The Access Addiction

Michael Jackson, Directions in New Media and Our Cultural Fate

I am sitting on a mountaintop in Tennessee, learning how everything I love will die. This is another way of saying that I am a participant at this summer’s Sewanee Writers’ Conference (SWC), one of the two premiere summits or talent pools of creative writing and publishing in America. People come here, to the huge, beautiful, mountaintop campus of the University of the South, in order to attend workshops and lectures led by accomplished writers, agents and editors, representatives of the top publishing houses and literary magazines in the field. The death mentioned above is the death of reading and/or books; this demise having been widely forecasted and worried over here and elsewhere to great extent. To put it another way, my ownership of a Kindle was, judging by the hurt looks of several dining companions, a betrayal.

But here is the reason you should care: what is going on at the SWC is going on in our culture on a much, much larger, further reaching scale. What we are facing is a crisis of access. To examine this idea of access and how we have made ourselves dependent on it is to understand the future of entertainment, media and inevitably, ourselves.

          I. The Access Economy

The Kindle is a good place to start in understanding what is happening to us. So far, the debate over the Kindle has mostly been over the future of reading. This kind of debate, however, misses the larger implication of the Kindle’s growing popularity: a sea change in how we consume. As Nicholson Baker recently wrote in The New Yorker, when you purchase a book on the Kindle, what you really buy is “the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon.” In other words, instead of an actual retail item (a book) what you really buy is access to a set of data that, in this case, happens to be prose fiction.

This is present too in the other slow death that has been so discussed in the media of late. This is that of newspaper publishers, who have found themselves unraveled by the access paradox: a newspaper costs money, but looking up the news online (with a computer or cell phone) is free. Thus, we face the death of the newspaper.

All entertainment industries face this problem. The first sign of the technical tsunami was in the music industry, when college student (and Napster founder) Shawn Fanning decided that geeks who understood the Internet should control access to music rather than the maze of manufacturers, labels, distributors and retailers. It’s not a coincidence that it was called person-to-person or file sharing. At issue was access and the proposed right to have it, at all times, to each other’s music library. “Bit torrent” technology further complicates this, pushing the idea of complete, perpetual access even further until it includes clouds of users and hive-mind collectivism.

The access economy is my generation’s economy. Access is what we sell, what we are sold and what we demand. This demand (or inherent perceived right), however, continues to have troubling consequences for other ranges of culture. None of these consequences have been laid so bare as in the cultural schizophrenia surrounding the recent death of the largest pop music superstar of all time.

          II. The Interregnum of Pop

There has never been a phenomenon so culturally self-aware or so aggressively weird as that of Michael Jackson. But again, the debate over our coronation and eventual degradation of Jackson has historically been dominated by a vague sense of shame over our freak-show interest in him or the collective schadenfreude every time we read about the super-bug that was infesting his skin or caught another glimpse of his horror show nose job.

Jackson’s death, however, has changed things. While he was alive we demanded ultimate access to his life and were denied; we were transfixed by what lay behind the walls of Neverland Ranch or of what lurked behind his surgical mask. With the trial of Jackson over allegations of sexual child abuse, this demand was made even more intense. It was also revealed to be somewhat morbid. The trial was proof that something (if not illegal at very least excessively strange) really was happening behind those walls. Jackson, of course, only fueled the fire with his various PR gaffes, the scale of which can be grasped by the fact that the man wore juvenile pajama pants to appear in court on charges of inappropriate contact with a child.

With the announcement of the not-guilty verdict, the cultural mania hit a peak. I still remember watching it on live TV. Newscasters, exiled to the courthouse lawn, frantically explained the surrealist signals that spotters inside the courtroom would rush out and give: if Jackson was innocent we would see a white handkerchief waved, if he was guilty both eyes would be covered. At the moment of the announcement, more than a few in the crowd released doves in jubilant celebration.

Jackson spent the next years until his death mostly out of the cultural attention span. He did surface, of course, from time to time; a legal imbroglio in Dubai, strange pictures with his children, even an errant trip to the women’s restroom of a department store in a European country. But the coverage of Jackson in these years was largely subdued with his own disgrace and the public’s distrust of his relationships with children.

Jackson’s death, however, has made all this disappear. With his death, we have been granted access on a scale never before realized. In the past week alone, one could watch never before seen home videos of Jackson playing, singing and talking with his children, one could see previously confiscated footage of Jackson’s hair-fire incident of yesteryear, and anyone traveling in Central Park or Harlem could see musical and dance tributes still continuing.

So far, that has been the mostly rosy narrative of our access to Jackson and his stardom since his death. However, it has not stopped there. Anyone in a grocery store line can see magazine covers that feature the crime-scene photographs of his house (headline: “Michael Jackson Died Here!” with big arrow to bed), photographs of his covered body being transported to the coroner, and explicit photographs of his dead body as it was failing to be revived (for which Ok! Magazine paid $500,000, against the wishes of most of its employees). This all not to mention the 24-hour coverage of his body’s transit to a cemetery, the custody battle over his kids and the toxicology reports of the bizarre drug cocktail that killed him.

In death, Jackson has shown our hysteria over his life to be limitless and disgusting. The access that has allowed him to posthumously reenter our cultural pantheon has revealed itself to be kingmaker, alpha, omega and cultural arbiter for us as a people.

III. Towards a New Apocalypse

We find ourselves in a place where access controls what we like and what we think, as well as how and where we spend our money. However, the specter of access’s power, I want to be clear, reaches far past our popular entertainment and the future directions of our new media consumption. To take just one very short example, it has become a primary force in politics. As I write this, concerted, corporate-organized mobs are shouting down citizens at “health care town halls” featuring democratic congressmen from conservative areas. They are trying to control a political outcome by controlling political access. This not to say anything of the fact that, in watching the news for the last two months, I’ve seen Barack Obama have a romantic evening with Michelle, vacation in two separate countries and hold a beer bro-date.

So what can we do? Access, as Jackson, the music industry and now the publishing industry, has proven, cannot be fought. The only thing we can do is what happens at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference every year: we can work to improve the quality of the information we seek and produce, and we can try to make our drive for access to those more famous or accomplished than us constructive. If we must have access, let us have access with a purpose; let us try to learn from what we are granted. If the technological revolution and modern obsession with celebrity is going to lead to some kind of American cultural wasteland, let it at least be said that we did not go gentle into such a meaningless night.

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© 2009

The Access Addiction

Arna Hemenway