The Economy of Mediocrity

One of my recent posts was about the costs of writing for free. Tim Kreider has written a great editorial on the same topic for the New York Times. Kreider correctly states that, like it or not, money is “how our culture defines value.” (“Our culture” refers to the USA — perhaps your culture is different, but I doubt it.)

TurntableKreider points out that the Internet has led to an economy in which the marginal cost of consuming works of art, literature, music, or any other cultural content — such as knowledge — has in many cases sunk to zero. Profit is a near impossibility for anyone whose work “is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.” Don’t want to pay $1.99 for the new Eminem single? Copy the audio off of the YouTube video. Or just download a bootleg of the whole video to your phone. Or find some obscure but talented young musician who is willing to give her work away for free, in the hope that she’ll get enough exposure to eventually be able to earn an income doing what she enjoys doing.

How does this relate to me, an academic, you ask?

I’ve been trained in some very specialized skills, but the product that is often generated by those skills is now available to the unwashed masses via the Internet. The quality may not be as good as what I can provide (at least one hopes this is the case), but the vastly greater quantity, instant accessibility, and zero cost more than make up for lesser quality in the minds of most consumers. Only a very very few of the people who listen to music insist on doing it with vinyl records played on a Caliburn Continuum turntable.

If the folks who are really talented at creating content don’t earn what they think they should be paid, they decrease the quality of what they create or they simply don’t bother creating it in the first place. They leave teaching, writing, composing, or performing, and go into some other line of work, like plumbing (many of us already wish we earned as much as our plumbers do). The artistic world then becomes a morass of meaningless and utterly boring vlogs. In more jargon-laden terms, the incentives of the new economy lead to an equilibrium of mediocrity.

I see no solution to this problem for the vast majority of people employed in academia.