David is worried that the complex, high-end outputs of scholarly endeavors, theater, film, music, art, and other disciplines could vanish “into the mud” as we race to the bottom through simplification.
I think Shirky was trying to make a point about cultures, not about outputs per se. Shirky even acknowledges that things have to be complex sometimes, but thinks they don’t have to now be complex all the time:
Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.
This blog is a good example of what Shirky’s talking about, I think. The Scholarly Kitchen is about as complex as it needs to be. We’ve veered now and again in discussions toward becoming more complex, toward inserting bureaucratic layers or oversight structure, but each time, it’s felt like too much. We’ve talked about moving the infrastructure to the more complex and involved hosted model of WordPress. We’ve talked about accepting some commercial ideas that have come our way. But we’ve rejected all of these ideas so far, primarily because each one would have introduced an unhelpful level of bureaucracy.
Do we need a managing editor? A raft of copy editors? Administrative staff?
Is the Scholarly Kitchen “low quality” because we don’t have those things? If we were created from scratch by a traditional media company, we may well have them all.
David uses examples like Lord of the Rings and Avatar to indicate how high-end motion pictures require complexity to become attractive market forces. True, but modern technologies also allow directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson to reduce the level of complexity in the bureaucracy. It’s interesting to note that David’s two choices are films that were done largely outside of the traditional Hollywood bureaucracy. Lord of the Rings was approved, and then Jackson went away to New Zealand to make it, far out of the Hollywood spotlight. Cameron worked outside the system as well, thanks to the liberty hits like Titanic and the Terminator movies bought him. I think this is in line with Shirky’s final observation:
. . . when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.
Jackson and Cameron epitomize this. They’ve worked in ways that were complex in the craft sense, but not complex in the bureaucratic sense. In fact, my perspective on the stories told about their movie-making is that they were able to make such visionary movies largely because they eschewed traditional Hollywood bureaucracy. (Jackson seems to have been caught up in it again, and his output has suffered.)
Shirky’s argument is that cultural fossilization, with strata upon strata of useless practices preserved and treasured inside an organization or in a community of pratice, is a major component of failure, aside from technological changes and innovations. It’s very similar to Clayton Christensen’s disruptive technologies argument, but focusing on the management trap in a grand way.
Quality will always have a place in the market, there is no doubt. That doesn’t mean that the bureaucracies that have grown up around old media can remain in place, will continue to add value, or are important. In fact, they may be exactly what we must excise, simplify, rethink, and shorten case-by-case to avoid a meltdown of media culture on a larger scale. In some cases, good things can be made with very little or no apparent bureaucracy.
And by bringing about these multiple cultural shifts from “old school” to “modern,” we will be positioned to make the high-quality things of the future.