Jan. 8, 2015

The Content Singularity

Think back to the time before the Internet, if you're old enough. How did you get entertainment? Typically, you had to drive to a store pay some not insubstantial amount of money, then drive back home and watch your movie or read your book. If you rented the movie, you'd have to drive back again to return it. If you wanted to read a newspaper, you had to do the same or arrange a subscription to have it delivered to your house. Even then, once you finished reading it (this might take an hour or two, to peruse everything that interested you), that was it. There wouldn't be another one until tomorrow. Likewise with magazines, except you'd have to wait a whole week or even a month for those. Basically, there was a physical limit to how much entertainment you could consume at anyone time. TV, was always there of course, but you were limited to whatever the networks had decided to program at that time. Over time cable options grew and suddenly there were hundreds of channels providing entertainment options 24 hours a day. Still, once you flipped through all those channels, you were left with whatever as on, and there was a good chance that none of it interested you.

The Internet came along and changed all this. Suddenly, there was a world of information at your fingertips. In the beginning, (I'm referring to the early 90s here and the advent of widespread consumer Internet. I'm sure many of you are scoffing heartily about how everything started much much earlier than that) the Internet too was fairly limited. Information was sparse and of unknown provenance. The main draw was the ability to connect to real live people all over the world who wanted to talk about whatever you wanted to talk about at the moment.

This brings us to the present day. As Internet speeds have grown and search functionality has improved it is now possible to obtain practically any piece of media that has ever existed at a moment's notice. Entertainment used to be a fairly scarce resource. You had to make do with what you could get, when you could get it, and figure out yourself what to do the rest of the time. Right now, thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and the like most of us lucky enough to be living in the developed world have access to more entertainment than we can consume in a lifetime at any moment. We are living in a post-scarcity entertainment economy, and I don't think the entertainment industry has caught on to this yet.

Netflix, for example, supposedly has at least a petabyte of video stored. If this were relatively uncompressed HD video at 8 GB/hour (it's not), that's 125,000 hours of video. At the 4 hours per day of TV watching the average American does (so we're told), this is 85 years worth of content. Granted, not all of it is necesarily going to be of interest to any one person, but this is a fairly low estimate, and that's only the content on one service. Once you add the books available through your Kindle, the other video services, YouTube, blogs, news sites, music streaming services, etc, it's fair to say that the average person has available to them at any given time, enough entertainment to last a lifetime. And still, there's more being created every day.

This isn't to say that we should stop. People will continue creating art, regardless, of how much of it there is, for the same reason they always have: because there is a truth inside them that they need to communicate to other people. This is a worthwhile endeavor, and I think it should be encouraged. What I do think is going to happen is that the current entertainment industry and the profits it generates, are unsustainable. Imagine what would happen to the price of oil if everyone suddenly had an oil well in their living room that could generate a lifetime worth of oil on demand. That's about what the situation is with entertainment. The demand for the kind of give-your-mind-a-rest, just sit and consume for an hour or two entertainment is fairly permanently filled. Every new piece of entertainment has to compete not only with whatever else is on at the time, but with everything that has ever existed to that point. This is a great time to be an entertainment consumer, but I think it's going to be pretty lousy to be an entertainment producer.