Review: ‘Digital Renaissance’ Argues Consumers of Media Never Had It So Good. Is That the Case?

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The maxim “never let a good crisis go to waste” is usually applied to opportunistic politicians seeking to further an agenda. But it could be equally applied to businesspeople, who have often used economic challenges to elicit benefits from the government.

Digitization has provided many such “crises.” It has shaken industries and led business to turn to the government for help: Retailers have asked for protection from Amazon, taxi firms from Uber and hoteliers from Airbnb.

But the resulting debates often ignore the relevant data and focus on the wrong questions. Joel Waldfogel’s new book, “Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us About the Future of Popular Culture,” seeks to address that, with its examination of the tremendous disruption that the internet has wrought on the creative industries — music, book publishing, television and movies. And in his view, we should simply “sit back, relax and enjoy the renaissance,” rather than accede to any cries for help from media businesses.

Professor Waldfogel’s thesis is disarmingly simple: What matters for culture, he says, is the well-being of media consumers, not media producers. So he exhaustively examines the quantity and quality of media produced since digital technologies became widespread and concludes that both are at an all-time high. End of story.

That might have made for a short book, but “Digital Renaissance” analyzes a lot of data and research.

Increases in content quality, of course, are highly subjective. To solve for this problem, Professor Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, looks at the views of both the masses and the “experts.” For instance, when it comes to books, he cross-correlated millions of reviews on Goodreads with lists of “notable” books from experts over time.

Much of this data is kind of interesting. Who knew that when the Modern Library compiled a list of the hundred best English-language novels of the 20th century by a board of intellectual heavyweights (including Gore Vidal, William Styron and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) and compared it with a list developed from an online poll of 400,000 avid readers, none of the readers’ top five choices (including “To Kill a Mockingbird”) even made it on the experts’ list?

It is hard to argue with Professor Waldfogel’s core conclusion from that kind of painstaking study: that the internet has greatly increased the quantity and overall quality of books, records, movies and TV shows.

What is not clear, though, is that his broader conclusions regarding the health of our popular culture, in general, are justified.

Although “Digital Renaissance” bills itself as a study of the “creative industries” writ large, it concerns itself almost exclusively with hit-driven sectors. But not all creative businesses are hit driven in the same way. It is not evident why long-form journalism published as nonfiction books is covered but not newspapers and magazines, given the high cultural relevance and significantly different economics of the latter.

An examination of the news industries undoubtedly would have also shown that there is more journalism being produced than ever because of the lower production costs. But it would also have shown an increase in the polarization in how news is consumed and a reduction of certain categories of culturally critical news — such as local investigative reporting — where costs have not fallen as fast.

Even in the hit-driven sectors examined by “Digital Renaissance,” important digitally inspired changes are still afoot that require further examination before declaring cultural victory. Movie studios now overwhelmingly produce sequels, reboots and spinoffs; lists of the top 10 TV shows are dominated by sporting events. Professor Waldfogel spends no time exploring changes in how our time is spent within these industries or the role they play in a cultural life that now includes categories of media that did not exist before the digital revolution.

One cannot fault Professor Waldfogel for the quality of his work regarding the narrow question he has chosen to analyze. In particular, his “Digital Renaissance” should be consulted by any regulator or legislator being solicited by a forlorn media mogul looking to protect a traditional business from disruptive market forces.

While economic analysis can contribute to our understanding of the world, however, it alone cannot answer what we think is important to our culture. A full assessment of whether we are experiencing a true digital renaissance needs to consider that issue, too.