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📈🎊📉 The King Is Dead, Long Live The King: Festivals, Science, & Economies of Scale
What forces shape a canon and how can a culture rupture to make room for novelty?
Image: Festivals as Zeno’s Paradox, forever moving and yet never getting there, as rendered by a medium that is the message: Midjourney, which is at once disruptive to entire regions of the art world and yet can only offer more of what its makers trained it on.
Since I've been out of the festival world for a few years, it's been both awesome to see them blossoming again and a bit mixed to note how the top several rows of all these new big summer announcements feature the exact same people (mostly friends, which I celebrate) as they did several years ago when I was active full-time in the scene.
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I'm reminded of Derek Thompson’s recent piece at The Atlantic on how innovation has ground to a near-halt in theoretical science, and his reporting on papers by people like Johan Chu and James Evans about the socioeconomic factors that play into the transition from stepwise canonical progress to iterative, conservative growth as (for instance) researchers "publish or perish" and therefore focus on quantity over quality, producing more similar papers — or how (as shown in recent work by Aaron Clauset, Dan Larremore, Allison Morgan, and their colleagues) hiring and prestige biases collect the vast majority of academic talent at only a handful of major institutions, condensing more and more of the new publications and citations in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
Image: From “Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science” by Johan S. G. Chu and James A. Evans in PNAS Vol. 118 No. 41 showing increasing citation bias as scientific disciplines grow in size.
These kinds of "rich get richer" or "preferential attachment" dynamics are pervasive everywhere in economic systems as they scale. The obvious correlate most readers will find familiar is in Hollywood, where the proliferation of daring new projects in the 1980s and early 90s has been subsumed by big-budget franchises that can offer predictable returns to their producers, even if they merely and constantly retread familiar ground. It's also behind the profound and vexing structural inequalities in gender and racial biases in citation — something I myself find difficult to overcome because:
1) It's increasingly difficult to stay on top of work being conducted in one's own areas of interest, and so people rely on lousy heuristics like "How many people are talking about this" or "Do I already know this person" to determine what's worth investigating; and
Image: vi hart & nicky case’s interactive explorable “Parable of the Polygons,” which teaches how the simple pleasure of hanging out with people like you results in unintentional, yet very real, structural injustice.
2) Taking the time to extend beyond the reach of one's own established networks — overcoming "like attracts like" or homophily (which is, without question, a tendency that has served humans well on average for thousands of years) — is increasingly difficult as the pace of life accelerates and the demands on our time and attention become more and more intense.
But what does this have to do with festival lineups?
Image: Snipped from KnowYourMeme.com’s dump of Coachella Poster Parodies.
It means that until and unless promoters are willing to take risks as curators and help push innovative emerging talent to the top of their billings, nothing is going to change at best and things are very likely to only get worse.
And I don't just mean "squint or you'll think this lineup announcement is from 2017" but the festivals themselves are getting fewer, more consolidated, more conservative as an ecosystem in general. The kind of small indie events (and labels, and booking agencies, etc.) that used to be willing to take chances on me as an innovative indie artist have a harder time under these pressures to remain economically afloat. And the rhetoric I used to get after investing sweat equity with events for five years or more only to hear them say, "We need to up the turnover and make room for more undiscovered emerging acts" has proven itself largely empty and unsubstantiated, because even the LAST lines of these festival posters look a whole lot like they did before I backed out of the scene.
Image: Snipped from a parody by NeatDude.com.
Of course, there are exceptions...and paradoxically, as people like technologist Kevin Kelly have noted, as economies of scale come to dominate, then monopolies happen faster but become more and more brittle and precarious because of tradeoffs between efficiency and resilience to (often internally-generated) disruption.
But the overall pattern is what unites a pattern of vexing wicked problems in cultural evolution:
1) The perennial challenge of funding the arts, fundamental scientific research, truly groundbreaking technological innovation, because blue sky research by definition does not yet have well-defined market value.
Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann once waxed at length on the subject:
“We need a better class of people working as skilled intermediaries to extract knowledge and understanding and maybe a little bit of wisdom from this huge welter of bits that assails us. So many pieces of information are false or irrelevant or badly organized or otherwise really unsuitable for doing much for us. And the reward system for people who do a really wonderful job of extracting knowledge and understanding and wisdom, the reward system is skewed in the wrong way. If left to the so-called free market, it’s mainly skewed toward entertainment or something that’s narrowly utilitarian for some business firm or set of business firms. But where is the responsibility for actually extracting advancements of knowledge and understanding? I think that the reward system needs some other input. … I think that’s something that the whole society needs to be aware of, and to work on. What kind of concerns are met in the work of such intermediaries?”
Curation only gets more and more crucial as the question “Whom do I trust to turn me onto cool new stuff?” becomes a bigger issue due to the current crisis in social epistemology/sense-making — and yet, tastemakers themselves are in privileged positions that suffer the same predictable regularities in unequal distribution of attention and resources, so you can rest assured you're probably NOT following the people or algorithms with the best nose for discovery or finger on the pulse. Curation, synthesis, and translational work between theorists and practitioners faces the same “invisible to models” problem that fundamental research does;
2) Relatedly, the economic invisibility of children, the elderly, and domestic labor and caregiving, because play and curiosity and the well-being of those that cannot be easily commodified will forever remain undervalued by quantitative models.
The same goes for nature, generally. So-called “ecosystem services” do not fully account for all of the variables that go into producing economic value, a realization which utterly undermines the self-congratulating entrepreneurial narrative that venture capitalists especially talented at “creating value” by optimizing for externality production by cooking the books and hiding the contribution of their employees (see Thomas Edison, Elon Musk) or by the Global South (see Western Civilization as a whole) or by nonhuman agents (see Dole, Nestlé). Cory Doctorow wrote a compelling piece on this, critiquing the “Terra Nullius” model of innovation, for Locus Magazine;
3) People feel like their livelihoods are imperiled by the bulk data collection that powers large language machine learning models like Stable Diffusion and are calling for a new system of automated royalty payments, but fail to see how — if this comes to pass within the current paradigm of intellectual property law, and it almost assuredly will — it will only pour lighter fluid on the problem by making it harder to reopen enclosed areas of the former cultural commons. I highly recommend Common As Air, Lewis Hyde’s illuminating-if-pedantic history of IP law in Europe and the United States, for a better grasp of the original motivations for establishing systems of patent and copyright, and just how far we as a society have diverged from those intentions (which existed not to protect the rights of IP holders in perpetuity but to help clear the path to a richer ecosystem of public goods).
Image: Twitter. Why I’m ambivalent about automated IP tracking remittance systems.
If something like an (unenforceable) opt-in NFT tracking and royalty disbursement system comes into being as a norm replacing the registration of patents and copyrights, then it will serve less to protect the inheritance of artists’ estates and the due compensation of inventors than it will to make it easy for the rich to aggregate enormous portfolios and force everyone else to pay up for work they bought at discount from its actual value. The system has to forget in order to not overfit to its own faulty memory — works must be released back into the public domain in order to facilitate a thriving process of ongoing innovation, and that is in direct conflict with the proposal to start the attribution and payout game at some arbitrary point in the past by, for instance, scraping the LAION 5B data set to remit pennies on every Midjourney prompt to the artists whose works were included in that data set. Those people’s corpora rest on the shoulders of giants and there is no reason they should be making money on this when the influence of the artists who inspired them has been intentionally obscured.
But I digress. The point is that we all exist solely on the basis of an immeasurably extensive, vast, and intricate system of dependencies and the invisible contributions of beings and processes we will never understand or even meet — and consequently, dispensing rewards only to the proven winners of an unfair game both hampers our own ongoing evolution and hastens the failure of the system as a whole. #OKBoomer is all about this: the capture of economic rents by today’s victors only ensures no new upstarts can challenge the predatory real estate speculation game, the manipulation of regulation to protect economic privilege such as exclusive opportunities in the labor market or academia or government, etc.
If we want the future of the live concert experience to be a never-ending nostalgic retread of yesterday’s superstars — if we actually crave a future of holographic Whitney Houstons and Tupacs on tour, in which garage bands are forever stuck in their garages or cannot find the luxury to exist at all — then by all means, let’s keep voting with our dollars to support the hegemonies of the Disney IP portfolio (the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, etc.), the rent-seeking landlords that have slashed birth rates worldwide by making cities impossibly expensive to raise families in, and the seemingly cost-effective transnational chains that push out local businesses, and massive agricultural corporations that destroy family farmer livelihoods, bioregional resilience, and topsoil in a devil’s bargain that carries us inexorably into a new planetary dustbowl.
Image: Officer K explores an abandoned Las Vegas casino in Blade Runner 2049 populated by the ghostlike holograms of dead celebrities, still going through the motions after (nearly) every living person has departed. The scene encapsulates two of this movie’s related core investigations: What is ‘real’ and what is ‘simulacrum’ in The Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction? And what’s the future if our economic systems are obsessed with reproducing yesterday’s successes? (John David Ebert and I had an awesome conversation on this film for Future Fossils 65, as did J.F. Martel and I for Future Fossils 71.)
I’m pointing the finger at myself as much as anyone else, here. For reasons stated above, it’s hard to know how to allocate one’s scarce attention to unproven new talents and ideas. But if we don’t find a way, today’s festival headliners will be tomorrow’s Westworld hosts at the eternal bad trip re-run bonanza that was once a thriving humus of human creative activity. If we don’t demand more daring moves from our curators, if we don’t reward the foregrounding of marginalized voices with our money and our ears and eyes, we will not only lose a taste for the new but an understanding of why novelty was ever desirable. The dead will rule the living.
I, for one, can do without another Dead tour — grateful though I may be to have seen them, once upon a time…
How do we start to fix this?
Let me start by admitting I don’t have a crystal clear idea of how to balance the forces of change and conservation…but we can look to evolution and the adaptation of designoid systems that have learned to balance weights across scales short- and long-term for ideas. No one response will suit all situations, but a set of guiding principles comes into focus if we listen:
Biologists like Deborah Gordon, Ricard Solé, Melanie Moses, and Stephanie Forrest explore how “liquid brains” like ant colonies function as distributed computers that adapt their relatively stupid parts to suit circumstances in which food, for instance, might be unpredictably available.
Child psychologist Alison Gopnik argues that the strangely long time that it takes for humans to grow up compared to other primates might be due to similar surprise in our ancestral context — a swiftly changing world that forced migration out of Africa and called for beings who could not make do on only instinct, but found in play, plasticity, and curiosity a way of molding to a different world than their parents. Long and rigid memories don’t work in games like this — a bending branch can take some wind, but buildings shatter if they cannot sway. Or as an article on decentralized cognition by Jordana Cepelewicz for Quanta Magazine puts it, “Smarter Parts Make Collective Systems Too Stubborn.”
Image: A taxonomy of neural and aneural cognitive entities from “Liquid brains, solid brains” by Ricard Solé, Melanie Moses, and Stephanie Forrest in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, Volume 374, Issue 1774. “Liquid brains” are typically composed of agents with relatively minimal smarts and agency, because the strategy of distributed computation improvises more than more centralized and robust approaches to encoding environmental information in a continuous body.
And so, the question of what individuals are, and what traits get fixed in regulatory structures at collective levels, is one of nature versus nurture, culture versus instinct. Liquid brains and plastic personalities — and high turnover rates in institutions — work for when the pressures, the demands, are also in a constant flux. Sharks and cockroaches and crocodiles have all been headlining their niches for a couple hundred millions years, though — and why should anyone impose disruption as a value system on their proven strategies?
That kind of thinking is the pathological approach embodied in “Move fast and break things,” a toxic masculine desire to fix what isn’t broken and thereby extract some profit from its open veins. Maybe I am just a jerk for being sick and tired of seeing good ideas win season after season. Maybe I’m chaotic evil in my D&D alignment. Or as my old friend (“OLD friend? Why not make some new friends?”) Mark Stephens puts it, “People want to recreate their favorite experiences over and over again until they don’t.”
But then: If audiences change, why do the headliners persist? Is this a static syllabus, a scaffold through which ticket holders flow like air through lungs, or cells that constantly renew themselves within a body that at macroscopic scale remains identifiable from year to year? It may be that festival headlines look so similar year to year for the same reason that primary school syllabi do: the crowds move on and festivals are economically precarious, so why invest the effort to discover novel talent? The pressure isn’t from returning patrons but from burned out organizers and fresh, starry-eyed attendees who are drawn to see the same attractions that the prior cohort raved about.
Ultimately, I have plenty of direct experience with just how hard it is to throw these parties, and I hope I don’t come off as hypercritical of friends and colleagues. Festivals — especially the smaller ones — are, for the reasons I’ve elaborated in this article, mostly hanging to a cliff in a strong wind and have to strike a compromise between discovery and proven formulae. I guess that my concern is that the cells in these super-organisms actually do change, that we do not extrapolate the need for some stability into a strategy that renders us inflexible and thus incapable of dancing to new music when we hear it.
12-13 January 2023
Haaj takes them all to Mecca
once, not several times a summer
The transformation could be
gathered so much more effectively
Than transcendental peaks
that lead to default world bummers
And profitable parties
marketed as church deceptively.
12 September 2014
For more, read “Improvising Out of Algorithmic Isolation” by Michael Garfield.
Image: More technologically-abetted vortices of culture, strange attractors that act like fountainheads of constant recreation yet depend on patterns of addiction and the yen to minimize uncertainty. When is enough enough?
Future Fossils with Michael Garfield is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.