Is the Internet like Edward Scissorhands?

If you haven't seen the new video for the OK Go song "This Too Shall Pass", you've short changed yourself. If you missed their last viral hit, for the song “Here It Goes Again”, well, I'm not sure what you do with your time on line, but you either work too hard or don't know how this Internet thing works.

As I watched the video for "This Too Shall Pass", I caught the little Easter Egg of the smashed TV showing the Video for “Here It Goes Again” and remembered lead singer Damian Kulash's op-ed for the New York Times. He describes the way his record label, EMI, shot themselves in the foot by trying to maintain ownership of the video and keep it from going viral. He tries to empathize with their old-world view of property rights but explains how they stood in the way of democratization at their own economic expense.

Watching the new video (backed by their new label, Paracadute Recordings) I'm reminded of the kind of quality appearing online. Without the gatekeepers (or in spite of the efforts of gatekeepers like EMI) the quality of work on the Internet seems to be bifurcating. On the one hand, we have artists like OK Go and, arguably, Lady Gaga, have come to the attention of mass audiences because they work so well in the medium of video and thus benefit the most from YouTube. That’s not to say that OK Go and Lady Gaga aren’t talented musicians (I have three OK Go songs on my ipod right now) but their videos are better, and I don’t think that’s any knock against them. They are masters of a medium, in very different ways. That particular medium, the music video, has been well served by the rise of the Internet. But all other media have been affected as well (I’m struggling to think of one that has remained largely unchanged. Opera, maybe?) and that got me wondering: has the loss of gatekeepers been good in other media, as it has for music videos, or bad, as it has for music?

When I say music has been adversely affected, I don’t mean that people aren’t listening to music. Thanks to iTunes, which essentially saved the industry from Napster and the like, we’re still even willing to pay for some of it. But pop music, as a whole, has been diminished. Artists used to be able to think in terms of an album, if they so chose. Top forty radio could then turn audiences on to a track from an album, but the album itself retained that cohesion. Now, the concept album is dead. The Decemberists, a band with a loyal following who could risk a concept album, came out with one just last year, called The Hazards of Love. I listened to the tiny samples of songs on iTunes and bought one song I love. It just seemed too expensive to buy the whole thing knowing some songs wouldn’t really work while on “shuffle”. Goodbye, concept album.

Worse than that, many songs are written not to stand alone (no shame in that) but to be even more fragmentary, as ring tones. Some of the most cynical science fiction authors predicted that our musical tastes would one day come to resemble advertising jingles. Tada.

While the music industry seems to have been generally negatively affected by the rise of the Internet, something far more interesting is happening with Television, Film, and Novels. To me, it seems all three of these media are bifurcating as their gatekeepers disappear. As a greater quantity gets through, we’re seeing a lot more bad, but also more good work. It’s too soon to tell the degree to which this will affect publishing. People love to sound the death knell, as they did for your local movie theater when the VCR became popular, but sales of novels are up. Are we seeing better books? Not yet (as a feminist, don’t get me started on the terrible message the Twilight series sends to teenage girls). But ask any agent and publisher, and they’ll tell you that social networking, viral marketing, and the sheer ease of email have sped up the business to a fever pitch. The effect: We can burn through the dreadful tail-ends of trends much faster (Don’t start writing that teen vampire novel now. Too late. Wait a decade.) and rush to brave new ideas more quickly. Also, I am hopeful that the explosion of YA Lit will rejuvenate a generation of readers who will want more from their books as adults, improving both YA (the best writing being done today) and “Literary Fiction” (which could use a shot in the arm).

When it comes to television, the bifurcation of quality is even more dramatic. On the one hand, TV fans like me are living in a Golden Age. Shows like The Sopranos and Lost have opened the doors to some of the highest quality TV ever, in terms of the writing (I know. I know. I need to watch The Wire.), the acting, the production values, and more. The stigma about working on the small screen has essentially vanished for big name actors, and rightfully so; good TV beats bad movies any day of the week (literally). On the other hand, the successes of so many cable shows has brought cable to the forefront, which has produced so many new slots in the schedule that need to be filled, and with diminished ad revenue thanks to TiVo, so networks have turned to Reality TV, arguably the worst art you’ve ever voluntarily let into your home. Maybe this shift has nothing to do with the Internet. Maybe the rise of the high quality pay channel series simply happened to coincide with the rise in Internet use. But I doubt it. The Internet may not magically get you HBO (though, with some tricky finagling, it can be done) but it does allow your “friends” on Facebook to turn you on to a new show, and then it allows Netflix to send you the DVDs right to your house (Confession: This makes Netflix a more important friend to me than a few of the people on my Facebook friend list).

Similarly, it seems movies are simultaneously getting better and worse. Thanks to vastly improved, inexpensive technology, many more people can make high quality Indie movies. And with the help of the Internet, you and I can find out about them without the massive marketing machines of the big studios, and can see them without the going to the local Cineplex (thanks again, Netflix!). The gatekeepers aren’t gone, but they are playing a very different role, capitalizing on directors and actors who’ve already shown their brilliance in the Indie scene rather than taking such big gambles while deciding who will get through the studio gate. Talented directors, actors, editors, light and costume designers, etc., will now get through. Movies that wouldn’t have made a good pitch will now get made. Imagine: “It’s about an old man and a young boy who go for a ride to South America in a house lifted by balloons. It’s animated, but adults will probably enjoy it more than kids. And it probably won’t sell many toys. And there’s not really any way to make a sequel. Can I have $175 million dollars?” Yes, I know Up was made by Pixar, which is now owned by Disney, a major studio, but Pixar began as a small firm making animated short films. Who watches animated shorts? Everybody. Thank you, Internet.

But are all movies getting better? Certainly not. Name your top ten favorite comedies, and if more than half come from the last decade, I'd bet good money you're under twenty years old. And in the horror genre, for all the buzz created by the viral marketing campaign, Paranormal ended up being a universal let-down, while The Shining and Jacob's Ladder will still freak you out twenty and thirty years later. Movies, like TV, are getting better and worse.

This leads me to Edward Scissorhands, not as an example of an Indie film, but as a metaphor. I teach Edward Scissorhands as part of the school adopted ninth grade language arts curriculum, which has a whole unit on reading film as text (I know! How cool!). If you missed it back in 1991, it really was a wonderfully made movie on many levels, and worthy of the kind of close reading my students give it each year. Spoiler: It’s a fairytale about an unfinished android with scissors for hands who comes down from a creepy mansion to an exaggerated, stylized suburb. There, he’s the subject of fascination, until the community turns on him for being too different, and he’s exiled back to the mansion.

Before Edward leaves, he changes the community. First, the changes are superficial. He trims the hedges. Then grooms the dogs. Then cuts the women’s hair. But the changes become more and more substantive. He humiliates the community’s vile cougar by rejecting her. He earns the love of Kim, the girl of his dreams. He turns Kim’s boyfriend from a small-time crook and consummate d-bag into a homicidal maniac. He turns everyone in town into a torch-wielding mob. And we know these changes leave a lasting impact, because the whole fairy-tale is presented as a bedtime story Kim tells to her grand-daughter generations later.

So, is the Internet like Edward? At first, our art changed, but only superficially. Now, it can never go back. Similarly, our politics have changed. As Paul Krugman pointed out, the regime in Iran could not hide their violent suppression of dissent from the Iranian people in the same way the Chinese government was able to hide the Tienanmen Square Massacre. Like Edward’s foray into the suburb, the Internet made Dean a candidate in 2004 (and sunk him, too), but made Obama a phenomenon, and, arguably, President, in 2008. It’s also unleashed some of the most despicable vitriol in the protection of the anonymity of message boards, and that level of anger contributes to a kind of partisanship we haven’t seen in the U.S. in over a hundred years. In fact, the “War on Terror”, in many ways resembles the battle between the old gatekeepers of war, nation states, and the Internet warrior, the “non-state actor”, and that’s no coincidence, as global jihadists use the Internet as one of their main tools. Like Edward’s story, the story of the Internet is one of ever deepening effects on our lives.

But Edward isn’t the Internet. Edward is us. As we watch the quality of our TV, our movies, and our politics bifurcate, we can’t blame the technology. The Internet is just Edward’s trip down the hill. We, the boring, controlled community of little houses made of ticky-tacky, are being confronted by ourselves, a screaming, whispering, beautiful, ugly humanity which is, like Edward, incomplete. The gatekeepers didn’t necessarily make our media better, but they kept the rabble out, and made the arts more palatable and digestible. Now we can see what our entire species really looks like through a screen, and it’s not too far from Tim Burton’s vision back in the early days of the Internet; a lonely teenager who can create beautiful things, who desperately wants to be loved and accepted, and who is very dangerous to himself and others.

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