Undercover Economist

Technology can be the friend of creativity

By the time you read this, I shall be sitting in a cinema watching a screening of The Box of Delights (US), nearly three hours of vintage television that captivated me as a boy when broadcast on the BBC in the six weeks running up to Christmas 1984. I’ll be charmed by Patrick Troughton, terrified by Robert Stephens, and mildly amused by the special effects, which were record-breakingly lavish at the time but look amateurish now.

Christmas isn’t Christmas without The Box of Delights. Still, the cinema visit is an indulgence, because a presumably illicit copy of the series has been on YouTube for three years. And there lies an interesting question: what has digitisation done to the richness of our popular culture, from TV and film to music and books?

The obvious response is that digitisation is ruining everything: a children’s series that was once the most expensive ever made by the BBC has been pirated. Why would the BBC — or anyone — invest in the next masterpiece if it will inevitably be ripped off?

This problem is starkest for the music industry, since pirated music is not only free but convenient. For the US music industry, annual retail revenues for physical products have fallen in real terms by more than 90 per cent, from about $20bn in the late 1990s to less than $1.5bn last year. Revenue from downloads and particularly streaming has been growing strongly, but the total takings are less than half what they once were.

Such a collapse in revenues does not seem to be a recipe for a creative flowering. The same threat of piracy — or simply competition from videos of cats riding on Roombas — hangs over film, TV and books. (It also hangs over journalism, but that is a topic for another day.)

On the other hand, digitisation makes it easy to find obscure works. The Box of Delights was merely a memory for many years; finding a copy on VHS video would have been its own epic quest. Now I can watch it on a whim, without leaving my desk.

In the early years of ecommerce, economists Erik Brynjolfsson, Yu Hu and Michael Smith estimated that the availability of obscure book titles alone through websites had increased consumer welfare in the US by about $1bn in the year 2000 — a modest $3 per person, but not nothing. That figure may be much more today.

There is a balance here to be struck, and it is one familiar from debates about copyright. Copyright creates an artificial monopoly, rewarding creators to encourage them to create more. The same artificial monopoly raises prices to consumers and restricts remixes, adaptations and derivative work that is valuable in its own right. Copyright can harm the spread of creative ideas by being too weak, or too strong.

At least copyright rules can be optimised in principle — even if they are in practice much longer than is required.

Technology cannot be so easily tamed by a stroke of the legislator’s pen. So what has new technology done to creative work? Has it been gutted by piracy, or is it flourishing thanks to ever-cheaper means of producing and distributing new ideas?

Joel Waldfogel, an economist and author of a new book, Digital Renaissance (UK) (US), has been trying to figure out the answer to that question. On the question of quantity, there is no doubt: we now have access to vastly more creative works. As well as all the amusing Roomba videos, there is a huge international output, from “Gangnam Style” to the Korean historical dramas that my daughter enjoys so much. Obscure music and out-of-print books can be obtained in digital form within seconds, and YouTube allows me to bore my children with old comedy clips any time I choose.

Isn’t this just strip-mining old assets? No. New releases abound. In the US, 3,000 new movies were released in 2010, up from 500 in 1990. New song publication increased sevenfold between 1988 and 2007, despite plunging revenues. Four hundred thousand books were published in 2012, up from 85,000 in 2008. Much of this new stuff is dreadful, but that doesn’t much matter, since nobody has to watch, hear or read it. What matters is not the average quality, but the quality of the best stuff.

This is hard to assess, but Prof Waldfogel looks at indicators such as reviews — both of professional critics and on online databases — for measures of quality. Among the dross there is an increasing number of both highly rated TV shows and highly rated movies.

Music, too, is doing just fine. Synthesising the ratings of critics suggests that the late 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age for music; any other conclusion would have been a shock. But while more recent music is less highly rated, there is little sign that it is inferior to the highly profitable albums of the 1990s.

This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Most ideas used to be shut down at an early stage; now many see the light of day. As the late novelist William Goldman reminded us, “nobody knows anything”, so it is no surprise that among these new releases, the occasional gem sparkles. The internet, like the box of delights itself, is full of wonders.

 

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 7 December 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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