All-American dish: a plate of apple pie. Photo: Koflers Hutte/Flickr
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Crowdfunding is doomed – there are too many fingers in too many apple pies

Will Self’s Madness of Crowds column.

Some guy in some 0.1-horse town in the ass-end of America’s great nowhere put up a crowdfunding appeal on the web: “I want to bake an apple pie for my mom but I don’t have the money to do it.” A couple of days later there was $49,000 in his bank account. I like to think he’ll now bake many, many apple pies and deliver them widely throughout the States to the needy – like some Johnny Apple-Pie-Seed, but in all probability he’ll just trouser the cash.

At least part of the appeal of crowdfunding (or so the boosters proclaim) is that it enables ideas to get off the ground, whether for businesses or creative endeavours, that would otherwise lie down and die in the mud. The web seems to make possible the conditions necessary for the cultivation of what James Surowiecki characterised – in his 2004 book of the same name – as the wisdom of crowds.

Surowiecki was initially inspired by Francis Galton’s revealing anecdote about how the aggregated guesses of a crowd at a country fair more accurately identified the weight of a slaughtered ox than the prediction of any one expert. Surowiecki built on this to identify optimal factors for crowd wisdom: 1. Diversity of opinion – it doesn’t matter what information this is based on, the important thing is that it should be private to the individual. 2. Independence – individuals’ opinions should be free from the taint of groupthink. 3. Decentralisation – in forming their opinion, individuals should draw on specific, local knowledge. 4. Aggre­gation – a mechanism exists that can take all these individual judgements and turn them into a collective decision.

The web, at least in theory, enshrines these optimal factors in its very constitution, which is presumably why crowdfunding has become such a Big Thing. You can now crowdfund films or music albums; venture capitalists have organised crowd equity funding for company start-ups, and wanker-bankers have adapted the model to make it possible for both individuals and corporate entities with a bad credit profile to raise loans nonetheless. It has been calculated by a UK-based wonk tank that during one month this year, $60,000 was raised worldwide every single hour through crowdfunding. By anyone’s estimation that’s a lot of apple pie. In the heady realm of US electoral finance, crowdfunding has been entrenched since Barack Obama used it in his campaign to wrest the White House from the would-be successor to the pixie-eared reader of The Little Goat.

My suspicion is that the efficacy of crowdfunding will in fact decline in inverse correlation to its success. Put differently: the more money that’s raised, the less wise will be the crowd that raises it. I call this theory – contra Surowiecki – “The Idiocy of the $49,000 Apple Pie”. Here’s how the web works to produce such dumb collective judgements: 1. Homogeneity of opinion – the apple-pie funders’ opinions are based securely on information common to them all: apple pies are yummy, moms are great and it’s nice to make apple pies for moms. 2. Conformity – simply by spending enough time on the web to become aware that some schmuck has posted such a crowdfunding appeal, these people are exhibiting a worrisome conformism. 3. Centralisation – also termed “googlisation”, this is a function of the way commercially oriented search engines act as positive feedback mechanisms to pump-prime consumer (or donor) demand. 4. Aggregation – this is the only proposition my theory shares with Surowiecki’s; I agree with him that the web can take all these individual judgements and turn them into a collective decision.

The problem is that the myriad individual decisions are resolutely crap ones. Why? Because there is a suppressed premise in all of this. True, apple pie is yummy; most moms are great; moms do indeed deserve to have apple pies made for them by penurious offspring. However, the offspring do not deserve to have their donor pie in effect made for them many times over simply because they have access to the web. To begin with, such $49,000 apple pies will be the outliers of crowdfunding appeals, but in time – due to the underlying dynamics – they will increase in number, until the total crowdfunding pie will be divided up between a few such specious enterprises; then the whole thing will collapse in a puff of pixels.

The confirmation of the beginning of the end of crowdfunding was presented to me just a few days after I read about the $49,000 apple pie in USA Today. I was strolling along the promenade at Venice Beach admiring the weathered skins of the sun-and-marijuana-baked hobos, when a leaflet was thrust into my hand. “Donate one dollar so we can raise a million dollars to make a movie!” the thruster cried – and when I read the leaflet it cried the same thing. This was crowdfunding taken back to the streets, trying to re-create the conditions demanded by Surowiecki’s theory by decoupling it from the web altogether. Naturally, the crowd was far too wise to engage with such arrant bullshitting, and there were many discarded leaflets papering the asphalt. After all, while the wannabe film producers thought they were engaging in a novel and democratised form of financing, the crowd saw their efforts for the timeless phenomenon they were: begging. 

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State