Let's go to 1993 -- years before Facebook, Instagram or YouTube became a thing. KQED sent out its Silicon Valley reporter Peter Jon Shuler to look into the early promise of the internet, to explore a new idea -- that this new complex network would enable and encourage us to make our own creative stuff: photos, movies, music and so on.
"The idea that, armed with the latest digital gadgets, individuals and communities will shake off the mindless passivity of couch potato consumerism and actually talk back," former KQED host Harry Lin intoned, leading into Shuler's piece.
And so, what was a projection is now a reality. In a matter of minutes, I can upload a video of my cat Bear onto YouTube. Apple's photo program makes it easy to build a slideshow after its filters and trimming tools helps me touch up the not-so-good snaps. Adobe's Audition allows me to merge a recording of Bear purring with a rendition of "Sunday Kind of Love" -- a rendition my sister Shira Myrow recorded and sent to me from her home studio. To top it all off, #tags help a larger public find my upload.
Technology has in many ways democratized the means of creative production. And some say it may also soon surpass humans in producing creative content through artificial intelligence, but that's another story.
OK, so back again to 1993, when Shuler talked about a word coined by the futurist Alvin Toffler: prosumer.
"He had a slightly different meaning in mind when he fused the word producer and consumer, but "prosuming" seems an apt label for the kind of free-flowing give-and-take now practiced by users of the net," Shuler explained.
Free-flowing give-and-take was the intent behind the Internet Underground Music Archive. Now defunct, it was an archived website dedicated to helping music lovers find the kind of obscure music that labels weren't signing or promoting. IUMA was started by two computer science majors at UC Santa Cruz, Jeff Patterson and Robert Lord.
Lord told Shuler, "The music Jeff and I both appreciate the most tends to be hard to find, mostly imports or on labels that aren't widely distributed types of music."
Naturally, Shuler kicked off his story with music from an obscure band called A Halo Called Fred.
"This music, as they say, is not available in stores," Shuler said in his piece. "And this may be the only time you'll hear it on the radio. But thanks to the Internet Underground Music Archive you can hear it online 24 hours a day."
As it happens, A Halo Called Fred is still making music, and it's still uploading it to the internet.
Now, I don't know if I would call these guys prosumers. After all, musicians have been working day jobs since the beginning of time. Some hustle until they make it big. Others never make it big and simply hustle till they drop. There have always been more people who want to be superstars than can be, for a wide variety of reasons.
What can be said is that the internet did make it possible for musicians of all kinds to post music where it can be heard 24 hours a day. Thanks to the Internet Underground Music Archive and other start-ups like it, music distribution become substantially cheaper, too, and the universe of music did expand as more people uploaded more creative work.
But just because you put a song out there in the world, doesn't mean anyone is going to listen to it without a heck of a lot of promotion of the right kind. And big media companies are fighting as hard as ever to stay in the mix -- to keep your ears and eyeballs glued to their content. Ariana Grande is not tops on the iTunes charts just because she’s talented.
Republic Records, backed by Universal Music Group, puts a lot of creative and marketing muscle behind her, and that propels her onto our laptops and phones in a way that's typically more compelling to more people than anything you or I could create as "prosumers."
It can also be said that the expanded universe of amateur "content creators" has helped to change tastes in such a way that many of us prefer, or at least enjoy, communication that looks as if it hasn't been heavily produced. Even if it's not really amateur.
A new breed of "social media influencers" has risen to the top of the popularity charts, including people like Jake Joseph Paul, who rose to significant fame on the now-defunct video application Vine.
With 14 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, Paul's not a civilian entertainer. But he's not what people in 1993 pictured when they pictured an actor, or a filmmaker. He's famous for being Paul, and repeatedly saying the word "peace" in a slightly obnoxious way.
At least one person Shuler talked to back in ’93 predicted this would happen.
"Instead of 50 channels with nothing on, we're going to have 500 channels with nothing on," said Jerry Berman, then executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"Many of these companies have a much narrower vision of the information highway, and they think of really building a lot of capacity to deliver information downstream. In other words, from a station or a cable company to the consumer, but not a lot of bandwidth or the capability of the consumer to reach back or to reach out to other consumers," Berman said 25 years ago.
And 25 years later, Shuler thinks Berman nailed it on the head. "I don't think he was guessing. I think he knew what was coming. A very big signal focused at you, at the consumer, and tiny little signal reaching out pushing the other way," Shuler says.
I dunno. Nobody forces you to watch crapola. But if you don’t pay attention, your attention will be directed and manipulated.
I dug up Internet Underground Music Archive co-founder Jeff Patterson, and he told me he’s a little horrified about what’s happened to music since he and another UC Santa Cruz student started IUMA back in the day. Patterson calls what we have now a kind of “idiocracy."
"What’s surfacing to the top isn’t necessarily what’s good. You know, you have all this access to all the information you want to discover. You find yourself in front of YouTube watching cat videos, and the promise of the internet -- it’s been fulfilled, but it’s also frightening," Patterson says.
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with cat videos.