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While statistics about television, video, and publishing suggest the dimensions of the culture boom when it comes to relatively conventional forms of culture, the real hotbed of action may well be in what can be called “informal culture.” Reliable numbers on informal culture are hard to come by because much of it is either noncommercial or exists on a scale where there isn’t a strong need for such information.
Informal culture includes the thousands of zines that are published in any given year; self-produced and distributed music, movies, and books; “taper” culture, which trades in illegal or gray-market copies of copyrighted materials as well as in versions that are doctored for comedic or dramatic effect; micro-broadcasting; fan communities; and Internet-based culture ranging from informal discussion lists to Web sites featuring streaming audio and video outputs. Certainly, it is in informal culture that the empowering aspects of the culture boom are most clearly on display: Much of it is steeped in conscious reaction to or rejection of “mass culture.”
How does informal culture foster proliferation? Consider the Internet, which, because of its global reach and increasingly sophisticated and user-friendly multimedia capabilities, is particularly emblematic of cultural proliferation. Undergirding the Internet is the logic of the culture boom. Perhaps most important, it acts as what Wired’s Kevin Kelly has called a “supplemental” space. It generally adds to cultural options, rather than simply replacing existing ones—just as television in the end supplemented radio, rather than killing it. Relatively recent (read: already outdated) estimates say the typical Web page has about 500 words on it and put the total number of Web pages at somewhere between 200 million and 1 billion. Using the low estimate, that means the Web has put an extra 10 billion words in circulation, many of which are directed at commenting on and critiquing more-traditional cultural activities.
At the same time, the Web creates opportunities to circumvent traditional cultural gatekeepers by providing additional sites of production and consumption that are difficult, if not impossible, to police and regulate, whether one is talking about content restrictions, copyright infringement, or “responsible” interpretation of a novel. Cyber Rights author Mike Godwin has said that the Internet is “best understood…as a global collection of copying machines that allows people to duplicate and broadcast all sorts of information.” As cheap, movable printing presses did, such a technology empowers individuals precisely by undercutting centralized authorities of all kinds.
While such tendencies are most clearly visible when looking at the Internet, the same forces are at work in other areas of cultural proliferation. If, for instance, you don’t like what’s on TV, you can change channels (there are, of course, many more of those than before). If you find nothing of interest, you can rent a video. If you’re still dissatisfied, you can splice together found footage, perhaps dubbing your own sound. If that doesn’t work for you, then you can grab a camera and make your own program. While relatively few people follow such a progression all the way through, the number of options and escapes—and the sense they are worth pursuing—has certainly grown during the past few decades.
In fact, because the culture boom gluts people with choices and opportunities both to make and to consume, it pushes them toward active behavior. Simply to filter out noise from their cultural systems, they must become active agents. As the range of materials to choose from increases, even passive receivers must actively construct the cultural world around them.
Fueling the explosion
In a pair of articles last year, Reason Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund recalled a time in European history when culture was largely the preserve of aristocrats and the leisure class. (See “Who Killed Culture?,” March 1998, and “Buying Into Culture,” June 1998, both available at www.reason.com.) Understanding that background helps to explain why the culture boom is happening now—and why it will likely continue for a long time to come. Relatively speaking, we’re all aristocrats now.
The culture boom is in large part a function of general increases in wealth and related benefits, especially education and increased leisure time. While wealth, education, and leisure do not necessarily create a flourishing culture, they are almost certainly preconditions for a cultural proliferation. If nothing else, National Endowment for the Arts data show that increased wealth and education correlate strongly with increased interest in traditionally defined cultural activity (see chart 6).
Americans have in fact been getting substantially richer. Between 1953 and 1993, say W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm in Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We’re Better Off Than We Think (1999), inflation-adjusted per capita personal income—a comprehensive measure that includes wages and other compensation such as health insurance and retirement plans—rose by about 1.85 percent annually. The boost in income has been very broad-based and cuts across all economic strata.
For instance, an ongoing University of Michigan longitudinal study of several thousand representative individuals found that between 1975 and 1991, people starting in the lowest income bracket on average gained about $28,000 in real income. Such widespread class mobility helps to explain shifting and divergent tastes. Cox and Alm have also documented the ways in which the increase in income has been greatly magnified by a decrease in the real cost of many consumer goods. Calculating goods in terms of the hours an average industrial laborer would need to work to buy a given product, Cox and Alm find, for instance, that the work time required to purchase a movie ticket is only two-thirds of what it was in 1970; that VCRs today cost only 9 percent of what they did 20 years ago; and that camcorders cost only 28 percent of what they did 10 years ago.
Generally rising wealth has been matched by large-scale increases in education and leisure time. In 1970, for instance, only 52 percent of the population over 25 years of age had a high school diploma and only 11 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or more. By 1995, those totals looked very different: 82 percent had graduated high school and 23 percent had graduated college. Like wealth, more education correlates with more interest in both producing and consuming culture. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, for instance, a college graduate is twice as likely as a high school graduate to read literature and three times as likely to attend a jazz concert or visit an art museum. Similarly, college graduates are four times as likely as high school graduates to play classical music, three times as likely to do creative writing, and twice as likely to take art photos.
Twenty-five years ago, Americans spent roughly 64 percent of what’s called “waking hours” at “leisure”—that is, not working for pay or doing chores at home. By 1990, that figure had climbed to 70 percent. Although the portrait of “overworked Americans” painted by researchers such as Juliet Schor has been widely embraced by the media, it relies heavily on impressionistic methods such as polls and recollections. In Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time (1997), John P. Robinson of the University of Maryland and Geoffrey Godbey of Penn State convincingly counter such claims through the use of detailed time diaries. They’ve found that Americans average about 40 hours of free time per week, a total that represents a gain of about an hour of leisure per day since 1965.
While wealth and related increases in education and leisure are doubtless central to the culture boom, we should not scant the contribution of technology, which economic historian Joel Mokyr dubbed the “lever of riches” in a 1990 book of that title. If Mokyr is correct that “technological creativity” has been one of the “key ingredient[s] of economic growth,” it has similarly been a major factor in cultural proliferation. There are obvious examples of this, such as printing processes that have not only enabled books and literature to flourish but have also allowed sheet music and reproductions of artwork to find huge audiences. There are not-so-obvious examples as well, such as how relatively inexpensive musical instruments allowed rock music to develop among lower-class youths and how low-cost stereo equipment essentially made rap music possible: Both are forms that gave voice to people shut out from dominant modes of expression.