Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Future: Not Worth Paying For, Apparently

There's an interesting feature in the latest issue of The Journalist, in-house organ of the NUJ, about the decline in fortunes of newspaper and magazine horoscope columnists. In 1988, Russel Grant popularised the astrological phoneline, accepting only a modest fee from his publisher in exchange for the free advertising the column generated for his highly lucrative pay-per-minute chatlines. Before long, this became standard practice. All astrologers had to set up their own phone line. Unfortunately, without Grant's celebrity status, few made much actual money out of them.

By the late nineties, the bottom had rather dropped out of the chat line business, but by that time the low fees for astro-copy had become standard practice. Nowadays companies on the internet will generate horoscope columns for syndication for no more than £3, where once a star gazer could expect a hundred times that for their talents.

While we may snort and think good riddance to bad rubbish, it's worth remembering that horoscope columns remain as popular as ever with readers - it's just that the people who write them are no longer getting paid properly. Aside from the rather obvious parallels with the music industry, there's something broader at issue here, concerned with the question of who is authorised to write the future.

Once upon a time (not that long ago) the future was written by artists, and by speculative thinkers like Buckminster Fuller. At a certain point, artists seem to become embarrassed by the question of the future, epitomised perhaps by Gyorgy Ligeti's notorious (1961) unlecture entitled The Future of Music, in which he stood silent, impassively before the class, only responding to the calls and jeers from the audience by writing musical terms on the white board as 'directions' to the noise-makers.

Mostly, the people talking and writing about the future today work in marketing, or in computer software. That is, if they have anything positive to say about it. Of course, there are plenty of different artists and theorists prophesying some form of catastrophe or other on practically a daily basis. But the astrologists task of looking forward with hope, and with the kind of optimism that actually makes doing stuff a bit easier, is steadily proving itself to be as easy to generate automatically and artificially - with the right software - as a Chopin etude.