In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review Leon Wieseltier has polemicized against the digital age. While beautifully written, its major propositions are either wrong or not wholly coherent. All have been heard before in previous ages of technological change. While it is difficult to isolate all the sources of Wieseltier’s distemper, here are four in ascending order of their claim to be taken seriously.
1. Wieseltier claims that “the greatest thugs in the history of the cultural industry” (by which he means Amazon and the like) have destroyed bookstores and record shops. Similarly, journalists now earn less money because of competition from digital platforms. These complaints are the whining of producers displaced by competition that helps consumers. The Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites allow me faster access to a much wider variety of books than the independent bookstores of my youth. And unlike some of these stores, they do not discriminate against books on political grounds. Journalists have no greater claim to be insulated from competition than other professions. And again the web has given range to much more variegated opinion and analysis than the mainstream media of old.
Wieseltier’s complaint resembles nothing so much as those of French publishers of the late eighteenth century who complained to the National Assembly about competitors with cheaper means of production: