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Infinite Jesters

March 1, 2012

Make no mistake: we are living in a golden age. Despite the feeling you or I may have that we are backsliding into oligarchy and apocalyptic gloom, our personal welfare is so much higher than it has ever been, it’s almost impossible to fathom.

For example, how can you measure the value of our Internet interconnections? The fact that we can communicate so easily and so continuously means that we are able to realize whatever plans we may make at any given time.

But even beyond our own enhanced abilities to act in the world, we have also gained the benefits of living in a globalized world, whether those gains are in terms of cheaper products that everyone can somewhat afford (though our cheap electronics may be the result of vestigial imperialism) or the spread of worldly, cosmopolitan goods available for consumption. And no matter how much one may deplore the “Wal-Mart effect” on producers (which poses its own serious problems to the production/distribution ecosystem), cheaper products mean gains for consumers who can spend the saved money on something else.

But even beyond the cost-efficiency gains realized by consumers in terms of goods and services, scarcity has all but disappeared in one particular area that the Internet does a particularly good job of removing barriers to entry: entertainment. YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, [insert your favorite site here], and more allow people to be funny for the world to see for free. Entertainers no longer need scarce stage time or a slot in a scarce broadcast day in order to put out their work to whatever audience they care to reach. Some of the memes, images and comments from anonymous users are often more entertaining, informative or satisfying than an extremely well-produced television show (and it’s almost always free).

Even those who can get the stage time if they want it are in a unique position to put out a product that is more “risky” (i.e., less palatable to the broadest possible audience that industrialized entertainment seeks). E.g.,

And even aside from the enhanced ability of both performers and audiences to find their own niches, we are blessed with more flexibility when it comes to reliving our experiences. Consider that we can carelessly carry around 10,000 performances of artists in our pockets to be recalled at any given time, whereas just 5-10 years ago, we would be anchored to physical media, even assuming one was wealthy enough to afford such media. Substitute 10,000,000 Wikipedia articles if you prefer.

And the magic permanence and memory of the internet also gives us more than just the produced or fleeting daily entertainment: we can look back to the earliest acts of Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Steven Wright, Louis C.K., the above-referenced Steve Martin, and Robin Williams.

And this is just stuff that’s coming from people I am aware of as a result of the old-style broadcast distribution models. Who knows how much more untold goodness may lie in the bazillions of podcasts (side-note: Firefox recognizes “bazillions” as a properly spelled word, but not “podcasts,” though “podcast” is acceptable)?

With this profusion of entertainment, I wonder whether there may be a point where there will be so much high-quality content available for free on the Internet (e.g., podcasts, YouTube videos, web games, etc.) such that people will be unable to actually consume all of the content, even if they spent their entire lives sitting down and taking it in? Are we approaching an Infinite Jest-like singularity where we will be unable to make a rational choice to do anything but consume free, high quality entertainment?

Which brings me to another troubling question: if we are increasingly capable of distracting ourselves into oblivion, is there even a distinction between utopia and dystopia?

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