Way back in the olden thymes, access to pornography was limited. When I was a kid, there were magazines sold from behind the counter, books sold from the backs of those magazines and smoker films that came from sleazy vendors in big cities. Women had bodice rippers, the soft porn of romantic novels, which were sold openly in grocery stores. Otherwise, it was your imagination when it came to titillation.
The result of this was a tiny porn industry. Magazines like Playboy were “big time” in that they had a large subscriber base and were able to work from swank offices, but they were still relatively small. They maybe used three or four girls in each issue and some women would appear repeatedly so the pool of women, who made money in men’s magazines, was tiny. The same was true of smoker films and the money they made was tiny as well.
Public morals played a role, but it was mostly technology that kept the porn business small. They were barred from the mass media of the day, television, and public morals meant porn had to be sold discreetly. I recall a store in our town mistakenly putting skin mags in the regular magazine shelf. My mother and some other women went to the owner and probably threatened to nut him. The mags went back behind the counter.
The big change for porn was the VHS tape. This was the first way to distribute video that anyone could play at home. All of a sudden, the porn maker could reach a much larger audience. When video stores popped up, they inevitably had a back room for adult films. With a bigger audience, the industry blossomed. Suddenly there was big money in porn so the San Fernando Valley became the Hollywood of porn, making films on a scale never imagined.
Those of you on-line in the dial-up days know where I’m headed next. Porn was the first to truly exploit the internet. They pioneered the use of images on-line and then the use of video. The technology for putting video clips on-line was an obvious boon to the industry. The same is true of credit card processing. The porn guys were the first to adopt this technology. The first commercially successful websites were for porn. The joke back in the day was that a lot of code was written one-handed because it seemed like the porn sites were driving innovation.
The point of this walk down memory lane is that technology changed the porn industry. Demand was always there, but rarely met. The people on the supply side exerted enormous power because the cost of creating and distributing the material was high. Technology suddenly dropped those costs, thus allowing a wave of new suppliers into the business. It also wiped out the old suppliers like the old smoker films and skin magazines. It was a classic case of creative destruction.
That’s not the end of the story. The internet lowered the barrier to entry so much that anyone can be in the business now. Amateurs make films and post them on-line for peanuts. Low-cost operators in Eastern Europe can sell porn to Western consumers for pennies. Porn is now free and ubiquitous. As a result, the porn industry has collapsed. There’s simply no money to be made making sex films or selling pics of naked people. It’s a classic case of the tragedy of the commons.
Something similar has happened to the pundit-ocracy, and specifically the Conservative Industrial Complex. In the 70’s, you had a few “conservatives” like Bill Buckley and Bill Safire showing up on TV and writing for major newspapers. Otherwise, the supply of conservative opinion was tightly controlled by technology and the liberal morality police. As a kid, my local library had one copy of National Review and unlimited copies of the liberal rags.
Then talk radio burst the damn, in the same way the VHS opened the porn industry. All of a sudden local radio was allowing right-wingers to talk about forbidden topics. Cable TV started to open up more channels to non-liberal opinion and the Conservative Industrial Complex began to flourish. Instead of booming in a valley north of Hollywood, it boomed in the Acela corridor, running between Washington and New York City. I guess you could argue that Rush Limbaugh was the Seymore Butts of right-wing punditry.
Like the porn industry, the conservative opinion rackets are now under assault by the internet. Specifically talented amateurs who know how to cheaply reach a broad audience on-line and, most important, say things the professionals are afraid to say. Playboy did not just collapse for business reasons. It’s content was overtaken by a wave of providers willing to do anything. National Review is being swamped by a wave of talented bloggers, twitterers and commenters willing to say what NR is afraid to say.
One difference is that being an insider has value. The price for access has always been the keeping of confidences. The big shot reporter who had a lot of friends in government could lever that into high paying TV gigs. He just had to be trustworthy with the secrets shared with him. Bob Woodward got rich and famous leveraging his confidences. That’s not something that is easily replaced with technology. But, it does limit the insiders and connected because there are things they can’t say that the bloggers and twitter guys can say.
The other obvious difference is the government was never shoveling billions into the porn industry via tax schemes and subsidies. Plutocrats were never bankrolling porn shops like we see with the pundit rackets. There’s a great disconnect between compensation and audience share in the chattering classes. S.E Cupp has a six figure salary despite the fact you can count one hand the number of people who pay any attention to her. That’s because billions flow into the TV chat shows via government regulation.
Even so, the Trump phenomenon is a good example of how technology is collapsing the political industry in the same way it collapsed the porn business. It’s simply not that hard to be a chattering skull on TV or a political writer on-line. There are millions of people out there good at selling candidates and positions. Trump’s volunteer meme army is crushing the pros in both parties because it’s just not that hard to be clever with this stuff. When lots of people can do something and the barriers to entry fall, the market collapses.