The broadcast of the Oscars this year had a record low viewership of 26.5 million viewers, which is down fully 19% from last year’s previous record low. Donald Trump says it is because “we don’t have Stars anymore.” A more obvious explanation is the unbearable politicization of the presentations, with predictable and tiresome social-justice tropes flowing from the podium, alongside this year’s misandric thematics. No one likes to be lectured on values and morality by this crew. I get it. There are better ways to pass the time.
That said, there is a deeper reason. The fall of the Oscars is only one sign of a larger trend. Technology fueled by economic considerations has given people more options than ever. We are curating culture according not to some mythical “national” sense of things but rather in accord with our individual preferences. This is happening now simply because we can. The economic trajectory of technology has made it possible. Any institution that strives to embody some mythical ideal of a unitary culture will fail.
Markets Speak Louder than Committees
The Motion Picture Academy is fighting the trend by choosing winners that are not market favorites. This is why so many of the winners of the fake competition this year were movies you have not seen. As the Wall Street Journal notes, “Between 1983 and 2005, every best picture winner was among the 25 highest-grossing releases during the year it opened.” Today, it is different: “That string was broken in 2006 when “Crash” won best picture but came in No. 49 at the box office. That started a new streak in which just four of the last 12 best picture winners have been among their year’s 25 highest-grossing releases, and none has ranked higher than No. 15.”
A gap has opened up between the way Hollywood wants to see itself and what consumers really want out of their cultural consumption habits. In the old days, we were stuck in the theaters and what films were released somehow thereby defined who we are as people. But as the volume has grown, the venues for watching have expanded and diversified, competition has driven producers to make movies that delight us in ways of which the elites do not necessarily approve. The decentralized model of cultural consumption is challenging the way we think about the concept of culture itself: it is no longer one thing but rather a deeply personal thing.
The reason for the change traces to the way in which technology has collapsed time and space. Let’s use music as an example, mainly because it is the field I know best. We think of music history as taking place in episodic swaths of time defined by a certain style. From the year 1 AD to 1200 AD, there was monophonic chanting based on a single narrative line of text. Thanks to the invention of the musical staff, that become polyphonic music with several parts, culminating in the early Renaissance of the 16th century, which eventually led to instrumental compositions, and the age of J.S. Bach and the Baroque. That led inexorably to the Classical period, the Romantic period, and finally the Modern period. Rightly or wrongly, but probably mostly rightly once you exclude folk traditions, this is the way we have thought about the history of music.
But notice what happens once you get recording technology, the rise of cities, population migrations made possible by technology, and radio and television. New forms of popular music entered the scene, especially after elite music culture became alienated from popular tastes (see atonalism, e.g.). Big band music took over the cities. Later came rock. Country obtained a mass following. Then the delightful chaos ensued. The genres split and split again, and again. When I was growing up, there was a tremendous and epic battle between disco, rock, and indie rock, everyone battling for the heart and soul of what would be the future of pop-rock. Little did we know that we were being buffeted about by a false sense that there has to be winner. There doesn't have to be.
The Collapse of Time
The idea that we had to rally around one style was heavily informed by scarcity. I could only buy so many albums. The space on my record shelf was limited so it became a big deal which artists, which symphonies, which pop stars I liked. Looking back, the intensity here was due to the limitations of the physical medium. We didn’t know it but this was forcing on us all what would later turn out to be a false choice.
Today, I can ask my home assistant to play Lady Gaga, switch and ask for Palestrina, switch and ask for Tommy Dorsey, switch and ask for Schubert, and switch again and demand Metallica. I can do all of this in less than one minute. It has opened up an infinite range of possibilities for me to curate my own subjective culture. Democratize this tool and you enter into a new world, where all time happens in one instant. No more do we have to slog from one era to another as some kind of homogeneous blob. We can have it all, and no surprise: each of us does it differently.
So it is with news. In the 1930s, the information landscape was dominated by FDR giving his fireside chats. In World War II we watched propaganda films. In the 1960s and 70s, Walter Cronkite ruled the day and told us what is and isn’t news. Today, information swirls around us like a sandstorm and it is up to us to decide what is and isn’t fake news.
By analogy, we can see that the same thing has happened to motion pictures. The real best picture is the one that he or she likes the most. Period. Nor do we have to rely on the experts to tell us what we should like. On Rotten Tomatoes, there are two ratings: viewers and critics. In general, the people I know disregard the critics in favor of what the viewers say, same as we rally around Yelp for restaurants and Amazon reviews for product quality.
No More Experts
Technology has made possible the ultimate decentralization. The world of T.S. Eliot, who wrote about national culture having a top-down unity mass, trickling from the elites to the masses according to the designs of the clericy, has been completely smashed. It is the same with people today who complain about cultural collapse. They find things they don’t like and characterize it as something everyone does. This claim is just wrong: in a market-driven, technologically advanced society like ours, you can choose your own culture.
While this is new in history, it is also the historical trajectory made possible by dramatic economic change. Nor is it anything to regret. The Academy and their award givers can preen, lecture, hector, and demand, but we no longer have to listen. It is the market that decides the winners, and that means you and me have just as much power and influence as the biggest of the big shots. The culture will no longer be unified, which means it will no longer be controlled.