The last decade has witnessed an explosion of independent cinema. Thanks to technological advancements, once formidable barriers-to-entry have been broken down and the quantity, quality and variety of independent film is now greater than ever before. But will this trend continue, or are dark clouds forming over the future of the motion picture as we know it?
With the introduction of affordable digital video in the early 2000s the prospect of shooting a feature-length film was in reach of people who didn’t have Hollywood connections, a rich uncle or a home to mortgage. Then YouTube and Web 2.0 came along. Now it wasn’t just easy to produce a movie, it was easy to distribute it-you didn’t even need the couple thousand bucks to press DVDs. We were all filmmakers with a story waiting to be unleashed as YouTube’s slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” implied.
People celebrated video’s “democratization” (a questionable extension of the political concept) and gushed about the collective wisdom of the crowd. Success could now simply be measured in terms of audience response-in other words the view count-reviews, awards and traditional distribution channels no longer mattered.
The problem is that the overwhelming majority of non-bootlegged material on sites like YouTube is junk, especially its most highly viewed videos. It seems that what humanity’s collective tastes crave the most is not better narrative, more truthful documentary or more insightful commentary, but rather sensation, scandal, stupidity and oh, other people’s baby videos.
To be sure, more filmmakers and the enhanced competition between them have lead to better films made on smaller budgets. Furthermore, YouTube is great if you want to see how a suppressed full-auto Mac-10 shoots, find walkthroughs of forgotten video games like Uninvited, or watch leaked video of human rights abuses (the long tail phenomenon), but the noise floor is deafening and a lot of artistically excellent work gets lost in the mix.
A 2006 article by Moisés Na√≠m in Foreign Policy Magazine entitled the “YouTube Effect” indentified this phenomenon, but analyzed it mostly through the lens of journalism and its effects on geopolitics, rather than the creative arts. Furthermore it placed too much confidence in the “wisdom of crowds” in providing meaningful or accurate content.
Big groups of diverse, independent decision-makers are better at solving problems requiring optimization of a large number of difficult-to-estimate variables, such as determining market prices or the optimal allocation of production in an economy. However, when it comes to creative efforts, individuals, or sequestered groups of experts are far more effective than the masses. Cameron’s Avatar, the invention of nuclear energy, and Boeing’s Dreamliner were the result of teamwork, but not the “democratic” mass-output of millions of Joe Sixpacks.
Therein lies the problem that YouTube and other similar services create: Although they do allow talented people to disseminate unique creations, they also allow vastly more unskilled individuals to not only pollute the signal with noise, but feed off one another and then ultimately infect talented artists who feel they must pander to the collective in order to get hits. This completely destroys one of the key requirements for crowd wisdom: diverse, independent thought-Web 2.0 is by intent a giant feedback machine designed to create a single global aesthetic. You can see the result in the faster and faster cuts on broadcast TV, the increased use of snippets and textboxes in print media, and the race-to-the bottom for “audience expectations” in film across the world.
Unfortunately, it appears that this collectivization and “averaging-out” of art is exactly what some of Silicon Valley’s Singularity cult want. Take for example Apple’s emasculation of its flagship video editing platform Final Cut Pro. Not only has it stripped away many of its professional features and turned it into “iMovie Plus,” but certain factions within the company are trying to do away with general-purpose computers all together. In their vision of the future we will become touch screen monkeys creating our own feature-length films on the latest iDevice while riding the train to work. And so will everyone else-all using the same app. Innovative thinking, unconventional art, and contrarian ideas will be drowned in a deluge of incestuous groupthink and conformity.
The idea that collectivism and aggregation are killing individual creativity is a problem that has been identified and discussed by renegade Silicon Valley insiders like Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget), Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) and Andrew Keen (Digital Vertigo) and is touched on in the recent documentary PressPausePlay. Lanier goes as far as to suggest that Web 2.0 will ultimately destroy the middle class and ruin centuries of social progress. Ayn Rand, who wrote her canon of work before the Internet’s precursor ARPANET even existed, also alluded to such dangers.
In thermodynamics, there is a concept called “heat death,” or the cessation of all motion and life in the entire universe once everything reaches the same background temperature, i.e. maximum entropy. I believe an analogy can be drawn to Internet content-in a world absolutely saturated with rehashed, recycled and regurgitated homogenized content, information becomes stagnant and creativity dies. Differentials are good-collectivism kills them.
At the end of the day, the problem is not merely philosophical. Because aggregators like YouTube essentially offer content for free, it has made it more and more difficult to get paid for work. The traditional media industry is on the verge of collapse, and amateurs assisted by software algorithms are creating more and more of the videos we watch. Although I think there will continue to be some short-term benefits from Web 2.0 I worry that in the long run-especially for feature length film-background noise, short attention spans and incestuous amplification will lead to an “information death” where everything looks the same and profound meaning is lost.
Of course all technological shifts come with their share of naysayers and perhaps cinema will evolve into something unexpectedly amazing. But evolution is ultimately an effort at adaption, not necessarily improvement and sometimes things simply go extinct.