Nemo scit aliquid

When I was young, my dad worked for the family business. So did my uncle. Until I was about ten years old I thought that’s what happened: you followed in your father’s footsteps. I distinctly remember the conversation with my mum where she told me I didn’t need to do that: I could do whatever I wanted when I grew up.

It was a revelation. The earth shook, and when the dust settled I saw that normal had shifted.

Normal is what you grow up with. And normality shifts.

It shifts slowly, perhaps, and subtly, but shift it does. Normal for a seventies kid (flares, choppers, strikes) wasn’t normal for an eighties kid (ghetto blasters, BMXes, ZX Spectrums) or a nineties kid (consoles, CDs, slow internet). And normal for today’s children, like my two young nephews, is unimaginably different again. Only Blue Peter has remained constant, the unquenching spirit of Biddy Baxter straddling the generations.

This shift, the result of grinding techtonic plates, is unavoidable. You’d be a fool to try to deny it, or to resist it. Times change. Nothing lasts forever. And this, too, shall pass away.

* * *

The screenwriter William GoldmanButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, etc — famously wrote in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade what he said was the single most important fact in the entire movie industry: Nobody knows anything.

Despite decades of experience and armies of accountants and consultants and advisers, studios still commission expensive flops, and still reject what turn out to be blockbusters. Universal passed on Star Wars. Columbia passed on E.T. And every studio in town rejected Raiders of the Lost Ark before Paramount said yes. (Of course, after Star Wars was a success, space films were commissioned by the galactic ton.)

Goldman’s book was written in 1982. The world was different then: cinema normality has shifted. But Hollywood still operates the same way. Nobody knows anything.

Not just Hollywood. Not just the movie business. The Beatles were rejected several times. Harry Potter was rejected several times. Good TV shows aren’t commissioned, and poor ones are.

Across the creative industries, nobody knows anything.

And yet for the last century the studios and music publishers and book publishers and TV companies have been creativity bottlenecks, cultural gatekeepers. They have been the sole arbiters. They have decided which proto-stars to anoint with their dollars and pounds and which to turn away from like a leper on a street corner. And since they know nothing, those organisations that still remain must simply be the lucky ones. Somehow they have retained enough cash to hold onto their gatekeeper crowns, or sold out to someone who did.

* * *

The media companies began their scramble to dominance in primeval form in the late nineteenth century, and they did so because normality shifted: technology advanced to allow the mass production of culture. What had been a singsong around a piano or a topped-and-tailed trip to the theatre — live performance — could now be a recording, and later a broadcast. Shellac, vinyl, film, radio waves, magnetic tape, shiny discs, and so on. Cultural normality shifted.

And the costs of mass production and the risks of mass failure favoured those with bigger pockets, who became luckier and luckier, until by the end of the twentieth century they stood dominant: a landscape of media leviathans, which we see today as normal.

And it became, to a first approximation, impossible to make a film, or to sign a music contract, or to become a published author. The leviathans were in control, the cultural gatekeepers, because they took all the risks.

Even though they knew nothing.

* * *

The internet came along, and normality shifted again. It is no more an inviolable truth that we have a small number of large, lucky cultural gatekeepers than it is that I must work in the family business, or wear flares, or ride a BMX, or listen to the shrill whistles of a 14K4 modem. The internet has democratised, disintermediated, and revealed an untapped human desire for an infinite number of cat videos.

Of course normality will shift again, in a way nobody can foresee. But today’s cultural gatekeepers won’t remain in their present form. They will crumble into separate services like editorial and marketing, or wither away completely despite extensive lobbying of governments to legislate to preserve their business models, like a monk squatting on a squire until he agrees to buy his illuminated manuscripts and put that nice Herr Gutenberg to the stake.

* * *

Normality shifts, and — across the creative industries — nobody knows anything.

How else can you explain the decision by HarperCollins, upon the book’s 75th anniversary, to publish a new hardback edition of The Hobbit in Latin?