Many say, this is the future. As we gaze toward the horizon, waiting patiently for the next new thing to appear, we cover our eyes. In the photograph above, some focus on Mr. Zuckerberg striding confidently and unencumbered by direct network inputs, but my eyes drift toward those whose eyes are captured by the technology.
It's a sea of true believers–alone together. What are they seeking? The moment they believe they've found it; that is the moment of true danger.
There’s a beautiful interview with the musician Robyn Hitchcock in the LA Review of Books. He talks about how the music business has changed and how he’s changed his own practice. But it was this sentence that really caught my attention.
People measure their lives out in fashion and in pop culture.
There’s a contingent that believes that the spirit of rock and roll has moved to the technology business and specifically the manifestation of creativity through the inter-network of connected computers. Even some in the rock music business have held that belief.
On the one hand we have the perception of geniuses moving the focus of their attention from one thing to another. The older view is that the genie moves and occupies a new home. In this view, it’s people who are attracted by the genius of a place.
Here’s a longer piece of Hitchcock’s quote from the LARB interview. When he comes to the current generation of young people, he says they will measure their lives in units of climate change. Sometimes you choose things; sometimes things choose you.
As they say, “Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.” Pop culture is now about the same age as I am. I was born in 1953, and rock ’n’ roll seems to have bubbled into being around the same time. Not many people around now actually remember when it started.
People measure their lives out in fashion and in pop culture. They have since World War II, since there’s been no enormous eruption to shatter everything. And everything has been recorded and then re-recorded or adapted to be on a new format, so sound recordings would go from being on a 33 1/3 LP to being on a cassette to being on a CD that came from the quarter-inch tape. But it keeps getting upgraded; you can listen to it on LP again now. It’s just that there’s now so much of it — people’s lives are measured out in, “Oh yeah, do you remember the Specials?” “Oh, right.” “Cyndi Lauper.” “Oh, I lost my virginity to ‘Time After Time’.” I mean, I didn’t personally, but you know, somebody probably did. Or “I had the best hangover of my life after going to see Blur.” You see people feeling about the Stone Roses the same way that I felt about the Jefferson Airplane, and you see those people also getting older. I look around at the punks now, who are a few years younger than me, and they’re all coming up 60. There was a time when punks made me feel old, because I was such a determined Class of ’67 guy and I couldn’t really embrace ’77 fully.
It’s the currency. My parents’ generation had the war, my generation just had drugs, the next generation had irony, and the ones after that have got climate change. [laughs]
What does it mean to measure out your life in units of climate change? Before the apocalyptic moment, we get a call for absolute discipline in an effort to extend the runway, to defer the moment when the world as we know it, ends. But if you look at the way past generations have measured themselves, there was always a sense of freedom, adventure and possibility.
At first, the measure of climate change presents itself as the end of freedom. Now we have to buckle down and impose the hard austerity that will save this world of ours. Any creativity is backwards looking. But the younger generation tends to gravitate toward the post-apocalyptic moment. After things have fallen apart, a different kind of freedom and possibility emerges. A new generation gap appears, and youth forges a new measuring stick.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
There are many pursuits where it's wise not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But we've reached a point in technology, entertainment, apps and design where there are an abundance of “good” things. We've hit “peak good.”
Linda Holmes, writing for her NPR media blog reported that John Landgraf, CEO of the FX Network, has called a top in the TV business. We've reached peak television.
Landgraf predicted that 2015 or 2016 would represent what he called “peak television” in the United States in terms of sheer volume, followed by a period of contraction. And note well: He doesn't believe all the excess inventory comes from bad and mediocre shows. He says good shows are part of the problem, too: “There's just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones.” (Do you hear that, people who make good shows? You're getting in the way of greatness.)
Entertainment networks now come in two flavors, realtime (old school), and random access catalog. Both have the same basic ingredients: one is a programmed stream of shows; the other is a set of options / suggestions to help you program your own stream. Both have a catalog of new and old material, while realtime networks include live sports and news.
Netflix, when it was the only game in town, seemed like a universal library of almost all the films and television shows you'd want to see. Once other players entered the space and began competing for “content,” the game changed. HBO, Netflix, Showtime, Starz, Hulu, Amazon, and Acorn are the new networks. And the realtime networks have adopted the catalog strategy as well by making their shows available via “on demand.” It's rumored that Apple will be joining the fray with its own original productions in the near future. (It'll be interesting to see how being a content producer changes a technology company that has traditionally been an intermediary with no skin in the game.)
With all the new and historical content now available through various contortions of cable, airplay, computer and app, it's still necessary to apply Sturgeon's Law. 90% of it is crap. In 2015 there will be around 400 scripted original English-language television series. Because we've grown the pie, the 10% that might be considered good is still too many. Most these new programs won't find an audience. Even the “good” ones. The audience has simply been over-served, which means the economics of production will work out for roughly the same number as in the past. The rest will be available to view on-demand from the back catalog.
In these so-called economies of abundance, it's important to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lots of entertainment, music, games, apps and social networks may be good, but that doesn't mean they're worth your time. Good isn't good enough anymore–it's the new baseline. It's the new “C” grade. As an audience member, these networks are competing for our attention (to sell memberships or sell to advertisers). When we deem something “good,” we need to acknowledge that the scale goes up from “good” to “very good” to “excellent.”
The bubble of “goodness” may be short lived as investors begin to experience losses, and the oversupply of new programs can't find audiences and advertisers to sustain them. This particular bubble has been inflated by the technology bubble. When there's a lot of money floating around, inevitably, rich guys are talked into investing in show business. It's a story as old as show business itself.
I came across this piece of music while reading David Byrne's latest post about his new project, Contemporary Color. One of the groups in a competition he was observing performed to a song by Vienna Teng called “The Hymn of Acxiom.” A hymn is a song of praise.
Acxiom is a database company that tracks personal data on the Network. They sell that data to other corporations for a variety of purposes to be used in many contexts. When I was working in online identity, we hired Acxiom to create out-of-band questions as a second factor in user authentication. For instance, you might provide a password and then answer a question from Acxiom. For example, here are three addresses. Have you ever lived at any of them? They can create that kind of question on the fly because they know everything about just about everyone.
Traditionally a hymn is addressed to a deity. The form of this song tells us something about the attitude of the singer. The hymn is also meant to be sung by the community surrounding the deity. Stewart Brand believes that humans have supplanted the gods, and must now act like it, in the face of global warming and other planetary disasters. Certainly humans, as a species, have put a stamp on the fate of the planet and all its inhabitants. But an individual human doesn't have the power of the whole species. And as “gods” is a plural, it doesn't preclude the possibility of others. Say, Acxiom, for instance.
A Hymn of Acxiom
Somebody hears you. You know that, you know that…
Somebody hears you. You know that inside.
Someone is learning the colors of all your moods, to
(say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood.
Here you’re known.
Leave your life open. You don’t have, you don’t have…
Leave your life open. You don’t have to hide.
Someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these
(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.
Keep them all.
Let our formulas find your soul.
We’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),
Marshal feed and force (our machines will)
To design you a perfect love—
Or (better still) a perfect lust.
O how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.
Now we possess you. You’ll own that, you’ll own that…
Now we possess you. You’ll own that in time.
Now we will build you an endlessly upward world,
(reach in your pocket) embrace you for all you’re worth.