per­sisted even after the researchers accounted for the pos­si­bil­ity that more empa­thetic indi­vid­u­als might pre­fer read­ing nov­els. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a sim­i­lar result in preschool-age chil­dren: the more sto­ries they had read to them, the keener their the­ory of mind - an effect that was also pro­duced by watch­ing movies but, curi­ous­ly, not by watch­ing tele­vi­sion. (Dr. Mar has con­jec­tured that because chil­dren often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their par­ents, they may expe­ri­ence more “par­en­t-chil­dren con­ver­sa­tions about men­tal states” when it comes to film­s.)

    Fic­tion, Dr. Oat­ley notes, “is a par­tic­u­larly use­ful sim­u­la­tion because nego­ti­at­ing the social world effec­tively is extremely tricky, requir­ing us to weigh up myr­iad inter­act­ing instances of cause and effect. Just as com­puter sim­u­la­tions can help us get to grips with com­plex prob­lems such as fly­ing a plane or fore­cast­ing the weath­er, so nov­els, sto­ries and dra­mas can help us under­stand the com­plex­i­ties of social life.”

    (See also Kidd & Cas­tano 2013 but note that it has failed to repli­cate in the large Panero et al 2016, which strongly sup­ports self­-s­e­lec­tion as the mech­a­nis­m.) Jus­ti­fy­ing fic­tion on prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits is a pow­er­ful jus­ti­fi­ca­tion - if it’s true. But these claims of ben­e­fit are a lit­tle ques­tion­able, being largely cor­re­la­tion­al. More gen­er­al­ly, the ques­tion is one of “”: the typ­i­cal result in psy­chol­ogy is that if you spend time learn­ing or train­ing on some­thing, you will improve sub­stan­tially on that, improve a lit­tle or mod­er­ately on things which resem­ble that closely (“near trans­fer”), and improve hardly at all on any­thing else (“far trans­fer”). So no mat­ter how much of a men­tal work­out you get play­ing chess, it won’t “trans­fer” to, say, learn­ing Eng­lish vocab­u­lary. Any­thing which might cause far trans­fer would be unusual and excit­ing (such as ), but the task is tan­ta­mount to increas­ing IQ in nor­mal healthy peo­ple - a holy grail which remains out of reach half a cen­tury lat­er. (Even years of school­ing, spend­ing hours a day on a vari­ety of sub­jects, fails to increase chil­drens’ IQ more than a few points at best.) So, what does read­ing fic­tion trans­fer to? Does it only lead to “near trans­fer” like higher WPM or appre­ci­a­tion of lit­er­a­ture, or does it also lead to more “far trans­fer” like bet­ter and real-life social skills?↩︎

  21. The post “Data On Fic­tional Lies”, dis­cussing the paper . It’s worth not­ing that things like find that in real life, being Extro­verted and low on Agree­able­ness cor­re­late with suc­cess; the lat­ter, at least, is more char­ac­ter­is­tic of antag­o­nists than pro­tag­o­nists:

    Fol­low-up tests showed a [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nifi­cant Valence * Salience inter­ac­tion effect on Extra­ver­sion (F1,374 = 11.40, p = 0.001) and Agree­able­ness (F1,374 = 16.65, p < 0.001). On Extra­ver­sion, pro­tag­o­nists score [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nifi­cantly lower than antag­o­nists (-0.26 vs. 0.44, F1,377 = 22.18, p < 0.001). Also, pro­tag­o­nists score lower than good minor char­ac­ters (-0.26 vs. 0.01, F1,377 = 5.57, p = 0.019) and antag­o­nists score higher than bad minor char­ac­ters (0.44 vs. -0.26, F1,377 = 7.33, p = 0.007). On Agree­able­ness, pro­tag­o­nists score [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nifi­cantly higher than antag­o­nists (0.37 vs. -1.15, F1,377 = 149.73, p < 0.001), and good minor char­ac­ters score higher than bad minor char­ac­ters (0.33 vs. -0.25, F1,377 = 8.34, p = 0.004). Also, antag­o­nists scored [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nifi­cantly lower on Agree­able­ness than bad minor char­ac­ters (-1.15 vs. -0.25, F1,377 = 5.57, p = 0.019). Fol­low-up tests also showed that valence had a [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nifi­cant main effect on Con­sci­en­tious­ness, Emo­tional Sta­bil­i­ty, and Open­ness to Expe­ri­ence. Good char­ac­ters score [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nifi­cantly higher than bad char­ac­ters on Con­sci­en­tious­ness (0.17 vs. -0.29, F1,374 = 10.59, p = 0.001), Emo­tional Sta­bil­ity (0.17 vs. -0.51, F1,374 = 22.10, p < 0.001); and Open­ness to Expe­ri­ence (0.17 vs. -0.32, F1,374 = 11.88, p = 0.001). In real life, higher lev­els of Agree­able­ness, Con­sci­en­tious­ness, and Emo­tional Sta­bil­ity are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be desir­able, so it is not sur­pris­ing that good char­ac­ters score higher than bad char­ac­ters on these fac­tors. How­ev­er, Extra­ver­sion and Open­ness in real life are more desir­able in some sit­u­a­tions and less desir­able in oth­ers. Why bad char­ac­ters score higher on Extra­ver­sion and good char­ac­ters, on Open­ness, is con­sid­ered in the Dis­cus­sion sec­tion.

  22. “Applied topol­ogy and Dan­te: an inter­view with Robert Ghrist”, John D. Cook 2010-09-13.↩︎

  23. “…But trag­i­cal­ly, some of the world’s strangest movies will never be avail­able on DVD at all. The data­base esti­mates that only 4.8% of all films ever made are cur­rently avail­able to the pub­lic. Though the Inter­net has been invalu­able in find­ing strange and for­got­ten relics, some films, whether through acci­dent, dis­as­ter or per­ceived dis­in­ter­est, have been lost or tem­porar­ily dis­placed.” –io9, “Weird and Won­der­ful Movies That You’ll Never Get to See”↩︎

  24. “Pan­do­ra’s dig­i­tal box: Pix and pix­els”, quot­ing Jan-Christo­pher Horak, Direc­tor, UCLA Film and Tele­vi­sion Archive.↩︎

  25. Of course, one could argue that there is some­thing uniquely opti­mal and spe­cial about the cur­rent exist­ing level of movie pro­duc­tion, such that this invis­i­ble 95% fall is accept­able but another 95% fall would be cat­a­clysmic. I hope the reader under­stands that this is a deeply untrust­wor­thy posi­tion to take (and they should read the Bostrom link on the ‘’) - I’d par­ody this argu­ment as “oh, that 95% fall is OK because it still leaves us a num­ber of movies which is big­ger than some-num­ber-I-made-up-just-now-based-on-the-in­for­ma­tion-y­ou’ve-pro­vid­ed-me; but another 95% fall, well, that’d just be mad­ness!”↩︎

  26. This seems to go unrec­og­nized some­times in lit­er­ary fields, with its close atten­tion to the rare land­marks of lit­er­ary his­to­ry; remarks in pg 3-4 of Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Mod­els for a Lit­er­ary His­tory (2005):

    …what a min­i­mal frac­tion of the lit­er­ary field we all work on: a canon of two hun­dred nov­els, for instance, sounds very large for nine­teen­th-cen­tury Britain (and is much larger than the cur­rent one), but is still less than 1% of the nov­els that were actu­ally pub­lished: twenty thou­sand, thir­ty, more, no one really knows - and close read­ing won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a cen­tury or so.

  27. See , and the author’s essay-sum­mary “Watch­ing TV Makes You Smarter”; see also the .↩︎

  28. , or, ; ↩︎

  29. “A Girl in a Library”, lines 32-29; The Sev­en-League Crutches↩︎

  30. “Vast book­store opens as famed library runs out of space”, BBC News, 2010-10-06↩︎

  31. Their 2010 report is pro­vi­sional about the 2010 ISBNs, and so I exclude them. Over 2002-2009, the num­ber of ISBNs per year increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly: 247777, 266322, 295523, 282500, 296352, 407646, 561580, 1335475, and 3092740. Nearly half the total came just from 2009! In a remark­able tes­ta­ment to the growth of elec­tronic and print­-on-de­mand pub­lish­ers, Bowker esti­mates for 2010 that accounted for 1,461,918 ISBNs.↩︎

  32. Nor was this the extreme for that peri­od. “Remem­ber when you had to pay 50 bucks for a two-episode VHS tape from Japan, plus ship­ping? Or, shud­der, a hun­dred dol­lars to import a LaserDisc for a two-episode OAV that turned out to be total garbage? Those were dark times, my friend.” (Anime News Net­work)↩︎

  33. Not unrea­son­able a fig­ure, given how many albums and other works are released every year; from Ober­holz­er-Gee & Strumpf 2010:

    While album sales have gen­er­ally fallen since 2000, the num­ber of albums being cre­ated has explod­ed. In 2000, 35,516 albums were released. Seven years lat­er, 79,695 albums (in­clud­ing 25,159 dig­i­tal albums) were pub­lished (Nielsen Sound­Scan, 2008). Sim­i­lar trends can be seen in other cre­ative indus­tries. For exam­ple, the world­wide num­ber of fea­ture films pro­duced each year has increased from 3,807 in 2003 to 4,989 in 2007 (Screen Digest, 2004 and 2008). Coun­tries where film piracy is ram­pant have typ­i­cally increased pro­duc­tion. This is true in South Korea (80 to 124), India (877 to 1164), and China (140 to 402). Dur­ing this peri­od, U.S. fea­ture film pro­duc­tion has increased from 459 fea­ture films in 2003 to 590 in 2007 (MPAA, 2007).

  34. pg 281 of Kevin Kel­ly’s (2011).↩︎

  35. From his 2006 inter­view:

    As you can see from my com­ments that I’m addicted to writ­ing, I love the idea of com­mu­ni­cat­ing ideas to other peo­ple. I think, in every case, the books that I’ve writ­ten were things where I had learned about some phe­nom­e­non that I thought was just too good to keep to myself and so I wanted other peo­ple to share in the joy of read­ing it. So it turns out then that I have more than 20 books in print now and that’s, you know, so many that I doubt that there’s any­body in the world who’s read more than half of them. And I some­times think what tragedy it would be if there were ten peo­ple in the world like me because we would­n’t have time to read each oth­er’s books, you know, it does­n’t scale up.

  36. See also Robin Han­son’s brief essay. “The Myth Of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Inno­va­tion mat­ters, but releas­ing your inner bohemian isn’t the answer”↩︎

  37. (1946-02-23); reprinted as “Bad Poets” in Poetry and the Age (1953)↩︎

  38. To take an obscure recent exam­ple; Sleep Dealer Injects Sci-Fi Into Immi­gra­tion Debate”, , 2008-01-24:

    is remark­ably top­i­cal for a film set in the future (al­beit one described by Rivera as tak­ing place “five min­utes from now”). Cen­tral themes include out­sourcing, cor­po­rate own­er­ship of water, remote war­fare, con­fes­sional inter­net diaries and mil­i­tary con­trac­tors who are account­able to no one. It’s the rare polit­i­cal film with­out any ref­er­ence to con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics; like and other big-brained sci-fi flicks, it’s about ideas, not sell­ing mer­chan­dise. “I love gnomes and gob­lins and elves,” said Rivera, who’s made a name for him­self tour­ing muse­ums and fes­ti­vals with his award-win­ning shorts. “But what I’m really inter­ested in is spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. I wanted to use this film to ask the ques­tion, ‘Where are we going?’”…That ironic jux­ta­po­si­tion started Rivera think­ing: What if tech­nol­ogy could extract the life force from the Mex­i­can pop­u­la­tion and send it north?

  39. A loaded word, I admit. But fic­tion is fun­da­men­tally lies - sto­ries about things that never were and never will be - and ‘con­vinc­ing some­one to do some­thing they would­n’t’ve based on lies or rhetoric for some ulte­rior pur­pose’ is as good a defi­n­i­tion of ‘pro­pa­ganda’ as I can think of.

    The nicer word is ‘inspi­ra­tion’. (Although one per­son’s inspired man is another per­son’s inflamed zealot. Lenin was pretty inspired.) That this is one of the roles of SF has long been acknowl­edged by authors; Asi­mov in his 1963 essay isn’t clear about whether inter­est in SF causes sci­en­tific achieve­ment or just predicts/correlates with it, but in 2011 no longer even feels the need to jus­tify the the­o­ry:

    In early 2011, I par­tic­i­pated in a con­fer­ence called Future Tense, where I lamented the decline of the manned space pro­gram, then piv­oted to ener­gy, indi­cat­ing that the real issue isn’t about rock­ets. It’s our far broader inabil­ity as a soci­ety to exe­cute on the big stuff. I had, through some kind of blind luck, struck a nerve. The audi­ence at Future Tense was more con­fi­dent than I that sci­ence fic­tion [SF] had rel­e­vance - even util­ity - in address­ing the prob­lem. I heard two the­o­ries as to why:

    1. The Inspi­ra­tion The­o­ry. SF inspires peo­ple to choose sci­ence and engi­neer­ing as careers. This much is undoubt­edly true, and some­what obvi­ous….

    NASA seems to agree, spon­sor­ing its own fic­tion col­lab­o­ra­tions, much as such an ini­tia­tive both­ers some peo­ple, and attrib­utes such a belief to Chi­nese gov­ern­ment offi­cials:

    Fic­tion, how­ev­er, “shows you that the world does­n’t have to be like the one that you live in. Which is an incred­i­bly dan­ger­ous thing for the world.” He related a story about being at a sci­ence fic­tion con­ven­tion in China in 2007 and ask­ing one of the gov­ern­ment offi­cials assigned to watch over the pro­ceed­ings why China was now allow­ing such a con­ven­tion. The offi­cial answered that while China has a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion for being excel­lent at con­struct­ing things that oth­ers bring to them, China is not con­sid­ered inven­tive or inno­v­a­tive. Through out­reach to huge Amer­i­can tech com­pa­nies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment dis­cov­ered that a lot of the indi­vid­u­als in those com­pa­nies grew up read­ing sci­ence fic­tion. That, essen­tial­ly, they were told at a young age that the world was­n’t sta­t­ic, that they could change it, that they could intro­duce new con­cepts and inven­tions. There­after, The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment relaxed their con­trol over sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries, and those sto­ries began imme­di­ately seep­ing in to their cul­ture.

    William Gib­son, in his usual con­trar­ian mode, dis­dains this claim:

    INTERVIEWER: “Do you think fic­tion should be pre­dic­tive?”

    GIBSON: “No, I don’t. Or not par­tic­u­lar­ly. The record of futur­ism in sci­ence fic­tion is actu­ally quite shab­by, it seems to me. Used book­stores are full of vision­ary texts we’ve never heard of, usu­ally for per­fectly good rea­sons.”

  40. §41 (as quoted in “Nar­row­ing the cir­cle of thought (Ge­orge Orwell)”)↩︎

  41. has a num­ber of good arti­cles on how fic­tion can very eas­ily mis­lead us, and that this may be a fun­da­men­tal fact about the human brain (the ‘Near/Far’ psy­chol­ogy par­a­dig­m):

    It’s worth not­ing that one of the stan­dard ‘jobs’ for promi­nent sci­ence-fic­tion authors is con­sult­ing and help­ing ‘visu­al­ize’ par­tic­u­lar sce­nar­ios and futures for think-tanks and cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ment agen­cies; has men­tioned doing this on more than one occa­sion, and has a degree in that. From his “Sci­ence Fic­tion as Fore­sight” post:

    For about ten years now I’ve been peri­od­i­cally hired to write fic­tion­al­ized ver­sions of fore­sight find­ings. It works like this: mys­te­ri­ous gov­ern­ment group A approaches me and tells me they’ve just spent six months research­ing the future of X (where X is some­thing like “farm equip­ment” or “Alter­na­tives To The Syringe”). What they’ve got is one or more sce­nar­ios, which are basi­cally alter­na­tive plot­lines for future events. They’d like me to turn these into actual sto­ries, which I’m happy to do. (The most extreme exam­ple of this is the book Cri­sis in Zefra, which I wrote for the Cana­dian army back in 2005)…Cu­ri­ous­ly, when I write sce­nario fic­tions I’m not try­ing to gen­er­ate new ideas of my own, but rather to rep­re­sent the ideas that some set of futur­ists, sub­ject experts, or pub­lic pan­els has already devel­oped. This makes sce­nario fic­tions differ­ent than SF pro­to­type­s…­Science fic­tion is more than just a genre of fic­tion. Hell, it’s more than just fic­tion. It’s a mode of thought; because our brains are hard­wired and opti­mized to think in nar­ra­tives, SF can be seen as a pri­mary means by which we make sense of and plan for the future. By under­stand­ing how this process works, we have an oppor­tu­nity to grow a new branch of SF par­al­lel to but not replac­ing or dis­plac­ing the tra­di­tional arm-a branch that’s rig­or­ous and method­i­cal and delib­er­ately used to help solve real-world prob­lems. In fact, that’s been hap­pen­ing for a while now (see John­son’s book); I’m delighted to have found myself in a posi­tion to be able to help make it for­mally rec­og­nized.

    It’s worth not­ing that when it comes to anec­do­tal evi­dence (like sto­ries) ver­sus fac­tual evi­dence (like sta­tis­tic­s), sta­tis­tics are pre­ferred when they rein­force one’s cur­rent beliefs but anec­dotes work bet­ter than sta­tis­tics when the mes­sage con­tra­dicts one’s cur­rent beliefs (Slater & Rouner 1996). As one would expect, the less ana­lytic one is, the more one weights ran­dom com­ments and anec­dotes (Lee & Jang 2010); one won­ders if heavy fic­tion con­sumers are more likely to be highly ana­lytic or not… To the extent that sta­tis­tics are vastly more trust­wor­thy then pre-s­e­lected anec­dotes of dubi­ous verac­i­ty, this is a very trou­bling obser­va­tion: if there must be an inter­ac­tion with one’s beliefs, the oppo­site would be much prefer­able!↩︎

  42. Gilbert’s orig­i­nal results should be con­sid­ered mod­i­fied by Has­son et al 2005 & Richter et al 2009, which repli­cate the results but with lim­i­ta­tions that may or may not ren­der invalid any appli­ca­tion to fic­tional works.↩︎

  43. Appel 2008 offers some back­ground:

    There are numer­ous anec­dotes about pieces of fic­tion shift­ing peo­ple’s world­view. As Strange (2002) pointed out, by Beecher Stowe (1853/1981) seems to have changed many read­ers’ beliefs about equal rights. Its pub­li­ca­tion is even con­nected to the out­break of the U.S. Civil War. Apart from the vast amounts of lit­er­a­ture on the effects of aggres­sive media con­tent and pornog­ra­phy, fic­tion has been widely neglected by mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion researcher­s-clearly in con­trast to the reg­u­larly ascribed impact on indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties. Among approaches aimed at fill­ing this gap, the idea of a “per­sua­sion through fic­tion” has received the widest atten­tion. A grow­ing body of research has demon­strated pro­found per­sua­sive effects shortly after recip­i­ents encounter fic­tional sto­ries (Ger­rig & Pren­tice, 1991; Green & Brock, 2000; Pren­tice, Ger­rig, & Bail­is, 1997; Strange & Leung, 1999; Wheel­er, Green, & Brock, 1999) and an even higher impact after a 2-week delay (Ap­pel & Richter, 2007). Peo­ple who read about a fic­tional char­ac­ter who quit school because of per­sonal prob­lems tend to attribute school dropouts to indi­vid­ual cir­cum­stances in the real world as well (Strange & Leung, 1999), whereas peo­ple who read about some­one who thinks that wear­ing a seat belt is unsafe are less con­vinced about wear­ing seat belts them­selves, and so forth (e.g., Appel & Richter, 2007; Pren­tice et al., 1997). Recip­i­ents seem to learn what­ever “facts” fic­tional nar­ra­tives teach them.

    …News­mak­ers and other pro­duc­ers of non­fic­tional tele­vi­sion con­tent may be tempted to pro­duce just worlds because view­ers appre­ci­ate “good news” (Schmitt & Maes, 2006; Zill­mann, Tay­lor, & Lewis, 1998), but con­tent analy­ses point in a differ­ent direc­tion. Research indi­cates that non­fic­tional pro­gram­ming con­tains a lot of immoral, anti­so­cial behav­ior that has no neg­a­tive con­se­quences. In a major­ity of cas­es, those immoral acts have no con­se­quences at all and some­times even pos­i­tive ones (Pot­ter, War­ren, Vaugh­an, How­ley, Land, & Hage­mey­er, 1997; Stone, Har­tung, & Jensen, 1987). Pot­ter et al. stated that the low rates for pun­ish­ment of anti­so­cial acts in non­fic­tional pro­gram­ming cor­re­spond to the lack of pun­ish­ment in the real world (as rep­re­sented in crim­i­nol­ogy sta­tis­tic­s). But in con­trast to real-world sta­tis­tics, peo­ple do believe that anti­so­cial acts have seri­ous con­se­quences (as, e.g., indi­cated by peo­ple’s eval­u­a­tions of police record­s). Because non­fic­tional tele­vi­sion as well as real-life sta­tis­tics can­not account for this wide­spread belief in fair con­se­quences, it may be the enter­tain­ing fare of fic­tional nar­ra­tives that cul­ti­vate just-world belief­s…A big part of (ear­ly) stud­ies related the BJW to the eval­u­a­tion of vic­tims of unde­sir­able inci­dents, like rape, acci­dents, can­cer, or HIV infec­tion. Peo­ple high in the BJW tend to look down on vic­tims and attribute the rea­sons for their mis­for­tunes to the vic­tims them­selves (cf. Mon­tada, 1998). Peo­ple high in the BJW have the pos­i­tive illu­sion (cf. Lern­er, 1980) that social sit­u­a­tions are under one’s own con­trol or that they are at least pre­dictable (Lip­kus, Dal­bert, & Siegler, 1996).

    …It has been shown in the United States that real­i­ty-based crime shows (like Cops, L.A.P.D.) are related to fear in the audi­ence (Dowler, 2003; Oliver & Arm­strong, 1995). Until recent­ly, this kind of pro­gram­ming has not been avail­able in major Ger­man lan­guage tele­vi­sion sta­tions. Con­cern­ing gen­re-based cul­ti­va­tion process­es, inter­views with Ger­man ado­les­cents imply that the tabloid tele­vi­sion news (Boule­vard­magazine), which may be labeled as info­tain­ment (con­tain­ing a mix­ture of celebrity gos­sip, ani­mal sto­ries, and crime news), cul­ti­vate a mean- and scary-world view (Eg­gert, 2001).

    In another exam­ple, the meta-analy­sis Win­ter­bot­tom et al 2008 found that med­ical nar­ra­tives (espe­cially in the first-per­son) influ­enced deci­sions more than the truer sta­tis­ti­cal infor­ma­tion.↩︎

  44. Which, iron­i­cal­ly, can lead to per­ceiv­ing real peo­ple as fake! And also less rel­e­vant to one’s life than the fakes, oddly enough. One odd study I found was on how super­heros influ­ence body per­cep­tion; men lik­ing Bat­man or Spi­der-Man appar­ently makes them feel stronger and more man­lier even though the super­heros are so much more fit & mus­cu­lar, and sim­i­larly for women & mod­els.↩︎

  45. Intro­duc­tion to The Incar­na­tion of the Word of God↩︎

  46. “Reli­gion and Lit­er­a­ture” 1935, from Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed Ker­mode 1975, pg97-106↩︎

  47. On the other hand, Switzer­land is, adjusted for size, one of the most sci­en­tifi­cally pro­lific coun­tries in the world. was a Swiss cit­i­zen, inci­den­tal­ly.↩︎

  48. And while the sit­u­a­tion has got­ten bet­ter since C.P. Snow’s day, can we really say there’s so much cross-fer­til­iza­tion as to prove this exter­nal­i­ty, or prove it of suffi­cient mag­ni­tude?↩︎

  49. See “Which uni­ver­si­ties lead and lag? Toward uni­ver­sity rank­ings based on schol­arly out­put”, Ram­age 2010.↩︎

  50. Var­i­ous dis­ci­plines have many papers and essays argu­ing that researchers delib­er­ately inflate their paper counts to meet pub­lish­ing require­ments, pur­sue unpro­duc­tive but pub­lish­able avenues, and are so lack­ing in rigor that many (or even ) results are wrong - so it would be diffi­cult to offer any cita­tions for such a broad claim. Men­cius Mold­bug has writ­ten a mean­der­ing & funny essay/blog post about what is wrong with the field of com­puter sci­ence, how­ev­er, that con­veys this gen­eral vein of thought.↩︎

  51. One way of try­ing to mea­sure pro­duc­tiv­ity per researcher is to exam­ine what experts/researchers in that area con­sider worth men­tion­ing. Charles Mur­ray exam­ines ency­clo­pe­dias and bio­graph­i­cal dic­tio­nar­ies up to 1950 in and finds, once one cor­rects for the explo­sive growth of the human pop­u­la­tion in recent cen­turies and the even more explo­sive growth in urban­ized edu­cated peo­ple, a decline.

    Less his­tor­i­cal­ly, one can sim­ply look at how many pub­lished peer-re­viewed papers go uncited for 5 years. If a paper is not cited once in that peri­od, even just as part of a review, then one begins to won­der whether it is a good paper; and if a field pub­lishes a lot of such papers, one begins to won­der about that field’s researchers. There are many inter­est­ing sta­tis­tics in this vein. From , by Charles A. Schwartz:

    …55% of sci­en­tific arti­cles do not receive a sin­gle cita­tion within five years of pub­li­ca­tion. A few weeks lat­er, another report in Sci­ence by the same research body, the Insti­tute for Sci­en­tific Infor­ma­tion (ISI), noted still higher rates of uncit­ed­ness for the social sci­ences (75%) and human­i­ties (92%)….A­mong the new find­ings even­tu­ally pro­duced, but not pub­lished, was the rate of uncit­ed­ness in (LIS). This rate turned out to be 72%…The pop­u­lar press treated this issue with cav­a­lier remarks, such as one attrib­uted to a pro­fes­sor: “If the bot­tom 80% of the lit­er­a­ture just van­ished, I doubt if the sci­en­tific enter­prise would suffer.”’…A­gainst ISI’s ini­tial 55% uncit­ed­ness rate for the phys­i­cal sci­ences, one study found a 5% rate for astron­omy and an 8% rate for physics. And against ISI’s ini­tial 75% uncit­ed­ness rate for the social sci­ences, another study found a 9% rate for soci­ol­o­gy.

    There are quite a range of uncited esti­mates; to give just some ranges that par­tic­u­larly struck me, even after mak­ing allowance for all the pos­si­ble con­found­ing fac­tors:

    • phys­i­cal sci­ences: 55-14%
      1. 72-34% engi­neer­ing
      2. 55-26% math
      3. chem­istry: 28% (nu­clear chem­istry 17%; applied chemistries: 78%)
    • social: 75-48%
      1. inter­na­tional rela­tions 83-53%
      2. polit­i­cal sci­ence 90-58%
    • human­i­ties: 98-93%
      1. the­ater, Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, archi­tec­ture 99-95%
      2. reli­gious stud­ies 98-93%

    Mark Bauer­lein’s 2011 report found that:

    Once those books and essays are pub­lished, the vast major­ity of them attract scant atten­tion from other schol­ars - for exam­ple, of 16 research arti­cles pub­lished by Uni­ver­sity of Ver­mont pro­fes­sors in 2004, 11 of them received 0-2 cita­tions, three received 3-6 cita­tions, one received seven cita­tions, and one 11….Of 13 research arti­cles pub­lished by cur­rent SUNY-Buffalo pro­fes­sors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two cita­tions, one had five, one 12. Of 23 arti­cles by Geor­gia pro­fes­sors in 2004, 16 received zero to two cita­tions, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16….A 2000 book on Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins col­lected four cita­tions in eight rel­e­vant books on the poet pub­lished from 2007 to 2010. A 2003 book on Thomas Hardy gar­nered one cita­tion in 16 rel­e­vant books pub­lished from 2007 to 2010. Of eight books pub­lished by Ver­mont pro­fes­sors from 2002 to 2005, four of them received zero to 10 cita­tions in sub­se­quent essays, and four received 11 to 20 (four of the top five were stud­ies in film). There are, of course, some break­out items. One book by an Illi­nois pro­fes­sor col­lected 82 cita­tions in essays, another one 57.

    Some fur­ther read­ing:

    “The Pres­tige Chase Is Rais­ing Col­lege Costs”, Frank 2012:

    Researchers have responded as expected to these incen­tives. But the addi­tional papers they’ve writ­ten have added lit­tle val­ue. The econ­o­mist Philip Cook and I found [The Win­ner-Take-All Soci­ety: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, Frank & Cook 1996], for exam­ple, that in the first five years after pub­li­ca­tion, many fewer than half of all papers in the two most selec­tive eco­nom­ics jour­nals had ever been cited by other schol­ars.

    It does­n’t seem likely to improve, as insti­tu­tions con­tinue to allo­cate tenure and fund­ing based on met­rics like impact fac­tor. From “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Qual­ity Research”, :

    Con­sider this tally from Sci­ence two decades ago: Only 45% of the arti­cles pub­lished in the 4,500 top sci­en­tific jour­nals were cited within the first five years after pub­li­ca­tion. In recent years, the fig­ure seems to have dropped fur­ther. In a 2009 arti­cle in Online Infor­ma­tion Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6% of the arti­cles pub­lished in the top sci­ence and social-science jour­nals (the fig­ures do not include the human­i­ties) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

    Busi­ness ana­lysts make the same point (“Reed Else­vier: A Short His­tory of Two Days in July (and Why Investors Should Care)”, Aspesi et al 2012; ):

    In the past we could not under­stand why opposed so much. After all, why not just charge an ade­quate APC and do with­out the aggra­va­tion of antag­o­niz­ing librar­i­ans and the aca­d­e­mic com­mu­ni­ty? We believe we made a major mis­take: we treated all jour­nals as equal, while they are not. Exhibit 5 and Exhibit 6 explain what we think is the real under­ly­ing issue for the indus­try (and for Else­vier) - a lot of the arti­cles pub­lished are not very rel­e­vant. The two exhibits show the read­er­ship of arti­cles in life sci­ences and chem­istry, respec­tive­ly, at 10 UK uni­ver­si­ties; the top 20-25% of jour­nals account for 75-90% of the read­er­ship and the top 50% for about 95%. Con­ver­sa­tions with aca­d­e­mic librar­i­ans sug­gest they see sim­i­lar data else­where. In other words, half of the arti­cles which are pub­lished today are largely ignored by the sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ty, even if the libraries acquire (and pay) them.

    Does Else­vier do any bet­ter than this? Of course only the com­pany itself, look­ing at inter­nal data, can know the pre­cise answer. There is, how­ev­er, evi­dence that Else­vier is not [sub­stan­tial­ly] bet­ter off. New Mex­ico State Uni­ver­sity made avail­able the read­er­ship data for two big deals it had dis­con­tin­ued, which included Else­vier (Ex­hibit 7). The curve looks very sim­i­lar to that of the UK uni­ver­si­ties we saw ear­lier: 10% of jour­nals from major pub­lish­ers had been accessed at least once a week in the pre­vi­ous year, while more than two thirds had been accessed less than once a month.

    To be fair, low read­er­ship num­bers may be a func­tion of the num­ber of fac­ul­ty, researchers and doc­toral can­di­dates work­ing in a spe­cific dis­ci­pline. But NMSU, when it went through a sec­ond round of titles cut­ting ear­lier in 2012 (which did not involve Else­vier titles, since they had been culled in 2010), involved the fac­ulty to make sure it would not can­cel titles of high value to small com­mu­ni­ty. In its infor­ma­tion release10, the library noted that the fac­ulty asked to pro­tect only 5% of the low read­er­ship titles: “In May 2012 the Library announced that it would be can­celling 276 jour­nal titles to meet its tar­get amount of $200,000. Uni­ver­sity fac­ulty con­tested the can­cel­la­tion of 14 of the 276 titles, not­ing the high research value of each. Due to the gen­eros­ity of the Uni­ver­sity Admin­is­tra­tion, the Library has reduced its can­cel­la­tion list to 261 titles for a total can­cel­la­tion amount of $167,935. These 261 jour­nal titles show low use (10 or fewer uses), or no use, or cost $100 or more per use”.

  52. Nor are papers/articles the only schol­arly pro­duc­tions which have extremely small audi­ences; con­fer­ences and mono­graphs do not draw very many par­tic­i­pants. From “Uni­ver­sity Press­es: Bal­anc­ing Aca­d­e­mic and Mar­ket Val­ues”, Mary M. Case; ARL: A Bimonthly Report no. 193 (Au­gust 1997):

    Since libraries are the main mar­ket for schol­arly mono­graphs, the decline in the num­ber of books pur­chased trig­gered uni­ver­sity presses to reduce print runs. While print­-runs of 1,000 to 1,500 copies were stan­dard ten years ago, presses are now con­fronting sales of 400-500 copies. While sales do vary across dis­ci­plines and sub­-dis­ci­plines, these low num­bers hold true for even award-win­ning books in the less ‘pop­u­lar’ fields.

    “Reflec­tions on Uni­ver­sity Press Pub­lish­ing”, Bill Har­num:

    The num­bers are hard to quan­ti­fy, given the wide vari­ety of sub­ject areas involved, but a fair esti­mate would be that the aver­age sale of a schol­arly mono­graph has shrunk from 600-700 copies in the 1980s to 300-400 copies in 2007. This reduc­tion in sales units has led some pub­lish­ers to increase their num­ber of titles pub­lished annu­ally as a means of main­tain­ing their rev­enues. The phrase, “Flat is the new up” seems to be in vogue, mean­ing that no sales increase from year to year is the equiv­a­lent of the increases we have seen in the past.

    Alex Reid, “On the value of aca­d­e­mic blog­ging”:

    In my expe­ri­ence, the aver­age audi­ence for a con­fer­ence pre­sen­ta­tion is <20.

  53. How much eco­nomic growth since the Mid­dle Ages has been due to sci­ence & tech­nol­o­gy, and not solely increased pop­u­la­tion & resource exploita­tion? Most of the growth…↩︎

  54. Charles Mur­ray com­ments, “One of the great­est of Euripi­des’s sur­viv­ing works, , won only sec­ond prize in a con­tem­po­rary com­pe­ti­tion. We know noth­ing about the play that came in first.” (pg 277, Human Accom­plish­ment)↩︎

  55. Links as in orig­i­nal.↩︎

  56. He is not the only one diag­nos­ing this slow­down; see com­poser “The Score: The End of Music” for another lament.↩︎

  57. “Is the inter­net sti­fling new music?”, 2009-11-09, BBC News↩︎

  58. One-time, of course. It’s hard to imag­ine what an on-go­ing cost for in-progress works might be. Peo­ple dream­ing up pos­si­ble series and being unhappy that they won’t be writ­ten? But we hardly are con­cerned by .↩︎

  59. From the dis­tance of cen­turies, every­thing writ­ten in the 1600s sounds equally 1600-ish. But there is more intra-group vari­a­tion in the books of the ‘50s and ’90s then there is inter-group vari­a­tion. A book from the 1950s can eas­ily date itself, but it’ll be usu­ally through allu­sions and ide­olo­gies, and not the actual words. (Large-s­cale stud­ies like Hughes et al 2012 can offer insight on how much writ­ers’ lan­guage changes over time and whether it is chang­ing faster or slow­er, but such stud­ies don’t tell us whether the changes actu­ally mat­ter to enjoy­ment or whether the changes are real yet irrel­e­vant to our plea­sure - a dis­tinc­tion of ver­sus .)↩︎

  60. Pro­fes­sional sports and Olympic sports rou­tinely break world records as they develop ever more effec­tive train­ing & teach­ing meth­ods, and scour the pop­u­lace for peo­ple capa­ble of his­toric per­for­mance; chess has fol­lowed a sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory with becom­ing a grand­mas­ter at age 13 & peak­ing - for now - just below his not-too-dis­tant pre­de­ces­sor (and great­est chess player in his­to­ry), Garry Kas­parov. The Domini­can Repub­lic is vastly over­rep­re­sented in base­ball, demon­strat­ing that there is tremen­dous latent reserves of world-class base­ball play­ers in even tiny pop­u­la­tions.

    Base­ball sta­tis­ti­cian & writer says in an excerpt from his book Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Con­ven­tional Wis­dom:

    I believe that there is a Shake­speare in Topeka today, that there is a Ben Jon­son, that there is a Mar­lowe and a Bacon, most like­ly, but that we are unlikely ever to know who these peo­ple are because our soci­ety does not encour­age excel­lence in lit­er­a­ture. That’s my opin­ion. This obser­va­tion is nowhere near as gloomy as it might seem. Our soci­ety is very, very good at devel­op­ing cer­tain types of skills and cer­tain types of genius. We are fan­tas­ti­cally good at iden­ti­fy­ing and devel­op­ing ath­letic skills - bet­ter than we are, real­ly, at almost any­thing else. We are quite good at devel­op­ing and reward­ing inven­tive­ness. We are pretty good at devel­op­ing the skills nec­es­sary to run a small busi­ness - a fast food restau­rant, for exam­ple. We’re real­ly, really good at teach­ing peo­ple how to drive auto­mo­biles and how to find a coffee shop.

    We are not so good at devel­op­ing great writ­ers, it is true, but why is this? It is sim­ply because we don’t need them. We still have Shake­speare. We still have Thomas Hardy and Charles Dick­ens and Robert Louis Steven­son; their books are still around. We don’t gen­uinely need more lit­er­ary genius­es. One can only read so many books in a life­time. We need new ath­letes all the time because we need new games every day - fudg­ing just a lit­tle on the defi­n­i­tion of the word need. We like to have new games every day, and, if we are to have a con­stant and end­less flow of games, we need a con­stant flow of ath­letes. We have got­ten to be very, very good at devel­op­ing the same.

    …The aver­age city the size of Topeka pro­duces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writ­ers, every city would pro­duce a Shake­speare or a Dick­ens or at least a Gra­ham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writ­ers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be real­ly, really good - among the best in the world - and then we’ll give them a lit­tle bit of recog­ni­tion.

  61. “Story Spoil­ers Don’t Spoil Sto­ries” (Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence 2011)↩︎

  62. , Simkin & Roy­chowd­hury 2012:

    We ana­lyze access sta­tis­tics for a few dozen blog entries for a period of sev­eral years. Access rate falls as an inverse power of time passed since pub­li­ca­tion. The power law holds for peri­ods up to thou­sand days. The expo­nents are differ­ent for differ­ent blogs and are dis­trib­uted between 1 and 3. Decay of atten­tion to aging web arti­cles has been reported before and two expla­na­tions were pro­posed. One expla­na­tion intro­duced some decay­ing with time nov­elty fac­tor. Another used some intri­cate the­ory of human dynam­ics. We argue that the decay of atten­tion to a web arti­cle is sim­ply caused by the link to it first drop­ping down the list of links on the web­site’s front page, dis­ap­pear­ing from the front page and sub­se­quent move­ment fur­ther into back­ground.

    …The prob­a­bil­ity of fol­low­ing a link depends not only on its posi­tion in the list, but also on how attrac­tive is its descrip­tion. The attrac­tive­ness fac­tor is con­stant and does not vary from day to day. Nat­u­ral­ly, it influ­ences only a pref­ac­tor and not the power law expo­nent. At differ­ent times, Real­ity Car­ni­val linked to two web­pages from rev­er­en­ One can see from Fig­ure 2(a) that the pref­ac­tors differ 1.5 times, but expo­nents are the same within 2%. Sim­i­lar pat­tern holds for three other blogs shown in Fig. 2.

  63. [“Why You Like to Watch the Same Thing Over and Over and Over Again: Reruns spark con­tem­pla­tion about per­sonal growth”], Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can:

    The responses sug­gested that some­times choos­ing to do some­thing again was about reach­ing for a sure thing-the brain knows the exact kind of reward that it will receive in the end, whether it is laugh­ter, excite­ment or relax­ation. They also learned that peo­ple gained insight into them­selves and their own growth by going back for a do-over, sub­con­sciously using the rerun or old book as a mea­sur­ing stick for how their own lives had changed. One wom­an, for exam­ple, rewatched the roman­tic Kevin Cost­ner movie Mes­sage in a Bot­tle more than once: “It was help­ing her work through hav­ing an engage­ment that had­n’t worked out,” Rus­sell says. Every time she watched that movie, it reminded her of her own failed rela­tion­ship-and her reac­tions helped her see she was get­ting over it. “I was very sur­prised,” Rus­sell says. “I thought that peo­ple recon­sumed these things for nos­tal­gia, to go back to the past. But they were actu­ally very for­ward-look­ing and prospec­tive.” What about the bore­dom fac­tor, you might ask? There was none to speak of. After all, Rus­sell says, para­phras­ing Greek philoso­pher Her­a­cli­tus: You never cross the same river twice-it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same you.

  64. “Mere Expo­sure to Bad Art: Exper­i­ment Results”, Mar­garet Moore↩︎

  65. The same post sum­ma­rizes the exper­i­ment Moore et al ran:

    We repli­cated Cut­ting’s study expos­ing sub­jects to 12 lit­tle-known late land­scapes of , along­side 48 paint­ings by the Amer­i­can artist , (again, half of each group of paint­ings were exposed four times as often). We asked con­trol group­s[1] and the exper­i­men­tal group to express the extent to which they liked each paint­ing using a 10 point Lik­ert scale. We found that with bad paint­ings by Kinkade, expo­sure decreased, rather than increased, lik­ing in rela­tion to our con­trol groups.

    …The exper­i­ment sub­jects had been exposed to all 60 paint­ings in the study at least once. In light of this, we dis­tin­guished between those paint­ings to which that group had been exposed once ver­sus those to which they had been exposed mul­ti­ple times. That is, we com­piled results for four groups of paint­ings: Mil­lais (sin­gle expo­sure); Mil­lais (mul­ti­ple expo­sure); Kinkade (sin­gle expo­sure); and Kinkade (mul­ti­ple expo­sure). Com­par­ing the rat­ings given by our exper­i­men­tal sub­jects to those given by the mem­bers of our phi­los­o­phy con­trol group, we observed almost uni­formly lower rat­ings for the Kinkade paint­ings. 47 out of 48 Kinkades received lower mean lik­ing scores from the exper­i­men­tal sub­jects than they received from those in the unex­posed con­trol group. This resulted in mean scores of 5.9 (con­trol) ver­sus 5.1 (ex­per­i­ment) for the sin­gle expo­sure Kinkade paint­ings, and mean scores of 5.74 (con­trol) ver­sus 4.75 (ex­per­i­ment) for the mul­ti­ple expo­sure Kinkades.

  66. I qual­ify it because the claim comes from a pro­fes­sor based on infor­mal test­ing of his stu­dents, and the one pub­lished study I know of, by Sean Olive, did not repro­duce the find­ing, plau­si­ble as it seems.↩︎

  67. “Pan­do­ra’s dig­i­tal box: From films to files”,

    …This raises the fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion of chang­ing per­cep­tual frames of ref­er­ence. My friend knew the film [] very well, and he’d watched it many times on VHS. Did he some­how see the 16 screen­ing as just a big­ger tape replay? Did none of its supe­ri­or­ity reg­is­ter? Maybe not. From 1915 to 1925, demon­strated his Dia­mond Disc Phono­graph by invit­ing audi­ences to com­pare live per­for­mances with record­ings. His pub­li­cists came up with the cel­e­brated Tone Tests. A singer on stage would stand by while the disc began to play. Abruptly the disc would be turned down and the singer would con­tinue with­out miss­ing a note. Then the singer would stop and the disc, now turned up, would pick up the thread of melody. Greg Mil­ner writes of the first demon­stra­tion:

    The record con­tin­ued play­ing, with [the con­tralto Christine] Miller onstage dip­ping in and out of it like a DJ. The audi­ence cheered every time she stopped mov­ing her lips and let the record sing for her.

    At one point the lights went out, but the music con­tin­ued. The audi­ence could not tell when Miller stopped and the play­back start­ed. The Tone Tests toured the world. Accord­ing the pub­lic­ity machine run by the Wiz­ard of Menlo Park, mil­lions of peo­ple wit­nessed them and no one could unerr­ingly dis­tin­guish the per­form­ers from their record­ing. Edis­on’s sound record­ing was acoustic, not elec­tri­cal, and so it sounds hope­lessly unre­al­is­tic to us today. (You can sam­ple some tunes here.) And there’s some evi­dence, as Mil­ner points out, that singers learned to imi­tate the squeezed qual­ity of the record­ings. But if the audi­ences were fairly reg­u­larly fooled, it sug­gests that our sense of what sounds, or looks, right, is both untrust­wor­thy and change­able over his­to­ry.

  68. “Human cor­ti­cal activ­ity evoked by the assign­ment of authen­tic­ity when view­ing works of art”; Jonah Lehrer’s sum­ma­ry:

    Many of these vari­ables are capa­ble of dis­tort­ing our per­cep­tions, so that we imag­ine differ­ences that don’t actu­ally exist; the ver­dict of art his­tory warps what we see. The power of a Rem­brandt, in other words, is insep­a­ra­ble from the fact that it’s a Rem­brandt. The man is a potent brand. To test these com­pet­ing hypothe­ses, a team of researchers at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty, includ­ing Mengfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Mar­tin Kemp and Andrew Park­er, set up a sim­ple exper­i­ment. They recruited 14 vol­un­teers who were famil­iar with Rem­brandt but had no for­mal train­ing in art his­to­ry. The sub­jects were then put into an fMRI machine and given the fol­low­ing instruc­tions:

    In this exper­i­ment you will see a sequence of 50 Rem­brandt paint­ings. Before each image appears, an audio prompt will announce whether the upcom­ing paint­ing is ‘authen­tic’ or a ‘copy’ (Please see back­ground for fur­ther infor­ma­tion on copies). A blank screen will appear for a few sec­onds after each image to allow you to relax your gaze.

    …The mis­chie­vous sci­en­tists reversed the attri­bu­tion of the paint­ings, so that half of the sub­jects were told that the real Rem­brandts were actu­ally copies…That said, it’s not exactly sur­pris­ing that such sim­i­lar paint­ings would elicit vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal sen­sory respons­es. It takes years of train­ing before crit­ics can reli­ably dis­cern real Rem­brandt from copies. And even then there is often exten­sive dis­agree­ment, as the 1995 Met­ro­pol­i­tan show demon­strates. How­ev­er, the sci­en­tists did locate a pat­tern of activ­ity that appeared when­ever a paint­ing was deemed to be authen­tic, regard­less of whether or not it was actu­ally “real.” In such instances, sub­jects showed a spike in activ­ity in the orbitofrontal cor­tex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often asso­ci­ated with per­cep­tions of reward, plea­sure and mon­e­tary gain. (Ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists, this acti­va­tion reflects “the increase in the per­ceived value of the art­work.”) Inter­est­ing­ly, there was no differ­ence in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authen­tic­ity was applied to a fake Rem­brandt, as the brain area responded just as robust­ly. The qual­ity of art seemed to be irrel­e­vant. The last mean­ing­ful result from the fMRI exper­i­ment came when the sub­jects stared at the inau­then­tic por­traits. It turns out that these fake Rem­brandts gen­er­ated the strongest acti­va­tions, both in the fron­topo­lar cor­tex and pre­cuneus. The sci­en­tists explain this acti­va­tion in terms of work­ing mem­o­ry, as the peo­ple were actively try­ing to “detect the flaws in the pre­sented image.” Because the por­traits looked like real Rem­brandts - and in many instances were - the sub­jects were forced to search for visual blem­ishes to jus­tify the neg­a­tive ver­dict, ana­lyz­ing the paint­ings for flaws and mis­takes that Rem­brandt would never make. All of this men­tal analy­sis requires frontal lobe activ­i­ty; being a critic is hard work. Here is Park­er, sum­ma­riz­ing the results:

    Our find­ings sup­port the idea that when peo­ple make aes­thetic judge­ments, they are sub­ject to a vari­ety of influ­ences. Not all of these are imme­di­ately artic­u­lat­ed. Indeed, some may be inac­ces­si­ble to direct intro­spec­tion but their pres­ence might be revealed by brain imag­ing. It sug­gests that differ­ent regions of the brain inter­act together when a com­plex judg­ment is formed, rather than there being a sin­gle area of the brain that deals with aes­thetic judge­ments.

  69. This sort of para­dox is why expo­nen­tial dis­count­ing is almost uni­ver­sally con­sid­ered a more ratio­nal dis­count­ing scheme, and indeed, places where out­comes really mat­ter and com­pe­ti­tion is bru­tal, like finance, use expo­nen­tial dis­count­ing. But it does­n’t come easy; it can take finan­cial penal­ties and rewards to force peo­ple to adopt more expo­nen­tial schemes.↩︎

  70. “A Neural Pre­dic­tor of Cul­tural Pop­u­lar­ity”, abstract:

    How can we pre­dict pop­u­lar­i­ty? Although super­fi­cially a triv­ial ques­tion, the desire for pop­u­lar­ity con­sumes a great por­tion of the lives of many youths and adults. Being pop­u­lar is a marker for social sta­tus, and con­se­quent­ly, would seem to con­fer a repro­duc­tive advan­tage in the evo­lu­tion of the human species, thus explain­ing the impor­tance of pop­u­lar­ity to humans. Such impor­tance extends to eco­nomic suc­cess as well because goods and ser­vices that are pop­u­lar com­mand higher prices. Here, we are inter­ested in pre­dict­ing cul­tural pop­u­lar­ity - some­thing that is pop­u­lar in the broad­est sense and appeals to a large num­ber of indi­vid­u­als. Neu­roe­co­nomic research sug­gests that activ­ity in reward-re­lated regions of the brain, notably the orbitofrontal cor­tex and ven­tral stria­tum 1-4, is pre­dic­tive of future pur­chas­ing deci­sions, but it is unknown whether the neural sig­nals of a small group of indi­vid­u­als are pre­dic­tive of the pur­chas­ing deci­sions of the pop­u­la­tion at large. For neu­roimag­ing to be use­ful as a mea­sure of wide­spread pop­u­lar­i­ty, these neural responses would have to gen­er­al­ize to a much larger pop­u­la­tion that is not the direct sub­ject of the brain imag­ing itself. More­over, to be use­ful as a pre­dic­tor, such a test would need to be done prospec­tive­ly. Here, we test the pos­si­bil­ity of using func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) to pre­dict the rel­a­tive pop­u­lar­ity of a com­mon good: music. We used fMRI to mea­sure the brain responses of a focus group of ado­les­cents while lis­ten­ing to songs of rel­a­tively unknown artists 5. As a mea­sure of pop­u­lar­i­ty, the sales of these songs were totaled for the three years fol­low ing scan­ning, and brain responses were then cor­re­lated with these “future” earn­ings. Although sub­jec­tive lik­a­bil­ity of the songs was not pre­dic­tive of sales, activ­ity within the ven­tral stria­tum was [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nifi­cantly cor­re­lated with the num­ber of units sold. These results sug­gest that the neural responses to goods are not only pre­dic­tive of pur­chase deci­sions for those indi­vid­u­als actu­ally scanned, but such responses gen­er­al­ize to the pop­u­la­tion at large and may be used to pre­dict cul­tural pop­u­lar­i­ty.

  71. De Div­ina­tione, bk. 2, sct. 58↩︎

  72. Given that this is all com­mon knowl­edge, any advan­tage to musi­cal instru­ments in col­lege admis­sions would con­sti­tute a kind of ineffi­ciency (see also ); hence it does not sur­prise me to read obser­va­tions to that effect (even if they are only pseu­do­ny­mous online anec­dotes):

    When I was an admis­sions office for a short time, my advice to Asian appli­cants look­ing to be noticed was to go to clown school, per­form as a semi­-pro­fes­sional magi­cian, or even excel at sports. Vio­lin, cel­lo, piano, essays about trans­lat­ing for your immi­grant par­ents, com­put­ers, math, sci­ence…all that stuff blends together after awhile and makes it hard for an admis­sions office to remem­ber you when sit­ting around the table vot­ing on appli­cants…This is pretty close to how we did things at Prince­ton. You can only admit so many vio­lin play­ing sci­ence hope­fuls. –brand­newlow

    Full dis­claimer: I’m a sopho­more at Yale, my adviser last year was an admis­sions offi­cer, and a friend of mine works in the admis­sion­s…There is no EXPLICIT com­par­i­son of Asians to Asians. Nobody looks at your appli­ca­tion and says “Oh, another Asian, let me turn on my Asian scale!” What hap­pens, sub­con­scious­ly, is that the stereo­typ­i­cal Asian pro­file is “high scor­ing, high GPA, piano/violin, ten­nis, math/science.” So a lot of qual­i­fied Asians get rejected because their admis­sion offi­cer can’t find enough good argu­ments for them. Regard­less of how qual­i­fied you are indi­vid­u­al­ly, Yale is try­ing to build a diverse class, so if you do the same thing as 1000 other can­di­dates, it’s very hard to vouch for you. “What do you bring to the cam­pus that this other kid does­n’t?” , and that’s the end of it. –Black­Jack

  73. Men­tal dis­or­ders like post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der and sui­cide, per­haps the ulti­mate indi­ca­tor of unhap­pi­ness, are increas­ingly com­mon in for­mer Amer­i­can sol­diers thanks to the per­pet­ual War on Ter­ror:

    With all that in mind, it is inter­est­ing to con­sider the pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives of being a .↩︎

  74. retells one of many jokes express­ing this obser­va­tion:

    “I can’t get a date, Doc,” the new patient griped to his psy­chi­a­trist. “See, I sweep up the cir­cus ele­phants’ drop­pings and can never wash the stench off me.”

    “Per­haps you should get a differ­ent job.”

    “What, and quit show busi­ness?”

  75. “Vir­tu­osos Becom­ing a Dime a Dozen”, Anthony Tom­masini, New York Times; besides inad­ver­tently mak­ing the point that we truly do not need more pianists, Tom­masini also adds some fod­der to the notion that this is not just an East Asian or Asian-Amer­i­can arms race but includes Europe and Rus­sia as well:

    Ms. Wang’s vir­tu­os­ity is stun­ning. But is that so unusual these days? Not real­ly. That a young pianist has come along who can seem­ingly play any­thing, and eas­i­ly, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago. The over­all level of tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency in instru­men­tal play­ing, espe­cially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teach­ers, crit­ics and com­men­ta­tors have noted the phe­nom­e­non, which is not unlike what hap­pens in sport­s…­Some­thing sim­i­lar has long been occur­ring with pianists. And in the last decade or so the growth of tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency has seemed expo­nen­tial. Yes, Ms. Wang, who will make her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall in Octo­ber, can play any­thing. But in China alone, in recent years, there have been Lang Lang and Yundi Li. Rus­sia has given us Kir­ill Ger­stein, born in 1979, the lat­est recip­i­ent of the dis­tin­guished Gilmore Artist Award

    …Be­cause so many pianists are so good, many con­cert­go­ers have sim­ply come to expect that any soloist play­ing the Tchaikovsky First Con­certo with the New York Phil­har­monic will be a phe­nom­e­nal tech­ni­cian. A new level of tech­ni­cal excel­lence is expected of emerg­ing pianists. I see it not just on the con­cert cir­cuit but also at con­ser­va­to­ries and col­leges. In recent years, at recitals and cham­ber music pro­grams at the Juil­liard School and else­where, par­tic­u­larly with con­tem­po­rary-mu­sic ensem­bles, I have repeat­edly been struck by the sheer level of instru­men­tal exper­tise that seems a giv­en. …The first sev­eral decades of the 20th cen­tury are con­sid­ered a golden era by many piano buffs, a time when artis­tic imag­i­na­tion and musi­cal rich­ness were val­ued more than tech­ni­cal per­fec­tion. There were cer­tainly pianists dur­ing that period who had exquis­ite, impres­sive tech­nique, like Josef Lhevinne and Rach­mani­noff him­self. And white-hot vir­tu­osos like the young Vladimir Horowitz wowed the pub­lic. But audi­ences and crit­ics tol­er­ated a lot of play­ing that would be con­sid­ered sloppy today. Lis­ten to 1920s and ’30s record­ings of the pianist Alfred Cor­tot, immensely respected in his day. He would prob­a­bly not be admit­ted to Juil­liard now. Despite the refine­ment and élan in his play­ing, his record­ing of Chopin’s 24 études from the early 1930s is, by today’s stan­dards, lit­tered with clink­ers.

    …I would place essen­tial artists today like Richard Goode, Mit­suko Uchida and Andras Schiff among the group with all the tech­nique they need. Among younger pianists, this club would include Jonathan Biss, a sen­si­tive, musi­cally scrupu­lous play­er; and one of my new favorites, the young Israeli David Greil­sam­mer, who played an inspir­ing pro­gram at the Wal­ter Reade The­ater last year in which he made con­nec­tions among com­posers from Mon­teverdi to John Adams, with stops at Rameau, Janacek, Ligeti and more. He may not be a super­vir­tu­oso. But I find his ele­gant artistry and pianism more grat­i­fy­ing than the hyper­ex­pres­sive vir­tu­os­ity of Lang Lang, whose aston­ish­ing tech­nique I cer­tainly salute. Besides, the group of play-any­thing pianists, of which Mr. Lang is a lead­er, is get­ting pretty big. Among them you would have to include Gar­rick Ohlsson, who not only plays with resource­ful mas­tery but seems to play every­thing, includ­ing all the works of Chopin. I would include Leif Ove And­snes, an artist I revere, who does not call atten­tion to him­self but plays with exquis­ite tech­nique and vibrant musi­cal­i­ty. This list goes on. Martha Arg­erich can be a wild woman at the piano, but who cares? She has stu­pe­fy­ing tech­nique and arrest­ing musi­cal ideas. I would add Krys­t­ian Zimer­man, Mar­c-An­dré Hamelin and prob­a­bly Jean-Yves Thibaudet to this ros­ter. There are oth­ers, both older and younger pianist­s….After Mr. Kiss­in’s Liszt Sonata a piano enthu­si­ast sit­ting near me asked, “Have you ever heard the piece played so mag­nifi­cent­ly?” I said that the per­for­mance was indeed amaz­ing, but that actu­al­ly, yes, I had heard a com­pa­ra­bly mag­nifi­cent per­for­mance on the same stage a few months ear­lier dur­ing a recital by Stephen Hough. Mr. Hough’s play­ing was just as prodi­gious tech­ni­cal­ly, and I found his con­cep­tion more engross­ing. He rec­on­ciled the episodic sec­tions of this teem­ing work into an awe­some enti­ty. Mr. Hough is another pianist who can play any­thing. Join the club.

  76. A ‘dou­jin opera’ (home­page) was per­formed, to appar­ently good reviews, although I can’t eval­u­ate the recorded scene online myself, not being an opera per­son.↩︎

  77. This is a gen­eral asser­tion that is fairly hard to prove, but an exam­ple may be sug­ges­tive. The dou­jin­shi-game phe­nom­e­non has a fair amount of music, but to get a sense of the true scale, we can look at some num­bers. From the talk “Rid­ing on Fans’ Ener­gy: Touhou, Fan Cul­ture, and Grass­root Enter­tain­ment” ( Bangkok 2 on August 31, 2008):

    Touhou is ’s work as much as it is a gigan­tic reper­toire of fan-made man­ga, games, music, and video clips. I esti­mate that there are roughly at least three thou­sands short man­ga, five hun­dred music rearrange­ment albums, and one hun­dred deriv­a­tive games cre­ated since 2003. These works are traded mainly in con­ven­tions ded­i­cated to them, and some com­mer­cial firms are start­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on their pop­u­lar­i­ty. Dou­jin­shi shops like and have shelves ded­i­cate to Touhou comics. And Ama­zon.­ are car­ry­ing CDs of arranged/sampled Touhou music (but not ZUN’s orig­i­nal­s). More and more peo­ple are attracted to the fran­chise because its diverse deriv­a­tive works pro­vide a vari­ety of entry points for poten­tial fans. In fact, Touhou’s pop­u­lar­ity sky­rock­eted when it became one of the killer con­tent of , a Japan­ese equiv­a­lent of YouTube launched one year and a half ear­li­er. There, Touhou con­tent spread like wild fire and gave rise to many recur­ring memes and tens of thou­sands of mashup videos. To give a sense of how pop­u­lar Touhou is in Nico Nico Douga, 18 of 100 most viewed videos are Touhou-re­lat­ed, and the best Touhou video ranks the 6th. [5]

    For a recent esti­mate, we can turn to arti­cle on Touhou music:

    The Touhou Project really gets a lot of great pieces of music for [the music] being [orig­i­nal­ly] made up by a sin­gle guy with a syn­the­siz­er. To put the sheer num­ber of remix CDs in per­spec­tive, there is a tor­rent with over 870.4 giga­bytes of over 3000 Touhou remix­es, and that only includes the ones that the (Eng­lish-s­peak­ing) main­tain­ers of the tor­rent have added.

    (This is out­dat­ed; the Octo­ber 2011 loss­less tor­rent is 1,020 giga­bytes. Per­son­al­ly, I enjoy the orches­tral pieces like the WAVE group’s Luna For­est (第七楽章).)↩︎

  78. On the dol­lar fig­ures, see Man­gione (1972, p. 369). Man­gione, Jerre. 1972. The Dream and the Deal: The Fed­eral Writer’s Pro­ject, 1935-1943. Boston: Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pany On the seen and the unseen, see Bas­tiat (1850). Bas­ti­at, Frédéric. 1850. Essays on Polit­i­cal Econ­omy. Lon­don: A. W. Ben­nett↩︎

  79. See John­son (1997, p. 9); the data refer to 1995. John­son, Arthur T. 1997. Sym­phony Orches­tras and Local Gov­ern­ments. Work­ing paper, Mary­land Insti­tute for Pol­icy Analy­sis and Research, Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Bal­ti­more Coun­ty. On foun­da­tions, see Dowie (2001, p. 169). Dowie, Mark. 2001. Amer­i­can Foun­da­tions: An Inves­tiga­tive His­tory. Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts: MIT Press↩︎

  80. See Giv­ing USA (2003, pp. 195-97). On the French com­par­ison, see Archam­bault (1997, p. 208). Archam­bault, Edith. 1997. The Non­profit Sec­tor in France [and “His­tor­i­cal Roots of the Non­profit Sec­tor in France”, Archam­bault 2001]. Man­ches­ter, Eng­land: Man­ches­ter Uni­ver­sity Press.↩︎

  81. See Clot­fel­ter (1985, chap. 2, and p. 274). Clot­fel­ter, Charles T. 1985. Fed­eral Tax Pol­icy and Char­i­ta­ble Giv­ing. Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press.↩︎

  82. Some pro­vi­sions of the tax law have hurt artists. This includes the tax­a­tion of fel­low­ship awards and unem­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion (both insti­tuted in 1986), dis­al­lowance of income aver­ag­ing (which had helped artists with volatile incomes), and the 1986 restric­tions on in-kind deduc­tions for art­works given to muse­ums. But for the most part the Amer­i­can tax sys­tem sub­si­dizes the arts.↩︎

  83. See Frey and Pom­merehne (1989, p. 43) Frey, Bruno S., and Werner W. Pom­merehne. 1989. Muses and Mar­kets: Explo­rations in the Eco­nom­ics of the Arts. Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts: Basil Black­well. and on Eng­land, see Clot­fel­ter (1985, pp. 96-97). Schus­ter (1989, p. 33) cat­a­logs some of the tax priv­i­leges that Euro­pean gov­ern­ments have granted to the arts since the Sec­ond World War. Schus­ter, J. Mark David­son. 1989. The Search for Inter­na­tional Mod­els: Results from Recent Com­par­a­tive Research in Arts Pol­i­cy. In Who’s to Pay for the Arts? The Inter­na­tional Search for Mod­els of Arts Sup­port, edited by Mil­ton C. Cum­mings, Jr., and J. Mark David­son Schus­ter. New York: ACA Books, pp. 15-42↩︎

  84. If we use the aver­age tax rate, the potency of cor­po­rate tax incen­tives appears to be quite high, less so for the mar­ginal rate. The mar­ginal rate is the tech­ni­cally cor­rect mag­ni­tude, but diffi­cul­ties in mea­sur­ing the true mar­ginal rate sug­gest that the aver­age rate is some­times the bet­ter proxy. See Clot­fel­ter (1985, chap. 5) on these issues.↩︎

  85. Con­logue, Ray. 2000. “From the St. Lawrence Cen­tre to Steel City”. Toronto Globe and Mail, June 21, p. R5.↩︎

  86. That is from the National Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics; see “Pub­lic Libraries in the United States: Fis­cal Year 2002 (E.D. TAB)”↩︎

  87. See Gold­stein (2000, pp. 59, 89, 109). Gold­stein, Mal­colm. 2000. Land­scape with Fig­ures: A His­tory of Art Deal­ing in the United States. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press.↩︎

  88. Hamil­ton (2000, p. 31). Hamil­ton, John Maxwell. 2000. Casanova Was a Book Lover, and Other Naked Truths and Provoca­tive Curiosi­ties about the Writ­ing, Sell­ing, and Read­ing of Books. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity Press↩︎

  89. Aren­son, Karen W. 2002. Arts Groups and Artists Find Angels: Uni­ver­si­ties, The New York Times, Octo­ber 30, pp. B1, B8↩︎

  90. Rus­sell, John J., and Thomas S. Spencer. 2000. Art on Cam­pus: The Col­lege Art Asso­ci­a­tion’s Offi­cial Guide to Amer­i­can Col­lege and Uni­ver­sity Art Muse­ums and Exhi­bi­tion Gal­leries. Monk­ton, Mary­land: Fri­ar’s Lantern↩︎

  91. See Arthur Cohen (1998, pp. 292, 393), The 14% fig­ure is from Arthur Cohen (1998, p. 394). Cohen, Arthur M. 1998. The Shap­ing of Amer­i­can Higher Edu­ca­tion. San Fran­cis­co: Jossey-Bass Pub­lish­ers Trow (1993, p. 40) Trow, Mar­tin. 1993. “Fed­er­al­ism in Amer­i­can Higher Edu­ca­tion”. In Higher Learn­ing in Amer­i­ca, 1980-2000, edited by Arthur Levine. Bal­ti­more: The Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity Press, pp. 39-65 Page and Sim­mons (2000, pp. 194-95). Page, Ben­jamin I., and James R. Sim­mons. 2000. What Gov­ern­ment Can Do: Deal­ing with Poverty and Inequal­ity. Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press↩︎

  92. Cohen and Noll (1998, pp. 36-37). Cohen, Linda R., and Roger G. Noll. 1998. Uni­ver­si­ties, Con­stituen­cies, and the Role of the States. In Chal­lenges to Research Uni­ver­si­ties, edited by Roger G. Noll. Wash­ing­ton, D.C.: Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion Press, pp. 31-62 ↩︎

  93. Page and Sim­mons (2000, p. 195).↩︎

  94. Trow (1993, pp. 57-58).↩︎

  95. On Smith­son­ian fund-rais­ing, see Trescott (2000). On the fed­eral appro­pri­a­tion, see Puente (2003) and also the Smith­son­ian Web site.↩︎

  96. On the his­tory of the army col­lec­tion, see Sul­li­van (1991); on works held and also on the navy col­lec­tion, see Evans (1946, app. 2). The most famous war pic­tures of an Amer­i­can artist are those by John Singer Sar­gent (Gassed is the best known), although these were com­mis­sioned by the British author­i­ties, not the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. On Sar­gen­t’s war work, see Lit­tle (1998)↩︎

  97. On the USO, see Fawkes (1978, chap. 9, and p. 122) and the USO Web site.↩︎

  98. Wys­zomirski (1999, p. 177). On Sousa, see Overmyer (1939, p. 155) and Craw­ford (2001, pp. 457-58). On bands, see Trescott (1995).↩︎

  99. United States Urban Arts Fed­er­a­tion Fis­cal Year 2002 (2002, p. 3). See also Cowen (2005, pp. 6-7).↩︎

  100. Midgette (2000).↩︎

  101. Cowen (2002, chap. 4)↩︎

  102. See Bus­tard (1997, pp. 12-14) on the pro­grams in gen­eral and Daniel (1987) on the USDA pro­gram, with the quo­ta­tion from Daniel, p. 41↩︎

  103. See Wagn­leit­ner (1994, p. 72) and Pom­merin (1996, p. 9). On cen­sor­ship in Japan, see Dower (1999, chap. 14)↩︎

  104. The num­bers are taken from Wagn­leit­ner (1994, p. 57) and drawn from U.S. bud­get data↩︎

  105. Sny­der (1995, p. xi)↩︎

  106. For a sum­mary of the Smith-Mundt Act, and other rel­e­vant leg­is­la­tion, see Hen­der­son (1969, pp. 302-7). On the gen­e­sis of the very com­pli­cated net­work of over­lap­ping agen­cies, see Hen­der­son (1969). On the roots in the 1930s, see Thomp­son and Laves (1963, pp. 36-37) and Shus­ter (1968)↩︎

  107. Sny­der (1995, p. xi)↩︎

  108. Wagn­leit­ner (1994, pp. 61, 149). On the 1969 esti­mate, see Hen­der­son (1969, p. 75). Iron­i­cally many of the funds for these cul­tural out­reach pro­grams were taken from the Coun­ter­part Funds from the Mar­shall Plan, and thus paid for by Euro­pean tax­pay­ers, not Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers. (Eu­ro­pean gov­ern­ments had to put up money for each dol­lar received through Mar­shall Plan aid.) In essence, the Euro­peans were bribed to spend money on Amer­i­can cul­tural pro­duc­ers, so that they might be swayed to the Amer­i­can way of life. See Wagn­leit­ner (1994, p. 57). On USIA more gen­er­al­ly, see Elder (1968). In 1985 the USIA bud­get was $796 mil­lion, many times larger than the NEA allo­ca­tion. On the post-Rea­gan decline in these pro­grams, see Kinzer (2001)↩︎

  109. On the USIA esti­mate, see Coombs (1964, pp. 59-60). On audi­ence size, see Browne (1982, p. 116). See also Wagn­leit­ner (1994, pp. 61, 210-11) and Hix­son (1997, pp. 115-17)↩︎

  110. See Wagn­leit­ner (1994, pp. 61, 210-11) and Hix­son (1997, pp. 115-17). Heil (2003) is a good source on VOA. I am indebted to Bryan Caplan for the phrase artis­tic famine relief. Rich­mond (2003) sur­veys cul­tural exchange pro­grams, with an empha­sis on their impact on the Soviet Union↩︎

  111. See von Eschen (2000 and 2004) on jazz and the State Depart­ment, and Saun­ders (1999, pp. 20, 291) and Hix­son (1997, p. 137) on African-Amer­i­can issues↩︎

  112. See, for instance, Rich­mond (2003, p. 124) on these exchanges.↩︎

  113. See Fine and White­man (2002) on Sawa’s ori­gins; on crit­i­cisms, see Kessler (2004)↩︎

  114. Mac­Far­quhar (2004)↩︎

  115. On the impor­tance of fed­eral sup­port for these arts, see Lowry and Hooker (1968) and von Eschen (2000, pas­sim, p. 167). On Ailey, see Dun­ning (1996, pp. 145-255). On Gille­spie, see Mag­gin (2005, chaps. 27, 28) and von Eschen (2004, p. 35)↩︎

  116. On the pen­e­tra­tion of foun­da­tions, see Saun­ders (1999, pp. 134-35); on books, see p. 245↩︎

  117. Wagn­leit­ner (1994, pp. 137-38). On USIA, see Weten­hall (1992, p. 145).↩︎

  118. On Proust, see the Guardian, “Find­ing the time”.↩︎

  119. See Learn­ing to e-read, The Econ­o­mist (2000).↩︎

  120. On this episode, see Craw­ford (2001, pp. 720-21).↩︎