Finished Chris Anderson's The Long Tail this morning, and while I've been following the discussion around these issues (and chiming in occasionally) since his original essay was published, I still found the book completely stimulating and fun to read. In addition to the original research that drives so much of his argument, Chris has also included some fascinating stories: the creation of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue; the pro-am movement in astronomy, etc. It also has a very persuasive critique of one of my pet peeves -- the polarization hypothesis generally associated with Cass Sunstein. (Related to our epic serendipity debate from earlier this year.)
There was a review in the Wall Street Journal this weekend that chided Chris for sharing some of the techno-utopian tendencies of writers like Steven Johnson and James Surowiecki, which is damning criticism indeed. And it's true The Long Tail -- like a certain book of mine -- does generally hold to an enthusiastic tone about the trend it is describing. But in Chris's case at least, I find that kind of sweeping criticism irritating. I suspect Chris does believe the that the trend towards long tail distributions in culture is, on the whole, a substantial improvement over the top heavy mass media model that has dominated the twentieth century. But that hardly makes him a techno-utopian. It means that in this one realm of technological development, Chris thinks things are getting better. For all we know, there may be other technological trends that Chris considers more problematic or troubling -- the point is, The Long Tail is not a book about those trends, nor is it a general statement about technology (the way, I imagine, Kevin Kelly's next book will be.)
When I was heavy in the promotion of Everything Bad, I often had people generalize out from my endorsement of popular culture and say things like: "Well, you think everything's just cheery in American society right now..." And I'd invariably have to explain that this wasn't true: I think there are plenty of problems in America right now (the usual suspects: wealth inequality, global warming, our President); I just happen to think pop culture is not one of those problems. So I wrote the book partially to say to our politicians and other cultural authorities: stop worrying about video games -- you've got real problems to deal with. Maybe you should focus on them for a change.
Reading The Long Tail actually made me think that I should have added one additional factor in my description of the forces behind The Sleeper Curve, the trend towards increased pop culture complexity I described in Everything Bad. One of the puzzling things about the Curve that readers occasionally had trouble with is that the trend is towards increased complexity, but not necessarily elevated artistic or intellectual achievement. The content can be silly or gratuitously violent, but the formal techniques used to convey the content have grown, on average, more complex. There's more information conveyed in shorter amounts of time, with less hand-holding from the creators. It occurred to me reading The Long Tail that the general trend from mass to niche can explain some of this increased complexity: niches can speak to each other in shorthand; they don't have to spell everything out. But at the same time, the niche itself doesn't have to become any more aesthetically or intellectually rich compared to what came before. If there's a pro wrestling niche, the creators don't have to condescend to the non-wrestling fans who might be tuning in, which means that they can make more references and in general convey more information about wrestling -- precisely because they know their audience is made up of hard core fans. But it's still pro wrestling. The content isn't anything to write home about, but the form grows more complex. In a mass society, it's harder to pull that off. But out on the tail, it comes naturally.