Have you ever read an interesting article on the internet or watched an intriguing YouTube video, had the impulse to enter the discussion by writing down your thoughts in the comment section, but balked when you saw that there were already hundreds or even thousands of comments there? Did you lose heart when you realized your comment would be lost in that sea of responses?
Comment sections on the web may once have been meant to be uplifting tributes to individual liberty. We’re free to share our thoughts and we can even form impromptu communities of likeminded individuals. But there’s an unintended consequence when an enormous crowd of readers or viewers shows up to offer their opinions too, so that the individual who’s meant to be sovereign in a free society is swept up in a mob mentality or is overcome by the glut of data.
The question presents itself: Why write at all when so many other people now are doing so? Why add your comment to an article you like when in the hundreds of other comments that have already appeared there, your point has likely already been made? More than that, though, why write articles when the internet as a whole is afflicted with oversupply at all levels? Why make YouTube videos or podcasts? Why write novels or draw pictures or make music on the internet when your work will just be submerged by the rest?
Of course, if you can make a living as a creative person, then that’s why you produce that work, to make money and support yourself or your family. But this answer begs the question, because the oversupply of digital content has prevented the majority of content creators from being able to do precisely that, to make a living.
It’s not just that when the tools have become more affordable so that more would-be artists can try their luck, the majority will fail because talents aren’t evenly distributed. When the opportunities to create art are expensive, only the more talented individuals will apply or at least the less talented will be discouraged from making the attempt. But when the market has been democratized so that everyone and their grandmother is writing a novel or a song, the majority of the works are bound to be in low demand, because most people aren’t great novelists or musicians. Just because you can create something doesn’t mean you should.
But that’s not the only consideration here. The other problem is that the value of even works that would once have been deemed great has plummeted because digitization and the internet trivialize all content. Remember the myth of King Midas and his vain prayer to be able to create gold with just his touch? He died of starvation. The idea is that when some prize is too easily won, you end up ruing it; we take for granted that which is too plentiful and easily obtained.
Currently, you’re reading this article. There are many thousands of comparable articles on the internet, available for free. So why are you reading this one when you could be reading that one? Why did I bother to write this article when similar content has already been provided somewhere else or when this article will soon enough be swept into oblivion?
Indeed, if you’re an above-average writer or other content-creator, you have the added indignity of having your work obscured not just by a sea of other works, but by a sea of inferior ones. It’s not just that talents aren’t evenly distributed, since the free-for-all attracts hacks and charlatans and fake news and spam and twaddle and fluff. Not all content is created in good faith, and the cream doesn’t always rise to the top.
The Dwindling Miracle of Making a Living as an Artist
There’s a strange miracle afoot, which is that somehow editorialists in the legacy media still have jobs. Think of the opinion columnists at the NY Times. They go on television and offer their opinions, and millions flock to read their weekly thoughts. Is that audience unaware of the fact that for every David Brooks or Maureen Dowd column, there are thousands of comparable, free articles all across the blogosphere and personal websites and discussion forums and comment sections?
You may be thinking that the established writers in the corporate media still have prestige and authority, and it’s more convenient to go through a single source that curates the content, like a particular magazine, instead of having to waste time mining for nuggets in the dark places of the cyber sphere. But there is no such thing as proper authority when it comes to opinion writers. Brooks and Dowd have their opinions on culture and politics, and so do everyone else and their grandmothers. The difference is that it used to be expensive to publish your thoughts. Now it’s easy to do so, so hundreds of millions of folks are doing so. Some of those free articles likely aren’t worth reading, but lots of them are; just because much content is ignored, doesn’t mean it should be.
So will the next generation of opinion readers still think of their favourite writers as having anything that could be called “authority”? The old technological barriers against publishing opinions once generated the illusion that the minority who became writers were the only ones worth reading. Now that the plethora of self-published opinions on the web has dispelled that illusion, the question is why any single author of opinions should be trusted.
You may agree with one author more than another, but for every writer you enjoy reading, you should know by now that there are thousands of others that would be just as agreeable to you. Indeed, there must be thousands of others you’d agree with even more or whose works would otherwise prove more rewarding, if only you stopped reading that first source you wrongly deemed to be especially trustworthy and went back to surfing the waves for new content. The writer’s mystique has been lost, because the digitization of content has flooded the market so that the face of each author disappears in the crowd. Of course, the same applies to painters, musicians, teachers, computer programmers, and any other type of creative person whose work can be placed on the internet.
As for convenience, Google is aiming to replace all content curators by making it increasingly easy to find exactly what you want just with that search engine. Do you want to read about how the data glut on the internet trivializes content? How about just articles on that topic written by authors whose last name starts with “R”? When Google gets around to making that happen, the content’s location on the internet won’t matter, because the search engine will find that content and distribute it to whomever’s asking for it.
Living and Creating in a Multitude
The internet is a boon for the consumer, but not so much for the producer. And again, even the benefit to the consumer of such a wealth of free content is insidious. I remember how much more I used to enjoy music when I bought tapes and CDs at a brick-and-mortar store in the ’80s and ’90s, pulled out the paper cover and read the lyrics while listening to the songs on a Walkman. Now songs are disposable because they’re everywhere. They’re even written to be disposable or to be only rudely addictive, because of how fickle the listeners have become. Eventually, computer programs will write their own music and it will sound just as good as the human product. At that point, why should anyone care about listening to or producing music?
I ask again, why create anything in this environment? Underlying this question, I think, is the deeper one of the individual’s value in a large society. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors confined themselves to small tribes in which everyone was friends with everyone else. In such small groups, everyone had value because each member was valued personally by everyone else in the tribe. In a civilization, though, you’re only a stranger to most people crowding the public places. If you’re a stranger to most people in your country, why shouldn’t you be a stranger to yourself? What is the value of an individual’s life that’s often effectively anonymous?
Do you see the similarity? Whether you add your content to the internet under your personal name or a nickname, your work is as good as anonymous because there’s already a superabundance of equal or superior work out there in the midst of which your contribution will soon enough be lost. Even if Google provides access to your work and there are fans that seek out and enjoy your content, it will eventually dawn on those consumers that they could be doing better — in which case the power of technology will have undermined the humanist myth that people are inherently valuable.
Civilization is the equivalent of the internet, since both are sources of trivialization. The internet trivializes and thus devalues content, while civilization does the same for the citizens themselves. Mass citizens are disposable to aristocrats, dictators, politicians, advertisers, and corporations that tend to dehumanize the population precisely by thinking cynically of the members as being part of a “mass” or “mob.” But the epidemic of modern anxiety or depression signals the discovery that in such megapopulations that comprise the United States or Europe or China, we seem disposable to ourselves.
A Sketch of an Answer
Why create anything these days? Why go on living as part of a faceless herd? Artists are inspired to create, just as everyone is genetically driven to endure hardships, to love ourselves and our life. But that cause isn’t a sufficient reason. Just because you probably will create, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you probably won’t give up in despair, doesn’t mean you’re right to go on as normal.
Moreover, although the artist may be driven to express her thoughts, sublimate her emotions, explore her unconscious, honour her muse, or otherwise better herself by producing her art, that doesn’t justify making her work public, since she could produce the same art and stick it in a drawer. Why join the larger discussion, then, and contribute to the avalanche of information?
I can’t hope to answer these questions fully here, but so as not to end on a downer, I’ll just point out that by creating art we add to ourselves. Plato called these works “brainchildren” and he thought they can immortalize us. Certainly, his writings immortalized him, because in the ancient world he had so few competitors. Plato is remembered long after he died because his works outlived him.
The internet will likely outlive all of its current users. Our merger with computers may one day enable us to digest prodigious quantities of information, to read and comprehend, for example, all the articles and books that have ever been written about information overload. That future superhuman reader may thus be familiar with the works of each of those thousands of authors, including this very article you’re reading.
Similarly, if we expand our empathy and our curiosity, by recognizing the universal, existential problems faced by everyone regardless of their affiliations, we may not feel so faceless because we’d once again be actively, directly appreciated by everyone in our surroundings.
In short, the problem with oversupply is that the demand doesn’t meet what’s become so plentiful, whether that’s content or the human population. The bounty turns out to be a liability because we’re too narrow-minded to appreciate it. If we enlarge our mentality, however, we may rise to the challenge presented by our technology.