What to do when nothing really matters?
There is now infinite stuff. It was always the case that a human lifetime is not long enough to be able to experience all that humans have created: go back a couple hundred years and there were already too many books to read, too many paintings to see. The 20th century added radio, magazines, photographs, TV, film, comics, video games. The 21st century has already contributed blogs, vlogs (does anyone still use that term?), self-publishing, tiktoks. Whatever comes next.
720,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day.1
An average of 29 new games were released every day on Steam in 2021.2
It’s hard to get a definitive number of books released each year, but most sources seem to estimate it being several million.
So, yes. There’s infinite stuff. And when there’s an infinite amount of content, does any of it have any actual worth? In a post-scarcity entertainment landscape, how does enthusiasm even work? Fandom? Longevity?
Spielberg released a movie and nobody noticed
In 2021 West Side Story was released and it felt like nobody realised. A big budget Spielberg film, receiving excellent reviews, and it passed quietly without notice? There were many contributing factors, but as someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s it was remarkable. I remember even lesser Spielberg fare like Hook being massive cultural moments in their time.
In the 1990s when I was getting into video games, I’d get perhaps one or two new games per year. That was partly because my pocket money didn’t stretch far, but it was primarily because there weren’t many games released - especially on the weird, niche Acorn platform. Even looking more widely to the Amiga and consoles, and the quantity of new releases was still manageable. You could be informed and an expert without much time investment. Even on a single platform - Steam - it’s now impossible to keep up with new releases.
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Also back then, as a teenager, I recall scavenging for every tiny morsel of science fiction on British television. It was rare and often broadcast at bizarre times. Almost all of it was a Star Trek spin-off show. When I discovered Babylon 5 it was a special thing: its scarcity made it memorable. These days, there are hundreds of new science fiction shows appearing just on Netflix - as well as on Disney+, Amazon and other streaming services. If any of these shows had come out in the 90s they’d likely have been my favourite show - now they’re just one among a sea of high production value entertainment products.
The challenge is with the amount of content but also sometimes in the way it is released. Technopoptimism (that’s really hard to type) covered this succinctly here:
It’s been interesting seeing Disney+ (and Amazon, to a degree) returning to the slow-release model. As a geriatric millennial it reminds me of how I used to watch stuff, which I find pleasing; I’ve no idea how it plays to younger viewers who grew up with binge built-in. I doubt the reveal of ‘baby Yoda’ in The Mandalorian’s first episode would have been such a big pop culture moment if the entire show had been dumped online in one go, though - it was the time gap between episodes which created the conversation, online and offline.
Despite me mentioning the 90s, this isn’t about nostalgia or wanting to go back to how things were. Scavenging for scraps back then was not a fun time.
The slow-release model that Disney+ are going for combines the best of both worlds: for the most engaged, a sense of community experience is fostered during the initial run, week-by-week. After that, all the episodes are available for re-watch and for others to catch up, just like buying a DVD box set back in the day. That’s where the similarity lies with online serial fiction writers - I have some readers who read Tales from the Triverse week-by-week, and others who jump on later in the process. I saw this with my fantasy epic The Mechanical Crown over on Wattpad, which I serialised every week for three years. There were some readers who were there from the beginning, experiencing its creation in real time. Now that the book is complete, new readers still come along and encounter the story in a more traditional book format.
Carving out a space as a creator
Part of me misses the days of their being so few good shows that you really invested in the good ones. And none of this is to criticise the creative work being done - the average quality of entertainment these days is off the chart compared to when I was a kid, for the most part.
There are other benefits. Having this amount of stuff has also led to greater diversity, within stories and behind-the-scenes. Fiction is increasingly representative, which means a) more people can find something to relate to personally, b) everyone else gets to encounter cultures and ideas outside of their immediate experience and c) there’s a wider range of stories and storytelling techniques. That also means that no matter what you’re into, there’s probably something out there for you.
As a creator, though, it’s intimidating. It’s the creative equivalent of the Total Perspective Vortex, from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whereby you are forced to become aware of the scale of the universe and the logical inconsequential nature of your own existence. In a world of infinite stuff, what hope do I have of being noticed or discovered?
And yet, it happens. People do read my work (hello!), and the work of others. ‘Creators’, as an umbrella term, have never had so many outlets for their projects. YouTube, podcasts, Kickstarter, Patreon, Substack, Amazon, Itch.io, DriveThruRPG - and countless others.
There may not be infinite people to go with the infinite stuff, but there’s still an awful lot of us. Billions. Each person searching for meaning, or entertainment, or a bit of both. The internet enables creators to potentially reach any other person who is connected, which is a much better prospect than in the 90s when I’d be lucky to get the word out to people in my class at school.
I suppose my conclusion is: hold your nerve. You may only be a tiny dot in an infinite sea of dots, but there’s a whole bunch of other tiny dots who are searching for you.
What do you think? Are we better off now, or do you yearn for the Good Old Days?