Notes on Nicholas Carr

I just caught up with an older Nicholas Carr post from February on the pos­si­bil­ity that micro­pay­ments might save the busi­ness side of jour­nal­ism. Carr says that, as things are now, micro­pay­ments aren’t the answer. Patience is.

He spends part of his essay debunk­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties peo­ple have tried to draw between the suc­cess­ful iTunes store and pos­si­ble small-payment sys­tems for news. You can’t apply the iTunes men­tal­ity to news arti­cles, he writes, because buy­ing a song is far dif­fer­ent from buy­ing a bit of news.

Most news sto­ries, for one thing, are tran­si­tory, dis­pos­able things. That makes them very dif­fer­ent from songs, which we buy because we want to “own” them, to have the abil­ity to play them over and over again. We don’t want to own news sto­ries; we just want to read them or glance over them. Hawking sto­ries piece­meal is a harder sell than hawk­ing tunes; the has­sle fac­tor is more dif­fi­cult to overcome.

News sto­ries are fun­gi­ble, Carr writes, mean­ing basi­cally that one is as good as another. That’s not the case with music, and that unique­ness lends songs value that arti­cles do not have. On top of that, the news becomes out­dated very quickly, erod­ing most of its value.

As a side note, Patrick Thornton has some good money-related argu­ments against the iTunes model that put another nail in that cof­fin. For a dose of the other side, Marc Glasberg, CEO of the micropayment/subscription startup Icents has some hit-and-miss argu­ments for such a pay­ment sys­tem.

Micropayments may be out, but Carr believes that the days of peo­ple pay­ing for news are not gone. They are merely on a market-induced hiatus.

Right now, “sup­ply so far exceeds demand that the price of news has dropped to zero.” This, Carr says, is a dis­tor­tion in the news mar­ket, caused by the mas­sive impact of new online tech­nolo­gies. Carr writes:

Now here’s what a lot of peo­ple seem to for­get: Excess pro­duc­tion capac­ity goes away, par­tic­u­larly when that capac­ity con­sists not of cap­i­tal but of peo­ple. Supply and demand, even­tu­ally and often painfully, come back into some sort of bal­ance. Newspapers have, with good rea­son, been pulling their hair out over the demand side of the busi­ness, where a lot of their prod­uct has, for the time being, lost its mon­e­tary value. But the solu­tion to their dilemma actu­ally lies on the pro­duc­tion side: par­tic­u­larly, the rad­i­cal con­sol­i­da­tion and rad­i­cal reduc­tion of capacity.

Once the world of jour­nal­ism shrinks enough, it will become prof­itable again, Carr argues. Then the users had bet­ter watch out! The pro­duc­ers will regain their power and show us what’s what — by pry­ing open our wallets.

Carr dis­misses writ­ers like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis, who argue that some­thing has changed sig­nif­i­cantly and irre­versibly about the way peo­ple find and con­sume news. For Carr, the cri­sis affect­ing the news busi­ness is a tem­po­rary affair, the good times will return. It’s just a mat­ter of time.

To say that things will recover from this mar­ket slump in more or less the same form as before the com­mu­ni­ca­tion rev­o­lu­tion is the same as say­ing that the acad­emy shook out the same way after the tran­si­tion from oral to lit­er­ate soci­ety. It’s the same as say­ing that books held the same power after they could be cheaply mass pro­duced as they did when they had to be labo­ri­ously copied by hand.

The Web is main­stream (to use a sexy phrase: it’s hit a tip­ping point), and its effect on the part of soci­ety that has access to it, and even on the peo­ple who don’t, is as fun­da­men­tal to our culture.

This is phi­los­o­phy, and it’s not directly applic­a­ble to jour­nal­ism, true. But we can’t ignore the immen­sity of the cur­rent com­mu­ni­ca­tions rev­o­lu­tion. And it’s naive to think that things will go back to the way they were with­out sig­nif­i­cant change.

  • clayshirky

    Carr, I think, is a con­sid­er­ably more sophis­ti­cated thinker than he gets credit for, and what looks to the naked eye like con­flict­ing asser­tions are actu­ally part and par­cel of a deeper dilemma he faces.

    As a pes­simist, he’d like to sim­ply con­tra­dict what the opti­mists are say­ing, which would mean min­i­miz­ing or deny­ing the enor­mity of the cur­rent changes. However, he’s a smart and knowl­edge­able pes­simist, so he can’t sim­ply gain­say the opti­mists and call it a day, because he knows that the cur­rent changes are a big deal (even if they are not a big deal in the ways or to the degree we opti­mists claim they are.)

    This means he *also* can’t side with most of the min­i­miz­ers or hand-wringers. There’s noth­ing in Carr’s work that I read as “Oh, this will all return to the old nor­mal” — his point about Google News open­ing up access to 11,000 com­pet­ing accounts of a news story means that the cor­rect­ing of supply-side imbal­ance, per Carr, leave a hand­ful of sup­pli­ers who can charge after that change, but the path to that re-balanced sup­ply will be noth­ing less than the Gotterdammerung of news­pa­pers, and Carr knows it.

    He also can’t side with ‘third-way’ mod­els — he was as skep­ti­cal of Sanger’s Citizendium project as I was — because he things the internet’s effect on cul­ture is 99% bad.

    This leaves him writ­ing from a lonely spot — he believes the media world we’ve know is being blown to bits; he can’t bring him­self to hold out false hope that this change will stop or reverse; and he also believes that many of the cher­ished hopes of the opti­mists tied to increased par­tic­i­pa­tion or free cul­ture are claptrap.

    This puts him in the posi­tion of “a pox on both your houses” writ­ing, and it’s easy to mis-read, because what Luddites see in Carr are pre­dic­tions that news­pa­pers will be crushed by trans­parency, while all we opti­mists see is his con­vic­tion that our imag­ined future will fail, because it’s built on noth­ing more than fan­tasies about psy­chol­ogy and economics.

    As a his­tor­i­cal anal­ogy, one of the opti­mists’ mod­els for the cur­rent change is the Protestant Reformation, where new com­mu­ni­ca­tions prac­tices upended tra­di­tional soci­ety, but also ush­ered in sci­ence and democ­racy. Carr’s model is the sack of Rome, where the peo­ple doing the upend­ing are destroy­ing a cul­ture too tired to carry on, but replac­ing it with noth­ing of com­pa­ra­ble value.

    Disagree with him all you like on that lat­ter point, but don’t under­es­ti­mate the force, clar­ity or sophis­ti­ca­tion of his work.

  • http://www.hypercrit.net Michael Becker

    Thanks for read­ing. I’m afraid I have to bow to your supe­rior knowl­edge of Carr, but that par­tic­u­lar arti­cle of his does seem to take a wait-and-let-this-settle-out approach. I can’t place that in the con­text of what else he’s writ­ten, but trust me: that doesn’t mean I am min­i­miz­ing Carr or tak­ing him, or his sophis­ti­ca­tion, for granted.

    Again, thanks for read­ing. It’s always a plea­sure when celebri­ties stop by.

  • clayshirky

    Carr, I think, is a con­sid­er­ably more sophis­ti­cated thinker than he gets credit for, and what looks to the naked eye like con­flict­ing asser­tions are actu­ally part and par­cel of a deeper dilemma he faces.

    As a pes­simist, he’d like to sim­ply con­tra­dict what the opti­mists are say­ing, which would mean min­i­miz­ing or deny­ing the enor­mity of the cur­rent changes. However, he’s a smart and knowl­edge­able pes­simist, so he can’t sim­ply gain­say the opti­mists and call it a day, because he knows that the cur­rent changes are a big deal (even if they are not a big deal in the ways or to the degree we opti­mists claim they are.)

    This means he *also* can’t side with most of the min­i­miz­ers or hand-wringers. There’s noth­ing in Carr’s work that I read as “Oh, this will all return to the old nor­mal” — his point about Google News open­ing up access to 11,000 com­pet­ing accounts of a news story means that the cor­rect­ing of supply-side imbal­ance, per Carr, leave a hand­ful of sup­pli­ers who can charge after that change, but the path to that re-balanced sup­ply will be noth­ing less than the Gotterdammerung of news­pa­pers, and Carr knows it.

    He also can’t side with ‘third-way’ mod­els — he was as skep­ti­cal of Sanger’s Citizendium project as I was — because he things the internet’s effect on cul­ture is 99% bad.

    This leaves him writ­ing from a lonely spot — he believes the media world we’ve know is being blown to bits; he can’t bring him­self to hold out false hope that this change will stop or reverse; and he also believes that many of the cher­ished hopes of the opti­mists tied to increased par­tic­i­pa­tion or free cul­ture are claptrap.

    This puts him in the posi­tion of “a pox on both your houses” writ­ing, and it’s easy to mis-read, because what Luddites see in Carr are pre­dic­tions that news­pa­pers will be crushed by trans­parency, while all we opti­mists see is his con­vic­tion that our imag­ined future will fail, because it’s built on noth­ing more than fan­tasies about psy­chol­ogy and economics.

    As a his­tor­i­cal anal­ogy, one of the opti­mists’ mod­els for the cur­rent change is the Protestant Reformation, where new com­mu­ni­ca­tions prac­tices upended tra­di­tional soci­ety, but also ush­ered in sci­ence and democ­racy. Carr’s model is the sack of Rome, where the peo­ple doing the upend­ing are destroy­ing a cul­ture too tired to carry on, but replac­ing it with noth­ing of com­pa­ra­ble value.

    Disagree with him all you like on that lat­ter point, but don’t under­es­ti­mate the force, clar­ity or sophis­ti­ca­tion of his work.

  • http://www.hypercrit.net Michael Becker

    Thanks for read­ing. I’m afraid I have to bow to your supe­rior knowl­edge of Carr, but that par­tic­u­lar arti­cle of his does seem to take a wait-and-let-this-settle-out approach. I can’t place that in the con­text of what else he’s writ­ten, but trust me: that doesn’t mean I am min­i­miz­ing Carr or tak­ing him, or his sophis­ti­ca­tion, for granted.

    Again, thanks for read­ing. It’s always a plea­sure when celebri­ties stop by.