Harlan Ellison may be a self-important curmudgeon, but he has every right to be – his list of credits is longer than my first novel. So he’s actually a talented, prolific, self-important curmudgeon.
But I absolutely adore him, and he makes a great point in this video:
Harlan hits the nail right on the head. With an aircraft carrier. But the problem is bigger than just writers in Hollywood.
New technology gives us new opportunities. Computers and the internet allow people who have always wanted to be a musician or writer or movie producer to have their chance. Anyone with a computer and a blog is a journalist, and anyone with a computer and a soundcard is a music producer, anyone with a computer and a videocamera is a movie director.
Is this bad? Not entirely. Anyone who wants to try their hand at an art form can and should.
Unfortunately, the new technology not only gives us new opportunities, but new difficulties as well. In this case, media created with words/audio/video and the work required to create those media are decreasing in value.
I don’t have the answer, but here are some pieces of the larger problem:
Amateurs Putting the Pros out of Work?
Most people who dabble, putter or try out any artistic field in their spare time don’t generally rely on that work as a source of income. Therefore, many amateur artists can hire themselves out for “fun” or “experience” or “exposure” but for little or no money. This undercuts professionals, people who rely on the income their skills bring in. Service matchup websites like Odesk, Elance, and VersusMedia allow you to post and find cheap/free labor for all kinds of electronic media work. Programmers, copy editing, ghost writing, audio/video production… you name it.
If you want to read an unhinged and delusional rant about how talentless amateurs (such as myself) are wrecking product quality, the economy, the market and pretty much everything else, check out The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen.
While this isn’t exactly the problem Harlan went on about, people who have a lower cost of living have an definite advantage in price setting. This isn’t a new problem. Companies have exported entire factories to other countries where the labor rate is lower.
But the introduction of high-speed internet moves it up to a global scale.
Look on upwork.com and you will find services (including writing services) offered by people in foreign countries that are below the Minimum Wage here in the United States.
This undoubtedly has an impact on market prices, but it isn’t as drastic as people working for free.
Sites like youtube.com make money off other people’s work. Youtube pays for the website hosting and servers, and users upload their vids for free.
Now, let’s read that another way: The users generate the content for youtube.com for free.
There is no question that youtube captures hours of public viewing that would have otherwise been spent on cable/netflix/broadcast TV. One could see that as the public amateurs undercutting the professional market.
Flickr and Twitter are two more prime examples. Tons of info is generated for these sites, and not one of the users is being paid for their content.
Churches, the Salvation Army, the Goodwill, food shelves and others operate on the principal of charity. Much like the social media sites which receive their content for free, these charities receive money, goods and services for free.
I doubt the church pays for writers to create any of its literature, brochures, fliers and other written materials. This is not viewed as undercutting the professional market, which could have been paid to do the job instead.
Other Things to Ponder
Other half-baked ideas my Inner Philosopher tossed out at me while writing this post:
- Are arts and media made up of words/audio/video worth anything at all? How about the work required to create them? Is it possible we should never have been charging for them in the first place, and only charging for physical products? See my Open Letter to Gene Simmons and the RIAA for more on this topic.
- Is it possible that the worldwide distribution of labor could create a shift in the supply/demand such that the prices will adjust themselves to a more accurate number? Perhaps we’ve been overpaying all this time, and we’re simply seeing prices un-inflate to more realistic numbers?
- Would it help if we could put a value or price on the intangible benefits offered by the job, like Exposure, Experience, Fun, or Training? Could we standardize a system where these things were represented by an exchangeable format the way “buying power” is represented by money?
- Expanding the problem from the intellectual to the physical, what happens when robots get sophisticated enough to handle most manual labor tasks that a human can do, and start doing that labor for much less than a human could?
I agree with Harlan Ellison that he should be paid for his work. I also agree that if Harlan wanted me to help him write his next novel for free, I certainly would. Actually, I’d help him because it would be a unique opportunity and there would likely be some exposure gained, but the point is I’d work for him for no money, and I guess I wouldn’t really care if Neil Gaiman didn’t get the job because I undercut him.
But imagine what would happen if a group of people showed up at Target and offered to stock the shelves for free? That is what’s happening in media industries right now, and it really puts a hitch in the giddy-up of the system.
Obviously I see both sides, and if there was any hope of a dark fiction author from Minneapolis solving this problem, it’s been dashed now. But if you have the solution, please post it below… for free. I’ll take credit for your work, but think of how fun it will be for you to come up with the solution! Think of all the Exposure you’ll get!
Thanks to Michelle Raftner for the link to the Harlan Ellison vid.