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Around 1589, an English clergyman named William Lee asked Queen Elizabeth I for a patent. He’d invented a machine that could knit stockings, and he was eager to have the royal seal of approval. But when she saw Lee’s device, the Monarch is said to have replied “thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what this invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.” But less than a century later, Oliver Cromwell granted framework knitters a charter of incorporation, a decision that would subsequently be confirmed when Charles II granted a royal charter to “The Master, Wardens, Assistants and Society of the Art or Mystery of Framework Knitters of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Kingdom of England and the Dominion of Wales.” The technology that caused the Virgin Queen such unease now had its own Livery Company and a place among the elites of the City of London. Rather than pretend that this new technology didn’t exist, the Crown took a pragmatic approach toward it.

The rise and fall of MTV

This basic story has played out countless times throughout human history. In the summer of 1981, an upstart cable channel called MTV debuted by playing the music video for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Before MTV, musicians had to rely on the radio for promotion, but MTV allowed them to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers. Bands like Men at Work were suddenly selling tons of records because their music videos were playing on MTV. By the early 90s, MTV was a proper pop-culture juggernaut.

Of course, many of you reading this may be surprised to learn that MTV ever played music videos. In recent years, their programming has come to be dominated by reality TV. This is due in part to the fact that artists now have new ways of showcasing their music videos since they can upload them to YouTube or share them on social media. Among other benefits, this allows them to cut out the middleman and monetize their content directly. Also, with more and more people moving away from cable, MTV just doesn’t have the pull that it used to.

Redefining the music industry from albums to streaming

ITunes is another instance where the disruptor became the disrupted. Before the digital revolution, owning music meant buying albums, first as records and then as cassettes and CDs. While this allowed artists to craft coherent sonic narratives, it could be annoying to have to buy an entire album when you only liked one or two of the songs on it. Making an album was a costly business, so many artists had little choice but to sign up with one of the major record labels. But many of these labels were focused on profit rather than artistry and could be quite conservative in their outlook. Unless you were part of the musical mainstream, it could be quite difficult to catch a break since many labels cared more about profitability than artistry. 

But then iTunes came along and threw the whole system out of kilter. Instead of being forced to buy prepackaged selections of music, you could now purchase songs a la carte. Digital music also made it easier for listeners to curate their own collections of individual songs. It also acted as a democratizing force in the music industry. Now, anyone could distribute music and they didn’t need the resources of EMI or Polygram to do it. Countless musicians have now been able to grow their own careers organically in the digital sphere. 

Ironically, iTunes itself has now been pushed aside by platforms like Spotify. Whereas the classic iTunes model assumed that customers would purchase specific music, streaming services offer listeners an all-you-can-hear buffet for a relatively low monthly cost. If you spend $10.99 on iTunes, you can buy a single album or a handful of a la carte songs from different artists. But if you spend the same amount on Spotify Premium, you can listen to over 80 million songs whenever you want. For many people, the path is obvious and streaming is the way to go.

AI and the future of content creation

AI is now poised to be just as disruptive as MTV and iTunes. We now have a range of powerful tools at our disposal that can revolutionize the way we think about content creation. Are you a novelist who needs a quick description of a town for your story? Sudowrite has you covered. Do you need an illustration for one of your blog posts but can’t draw anything more complex than stick figures? Midjourney can help you out. 

But tools like Midjourney are just the tip of the iceberg. Many artists are using a range of  Sougwen Chung uses robotic arms to draw. Refik Anadol uses AI to visualize data in impressive new ways. Scott Eaton uses AI to create twisted, eldritch images of the human form. They prove that AI can be a useful tool for artistic expression just like canvas, paint, and stone have been for thousands of years.

There will always be an element of fear when a new technology emerges. That’s only natural, and it can even be a good thing–humans might not exist any more if we hadn’t implemented safeguards around nuclear weapons! But it’s important to keep an open mind instead of reflexively turning away. Cromwell and Charles II could’ve followed in Elizabeth I’s footsteps and tried to stifle framework knitting even though it caused disruption. Recent decades have seen a dizzying array of new technologies emerge to disrupt and then be disrupted themselves. But that’s the way of things. But disruption doesn’t have to mean destruction, and it can actually bring renewal instead.