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Plumage from Pegasus
A Short History of the ETEWAF Revolution
Dateline: April 1, 2021
TODAY, some ten years after the spontaneous mass consumer rebellion that came to be known variously as "The ETEWAF Revolution," "The Great Content Purge," or "The Art-Consumer Revolt," just as various creators, media outlets, and distribution channels are finally starting to become active again in a new way, it seems only fitting to offer a brief chronicle of the period that plunged the world into a decade of blissful content-free living, a valuable interregnum and amnesia that allowed humanity to refresh its cultural inventory and memory.
All historians agree that the precipitating event of the ETEWAF Revolution was the death of a would-be Borders Books customer named Stephen Schmalzer. Much like the self-immolation of Tunisian fruitseller Tarek Muhammad Bouazizi, this lone, humble death launched a global paroxysm of outrage and creative destruction that swept away all in its path.
Combined accounts from several witnesses and later journalistic investigations tell the same story of this seminal moment.
One Saturday at the end of March, Schmalzer approached a cashier at the Borders Books in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, with his intended purchase, a DVD set of Two and a Half Men: The Incomplete Eighth Season. He was informed by the clerk that his purchase made him eligible for a bonus disc containing "The Complete Rabid Monologues of Charlie Sheen," but that he would need to present his Borders Loyalty Card to qualify. Schmalzer explained that he had forgotten his card at home. The clerk was unable to find a record of Schmalzer's patronage by other means in the system. Schmalzer begged to be allowed to make his purchase and receive his gift without his card. The clerk denied him. Tempers began to flare, and voices to rise. A line of fellow stymied customers was building, and they began to vociferate on one side of the argument or another. Security guards congregated.
Schmalzer then made his fatal mistake.
Perhaps emulating the bad-boy behavior of Charlie Sheen, he began to grab handfuls of candy from the Lindor Truffles display by the cash register and stuff them into his mouth, unpaid-for and even partially unwrapped. A choking fit abetted by a Tasering precipitated a massive heart attack, Schmalzer went down, and CPR failed to revive him.
A man was dead over a DVD purchase.
The incident might have become no more than fodder for a News of the Weird column were it not for a Twitter user at the scene who employed the handle "@nerdtaku." This person uploaded cellphone photos of the dead Schmalzer accompanied by a tweet that read, "dude died for sucky tv show who nxt?" The tweet went viral.
The subsequent ramping up of the ETEWAF Revolution can be laid decisively at the door of its first major theoretician, the blogger named John Scalzi. Scalzi wrote a long passionate post decrying fanatical fannishness, consumer preoccupation with factitious media properties, authorial laziness and greed, readerly impatience and avidity, corporate crassness and short-sightedness, postmodern ennui, retailer incompetence, shortcomings of the educational system, and a host of other malaises of twenty-first-century capitalism as it involved entertainment and intellectual properties. This post too went viral, racing around the globe and acquiring commentary and amplification.
What happened next in the U.S.A. was replicated subsequently around the world.
Within twenty-four hours of Schmalzer's death, every Borders Books location found itself under siege and put to the torch by angry mobs of consumers. Numerous arrests and pleas by officials, as well as mobilization of the National Guard, only stoked the fury. The attacks quickly spread to Barnes & Noble stores, then to independent bookstores. Other retailers, such as Walmart, Best Buy, and Target, who also sold books, CDs, videogames, and DVDs came under assault as well.
When interviewed, the protesters offered a variety of reasons for their actions, ranging from incoherent angry gibberish to cleverly formulated manifestos. Some seemed to feel that books, music, and movies represented a diseased and decadent culture. Others maintained that they merely wanted to purge the dross so that the gold could stand out. Some lambasted high prices. Others spoke out against unequal marketplace access for all creators. Some trotted out the old rubric, "Information wants to be free." But all were possessed by a violent disgust and repugnance at the marketplace of ideas, and at themselves.
Perhaps the most succinct, intuitive, and accurate assessment of what the revolt was all about came from comedian Patton Oswalt. In an essay that had preceded the rebellion by a few months, Oswalt had coined the acronym ETEWAF: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever. His thesis that instantaneous, cheap, and perpetual availability of the world's entire artistic heritage would paradoxically result in a devaluation and trivialization of culture was now being borne out.
"People," Oswalt remarked now, as he stood being interviewed in the smoking embers of a Costco, "have invested so much in their obsessions that they have come to hate and despise everything they ever loved."
Of course, not only brick-and-mortar stores suffered. Cyberattacks against iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Vimeo, and a myriad of other content-provider sites roiled the internet. The anarchists of 4chan and Anonymous unleashed their supreme efforts.
The next developments were, in retrospect, easily foreseeable, but nonetheless took everyone by surprise.
A vast majority of the planet's authors, dancers, actors, reviewers, critics, musicians, film directors. and other artists joined the global crusade, going on strike and repudiating all their past endeavors. PEN, SAG, the Académie Franšaise, SFWA, the Writer's Guild, the MWA, RWA, and HWA all formally disbanded. The few scabs such as writers of fanfic or home videographers who attempted to continue business as usual were tarred and feathered.
Museums came under attack, with the complete destruction of many, including the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Smithsonian, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Neither were libraries, playhouses, nor theaters spared.
A kind of Dadaist fervor now gripped creators, readers, viewers, and listeners. Only the cynical middlemen seemed immune. Publishers and editors and Hollywood producers tried to maintain the old regime, but failed. Sonny Mehta had to be choppered out of the burning Knopf headquarters, as did Markus Dohle, CEO of Random House, and Doug Morris, head of Sony Music. Likewise with Ariana Huffington, Tina Brown, Tom Doherty, Rupert Murdoch and their peers. Others perished in the chaos. The Burning of Los Angeles and the Black Hole of Bollywood took the lives of many intransigent studio heads.
Within a month of the death of Stephen Schmalzer, nearly all artistic production and distribution had ceased across the developed world, leaving only a few pitiful straggling mimes and oral storytellers at work. Debord's Society of the Spectacle had finally self-destructed.
The subsequent ten years have been something of a mental holiday for the human race, although not one without its rigors and losses. With an end to commodified art, people were free to produce their own—or live entirely without such vicarious indulgences and simulacra. An upsurge in the sales figures for condoms, bicycles, camping equipment, and gardening gear represented merely the tip of the transformational iceberg.
What the timidly resurgent professionally produced music, film, and literature of the rest of the century will look like is anybody's guess. But chances are, no one will ever be willing to die for a TV show again.
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