Slate's Annie Lowrey has written a fascinating piece about the 'productivity paradox': the fact that America's massive advances in computer technology, from the 1970s on, don't seem to have brought with them the expected gains in productivity. Computers and the internet haven't driven faster economic growth (yet), even if they have undoubtedly changed our lives. And here's the thing, says Lowrey - perhaps they have added a value that traditional economic metrics don't capture:
But revenue is not always the end-all, be-all—even in economics. That brings us to a final explanation: Maybe it is not the growth that is deficient. Maybe it is the yardstick that is deficient. MIT professor Erik Brynjolffson explains the idea using the example of the music industry. "Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we're not listening to less music. There's more music consumed than before." The improved choice and variety and availability of music must be worth something to us—even if it is not easy to put into numbers. "On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it's not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music."
I think this is an interesting way of looking at things. But I have to say, I'm not entirely sure that music hasn't lost some intangible emotional value too. My impression is that although people may be listening to as much music as ever, they don't have as rich an emotional relationship with it as they used to. We have more choice than ever, via iTunes, Spotify and a million radio stations. But the digitalisation of music has created a shuffling, skipping mode of consumption, that is wider but shallower than before. A track here, a snatch of a song there, and on to the next one. There's more choice and less monomania.
If you were a teenager in 1988, you might have had a very intense relationship with say, The Cure, waiting for what seemed like forever until a new album came out, and then listening to it repeatedly, obsessively, in your bedroom, with your best friend and a funny cigarette. You'd study their interview with the NME and subscribe to quarterly mailings from their fan club. There was value in the scarcity. These days, every band produces a constant flow of content, in the form of downloads, DVDs, streaming, blogs and tweets. Artists are more omnipresent and less mysterious.
And do you ever get that feeling when you open Spotify or similar, of 'I can listen to any music I want for free, and yet I don't really want to listen to anything in particular'?