I am enjoying my advanced copy of Chris Anderson's Long Tail. It's provocative, well written and will become a key text in the Web 2.0 debate. I've also been rereading Daniel Bell's prodigous The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), an absolute requirement for those of us interested in the philosophical foundations of postmodern culture and economy.
Reading Bell in parallel with Anderson has helped me establish a historical and cultural context to The Long Tail. The essence of Anderson's economic argument is one of the victory of abundance over scarcity. In a section entitled "The Tragically Neglected Economics of Abundance," Anderson argues that digital media provides infinite shelf space, distribution and choice, thereby undermining the traditional definition of economics as the science of scarcity. In this digital world of abundance, Anderson tells us, there will be an almost infinite selection of media. The only scarcity, he notes, will be that -- and this isn't inconsequential -- of human attention.
So what does Daniel Bell does us about scarcity and abundance? Bell writes about the disjunction of American hedonistic culture and rational economic behaviour. He calls this the "Double Bind of Modernity." Bell says that American capitalism "has lost its traditional legitimacy, which was based on a moral system of reward rooted in the Protestant sanctification of work." So Instead of Benjamin Franklin, we have Donald Trump. Instead of homesteaders, we get countercultural narcissists.
Bell is, of course, deeply indebted to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Thus, he tells us that the legitimation crisis in American capitalism is cultural rather than economic:
"The Puritan temper might be described most simply by the term "delayed gratification," and by restraint in gratification. It is, of course, the Malthusian injunction for prudence in a world of scarcity. But the claim of the American economic system was that it had introduced abundance, and the nature of abundance is to encourage prodigality rather than prudence."
Now back to Anderson's prediction about digital abundance which, in truth, represents another round in the age-old American cultural struggle between self-discipline and self-indulgence, between prodigality and prudence. Anderson seduces us with a vision of an abundant world of infinite choice. The editor of Wired magazine prodigally promises the end of scarcity, the end, indeed, of traditional economics.
But Anderson is an ideologue of abundance in a world of increasing economic and ecological scarcity. He might be smart, but he is imprudent too. And his argument isn't grounded in the reality of contemporary America. Even if one accepts its technological and economic premises, Anderson's theory of the Long Tail doesn't change most people's lives -- lives increasingly limited by scarcity rather than broadened by abundance. After all, it doesn't really matter how many books are on offer at Amazon.com if your job has been outsourced. Nor does it really matter how many videos are available on YouTube when gas is $5 a gallon.
In contrast with the optimistic Anderson, Bell is no friend of modernity. The Harvard sociologist tells us that "behind the chiliasm of modern man is the megalomania of self-infinitization."
I like that. Bell could be describing Anderson's theory of the Long Tail. This seductive vision of abundance is a megalomania of self-infinitization -- infinite choice, infinite media, infinite culture, the infinity of digital abundance. And also, in a way perhaps, infinite irrelevance.