Price signals worth

I first noticed something disturbing about fifteen years ago. I was lending books out and not getting them back. What made this disturbing was not discovering that I had friends who would take advantage of my generosity, but that they were surprised I wanted them returned. “You mean you want it back?” one of them gasped in disbelief.

I’ve since stopped lending out books (and DVDs too). I’m afraid that one day I’ll be informed that the borrower no longer has it in their possession, having thrown it out. This loss of status is something I talked about in Revolutions, and a lot of other commentators have addressed it as well. Here is what I said then:

What will be the consequences, not just for us but for our cultural inheritance? What will happen when people come to see Pride and Prejudice no longer as a novel, or even a book, but only as a worthless file to be diced, sliced, mashed-up, manipulated, and (mostly) ignored? . . .

There is something more to this transformation than the shedding of a Benjaminian “aura.” Not just the integrity of the text, but our sense that text can have any value or meaning at all is being lost.

I was thinking of all this again recently while reading William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist. There’s nothing new in what he’s saying, but it’s a message that is still worth heeding. At least it helps explain why I wasn’t getting those books back.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of free content, as well as the most demoralizing, is the extent to which it devalues art in the eyes of the audience. Price is a signal of worth. We tend to value more what we have paid more for or worked harder to get; what we have gotten for free with a click we tend to value not at all. With Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and the like, music, text, and images are now akin to tap water, accessed with a turn of the spigot and supplied in an endless, homogenous stream. . . . We used to take pride in the books, albums, and movies that we kept on our shelves, personal touchstones as well as permanent companions. Now that we don’t even store anything on our hard drives, art is here one minute, gone the next.

Nor is this devaluation purely psychological. The creation of art cannot be automated, nor can technology make the process more efficient. Quality, therefore, will sink to meet price. Artists who are paid less, all else being equal, will be forced to spend less time on making any given thing. Kim Deal, the indie rocker, remembers how, at a certain point, music came to be “considered not only just free but trash, a bother to have to wade” through. We still put a tremendous amount of value on the arts in general, but less and less on any given work.

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