Technology and Entertainment have always been intertwined. From the invention of the lyre to Guttenberg's printing press, from Edison and Marconi to Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, and all points in between, humans have been finding ways to keep ourselves occupied with lights and sounds.
As a business, entertainment has always had a double-edged relationship with technology. Without the ability to record and/or project light and sound there would be no industry at all, and there certainly have been wins. Think of the ways in which both the film and music businesses profited from the multiple format changes of the 90s, causing collectors to rebuy products they already owned to upgrade from VHS to DVD, or vinyl to cassette to CD (and now back to vinyl again).
But there are just as many stories of destruction brought on by changes in tech. The birth of sound in cinema left countless actors and directors unemployed, unable to make the transition to "the talkies." Radio drama once ruled the airwaves for decades in America. For more recent examples, look no further than Blockbuster video or Tower records.
For at least the past few years, the term "digital disruption" has been a buzzword in the industry for this phenomenon. The kind of trendy phrase that is dropped by consulting companies to mean, "People don't buy records anymore." But as 2015 draws to a close, it's beginning to seem like this might be the first year in which the phrase wasn't a warning, but a description of an event. Not "winter is coming," but rather, "Wow, look at all this snow."
Of course, there is the rather obvious point to make that the industry has actually had a great year. Music, the one sector in which disruption by technology is old news, had a strong year with Taylor and Elsa continuing strong in the early part of the year, while the winter had Adele. Film had dinosaurs, superheroes and wookiees. Things look good in Hollywood (and New York, and Nashville) and will probably continue in 2016.
But there is an undeniable sense that something is different. Not necessarily better or worse (though traditionalists will scream from the rafters that it is emphatically worse), simply different. Much of it is the change that technology has made possible.
Some of it is the new economic reality. The second half of the twentieth century, in which the current entertainment industry was largely forged, was a golden age for them. People had a decent amount of disposable income to spend on entertainment, and often chose to do so. Now, people sometimes make different choices with their money and seek different entertainments.
For starters, there is the total collapse of the traditional "prestige picture" in Hollywood. That is, the kind of movie that is designed specifically to win awards. If it gains a following or makes money, all the better, but the goal is to win an award (money is still the long-term goal). But this year has seen almost all of those films crash and burn badly. Fewer The English Patients littering the landscape may not matter to the average viewer, but it is disruptive to an industry made up of creative people who like acclaim and don't much like acting in front of green screen dragons.
This year's Oscars threaten to be as poorly watched as the Tony's, with little-seen films on depressing subject matter competing in an industry awards ceremony that is becoming about as relevant as The Greater Cincinnati Copy/Toner salesman of the year awards. After last year's bout between Birdman and Boyhood, Hollywood may be tempted to throw its weight behind Star Wars. Not that this is necessarily the wrong decision, but it will sit poorly with many on the inside. Hollywood's cool kids table is being pushed out by the nerds.
A.O. Scott started a mini-conversation about the death of snobbery that was arguably overdue. Perhaps in reaction to the 90s proliferation of rock snobs and film geeks, the modern aesthetic has been to say, "Who are you to judge my tastes?" The idea of the "guilty pleasure" is eliminated. If you take pleasure in it, what is there to feel guilty about? This leaves critics in a bit of a bind. One man's harp is another man's accordion, but how can you call something bad when someone somewhere absolutely loves it. And they probably can find 10 friends on Twitter.
There is also an unacknowledged reality industry wide that Internet culture is now the dominant culture. Yes, the traditional mediums had great years, but Taylor Swift is as much an Internet celeb as a music star. “Star Wars” spent as little as $17 million on television marketing (for comparison, the latest Mission Impossible spent $30 million). It didn't need to. “Star Wars” was ubiquitous this fall, because the Internet did its job for it. What was this past season of Game of Thrones other than a chance to get in Twitter fights?
The Kardashian/Jenner clan exists to appear on camera. They don't act, they don't sing, they don't write. They have money. They make money. We pay attention.
Then there are the stories that exist and could only exist on the Internet. The Dress, Pea Guacamole, Baby Hitler, the Runaway Llama, Pizza Rat all captivated America (or at least those of us that work at desks) for days.
The Kardashian/Jenner clan was omnipresent in our world for a variety of reasons. Without meaning to suggest that they are without talent or savvy, they don't work in the traditional way that stars have always worked. They don't act (at least not in scripted material), they don't sing, they don't write. They exist to appear on camera. They have money. They make money. We pay attention.
Our news is dominated by the Net. Our presidential race is dominated by a reality TV star harnessing the power of message boards across the nation. Even our responses to tragedies like Paris or San Bernardino are filtered through and reported on social media. The preemptive strikes about gun control or Islamophobia were sent within seconds. And it is the Twitter mobs, with their pitchforks and torches, like something out of a 1930's Universal horror film, that probably most captures the spirit of the age.
Television has also been disrupted in its way, though primarily it is a disruption of the best sort. TV is inarguably enjoying a bit of a golden age. With an explosion of outlets, both streaming and cable, seeking fresh content there is a high demand for shows. Directors and writers enjoy the creative freedom afforded in this market and the chance to tell longer stories, and actors get to enjoy the chance to explore a character depth (and get a steady paycheck), it's easy to see the appeal.
If there is a downside, it is to the traditional behemoths. Netflix and Amazon, along with HBO dominate the cultural conversation. Even when one of the traditional networks does run a quality show, it is ignored simply because of its association. Meanwhile, USA Network, which has never produced anything better than B+ programming, can turn out an amazing product like Mr. Robot and gain all of the acclaim simply because no one saw it coming.
There is an irony in yesterday's "Idiot Box" becoming the place one goes for complex, thought-provoking entertainment, but television has one fundamental advantage over the movies--you don't have to go anywhere to watch it.
Of course, the net itself was not immune to change. Now entering its third decade, the Internet was due a good kick in the pants and it certainly got one. With more and more readers turning to their phones as a primary browser, traditional computer viewers have declined, becoming the province of bored office workers. Smaller screens mean fewer ads mean less money to media companies.
Just because the Internet started the fire, doesn't mean it can't get burned....