Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Rachel Ingall’s Mrs Caliban

In 1982 The British Book marketing Council unveiled a list of what it anointed the Best American Novels Since WW2. The list contained a stunner no one expected and all but a handful of people had read: Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls. I immediately bought it read it out of curiosity more than anything else. What a book! A miniature masterpiece, totally unforgettable. A suburban housewife has an affair with a sea monster which has  escaped from the abusive regime of an aquarium. Over the years this magical book has not acquired the readership it deserves and its author apparently reticent. Faber published collections of her novellas but they never seemed to garner reviews or sales. I am reminded of this great book today because the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion, has been awarded to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, about a housewife who has an affair with a sea monster….

Brief Thoughts on North Korea

I don’t like Donald Trump, in fact I loathe him but who among us would like to face his choices. Trump inherited situation that Obama tired to wish away with balm of rhetoric and oratory, his solution for everything. In trump Kim has found the perfect actor who will rise to every threat, jibe. Trump will never deny himself a juicy slither of bait. Trump marches towards the trap door, bluster intact.

This may well e an oversimplification but to spare the US from any further advancements in His nuclear capability the Us will strike NK before they have an ICBM with San Diego’s name on it. NK will counter strike but their capacity will probably be restricted to barbecuing Seoul and Tokyo. That’s probably not what the South Koreans and Japanese thought they were singing up for as America’s allies , and it’s certainly a new take on the America First policy. Reagan notoriously spoke about a ‘limited nuclear war in Europe’ but over and above the fatalities and environmental implications a limited war in the environs of Korean peninsula would gravely impact on China and Russia. Even if they were restrained, it’s hard to see how the US would sustain it’s world leadership role.

At this stage NK may not be able to strike the US mainland but appears to have the means and could quickly muster the inclination to strike other US allies, notably Australia, possibly even Doha the location of the Middle East Central Command. Northern Europe is closer than California. As for involving China and Russia… alien life forms can investigate cataclysmic explosions in a distant galaxy.

Brief Thoughts on Hurricane Harvey

The destruction from Hurricane Harvey and its financial aftermath may allow the Western public, not just Houstonians, Texans, Americans, to grasp something vitally important and profound: rather than the trite gospel that climate change will create havoc in developing nations, the truth is climate change will create most poverty in developed countries. People living in shacks without public utilities will be imperilled yes, but they will, as they always have, move on and rebuild their shanties, adjust and cope as their governments, or lack thereof, neglect them. We, mollycoddled as we are, will, be baffled and bewildered as we, individuals and families, are bankrupted, simultaneously with our governments. People living in shacks are not mortgaged to the eyeballs, or insured. When thy lose their shacks, they lose everything. When Westerners lose they will set off chain of defaults. The scale of the financial calamity will be beyond comprehension and calculation.

The combination of topography and climate will simply doom certain cities. Places like Houston and Miami are not suitable to be metropolitan settlements of five million or more. Even as small cities they would still be humanitarian and economic liabilities. Miami could, just could, at this stage be the final port of call of Hurricane Irma. Miami acknowledges but has barely addressed the rising tides which flood the city so increasingly, so-called ‘sunny day flooding’. Alas, it going to take massive social upheaval in the West before politicians are forced to address the issues, which I won’t go into here.

Twilight of the Middle-Class

Every so often, and with increasing regularity, the progress or plight of the American middle-class is cited as either proof of economy recovery or stagnation. That group so indispensable to political rhetoric and for so long the key indicator of recovery and the ever-shining beacon of progress are indeed suffering, but not necessarily unduly. As the American economy allegedly stutters into life after six years of state scaffolding, financial methadone and endless government-sanctioned steroids, it is indisputably apparent that Western politicians, not just American, either dare not acknowledge or simply don’t comprehend that the world is on the verge of the biggest shift in power since the fall of Rome, possibly the greatest realignment in known history. Bearing the brunt of that change will be the Western middle-classes, of all nationalities.

The halt of the onward march of the American middle-class plight will easily spread to Europe partly because the jobs of the recovery are lower-paid jobs but more significantly the cause of so many of the West’s problems have their roots in middle-class employment. Employers once thought of as indispensable to high-value employment are implicated in so many misdeeds that they have become liabilities to our economic system. White collar chicanery rather than blue-collar militancy has brought the West to its knees. Illegal immigrants on minimum wage stealing American and European jobs are conspicuously absent from the banking and accountancy scandals.
Education, medicine and law have been among the most durable middle-class employers, but these sectors are not propelling the US economy- they are burdens. Doctored medical results and suspect medications implicate middle-class occupations once held in the highest esteem. Litigation and health costs are obvious impediments to US progress, but education is a problem too, particularly the cost of education and the expectations of degree holders. In Europe social health care and education have become the most stable and dependable middle-class employers, arguably the last remaining ‘jobs for life’ with the powerless taxpayer picking up the bill. The West is stuck in a rut yet our colleges and universities are turning out armies of graduates with skills that cannot ignite a recovery! The majority of people, predominantly middle-class, with degrees and doctorates are not inventing the substantial things an economy needs for its employment pool, and certainly not at the level needed to sustain Western wage expectations. The higher-education system produces people who are overwhelmingly dependent on existing innovation, ideas and businesses to provide them with the salaries and lifestyle they believe they deserve. Employers want degrees, yes, but do the tasks need them? It is time to challenge the middle-class template to success. Useless degrees and fancy job titles do not an economy make. Education is a middle-class sector directly and indirectly subsidized by the taxpayer, with diminishing returns for the taxpayer.
The creative sector is another important branch of the middle-class, relied upon to bring disproportionate economic value and cultural advantages. Alas the majority of the people involved in these industries are not creative. A relatively small number of people in the creative sector are responsible for producing financially potent intellectual property, the majority of creative jobs are as rudimentary as in any other part of the economy. Indeed every branch of the arts has its ever-expanding civil service of agents, lawyers, managers, administrators, curators et al earning a very good living often taxpayer funded or taxpayer subsidized through various tax incentives and breaks. Despite the millions of dollars circulating in the entertainment industry, tax credits are being offered to lure productions. Hollywood has spent years promoting itself as one of America’s last export success stories yet it needs subsidies! Inadvertently, this illuminates another unpalatable part of the contemporary economy. With a globalized employment pool, large and prominent companies are no longer lured to certain locations by the promise of a sophisticated or skilled workforce. Networked collaboration will nullify the advantage of concentrating production in ‘prime cities’ and ‘skill corridors’. Chinese and Indian companies can access the same technology without being encumbered by heritage or legacy obligations. The tax and incentive bait is a disguised admission that Western expertise is not enough.
The nature of contemporary innovation means the trickle-down effect is shorter in duration and lesser in impact as globalization allows a colossal pool of untapped foreign talent, inevitably on lower wages, to compete with the Western employment pool. Just as those at the bottom of the ladder have been first to bear the brunt of change now the middle-classes will face competition in technology, engineering and medical research and so on from the most gifted of the developing economies. We are getting the first indication of their skill in the unfortunate form of computer hacking. It is inevitable, too, that in military drone capability the US will be quickly matched. Technology is an equalizing force that will wither and diminish Western advantages. In a world of rapid change and automation the ‘knowledge economy’ is an illusion of frothy buzz words.
To respond Western economies must improve their agility- all unproductive obstacles must be removed. This will mean the swelling ranks of managers (mostly middle-class) will have to be culled. The distance from executive decision to production must be dramatically curtailed. Westerners will have to compete on price, not prestige or experience. Politicians like to bleat that the developing world should and will import our highest value goods, thus securing high-paying employment for us. The recent announcements that Cadillac and Land Rover will build factories in China lets us see that our competitors will not import our goods, merely the jobs and production process. The middle-classes are particularly vulnerable to the second wave of globalization and outsourcing as greater savings can be made, obviously, from higher salaries. What can we in the West do that they in the developing world cannot do for less? The implications for pensions, welfare and asset values are so profound they will make the last six years look like a long vacation in Disneyland. For American voters and politicians the prospects of globalization are becoming increasingly alarming. But is this simply because the cherished idea of American exceptionalism has led many to see capitalism as a Washington owned-and-managed department store?

The Oscar Race Begins Today!

Today the National Board of Review will fire the starting gun of the most high profile, and longest, derby in popular culture – the Hollywood awards season. Originally founded to protect morals from the hazards of the cinema it has evolved to become the oldest award-conferring body of film historians and archivists rather than reviewers, though it can be vague about its membership. The NBR and the principal reviewers groups, the New York Film Critics Circle, the
Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics , don’t dictate the Oscar race but they can, and often do, shape the pool of contenders. Winning an award from the NY or LA critics helps with credibility but a televised Golden Globe win can refuel a bandwagon. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Globes are obviously more studio friendly than the critics so despite the industry’s misgivings they have cuddled up to group once dismissed as “100 stringers subsisting on hors d’oeuvres”. At the time of year everyone in Hollywood is munching on canapés. Anyone wanting to win an Oscar has to campaign as shamelessly as any politician. The trade papers and websites will be drowning in For Your Consideration ads reading In All Categories or a specific like Best Actor. To win you have to be visible. And needy. That means attending screenings, already in full swing, with industry Q&A sessions afterwards. Some are mounted by the studios for guest other are arranged by, say Variety or TheWrap (where I blog). It’s a perfectly manicured and orchestrated festival of grovelling where the suppliants have to convince voters how grateful they’ll be on the podium at the Kodak theatre. If babies are brought to screenings they will be kissed. DVD screeners are sent the homes of every Academy member and many to the guilds (writers, directors etc) since each branch of the academy selects the nominees in it own speciality with everyone picking the best film nominees. Once the nominees are selected everyone votes in every category. So if an actor secures a nomination he has to woo all the other trades too. If the costume designers think you’re a nightmare on set a few vital votes may disappear.

The NBR announcement will determine who will gain atrrction. Little over a week later, on the 12th, the LA critics will convene to make their annual pronouncement; the following day the New Yorkers will declare. The NY group has been conferring prizes since 1935, the LA group only since 1975. Citizen Kane was selected as the best film of 1941 by both NBR and the New Yorkers when the Oscar, infamously, was awarded to How Green Was My Valley.

The NBR can be slightly schizophrenic. Some years its choices are lame and in other years it recognises little films and scantily-seen performances. Its selection of Gods and Monsters as the best film of 1998 torpedoed the Saving Private Ryan juggernaut, allowing Shakespeare in Love to snatch the Oscar from Spielberg. A few years go the Diane Keaton’s good but largely unheralded work in Something’s Gotta Give it was the NBR who set Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball on the Oscar trail rather than the critics, who ignored her. But the NBR has been kind to British talent over they years and there is a very good chance they will launch the three month march to Oscar glory for this year’s biggest British hope, Colin Firth as the stuttering George VI in The King’s Speech. Actually the film itself is expected to secure a best picture nomination but could very well take the top Oscar prize. He also has acclaim and a nomination under his belt from last year for A Single Man and wider recognition from Bridget Jones’s Diary, a commercial success. The Oscar is Firth’s to lose, that is the generally Industry feeling at the moment.

Firth has an edge over, alphabetically, Jeff Bridges in the remake of True Grit (he won last year and is filling John Wayne’s shoes under the direction of the Coens so his chances are should get a nomination), Robert Duvall in Get Low (hasn’t won since 1983, an immensely respected actor but not necessarily one who can count on sentimentality to get him to the winning post), Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (possibly too young to win but virtually assured a nomination), James Franco, just announced as co-host of the Oscars, in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the film about the hiker who amputated his own arm (possibly too gory for older voters though Franco still has a very good chance of being nominated but with his dabbling in ‘literary’ fiction and Gucci ads his career does look very overmanaged public persona without little success). The other younger actor looking for a berth is Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. Gosling is widely regarded as one of the more serious younger actors and genuinely doesn’t seem to court fame or publicity, as yet anyway. Blue Valentine, though, has been slapped with a NC-17 rating, box-office death in the America. Two other actors are in the leading pack: Mark Wahlberg for The Fighter and Paul Giamatti for Barney’s Version. The latter, I think has the best chance. He was nominated for Sideways but ignored for American Splendor [sic] and his TV work in John Adams won awards too, so plenty of industry respect there. Ben Affleck has had the surprise hit of the year with The Town. The depth of Affleck’s talent may be debated but he conducts himself with dignity, doubtless having learned a lesson in the Benifer years, and seems to be maturing into a modest filmmaker who has seen the perils of hysterical fame. The Town will probably claim a slot in the best picture list but Affleck could be individually cited if not in acting then adapted screenplay, but not in directing. But best actor race could be swayed by Michael Douglas’ health. Wall Street 2 was a disappointment, commercially and artistically, but his work in Solitary Man could stir the sympathy vote since the business would like the opportunity to acknowledge him. After Douglas there’s Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole, Paul Rudd in How Do You Know, and Kevin Spacey in Casino Jack.

Most years the actress categories are paltry. This year it is the hottest race of the season. Both the best and supporting fields have battalions of contenders, and it could get very complicated.

There are a few front-runners but complications arise because three of them could be demoted to supporting actress, namely Annette Bening and Julianne Moore from The Kids Are All Right and Lesley Manville from Another Year. The other favourites are Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole. Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone I don’t think can be nominated in a ayer like this, and the critics have become wary of unfamiliar talents wooing them with what turns out to be their default performance. Her best hope is the lesser newcomer citations awarded by the NBR and LA critics.

Bening has been the favourite for a few months but some see her work as a performance with some stunning scenes but ultimately secondary to Julianne Moore. I find Moore’s performances rather clinical and contrived and I doubt there enough love or respect for her to win in tough year. In past years the NBR has given a joint award to Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro in Awakenings and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise, so it is not inconceivable that Bening and Moore will share the prize on Thursday. What complicates these matters is that the studios or distributors usually agree with the performer what category to bid for. Sony may run a campaign for Benning as principal in Mother & Child. A few years ago Kate Winslet was being pushed for best in Revolutionary Road in best and supporting in The Reader. Road was ignored and Reader nabbed her the best actress gong. The 1200 actors in the branch decide who is best and who is supporting. Manville is a tricky case. If she is nominated in best is she is unlikely to win but if supporting is crowded by Bening and Moore, she could be shut out there too. Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech has a very, very strong chance in this category, particularly after the financial success of Alice in Wonderland, an excuse for an award in this town. If she were competing against Manville the British vote would be split. Two other Americans are the supporting contenders: Melissa Leo in The Fighter and Dianne Weist, who has won twice, in Rabbit Hole. Leo is immensely respected, with a best nomination for Frozen River a couple years ago bur her work in Fighter is gaudy and is more likely to win at the Golden Globes, without critical support her Oscar chances could slip in a packed year.

The rest of the best actress field is astonishingly rich. A nomination for Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine could amends for ignoring Wendy & Lucy, in which she was sensational. Of the remaining Americans Reese Witherspoon in How Do You Know (uncertain prospects for this James Brooks film), Halle Berry in Frankie & Alice (producing her pet project – will appeal to the actors branch), Diane Lane in Secretariat, (a dark horse in a equine movie), Gwyneth Paltrow in Country Strong (first big performance in some years), Hilary Swank in Conviction (slight chance).

With Firth, Bonham Carter and Manville so strong there won’t be room for many more brits. Helen Mirren’s gender reversal Prospero in The Tempest isn’t exactly creating buzz. Made In Dagenham has been well received and widely reviewed but unlikely that Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson will make the nominations. Rachel Weisz was singled out for praise in Agora but she needs wins from the critics to be considered. The Ghost Writer and Never Let Me Go have been major flops so British hopes there are over. Same for Fair Game, the film of the outing of CIA Valerie Plame with Naomi Watts.

The foreign language prospects won’t fare well in such a competitive year. Isabelle Huppert has received raves for White Material but has just opened in LA and NY. Tilda Swinton’s work in I am Love is Russian-accented Italian; Noomi Rapace in Stig Larson’s trilogy would normally be a major threat but I think the business will be disinclined to acknowledge work being remade in English. The Korean actress Kim Hye-ja received amazing notices for her work in Mother but that was released back in March. She will need critical momentum but could surprise as a compromise winner in the critic ballots in an amazing year.

The main award dates, of very many.
Los Angeles Film Critics Association 12/12
New York Film Critics Circle 13/12
Golden Globe nominations 14/12
Screen Actors Guild nominations 16/12
Oscar nominations 25/1
SAG Awards 30/1
Independent Spirit Awards 26/2
Oscars 27/2

Main National Board of Review Predictions:

Best film: The King’s Speech or The Social Network
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Annette Bening & Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right or Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech or Jim Broadbent, Another Year
Best Supporting Actress: Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech or Lesley Manville, Another Year

WHAT IS GOOGLE? A PLAGUE ON THE GLOBAL ECONOMY?

Though search engines are new, their most obvious old media comparison is the encyclopaedia. Encyclopaedia publishers gathered and verified information which was sold as a book(s) or belatedly as a CD ROM and they received money for their work. Google’s business model is rather different, though Google has successfully masked its impact by constantly telling us that it is a benevolent company and will maintain its saintly status as it matures.

Regardless of Google’s intent and/or diversification, everything about Google returns to its search engine and how it has turned the traditional encyclopaedia model on its head. On Planet Google we toil writing the content, we toil building the websites and when Google recognises humble little us near the top of a results screen we are grateful! You have to hand it to these guys who would have thought a ‘cool’, ‘liberal’, ‘good’ company would be relying on slave labour!

From about the time Google emerged as the de facto search engine, thereby ending the ‘portal’ concept which initially guided the user through the Internet experience as it went mass market, the company has made quite a song and dance about being a force for good. Yet Google’s epitaph will be quite the opposite.

Most commentators, cultural, social and financial, would agree that apart from the search, most Google products have either failed or been disappointing. Google’s radio ad programme has just been canned. Google newspaper ads was a non-event. Gmail is a clumsy mess. Google Docs hasn’t set the world alight. Google Earth is a fantastic plaything. Only Google’s search facility remains unchallenged and that makes me suspect that the majority of Google’s toys are a PR exercise to deflect criticism.

While claiming to be a force for good, Google has engaged in practices which are cunning. Making money from the trademarks of others while pre-emptively claiming it is legal strikes me as rampant greed, and a blatant breach of that much cited modern clause, the fair use policy. Google behaves like the well-armed hoodlum at the gold mine. The scanning of Gmail to find an opportunity to flog something reeks of utter vulgarity. Google wants to invest in green energy while its founders ponce around in their Boeing 767, a twin-aisle civilian airliner. These jokers make private jets look subtle!

But what makes Google’s prominence so inappropriate is the simple fact that Google search isn’t a complete product in the industrial or consumer sense. We do all the work. Google outsources the content to us. Google produces a screen, which they exploit monetarily, based on our efforts. Google isn’t a product – there is no Google mass market product, our efforts and products are piggy-backed by Google to make money. Google has outsourced creativity to others for it to financially exploit. Google profits from the efforts of everyone else. Google is not a product that has inspired other products or improved productivity.

Google, sooner rather than later, will come to be regarded as one of the most destructive companies ever, and pilloried as such. While capitalism and the free market have always been subjected to enormous changes the Internet has brought changes which are only now being felt. Unfortunately these types of upheavals are of the historical kind- that is there is no one alive who has lived through such previous disruptions so the likelihood of politicians or governments knowing what to do is minuscule. Destructive creativity is an indispensable part of capitalism, but Google is not creating anything. Google is efficiently destructive without bringing any commercial advantages. (If anyone thinks the ad words programme is a financially dynamic replacement for the value Google has destroyed then they are certifiable.) Google is a parasite, a locust.

Therein lies an important lesson for Western economies which has been either ignored or overlooked, and may come as a shock to most of our politicians. The ‘knowledge economy’ doesn’t exist. There is no opportunity for Western economies to deliver high value goods. I’m certainly not a fan of Warren Buffet but he correctly recognised as the first round of the Internet gold rush was underway more than a decade ago that the Internet would destroy value, and in the vast majority of cases it does.

At any public appearance of a software or Internet ‘billionaire’ you will find politicians dancing around like frisky labradors. They seize the opportunity to proclaim that this individual is the face of our prosperous future. Without fail it is a scene repeated in any Western city. The knowledge economy is the path to riches. Except it isn’t. The knowledge economy is an express route to poverty.

The West could only have a knowledge economy if everyone in the developing world was daft, and we all know that is certainly not the case. They are resourceful and industrious, and in many ways put us to shame. When it comes to employment, software and computing invoke of the law of diminishing returns. Each generation of software has to eliminate tasks and become more usable otherwise it wouldn’t sell. The workforce doesn’t grow in knowledge and accomplishment to master the software- the end user’s participation is always simplified. Making subsequent generations of software simpler is vital to the vendor’s market penetration. Every generation of software aims to make more of the coding invisible and almost always aims for greater simplicity and less skill. Only the computing requirements get greater. Software aims to make each task simpler until it can be traded down to a lower salary and skill level. The ‘killer app’ aims for ubiquity and instant comprehensibility. Once computing and software are indispensable to a role then that job can be outsourced to a cheaper country because, of course, the computers and software are there too.

Google and the Internet have been lauded for giving power to consumers. But once consumers have more power than they need they focus only on the best price rather than a fair price. Consumers have become the impetus  for outsourcing and off-shoring their own jobs as companies strive to remain competitive.

The case of YouTube is probably an example not of Google’s ingenuity but its stupidity and arrogance. Google should not have purchased the site, and surely knows it. YouTube is nothing without the pillaged content. TV ratings and revenue collapse as Google has the ‘best bits’ for more advertising opportunities. Occasionally, yes, there is some press piece about some civilian celebrity whose clip has been viewed so many million times but that individual is immediately replaced by the next sensation. In the case of YouTube, though, the sensation doesn’t produce any wealth or benefit. Considering how often YouTube clips and the like do rounds of the workplace, Google and YouTube are anti-productivity. They have a resolutely negative toll on the economy.  If anything the Google and the Internet accelerate dumbing down. Over and above the pointlessness of the content it is simply astounding that old media have not retaliated by forming RecordLabelTube or at least made some effort to reclaim their turf. As is so often the case these days, the people at the helm have neither ideas nor gumption.

Startling too is Google’s decision to digitise books, all books. Is this really to broaden the minds of netizens everywhere or to data mine for unlimited advertising connections? Why not digitise all the movies ever made and make them available? Why not send a memo to the Hollywood studios telling them that they will have to opt out, otherwise it’s consent assumed? Wouldn’t the movies been better digitised? And TV too? After all we use a screen to view movies and TV so everything on our laptops would make sense. Well we all know the answer: Because the massed ranks of the studios and the A-List would give Google a financial thumping, with possibly a jail term too for good measure. Writers and publishers are being bullied. Google has identified the local sap it can take for a ride. (It’s a glaring hypocrisy too that a company as wealthy as Google had to be sued over the issue of scanning books- what message does Google’s behaviour send to the average citizen about the legality and morality of downloading music and movies?)

In a recent speech to Congress by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he said, as have many before and many still to do, that the West must concentrate on producing and selling high values goods to developing countries. The logic is plain: our citizens need high paying jobs to pay their mortgages, massive debts and have enough money to maintain the living standards they are accustomed to or our politicians will find themselves caught up in chaos. Europe and America will not produce high value goods for China and India etc. India and China, with nearly three billion people between them, will have to produce these goods on their own. In fact, they will have to surpass the West. At present the combined population of India and China is about 5 times US and Europe, and growing faster. These are citizens who will, by a simple matter of the size and extent of their need, control the market and dominate pricing power. Are these people going to be content to produce disposable clothing and cheap electronics for us while they buy our jetliners? Of course, not. Usually discussed in tandem with ‘high value goods’ is the vague mantra that technology is going to liberate us from oil dependency, on occasion it is said it will also solve our environmental problems. Technology, apart from militarily sensitive and nuclear, is a genuinely free market. To sovereign states its advantages are equal or comparatively similar. High value goods will be produced wherever it can be done at a profit. The interests of shareholders and the returns sought by pension funds will make China more tempting than Michigan for some time yet. China and India need their own purveyors of ingenuity and bold global brands to build and sustain their societies.

The dirty secret of Globalisation is that it is about standardisation, equalisation. I have long been a believer in fair global trade standards but I also understood it would involve considerable difficulties and probably take several generations. But Western countries have, as their citizens will shortly come to comprehend, been betrayed by a cabal aiming to enrich themselves by any means. Until recently the global economy was like a see-saw, controlled by us, the West. They, the developing world, dangled in the air while we dictated global trade, tariffs and economic power. That has been traded for a DVD player in every room. For the US, that bastion of the Internet boom, things look particularly bad. Entertainment and aviation have been for several decades America’s great exports. The Internet’s toll on old media does not need any elaboration and of course Boeing has been dabbling in outsourcing, called ‘sharing the risk’, for its new jet, the 787-an aircraft so innovative that in a ‘knowledge economy’ it would be the sort of high value product that could only be home-grown.

It is doubly ironic that the vigorously pro-free market Right has basked in the largely imaginary benefits of Globalisation will now, as we say in Britain, try to close the gate after the horse has bolted, while the Left which derided Globalisation as Americanisation, will see that the mass transfer of the means of production to China and a few others has damaged America and Western capitalism in a way the USSR could never manage. China is often the subject of demonisation in America. But let no American be fooled by this hokum. If China embraced democracy tomorrow the US would be ousted as top dog the day after! The consequences for the dollar would make the current situation look like Disneyland. Indeed, possibly the gravest threat to a solution to the fiscal chaos is the Chinese government succumbing to domestic protests.

Google and the Internet will make this recession more severe. Various networking and business sites touting themselves as gateways to a new career will depress salaries already under pressure. Although the B2B bonanza hasn’t really happened the way it was originally envisaged- there’s a surprise! – it has enabled even the smallest businesses to access the ‘China price’. Now of course in boom times competition is vital to a robust and healthy economy. In bad times competition will cull the weak and expose the fat but in the current circumstances the Internet will be a driver of deflation. This is not really being considered by officials because of their relative tech ignorance. The developed and developing economies are caught at a point in the equation where neither side looks able to produce the spurt that will avoid stagnation. Globalisation’s natural course is to have the see-saw become a spirit level. And the only way that can happen is for our standard of living to drop and their standard of living to rise. Living standards will drop because salaries in the West will be forced down, as will house prices. The bulk exporting of the consumer manufacturing base can only be reversed when it is economic to make things in the West, although the adjustment for people who expect cheap consumer goods will almost certainly cause confusion and political opportunism. The Internet’s role in the global economy will be to further erode high paying jobs in the West. Most industries and manual workers have been subjected to decades of streamlining. The office is next. Animation is a perfect example of what would be a typical knowledge economy product in the eyes of a politician, yet it has been outsourced to an astonishing level.

We are pre-occupied with how the banks have been allowed to run riot unregulated. Soon, very soon, we will be questioning why the influence of Google, which is effectively an information monopoly, and the Internet has been allowed to run riot unregulated too. Most politicians have little or no grasp of the Internet and its implications. Much of what they know has come from the PR teams of tech companies and the wretched executives-as-salesmen who have convinced them there is a crock of gold at the end of the tech rainbow just waiting for their constituents to divide the spoils. Yes, the Internet is a vast and wonderful resource in the right hands but like opium controlled in hospitals as morphine and heroin on the street… The Internet has destroyed and devoured vast amounts of monetary value just as the West’s deindustrialisation has reached it zenith. Child pornographers have flourished like never before. The commercialisation and even sexualisation of childhood is now becoming the norm. Simple consumer goods to complex medical formulae are pirated and faked on scale we haven’t quite grasped. Suicide bombers have organised their activities and funding and then introduce themselves posthumously, and jeeringly, to a global audience. Militants have webcast the staging of the most brutal executions as entertainment, inspiration and recruitment drive. Copyright has been abused and plundered. Financial scams are rampant too, though the banks seem to keep the information close to their chests. The vulnerable are targeted. Not since the heyday of Western imperialism has there been such a prolonged robbery and free-for-all. (You could argue we deserve it.) Yet nobody is held to account.

Despite the Internet often being described as the Wild West politicians, intimidated by computers and geeks, have abdicated responsibility. Isn’t time to look again at the conduct of the IT industry at the turn of the millennium? Who can forget the sales-driven panic of the Y2K bug? Nuclear missiles were going to detonate themselves as 2000 dawned across the time zones. Our computers would crash in unison. Air traffic control would be helpless; anything with a chip – that is almost everything- would stubbornly defy our attempts to operate it. Bank tellers would be unable to give us our money as their computers mutinied; shops would be unable to sell us the most basic things, but of course the solution was simple: give the IT machine more money. Held to ransom we upgraded everything and some of us thought it was really just sensible to buy everything all over again. What an expensive anti-climax the millennium bug was!

Despite that episode of enforced monetary extravagance, policymakers are still spellbound by anything Internet/tech and show a rash willingness to genuflect unquestioningly in the presence of geeks.

The Internet needs regulation and the control of information must be removed from Google. Long before the Internet went mainstream we weren’t completely isolated, ignorant and information-deprived. The Dark Ages were several centuries behind us, have we forgotten? We need a civic information gateway, possibly state owned but autonomous or overseen by UNESCO, say- a stepping stone to what we need to know. Yes, there are issues of free speech and government surveillance, but there always has been!

When everyone realises there is no knowledge economy and we have exported all the factories because we knew the price of everything and the value of nothing we will feel nostalgic for simpler times when we used to get our hands dirty.

Publishers Are Dead- Long Live Books!

The first (obvious) tremors of the deepening economic crisis are being felt in the detached worlds of New York and London publishing, the principal centres of English language writing. What is dismaying is that these outfits – they can hardly be classed as businesses or cultural bodies – have not collapsed already. Publishers face extinction. That publishers have survived in this condition so long is partly because they are often staffed by a privileged and connected crowd, recruited from the lower divisions of the elite who are rigidly of the opinion that their skills, insights etc are indispensable and although the economics winds may bring a chilly breeze, Canute-like they defy the waves. Until now. Publishers whimper about the books they cannot afford to publish, but it is writers who cannot afford publishers.

Are books dead? Is the novel is dead? Now that publishers are in an advanced vegetative state, the novel is about to flourish. Although book publishing has largely escaped the brunt of the Internet’s commercial impact, publishers are the media tribe’s prime candidate for being eradicated by the internet because writing is, in most cases, solitary. Admittedly the finished product needs a few helping hands, but nothing insurmountable. The literary product is not encumbered with the travails of film and TV production. The solitariness of writers is their trump card, and is what will make publishing as we know it extinct. Those self-publishing writers who have been pitied and sneered at will soon be envied.

Publishers are making their plight worse by becoming even more timid when they have to be bold. Most publishers no longer want to read unsolicited manuscripts and discover new writers, they seem to have acquired a taste solely for writers fresh off university creative writing courses. Was Ibsen guided by a creative writing tutor? Was Doris Lessing? Was Marguerite Yourcenar? Was Patrick White? Was Phillip Roth? US publishers fell, en masse, for this lark at least since about 1980 (but sporadically prior to then) and the pattern is an initial hullabaloo and synchronised fanfare then disappointment and stints back at fiction factories, this time as foreman overseeing the assembly of new writers for ‘discovery’. (In London Faber, once one of the greatest houses of British publishing, is running its own creative writing courses- the Faber Academy, if you will!- for those foolish enough to think they can buy their way in. It’s common knowledge that Faber is ‘adjusting’ to the loss of royalties from Cats, but this is beyond cheap, a crank not befitting its history.)

I am constantly dismayed by the books publishers choose to publish and promote. Bloomsbury in London and its US subsidiary published Heston Blumenthal’s Big Fat Duck Cookbook last year at £125 in the UK and $250. Even though the production of the title was probably begun before the fiscal crisis gathered pace, the book is still amazing example of the gaudy superficiality dominating publishing. When I checked Amazon UK on Thursday it was 9117 in book sales and the US store had it at 22453. Even if all the sales took place around the Christmas, those rankings say a lot about the wisdom of such an endeavour. It would have made more sense investing in writers, and promoting a group of writers together rather than massaging the ego of a man who hasn’t realised we didn’t like Findus Boil-in-the-Bag first time round.UK Sales of the book are around 6000, considering the price and the economy it has to be admitted that is not awful. However the absurd size and gimmicky recipes render the whole project meaningless, stupid and detached; like most people I chuckled heartily when The Fat Duck was closed due to illness among its high-paying diners. The priority of publishing houses must be writers, not chefs. (Bloomsbury, which owes a great deal to the JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, has shamelessly brought forward a British writer’s vile account of parent-child strife to capitalise on the publicity- a repulsive irony.)

Some in publishing think the new electronic devices – ‘iPods for books’ is the tedious shorthand – will destroy books, while a few deluded publishers – is there any other? – think ‘ereaders’ will save them. I imagine a few see their imprints as the literary version of Apple’s iTunes Store, ignoring retailers and delivering books directly to the devices of delighted customers. The reader devices will destroy not save  publishers. The commercial base of the ‘next’ J K Rowling and the ‘next’ Stephen King etc and the future sales of those two current cash cows will be decimated. The small sales base of literary fiction will save books. Yes there will be a few shocks there too but this is where the genuine readers and book buyers are to be found- people who want, and will continue to want, the physical product to hold and place on a bedside table, a shelf.  Crossover literary titles, prize-winners and film tie-ins most likely, and the backlist of Nobel laureates will suffer as books are pirated and downloaded. It’s the mass market that will be destroyed as these Sony and Amazon devices are quickly be joined by cheaper ones, just as the MP3 market is awash with substitutes for the iPod. In fact books could be even more prone to piracy because many of the younger people, to whom these devices are principally aimed, are not generally book buyers; so if they are not loyal to music, film and video games, their main entertainment interests and focus of their spending power, what are the prospects for books? When one considers how books are already borrowed, photocopied and circulated in colleges, for example, will younger generations really want to buy a book when it could be downloaded and they could then spend their money on something else? Additionally literary reading for pleasure is something younger people simply don’t get.

So the current business model-  lots of chaff to enjoy the respectability and prestige of a ration of wheat for the award circuit,- will be fatally undermined.

Sony went into the film business and got tangled up in an endless Digital Rights Management mess which has effectively destroyed the Walkman brand. You will notice that Sony has belatedly understood the lessons of its venture into movies and is not dabbling in the publishing business to complement its eReader …so the more books that are pirated the more money Sony makes selling its device. And Amazon, too, which is more of an online department store than a cyber bookseller, has had a look at the tealeaves and decided the money, is to be had in peddling its Kindle devices for the cyber booty. Publishers, if you think Sony and Amazon are customising the life rafts, calamity awaits. Even if publishers decide not to participate in download offerings, the pirates will simply scan the books and circulate them freely, or sell at a nominal fee, as PDF files, word docs, (or any proprietary format that will soon be hacked) since Sony and Amazon have so thoughtfully introduced the platform.

The future for agents isn’t very rosy either- because writers will not be able to afford them. The role of the agent has become exaggerated because of the few headline-grabbing advances that secure the elixir of splashy headlines for the agent, the author and a free publicity campaign for the house.

So what will the publisher of the future look like? Self-publishing.

Writers must publish themselves- a simple co-operative where all those commercial overheads are pooled to keep them to an absolute minimum, unfortunately that includes advances. Authors publish when they are ready and their sales finance the book, preparing the manuscript for publication is in effect the advance. An obvious disadvantage with such a scheme is that for it to work established writers – usually the most conservative – have to launch it. So let’s presume a few ‘names’ get together and launch the first writer’s co-op. In essence it’s a virtual operation. Possibly a writer belonging to the co-op will have a spare room to house an employee, or admin could be outsourced. An example: a few established British writers combine resources and set up, say, Ealing Press. Ian McEwan, say, participates and publishes On Chesil Beach under the Ealing Press imprint. Distribution will almost certainly be by mail, that way the writers can maximise the financials by balancing royalties and cover price without have to be at the mercy of retailers and retaining what would have been the retailer’s margin to make the cost (and presentation) of a book attractive to genuine readers and acceptable enough to occasional buyers for them to forego a pirated copy. Warehousing and distribution can be outsourced and, ideally, the collectives use their literary colleagues in any territory they have earmarked for translation. If the books sold in sufficient numbers, the collectives could bring the business end of publishing together as a separate entity working for all the independent publishers.

McEwan thinks his novel would sell in France so he finances a translation, Sur la plage de Chesil and Ealing Press print it in French. They don’t publish it in France, as such. It’s all done from London but the book is printed where it is economically viable to do so and despatched by whatever means. If it’s printed in France, La Poste collect the books from the printers or the printers deliver it to the French equivalent of Ealing Press who post to French buyers just as Ealing Press (etc) could dispatch the English editions of French novels from French co-ops and so on, country by country. So the presentation is identical in every language, as each imprint builds its brand globally, a horrible expression but writers are not making an impression at the moment, neither intellectually nor in terms of the economic importance of publishing.

Even if this model works perfectly until the books are ready to be distributed, how do writers overcome the challenge of dwindling markets? IPTV- Internet Protocol television, more commonly called webcasting. Readers, not surprisingly, used to follow the TV book programmes where a new title was discussed with the author or a general overview programme about a writer’s life and themes, sometimes coinciding with a film adaptation or such like. The costs are, in comparison with TV, miniscule. HD cameras, editing suites, storage and hosting are astonishingly cheap. Graphics and anything fancy can be kept to a minimum. Again the writers can combine resources so that there is not any excessive expenditure on  equipment, form an umbrella group to spread costs while maintaining the house identity and simply upload interviews, readings etc for the public to enjoy. There is no squabbling over scheduling or prominence- the public simply download or stream what they want when they want it. It’s simple. Moreover when the internet is awash with garish nonsense it is the responsibility of genuinely creative and talented people to provide the material the discerning public feel is being neglected by TV.

And will self-publishing as the standard business model assure the future of the novel in physical form as a source of income for writers? Possibly not but readers of serious books, fiction and non-fiction, tend to be more thoughtful and conscientious, snooty but true. They have no difficulty understanding that if books are not bought and sold honestly and fairly then literature and the spread of knowledge will die. Once the written word is imperilled, everything will be eclipsed.

I READ THEREFORE I AM

Of all our artistic achievements literature is undoubtedly the most significant. From Homer and the Epic of Gilgamesh to more recent works, we have an unrivalled and unsurpassed testament to human creativity. In barely more than a human lifetime the West has gone from mass illiteracy to very high nominal levels of literacy, yet this privilege, very hard won in many cases, is taken for granted. Books are the foundation of understanding and development but they don’t enjoy the prominence they deserve. This is partly because they are, thankfully, a mass market product, but few other things are as durable, reliable and trustworthy as a book.
 

Books are losing their importance because we are living through a time of unsurpassed convenience, and books are, there’s no denying, a time-consuming proposal for a society sustained on fast food and something fleeting called ‘instant gratification’. We live in time where fewer and fewer of us need to invent, make or even think- we simply consume. But the range of conveniences we enjoy is undoubtedly stifling our mental dexterity. I’m certain the disgruntlement and disillusionment so many feel is due to the lack of any intellectual challenge. Although stress is a common complaint, it is often less about inability to endure anything demanding and more about being swamped by a wave of banal, illogical, meaningless and unrewarding tasks.
 

Books are an indispensable part of our collective intellectual evolution. Their benefits cannot be quantified in the numerical or ‘target-specific’ manner so often demanded by governments and institutions. And it may be unseemly to express it as such, but we need constant reminding that books are the most economically viable and accessible cultural experience. Books preserve and nurture language but more importantly they preserve and nurture so much more in the individual reader- one of the reasons of course totalitarian governments suppress books and writers. Conversely, easy availability and minimal censorship have made books and writers devalued in democratic states. The economics of one-upmanship have made works of visual art more prestigious and acclaimed simply through the allure of sole possession. The paintings of Vincent van Gogh are undoubtedly great and a wonderful experience to see but they are not necessarily any more remarkable than a cheap Dostoyevsky paperback, say. The comparison is crude but it is valid because the visual arts are disproportionately prominent for a couple of reasons. Firstly the possession of something exclusive, singular, is far more appealing to the rich who influence the media’s coverage of the arts but the audience, too, is happier with art that can be evaluated -rightly or wrongly- in glances of a few moments rather than through several hours of effort. The public respond very enthusiastically to a career retrospective of a painter that can be enjoyed in an afternoon visit to a museum rather than the prospect of reading the ‘complete works’. For many, possibly most, attending a visual retrospective has become ‘culture lite’- a digestible snippet demanding not too much concentration. The extensive coverage of auction prices gives the visual arts allure and a connection, however flimsy, to a world of celebrity rather than anything bookish and reserved. Often obscure novelists and books of minor significance are pilloried for pretension despite being available for the price of a Big Mac when vast sums, that could subsidy enormous publishing and literacy schemes, are spent on single works of visual art by artists of negligible talent and impact. The folly of paying millions for works of questionable significance is applauded and faithfully reported. At auctions the spectators frequently applaud the inflated prices- yet they experience nothing other than the verbalization of numbers. It’s a sight for Freud.
 

It is almost sensual to hold a book and thumb the pages, the type tumbling through the fingers like a waterfall and it is almost always extraordinary to begin a book, whether it is a completely imagined work, an unbiased or even prejudiced interpretation of history or expression of personal ideas, knowing that the insights of the author, possibly acquired through a lifetime of study, are being conveyed to us in a way that few skills can match. There is the old story of the young child who preferred the play on the radio rather than television because the pictures were better, books, as any reader can vouch, do that best of all.  Although I am unrelenting in my support of the Internet and computing, books have had us interacting, without any hullabaloo, at the most intense personal and intellectual level for centuries before the word was coined.  (We should remind ourselves that the new-fangled podcast is a perfect example of something old becoming new again. The wireless age is older than the computer age. )
 

I can think of no other pursuit which can engage us for hours of effortless concentration that may only be interrupted by, say, a ringing telephone. Books coax us into a dance where the author takes the lead. There is a ‘theory’- it surfaces every so often- that babies, even foetuses, will be more intelligent if exposed to classical music. Well, anything we find absorbing will always help us to fulfil our greatest potential. This is not a theory, it’s common sense. Reading being solitary, for all but very young children, can offer richer rewards than most endeavours and although it can demand more of the individual, it is not an ordeal- people who find it so are receiving bad advice or bad tuition.
 

Curiously as novels become increasingly irrelevant to the mass audience, fiction is inescapable. We are surrounded and bombarded by fiction in its most insidious forms. Our leaders, regardless of ideology, peddle more fiction than most of us will ever be able to read in a lifetime- fiction in the form of distorted accounts of present difficulties and sentimental projections of the future that could shame writers of even the soppiest romances. The faces of young girls, sometimes mere teenagers, are used to promote skin care regimes for menopausal women. Men are coaxed into believing that motorbikes, cars and various expensive gadgets are indispensable accessories in mating rituals. Newspapers and magazines attract advertisers by peddling the illusion that their readers are richer and more sophisticated than they are, and the readers are flattered enough to board this carousel of increasingly unsatisfying consumption. Most people who are indifferent to books are addicted to fiction.
 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, those who sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome gave eyewitness accounts of murder and gang rape. It has now been proved beyond any reasonable doubt that although there were disturbances, the events described on television were fictional. To be harsh, those accounts reflect the intellectual and moral deprivation of our age. When confronted with a camera and the opportunity to seize the limelight afforded by the moment, we are merciless. To be sympathetic, those accounts reflect our natural creativity and instinctive desire to be storytellers, to dispense an account of events coloured by our own hand regardless of the circumstances. Mobile telephony has shone a light on the inadequacy of speech but has also exposed a tendency in so many people to be just a bit too theatrical about their lives. Everywhere I hear people happy to discuss their most personal details. I notice a lack of inhibition regarding the discussion of financial prosperity – there is always, though, the suspicion that self-deception is at the heart of it. Every trip or purchase has to be trumped. We have acquired an astounding capacity for exaggeration and deception. On several occasions I have witnessed seemingly sane people use a mobile phone as a prop to mount a monologue. I think many, many people are now leading lives where there hopes and aspirations, however far-fetched, have become completely visible to the point that much of their daily existence is not dissimilar to what readers know as autobiographical fiction, real events and memories recalled and reshaped for greater effect. But is this a symptom of something far more serious?
 

More depressingly there is now a trend among young users of social networking websites to ‘grieve’ for strangers. Something that inevitably touches all of us and most of us find almost unendurable is now being sought by young people who want to experience a fictional grief and post ‘heartfelt’ condolences. This has the potential to be very poisonous. We now accept that gratuitous violence in cinema and videogames has made (some of) us increasingly immune to bloodshed. It is unavoidable that artificial grieving, especially if it is occurring in isolation and is a substitute for deeper personal troubles, will doubtless will lead to the participants being indifferent about death. And it is inevitable that there will be some kind of social network suicide or murder pact scandal. But this is not attracting the kind of objections it should. The hell of Iraq or Darfur doesn’t interest the grieving young enough to protest or write letters but online grief expressed in the memory of someone they didn’t know is yet another commodity of convenience in their comfortable lives, completely devoid of intellectual challenge.
 

The use such ‘social’ websites rather than face to face meetings is part of another worrying trend. Many young people are now so lacking in individuality that electronic props are indispensable. Since they don’t read their judgment and critical faculties are undeveloped. They don’t value each other by what they have to say – they’ve succumbed to a form of mass conformity where individualism is not about what is in the head but grotesque tattoos and piercing. There are constant messages about obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption but I think – granted the evidence is anecdotal – we are on the verge of a mental health epidemic. There is an argument that the former issues are the symptoms of the latter. Admittedly it’s easy to make a connection between mass cultural ignorance and ‘mindless’ violence, but surely there is one. I’m not suggesting that reading a novel can resolve the excesses of the self-absorbed but fiction does provide the intellectual impetus that many of us need. The fiction writer imagines situations in which the motives of human behaviour can examined, explored and manipulated to illustrate truths about our psychology which are as valid, if not more so, than anything that can be chronicled in non-fiction. But all books are more urgent than ever because we are surrounded by public figures- politicians, celebrities and industrialists- who are purposefully evasive and vague even in unchallenged statements. Books are needed to supply the context, treacherous or noble, and the minutiae of events. A magazine article running twenty pages will seem thorough and informative until a book of the same subject appears and it is four-hundred pages!
 

Declining book readership inevitably leads to greater inarticulacy. Again the evidence is anecdotal and questionable but people around 18-35 do seem to have absorbed the speech patterns of entertainment more readily and if they read books at all, they are for children. It is not intellectually, emotionally or physically healthy for adults and children to be sharing so much vocabulary and so many interests. Sometimes the generation gap is a very good thing! As parents become unable or unwillingly to discipline their children physically their verbal and expository skills become more important – and many parents do not have these skills because they have never read books other than compulsory coursework. Parenting is not wholly dependent on the creative communications skills that come with reading for pleasure but they do help- they help to comprehend and they help to recognise when advice is needed. And of course reading to children, explaining moral dilemmas, role-playing, is unbeatable on several levels not the least of which is communication between parents and children. The bedtime story is cheaper than gadgets and helps build the bond that can defuse tantrums and later problems. Rather than squandering time and money on assorted reports and schemes to address family breakdown why don’t governments just grasp that books are a long way to the answer?
 

As children are exposed to increasingly adult advertising and products, the path to maturity is becoming obscured. There is considerable public preoccupation about paedophilia in relation to the Internet but the dangers are nearer and unintentional, therefore more dangerous. Society is removing the barriers between adults and children in many ways, to the point that children can be, and are, more easily exploited by adults in numerous subtle ways. The greatest danger children face is having infantile parents and guardians, and sadly that is not something we can legislate against. There is never a shortage of parents describing themselves as their child’s best friend. What an absurd and alarming thing to say! Is what the school run is all about? A sneaky cigarette with the kids before class? Plotting pranks in the car? I’m not playing with you, I’m in Mum and Dad’s gang!
 

When you have parents lacking in intellectual curiosity and children relying on gadgets which supply answers before children have learned to ask questions the results will be catastrophic. For instance, a web-cam linking children in other countries is possibly the most dangerous convenience of the computing age. Children have to wonder and guess what is happening to relatives and friends far away. They have to be puzzled and intrigued before they are thrilled and disappointed. They need to imagine and manipulate what they think are the facts before they experience or see the reality. Just as the immune system becomes accustomed to and over-reliant on antibiotics the mind will not function creatively if it is not confronted with puzzles and obstacles. The speculation prompted by a few words on a telephone or photographs with Christmas cards is absolutely indispensable to a child’s development and it must occur before encountering factual reality. Too many solutions at an early age will be gravely damaging.
 

Culture’s place in contemporary society is more urgent than ever. We are disinclined to think of culture as a commodity but culture has always been at the forefront of what is now called globalization. When it was routine to buy, and expect to buy, things which were nationally grown and manufactured, books and plays were translated and stars of screen and stage were routinely international. Throughout history many of the things we now classify as artisanal were traded across continents. Culture is not a luxury, it has been indispensable since the earliest civilization
 

Many think books are taken for granted, but that is too optimistic. Ignorance is flaunted- conversations are littered with boasts of ignorance and incompetence where there should be curiosity. Teenagers and parents of teenagers loudly complain that there is ‘nothing to do’ when anyone with even a faintly active mind understands there are not enough years in a human lifetime to do what there is to do. Although I wouldn’t propose books as the cure for all of society’s ills there can no doubt that so many people could rid themselves of all the modern ailments – depression, esteem issues- if they took the opportunity to cultivate an inner life rather than commend themselves to an existence measured and valued so explicitly on the consumption of trends, fashion and gimmicks like life coaches, though it’s inevitable these things will always have a presence and influence. Who needs knowledge or application in the era of instant and unmerited celebrity? In many parts of the West it is now common for employers’ groups to complain about standards of literacy and numeracy. And of course the way adults gripe about their elected leaders within a few months of their accession implies a very clear and widespread inability to comprehend and investigate political issues. I think the alienation many feel is beyond the normal confines of voter apathy. The mechanics of trade and currency fluctuation are beyond the grasp of the average voter even though they will find the lives being disturbed by such events. This is where lack of curiosity is so destructive, so fatal- the impulse to investigate and comprehend is relatively rare. Many, if not most, voters are not disinterested in how they will be governed- they are simply bewildered by economics, foreign affairs and the legal system. Very few people actually live in a world of intriguing dinner parties sustained by dazzling conversation. Without books most adults receive little or no intellectual stimulation once they exit formal education.
 

I don’t think it would be wrong to say that publishers, particularly those basking in prestige and heritage, have, or had until recently, a social contract with readers. So many publishers are neglecting their duties by peddling chick lit, frat lit, conspiracy lit, blatant lie lit and even shamelessly plagiarized lit. It is more important than ever for readers to experience original and wonderful books. Like many enterprises, publishers have lost sight of their business, though for many it was something deeper than ledgers. The more visible publishers benefited from so much reader loyalty and co-operation from booksellers who promoted titles through genuine enthusiasm rather than bribes. Advertising and promotion beyond the book pages wasn’t especially prevalent. Readers largely read and supported their contemporaries in tandem with the classics. Today’s young adults are not reading their own writers as keenly as their parents did theirs and the parents can’t be expected to succumb to the latest twenty-something literary sensation who promises, the blurb may say, to shed light on the secrets of the human condition and redefine our place in the universe for his generation… Mass (such as it is) readership is, like popular music, a fairly recent phenomena and there doesn’t seem to be any certainty it will survive. 
 

Ideally celebrities give us guidance on political and ethical issues without us having to tire ourselves with research and investigation and all that tedious thinking that helps us form an opinion, that makes us alert human beings. We are no longer attuned to the preposterous language that is daily vocabulary of the media. A procession of regrettable celebrities appear with unchecked regularity describing the most mundane and banal people and events as ‘awesome’. We can count on the same crowd of well and freely-dressed celebrities telling the world that a gaggle of fashion designers are geniuses. I can’t be the only person thinking I’m watching scene from a screwball comedy. There is something subtly hilarious in an actress- it’s always a woman- saying Giorgio Armani is a genius for making her look presentable. If actresses intend to make pronouncements about genius they should stick to Ibsen. We are inclined to censor and stifle controversy yet give free rein and media pulpit to those peddling drivel. If we are going to have censorship then it is these people we need to silence. Yes, they are ridiculous but their influence is malignant. We are so accustomed to these so-called celebrities talking about finding themselves (when most of them should get permanently lost) that we have lost sight of the simple pleasures of reading or being absorbed by music.
 

Unfortunately books can instil illogical hostility. There is no reason for this. The language of dance may be spoken only by dancers and connoisseurs of dancing, the vocabulary of sculpture will remain a life-long mystery to most but literature is immediately accessible without study. The artist who uses words will always be the most accessible- collaborative arts like, say, cinema, are principally entertainments. It’s true that a deeper understanding of any subject covered by a book will need application but books use language, which whether spoken, written or expressed in a sign language is common to humanity. If a radical political novelists wins the Nobel Prize for Literature it disturbs the slumber of newspaper columnists, but the Nobel Prize for Economics has been awarded to many snake-oil salesmen who have destroyed the lives of millions with barely a raised eyebrow. As a society reads less it becomes less discerning and curious until its adults and children are dazzled by works of mediocrity. Books are usually not the culprits of pretension, that is reserved for the visual and performing arts. I’m sure there are people who purchase books of daunting content to carry around rather conspicuously in public, but that is a novelty with a short lifespan. Pretension and bad art are necessary. They present us with a reference point and the opportunity to express an opinion, incite debate, and even enrage. The mediocre pianist can make us aware of the gifts of the great pianist instantly. Bad architecture, since it is inescapable, presents us with a reference point and the opportunity to express an opinion and incite debate, but we need books and language to say so.
 

HOLLYWOOD IN (SEMI) CRISIS – A FEW SOLUTIONS

Hollywood’s collapse is, as of the summer of 2006, not imminent but it is facing certain economic challenges. A bit like Detroit, it has left innovation to the Europeans and Asians and opted to concentrate on the star-and-dollar-guzzling V12 land yacht movie. Imports are not the biggest problem facing Hollywood, rather it’s an issue totally out of its control – the rise of online shopping. On the face of it, it shouldn’t impact directly but unfortunately many multiplexes share the mall anchor role with department stores. Since in American life cinema and shopping is a favorable combination, it looks very much as though one will drag down the other. And of course online shopping consolidates the home as the principal leisure venue. Sooner rather than later a major retailer will announce it will be online only. No one should be surprised by that – look at the success of LL Bean before the Internet. A major newspaper, too, will be online only by subscription, no newsprint or distribution costs. Economics and environmentalism make this a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t the New York Times, say, drop New York and become a 24/7 global news brand with customizable local listings and advertising. When syndication is considered we’re almost there anyway. Sports franchises routinely drop cities and though they may not have the prestige of the New York Times (although its reputation is even more battered than that of Hollywood) they can certainly match its visibility.

The film industry will have to start conducting itself in a way that reflects creativity and independence rather than act like a massed school of whales committed to floundering on a deserted beach. Although there is much talk about giving consumers what they want, focus groups stifle creativity. The iPod is a great success because it surprised its audience- militant consumer activists and focus groups did not demand a hard drive successor to the CD walkman. Great products create their own market- they shift consumer tastes, they do not follow them. It’s often the case that the public has to have what becomes the norm imposed on its consciousness. Airbags are a good, if unlikely, example. Most automobiles are equipped with so many they could do double duty as a rubber dinghy. But that is not the public’s doing- car safety was such a low priority with consumers that in many territories governments even had to mandate the wearing of seat belts. Whereas drivers and passengers now demand very high standards of safety barely a generation ago many of them had few qualms about going through the windscreen. (And doubtless a generation from now we will be talking in similar terms about fuel economy.) The movies are about creativity, unexpected entertainment, captivating brilliance and surprise.That’s what audiences pay for. The industry must be less intimidated and bamboozled by the bloated legions of the technorati and the early adopters – if all these people have as much savoir as they think why don’t they ever realize all these endless gadgets and trends are bound for the garbage heap? For every technical expert and visionary you can safely count hundreds of followers with too many credit cards and too little sense. Hollywood should be about creativity and risk, not about conferring, not about test screening. It could be said there is lack of ability in the business side to recognize and nurture creative talent. If this continues Hollywood will be to filmmaking what Dell is to technological innovation, in other words not a lot. Hollywood must be a pioneer in the move to online business models. The solutions are open to debate and interpretation but here are a few suggestions:

• To start with, that classic cost cutter – cut out the middle man. The studios must completely abandon cinema distribution and all other retail outlets. Film festivals, established city favorites and new virtual thematic festivals, will become the defacto launch pad for most event and prestige movies. For audiences wishing to continue the cinema-going habit then those previously endangered species, the neighborhood and art house cinemas, will trump the multiplexes as the only economically feasible venue. IMAX will also feature were suitable. Similarly the studios should abandon television as a secondary distribution channel. Network TV has gone from a desirable, even prestigious, operation to a cesspit of reality drivel. The networks will become even more arid-  TV programming will be for the poorest and least sophisticated viewers. Upscale audiences will seek, find and pay for entertainment elsewhere. The TV set will become an object of absolute consumer-controlled convenience not a device at the mercy of TV Guide.

• The studios must launch a competitor to Amazon, a co-operative online DVD store – direct sell and rental – which allows access and membership status to all independent filmmakers. Just as small companies rent office and call center support, the smaller filmmakers pay their own overheads and handling costs. This online store will offer them global DVD distribution. This is an indispensable part of the strategy, it allows filmmakers to get full retail price rather than wholesale. Online commerce and DVD rental is everywhere – it can’t be that hard! Oh, and the selling price of these disks won’t be $29.98, no matter what Steven Soderbergh thinks. Although the industry may feel reluctant about such a model, it will not be long before direct online retailing is the unchallenged norm that will threaten even the might of Wal-Mart. Faced with mounting consumer interest in environmentalism why shouldn’t Heinz or Kellogg or Dove abandon stores and use the retail margin to go heavily or exclusively organic at an affordable price and then distribute directly to the customer rather than through markets? Postal services could easily deliver from a multi-company regional distribution center. Soon retailing will be only for perishables, your ketchup, cereal and soap will be delivered together to your door with your movies.

• Global DVD release means blanket availability. There was always a whiff of imperialsim about the old Hollywood release schedule of focusing on the US primarily and acknowledging the film audience colonies months later. The DVD-only option simplifies film distribution instantly. The legal complexities of buying and selling for individual territories and markets will disappear. Huge savings will be made on the money wasted in prints and marketing etc. Actors and television audiences are bored with the monotonous little sojourn where the Hollywood star flies in stays on message and flies out again. It’s drab, it’s dull and for the actors it seems particularly dispiriting and counterproductive, especially if they are juggling the production of one movie with the promotion of the last. Why aren’t the studios using the net directly? Online webcasts and podcasts with fans may not suit everyone but they are a lot less hassle than those magazine covers. Who cares if the studio is seen to control the star’s publicity? We all know those ‘revelations’ and ‘sensational’ interviews in Vanity Fair are stage managed. Worse still, the studios are actually subsidizing Vanity Fair by allowing it to tempt advertisers whilst promoting stars in a preposterously overhyped manner that leads the studios to pay salaries to said stars that reflects column inches generated by the studios rather than box office gross. The publicity machine has always been an indispensable part of the package. The audience knows it. A webcast doesn’t have to be live free for all, TV interviews certainly aren’t. Some stars will want questions filtered in advance. Others like, say, Susan Sarandon will relish the opportunity to say what would be censored on the networks and she will get an audience that wants to hear what she’s got to say. All the studios should use their websites for complete movie promotion, individual sites for particular movies only takes eyeballs away from the studio core. Moreover as traditional media loses its grip, the studios and the stars are going to find the tabloid mentality becomes the norm in the fight for survival, more stars wiil yearn for the warm embrace of the studios, and the studios will have to be more proactive in protecting their investments.

• Online distribution is not going to happen on a huge scale. Why the studios are opting to go down this dead end is bewildering. The consumer is not spending thousands of dollars on HD home theater systems to cluster around a computer monitor watching compressed lo-resolution and standard definition images. It might work in Seoul because the Korean residential template is a high density tower block with an individual communications room. It could work in Manhattan and possibly parts of Chicago and San Francisco but for the American metropolitan market the Internet infrastructure will be unsuitable for the HD files the customer will demand. There is also the looming issue of Telco charges which will become inevitable if the telephone networks are clogged with large film files. And for the uninitiated, broadband routers crash and fail, time outs are not unknown and writing large film files to disk is not exactly quick. Also, and it’s fundamental, most people want the physical disk complete with cover art, although I will concede that they could be dispatched to downloaders by mail. There’s too much hype on this one- many of the denizens of Web 2.0 are shamelessly chasing a higher share (sale) price the way the Weinstein chased Oscars. Groundhog Day, coming soon to a portfolio near you.

• Alternatively the studios should consider resurrecting prestige television, a by subscription global satellite channel, a genuine home box office. Imagine the entire vault of Hollywood at the viewer’s instant disposal!• Sony moved from electronics to content. Let the studios do the same in reverse. Like my online store proposal, the studios form an independent electronics co-op which creates its own format (Sony will have a tantrum). Release movies only on this proprietary format. License the format to the electronic companies to make the players, a secondary revenue stream. If the hardware companies don’t co-operate, then the consumer has no movies no play. Consumer stops buying equipment. The electronics companies suffer. The studios create and control a Digital Rights Management system that meets their needs and the expectations of the consumer. Of course it will cost, but so did Alexander and The Kingdom of Heaven and The Stepford Wives and Poseidon…. The fact that there is a new DVD format battle reflects an uncharacteristic lack of self-importance in the Hollywood executive ranks. The studios should have been vocal to the point that Toshiba and Sony’s respective shareholders understood immediately there could only be one HD format. Admittedly Sony’s studio involvement complicates matters. But then Sony could save the studios any investment and trump Toshiba by spinning-off Blu-Ray as an inter-studio owned cooperative, one way of avoiding a Betamax sequel…• Studio websites should have users with profiles that can be alerted to staggered releases and screenings – if Hollywood wants to stay with current exhibition model – or, for example, the studio library online to assess demand for the back catalog. Most people loathe market research, and it’s an expensive waste of money, but when asked who their favorite stars are and in what movies, film-goers can rarely contain themselves. The information the audience wants to give the studios is enormous. An untapped luxury just waiting to be data-mined.

And since we have sports bars why not have cinema cafes- with large screens, coffeehouses and cafes could host screenings of shorts from directors the studios have signed or screen the interviews that go with launches combined with a well made coming attractions slot. And possibly even preview screening of small movies to consumers who have registered with websites or provide a comprehensive distribution channel for movies that would have trouble filling auditoria.

• Over a decade ago the buzzword ad nauseum was interactivity. In the movie auditorium it never had a future. We pay $10 knowing in advance that Harrison Ford will save the world and we don’t want our expectations thwarted by some idiot two rows behind. In the home, though, the interactive DVD could be used creatively by filmmakers, if they so wish. That’s not to say we need remake of The French Lieutenant’s Woman with multiple endings but I think it would allow greater opportunity for difficult and experimental fiction/screenplays or the classic detective/courtroom drama presented in a longer, more intricate manner to connect with the audience and allow viewers to choose and allocate roles and/or degree of difficulty within families or groups of friends. There is an opportunity here for the studios to take on the video game industry in a more tempting way by offer the audience the chance interact creatively without the consumer having to invest in other platforms.

• As HD cinematography and the DVD revolution lead to plummeting production and distribution costs, there is going to be a power shift to writers, novelists and copyright holders, although not all will exert it. Unless a film’s financing is dependent on the casting of a particular actor, all stars are totally dispensable. HD and DVD distribution is going to make what Mel Gibson did even cheaper with greater rewards. Television will also suffer- to avoid all the restrictions, timidity and creative interference, pilot episodes will debut on the web. Here they will attract the most sophisticated audiences, the business model will change dramatically. What we now call episodic television will become straight-to-DVD box sets. Viewers have already shown considerable enthusiasm for buying TV shows they could easily have recorded, the model of the future spares the consumer the TV subscription fee. By the same logic if, as I have suggested, the New York Times became a non-geographic specific online operation it could rival the international TV news by providing webcasts. Why not? Foreign bureaux have local translators, local drivers, local fixers, it wouldn’t be a particularly demanding leap to add local videographers.

• Address the economics of film-making immediately- if the studios were to demand between $1M and $20M on eBay for casting someone in a role they would very probably find enough people crediting their Paypal accounts to get a movie completed. It might not be legal in the US but think about it… If all the above seems a preposterous overreaction then Hollywood has to consider the urgent issues facing the West in general. We are approaching a moment when the economic order of the past century will rupture. Western governments have cynically allowed housing booms- runaway inflation by any other name- and lax credit policies to continue unchecked as a substitute for genuine economic growth at a time of manufacturing collapse. This has led to the western economies being saddled with woefully inflexible wage patterns just at the moment the emergence of India and China demands that the West be more flexible than ever. The overdue adjustment of these economic imbalances will have a monumental impact on what disposable income American and European households have for the movies. Millions of Western households have confused their ability to amass huge mortgages and miscellaneous debts with prosperity. Globalization will soon affect the white middle class white collar employee- especially in the media- as it has miners and factory workers, and all those outsourced situations, already. Most of us don’t know that China was the world’s largest economy for 18 of the past 20 centuries. What we consider the norm is actually an aberration. Compound this with the vulnerability of the dollar (which does benefit the Studios’ foreign earnings) just as all those baby-boomers start retiring and we have a future that is going to challenge Hollywood rather brutally. The industry must get ahead of the curve or it will have to endure a very unflattering close-up in ultimate movie disaster.


Finally, the mainstream press have spent much of the past year gloating over Hollywood’s failures. And while Hollywood has done a bad job it doesn’t come close to matching the appalling failure of the printed media in the run to the Iraq war, for example. And of course, editors, the next time you run an article condemning sequels and remakes and a general lack of originality kindly consider those relentless power lists and theme issues you so regularly use to fill your pages. Everyone is sick of them. People in glass houses…. Moreover millions of people will still want to see movies this year and next year but many, many people have no intention of ever buying a newspaper or a magazine again.