Review of Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture

Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture
by Joel Waldfogel

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2018
307 pp., illus.10 b/w. Trade, $27.95
ISBN: 978-0-691-16282-9.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
February 2019

I started to read this book with quite some skepticism. Yes, I don’t like the word “customer” when we talk of culture, and I am also one of those who think that the quality of life in an urban environment depends on the presence of a well-structured and dense network of bookshops (I mean: real bookshops, not newsstands selling Fifty Shades of Grey). At the same time, I am well aware of the fact that culture without industry is neither thinkable nor desirable, although a primarily economic take on culture will never be totally unproblematic for me (is it necessary to mention once again the hollow pep talk of economists like Richard Florida?). And a last caveat: as a European and more precisely continental (read: Francophile) reader, I always feel uncomfortable with the ways in which U.S. scholars use terms such as “popular” and “elite.”

But prejudices are never good, and I am grateful to Joel Waldfogel that he helped me get rid of quite some naïve if not false ideas on culture and economics. There remain a lot of conclusions and suggestions that I think are open to debate––and I will come back to some of them––but I truly appreciate the intellectual and methodological honesty of this book as well as its basic claim to make room for evidence-based thinking in our inevitably ideological debates on culture. Moreover, Waldfogel is a very modest author, whose concern for culture is far from being exclusively driven by figures, revenues, return on investment and profit maximization. Cultural diversity and a good mix of guilty pleasure and intellectual challenge are key elements in his thinking, and it was good to see that the final horizon of his work is something everybody can and should endorse: the possibility given to all to create and enjoy culture as much as possible.

Waldfogel’s message is both simple and highly surprising. Contrary to what many of those active or interested in the creative industries (in practice: music, movies, television, and books) have been repeating, the digital revolution, which makes it so easy to reproduce, to circulate, and thus also to steal copyrighted material, has not translated into a collapse of cultural production. From a quantitative point of view, one can only observe that the number of works being produced is strongly increasing and continues to do so. And from a qualitative point of view, there may be signs to believe that the audience considers the new works at least as appealing as those that were produced in the predigital era. In that sense, Waldfogel accepts as true that there are good reasons to believe that our age is that of a Renaissance, not that of a decline. And according to him this Renaissance is not just contemporary of the digital turn, it can be explained by it, for thanks to the new technology it has become possible to overcome the limitations of production and reception as defined by traditional forms of gatekeeping. It is now possible to produce at lower cost and to distribute at almost no cost, and this evolution makes that many works that could not be actually produced and distributed in the old, can now be made and made available to large audiences. This new situation helps us gain something (we can access more works at lower cost) but is does not come without a loss. What we are losing to a certain extent, but Waldfogel tends to suggest that this idea or fear is not based on real evidence, is the protection offered by copyright law, which can thus no longer function, when piracy becomes universal and endemic, as an incentive to cultural creation (as far as the publishing industry is concerned, I have strong doubts on this point, but the work on book production is definitely less convincing than the other sections of the research). Waldfogel’s book globally (sic) defends copyright as a system that profits to makers (in the short run) and audiences (in the long run), but he also produces many interesting figures showing that a reduction of copyright revenue does not hit all sectors and all agents or stakeholders the same way (if Hollywood loses money, for instance, the solution will not be to reduce the number of new movies, but to reduce the salaries of its box office stars, which count for an incredible percentage of its production costs). Yet what we do not lose are the supposedly crucial advantages of gatekeeping, which Waldfogel discards as a dangerous myth. In the sphere of cultural production, “nobody knows”, that is: nobody knows what the audience will like or dislike, and for that reason the restraints imposed by traditional gatekeeping are not a guarantee that the works that are eventually judged worth making and selling are better than those everybody can new independently produce, self-publish and offer for almost nothing on the market.

All this may seem pretty abstract, but Digital Renaissance is in the first place a book that tries to build its argumentation on precise data, more precisely on data that are as precise as possible, for in many cases many figures are difficult to find, first because the available information is so meager and shattered that the gathering of relevant material supposes a tremendous lot of work and research and second because the industry itself is not always eager to make these figures accessible. Waldfogel’s book is admirable in its efforts to clearly expose the way in which it has gathered, structured and presented its material, and even more admirable in the great modesty with which it remains aware of its limitations. The least we can say, is that Digital Renaissance produces and shares a lot of vital data, which can now be discussed, completed or corrected. Quantitatively speaking, Waldfogel conviction that digitization has fostered instead of restricted cultural production seems difficult to deny.

More problematic, obviously, is the link between the quantitative and the qualitative sides of the data. The figures produced by Digital Renaissance in its attempts to give as objective as possible an idea of what audiences actually like, seem to advocate that readers, viewers, and listeners tend to be more positive about the works made during the digital era than to those made during the predigital era, not only because there are now more works that the audience can like (a quite logical hypothesis, since there has been a dramatic increase on the supply side) but also and more importantly because modern audiences seem to find the works of the digital era more appealing than those of the previous era. Quality judgments are always tricky to make as well as to evaluate, even if one sticks to the apparently simple economic interpretation of “quality” as what appeals to customers and manages to be sold to them. Digital Renaissance does not have the pretention to go beyond the economic basis of this interpretation and thus stays away from aesthetic, political, sociological, or philosophical debates on “value” (or “art”). Of course, the fact that these issues are not directly addressed is also a statement, as if “art” and “popular culture” belong to different spheres. Yet in certain cases it will be difficult to avoid these kinds of questions, even if one addresses culture in purely economic terms. A more precision definition of the “popular” is certainly something that further research in this field should consider an absolute priority. The same applies to the relationship between new production and certain contextual constraints, be they institutional or personal that determine the survival of older forms of culture. General education plays undoubtedly a role in the way audiences read older literature, for instance, while the key factor in the transmission of classic music is definitely more one’s family background. In general, the similar treatment of the four creative industries that are studied in Digital Renaissance crudely wipes out the differences between them. In the field of independent publishing, for example, the “long tail” mantra is, I think, a myth (at least, I have never seen any independent publisher making profit thanks to the long tail, even if there will certainly be exceptions). Waldfogel is also very quietist in his evaluation of the negative effects of piracy and his critique of the old gatekeeping system, which the “nobody knows” principle does not really make useless. Editorial control, supervision, and even censorship are most of the times extremely positive elements, and decisions to publish or not, and to do in this or that way, are not wet-finger work. In spite of all the problems it entails and the sometimes unfair results it produces in this regard, it makes sense to remind the persisting influence of “hidden” vanity publishing in the production of literary value – we all know that Marcel Proust had to fund himself the publication costs of the first volume of his Remembrance of Things Past.

A last remark, at least for this review, expands on my previous remark on the somewhat mechanical juxtaposition of the four major creative industries. On the one hand, this juxtaposition does not pay enough justice to their specificities. On the other hand, and this is an essential point, the mere apposition of these industries misses the many interactions between them that affect the very economy of each of them. The book industry can no longer be separated from the film industry for instance, as clearly shown by works such as those of Simone Murray (The Adaptation Industry, 2012) or Sarah Brouillette (Literature and the Creative Economy, 2014).

In the best of possible worlds ought to meet to make further steps in a better understanding of art, culture, media, and economy.