Essays on Technology and Culture

Couch Potatoes of the 21st Century?

Over at The Guardian, John Naughton bemoans the rise of the new, Internet enabled Couch Potato

What we failed to appreciate was the passivity of most of humanity and its inexhaustible appetite for consumption, entertainment and “infotainment”. The spread of high-speed broadband connections did not liberate human creativity but instead created Couch Potato 2.0, a creature that sees the internet mostly as zillion-channel TV. In that sense, it’s no accident that the corporations which now dominate network traffic are outfits like Google and Netflix, beaming YouTube and movies to you in the comfort of your own settee.

If the dream of the Internet was for everyone in the world to start making stuff, then the dream was far too big. Most people are passive consumers of media, and it’s been this way since the dawn of media. More people watched plays in Ancient Greece than wrote them. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, music instrument ownership was common, but how many instrument owners wrote music, and how many just learned to play popular songs? Instrument ownership is way down from that peak, but there’s certainly more people making new music today. If there’s not more people making it, there’s at least more people putting their music out in the world.

True, a lot of what people are creating is distributed though the centralized networks of Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Soundcloud, DeviantArt, and Instagram. It’s not quite the same as the corporate domination of previous media revolutions. An ordinary person couldn’t expect to get their idea for a TV show on NBC without a lot of work and a lot more luck. Now, you can film a TV show pilot on your phone and post it on YouTube. If the stars align, you might not even need a network deal to get the audience, and the money, to make more of it. Most of these centralized clearinghouses for (ugh) “content” don’t exert more than the bare minimum of editorial oversight, so anything goes. It’s not the open, democratized, everyone controlling their Internet Identity that some of the technologists dreamed of in the late 90s, and perhaps we should bemoan that. Still, you can’t deny that these centralized services take a lot of the pain out of making new things.

There are more people making things than ever before. But they’re not the majority, and never will be. No matter how easy we make it to make things, put them on the Internet, and find them, it’ll always be something pursued in earnest by the sort of people who want to make things, the sort who always have. Beyond that, even creators take their time to be passive and watch Netflix, too. Naughton admits that “the internet of our (utopian) dreams hasn’t ceased to exist. It’s just that it’s becoming a minority sport.” Problem is, making stuff has always been a minority sport. The minority is getting larger, but it’s always going to be a minority. Even in the Star Trek future, not everybody’s writing Holonovels, when there’s planets to explore. To create isn’t divine, it’s just human, but it’s not the only thing that makes us so.