The Abundance of Talent

Is talent scarce or abundant? Jon Udell suggests that the question is fundamental to the argument over DRM: if talent is scarce, if it will always express itself, then we must protect what we have rather than encouraging creativity. I will explain why I believe, as does Jon, that talent is more abundant than it appears.

Jon excerpts a (to my mind) incendiary passage from Barry Diller:

There’s not that much talent in the world, and talent almost always outs. There’s very few people, in very few closets, that are really talented and can’t find their way out. Somehow they get out.

Jon is willing to allow that this might be the case. I am not. For a start, the very definition of talent depends on the society: talent in one society may be considered eccentricity or irrelevance in another. A given society will recognize one talent and ignore others.

Furthermore, there are numerous examples of variation in the recognition of talent between different societies, suggesting that some are or were more open to producing or recognizing certain kinds of talents:

  • America produces lots of movie stars, and most of those are from the United States – a country with only 5% of the world’s population. How come there aren’t more stars from China, India, or Africa? Are Americans more talented?
  • Nineteenth century America was not a great producer of culture (e.g. of literature, painting, poetry, or philosophy), despite a fair sized population. Ireland, on the other hand, has produced more than its fair share of writers and poets.
  • Women have been and continue to be under-represented in many fields, from software to A-list bloggers. Are men inherently more talented at blogging?
  • Ancient Athens had a small population, yet produced a tremendous number of talented people in just a couple of generations.
  • Through history there have been places in which talent was concentrated, from theater in Weimar Berlin and Shakespeare’s London to art in Paris and renaissance Florence1. Some of this can be explained through the migration of talented people, but this isn’t sufficient in the case of Florence or London.

Obviously, different people have different opportunities in life – e.g. in terms of education, socialization, and wealth2. But how do we draw the line between the production of talent and its recognition? If we can, is it likely that societies with unequal access to such resources (which is to say all societies) would provide equal opportunities for recognition? Will talent always out?

No. Talent is a product of both nature and nurture. Societies encourage some talents and suppress others; they recognize some people and ignore others. There is no reason whatever to think that contemporary societies in general, or America (which I assume is Diller’s object) are special. To do otherwise is to suggest that talent and its recognition are natural phenomena beyond human control.

Is talent scarce? No, not as much as it appears. Is it abundant? I don’t know, but the examples above – Athens, London, Paris, Florence – suggest that it is. These are places in which extraordinary talents made themselves known. Even if talent is defined more broadly, to encompass more artists and creators, the argument remains the same. Nor does it matter if talent is defined differently by a society with different tastes and values from our own.

Jon has made an insightful connection between talent scarcity and arguments for DRM. But I don’t think it addresses the real reasons for DRM. This restrictive technology isn’t about economic efficiency (the maximization of creativity and culture), but about power. False arguments, like the scarcity and inevitable expression of talent, need to be stripped away to expose the real agenda of those who would rule culture.


1 I drew these example cities from Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, which examines the context of cities which experience golden ages of creativity or innovation.

2 I am not claiming that there is a direct relationship between wealth (or education etc.) and talent. Peter Hall’s theory of cultural golden ages connects them to conflicts within society, and suggests that creative geniuses are often outsiders on the edge of society. Too much wealth could be counter-productive, but no less a factor for that.