File this post under “Speculative, highly.”
I cannot seem to let go of the fact that after almost two and a half centuries, the publication of print editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica will cease. I’m old enough to have actually used volumes of that esteemed reference work many times throughout my educational history. I thought it was cool; intimidating, but cool. The definitive sum total of human knowledge, all in one place?Â Of course, now I understand how foolhardy a notion it was that one body of elitistÂ individuals could possibly achieve such a goal, but at the time? Man!
It’s worth noting that while the print publication of “the Britannica,” as many of us (pretentiously) called it, is going to cease, the online edition continues to be available, though it has long since been lapped by Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia. Actually, I love the idea of it (not sold on the reality all the time): that the curating and cultivation and maintenance of the great storehouse of human knowledge might be democratized. Yes, there’s still a role to be played by scholars and experts, but that role is balanced by the swarming and multitudinous perspectives of the vox populi. It floats my boat big time.
I also think the move from Britannica to Wikipedia might be emblematic of a broader national shift that’s about to begin, if it hasn’t already: from singular institutions controlling and “owning” culture to collectively-created, decentralized cultural centers that might resemble what we have on the surface, but that will operate at a deeper level in very different ways. If that’s true — and my gut tells me it is, but I don’t know — then I have to ask: what would theater look like in a post-Britannica, Wikipedia world?
For example, what does the role of an artistic director become? When she doesn’t get to actually choose a season, for example (again, I’m speculating here) — when her job is simply to create and sustain a platform for others’ creativity — what does she do?Â What is a theater, furthermore, if it doesn’t have a fixed season? I mean, that’s how I think of the Britannica: a fixed “season” of knowledge that only gets updated every so often. Wikipedia changes every minute, by contrast: what would that rate of development mean for a theater? Each show developing on its own time-table, “launching” whenever it’s ready? Maybe.
The truth is, I don’t think we know precisely what changes will be coming. I don’t think the good folks at Britannica knew what was coming when Wikipedia first appeared on the scene, either. I bet they didn’t feel the least bit threatened, but the truth is that their raison d’etre was shortly going to be radically revolutionized. This is the same thing that happened to the people who sold classified ads when Craigslist came along, incidentally. They were dead before they knew who their competitors were.
So… is a similar transformation about to affect the lives of the folks who run our largest and most stable theatrical institutions? Are they all going to be doing something completely different in a decade or so? If so, do they even suspect it? Do they know where the change might be coming from, even? Do you?
I have one or two ideas, but I can’t quite articulate them yet: I’d rather hear from others. So… what do you think?