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Indeed, in a cultural context, the most important effect of cheap technology is that it fundamentally reconfigures what Marxists would term an individual’s relationship to the means of production. In a world of ubiquitous video and audio cassette recorders—and a world in which personal computer ownership grew by more than 50 percent during the past four years alone—we are well on our way to a society in which everyone, regardless of class, owns multiple means of cultural production.
Though today’s culture boom is brimming over with unparalleled opportunities, it’s hardly unprecedented. The situation is in some ways reminiscent of 17th-century Britain, where the Church of England lost its theological monopoly partly because of rising literacy rates and new printing techniques that allowed more voices to enter into religious debate. England was flooded both with competing translations of the Bible and with tracts written by dissenters arguing about everything from atheism to—even more scandalous—a return to Catholicism.
Religious practice, like cultural activity, is a mix of private belief and public display; both are ways in which individuals explore what they hold true and announce who they are; both often involve intensely held values and evangelical activity that causes conflict with nonbelievers. In England, the breakdown of a central religious authority led to a flourishing of different, competing sects that duked it out in the marketplace of ideas for adherents and status. That struggle had a happy ending: By the end of the 17th century, freedom of “conscience”—that is, of religion—had been recognized as a fundamental right of the individual. That didn’t mean, of course, that people believed all faiths to be equally valid or equally worthwhile, or that theological arguments no longer mattered. If anything, official recognition of a right of conscience enriched religious life by allowing people to argue their points more openly and to give fuller public voice to their individual and affiliative identities.
In our own time, the culture boom is similarly deregulating cultural markets by making it easier for people to walk away from offerings they find uninteresting, irrelevant, or objectionable. As James Buchanan has argued, when such an option is introduced in the political sphere, power devolves toward “competing units” of governance, right down to the individual. “Potential mobility among competing political units,” says Buchanan, “may offer protection against…exploitation in any of several dimensions, including attempts to impose community values. The potential for exit allows at least some matching of personal loyalties and politically promoted common values.”
Transposed into the cultural sphere, this suggests at least a couple of things. First, the potential for exit—to go elsewhere—heavily conditions the terms of exchange between producers and consumers; in effect, it forces the producer to provide better terms for the consumer and hence disperses power throughout a system. One reflection of this is the relatively recent and increasingly widespread practice of discounting books. Another is the way that producers must adapt to survive changing tastes. Consider a culture industry giant such as Disney, which rebounded from near-bankruptcy in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Disney had to start once again making films that audiences actually wanted to see (out with The Black Hole and Tron; in with The Little Mermaid and The Lion King). But it has also flourished by expanding the range of material it is willing to finance. Hence, through its subsidiary Miramax, it has seen fit to help produce and release such quintessentially non-Disney films as Priest, Kids, and Pulp Fiction.
Second, and more important, an increase in the possible sites for cultural production and consumption does allow people to go elsewhere. The effective breakdown of the state church in England did not cause the differences among sects, some of which were so deeply held that dissenters shipped out to the New World. Rather, it created a society in which differences could be given voice and debated. Today, it has become increasingly easy for individuals to “make” their own culture, either through actual production or increasingly differentiated patterns of consumption.
The upshot of such a situation is that it is and will continue to be increasingly difficult to enforce any single standard of cultural value or practice, whether the enforcer is a government seeking to regulate material its deems indecent, a corporation trying to protect its franchise, or a group of artists or critics interested in cornering the market with its own aesthetic ideology. In this sense, the increased contests for power, prominence, and prestige that are often lamented in discussions of the “culture wars” are simply signs that all is as it should be in a free society. Indeed, more-serious problems will only be beginning if, as some participants in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education symposium suggested, those wars are in fact over.
Nick Gillespie (email@example.com) is a Reason senior editor.