History tends to repeat itself occasionally. At the twilight of the 17th century, a famous row between the Ancients and the Modern pitted those who believed in the timeless, unquestionable superiority of our elders against those who argued that blending our inherited body of knowledge with new tools, rules and context was going to take mankind to the next level. Today’s replica of this clash casts rights holders as the heirs of the Ancients in a drama where they paint themselves as victims of armies of unruly geeks brandishing a wealth of ICT enablers to force them into ‘fast forward’ gear.
We may take comfort from the fact that reason did prevail at the turn of the 18th century. Boileau, then figurehead of the party that portrayed the intelligentsia of the time as ‘dwarves sitting on giants’ shoulders’, conceded to Fénelon that taking cues from past creators and coating them with current concerns, mores and fashions could only help mankind improve its collective act: ‘If you happen to get the better of the Ancients, you owe them the glory of this victory’, Fénelon concluded in a vibrant tribute to mankind seen as a continued legacy. The vision of a future built upon earlier roots spared humanity the fate of being stifled into a mothballed past.
It is hard to overestimate this victory. Neither the king nor the clergy who set the rules at the time was overly keen to unlock the flow of unchecked ideas: while some of them might prove outright disruptive, all would definitely eat away at their absolute authority to tell right from wrong as regards thoughts, tastes and beliefs.
Likewise, today’s regulators wouldn’t easily forego the authority vested in them to tell, for instance, what a French movie is or to design and enforce quotas on the film diet of every resident in France. But the king and the clergy no longer rule France. Consumers and citizens, i.e. plain people, have taken over: they crowd-rate with a vengeance online content which they can experience anytime anywhere on the device of their choice. This tectonic shift has sent the conservatives’ fixation about the models of the past in a tailspin. All reverence for tradition or even reference to it is not gone though. Quite the contrary, ICT has made discovery of whatever is in store much easier and affordable to all. And so are the production and distribution of works inspired by earlier pieces of thought or art. As a result of this trend, ICT-driven creation pits the supporters of unfettered, newly enabled production against the cultural establishment whose elitist, malthusian notion of culture is limited to the form of intellectual works – or ‘oeuvres de l’esprit’ – deemed to be worth their stamp of approval.
Rare movie-makers dare question these rules. For instance, the producers of ‘Welcome to New York’ plan to skip theater exposure in France to go straight to online distribution. Not surprisingly, they raise the ire of the establishment which has tried in vain to lure their film into the most coveted selection of the Cannes festival.
A prosperous business island in the ocean of subsidized culture
One creative industry though has spared itself the costly soul-searching that the audiovisual sector is undergoing as a result of the inroads of ICT into content making and spreading. Indeed, book publishers have identified early on the merits of ICT, whether in spotting talent, making titles easier to discover, transforming the reading experience via e-readers or allowing books to morph into ‘transmedia’ products which include video and interactive parts and thus benefit fully from the amazing power of the digital revolution to turn users into creators and programmers.
The ‘Technology and Innovation for Smart Technology‘ (TISP) project exemplifies their open attitude towards technology. More critically, it plans to take it to the next level and to supplement Europe’s world leadership in publishing with matching excellence in whatever ICT may offer to enhance the publishing and reading experiences. To this effect, the TISP consortium brings together a number of publishing-related bodies and representatives of the ICT sector under the umbrella of the Federation of European Publishers (FEP) and DIGITALEUROPE.
Halfway through this truly innovative undertaking, a few lessons are worth pondering:
– both parties admit to being businesses. Publishers wouldn’t deny contributing to the cultural legacy of mankind. They would accept that culture is no ordinary good, that they are busy feeding the mind and the soul while leaving it to other industries to feed the stomach. But this wouldn’t distract them from operating their ventures as real businesses safe from government meddling;
– true to a longstanding literary tradition that took Descartes to Amsterdam and Stockholm, Voltaire to Berlin or Diderot to St Petersburg, European publishers wouldn’t corner themselves into boxes flying the colours of a particular nation. Granted, they owe their sitting on top of world rankings to the prodigious creativity of European minds, but more importantly they can tell a best-seller from a regular title and they are no slouch at doing the translation and marketing work that will allow the former to sail through borders and thus contribute its piece to universal culture. This made them a natural partner to the embodiment of borderless operations, the ICT industry;
– in short, publishers have nothing to do with a cultural exception misconstrued as audiovisual exemption from rules-based international trade. Far from weighting their industry with a web of regulations aimed to limit the books’ exposure, they wouldn’t leave one stone unturned to enhance it. Instead of trying to protect the past from the future, they strive to let the former foster the latter. This trait set them as a natural partner to the sector that stands for innovation, ICT.
A couple of decades ago, European Commission’s jargon would have claimed that TISP bears the hallmark of ‘convergence’, this celebration of a long overdue merger between content and technology. Whatever name this magic combination is going to take in the future, it will sure keep on winning the hearts and minds of consumers the world over. It already works wonders on European creativity and competitiveness. This is what matters. You will not be mistaken if you see TISP as the tip of an iceberg of monumental proportions that results from Europe eventually playing its ACE (Arts Culture Entertainment) card so far perched up the sleeve of its robust ICT credentials. Watch out, rest of the world!