#87: Paleo Internet

Drew Austin
May 3 · 3 min read

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In 1998, Richard Meltzer, wrote that rock music “was possibly once needed, but that was before it was everywhere — when you didn’t hear it in supermarkets or coming out of every Mercedes at a stoplight — before ‘rock-surround.’ What we need now is to turn it off.” The world where rock music is scarce is impossible for me to imagine, as that world had vanished before I was born. On the other hand, things that transitioned from scarcity to abundance during my lifetime, like the internet, are actually easier to imagine not existing, because I experienced both states. Having lived my entire life in what Meltzer calls “rock-surround,” it’s unfathomable that the music was ever something we didn’t hear pretty much everywhere, and it’s fun to imagine how that felt. For the same reason, it’s also hard to relate to Meltzer’s solution to the problem — turning the music off — because for me it’s always been on. Rock music is just part of the landscape. My specific generation (“old millennial”), however, is more comfortable imagining some version of “turning off” the internet, or at least reducing its involvement in our lives, maybe because we remember life before it.

Our experience with the internet so far is fairly short and limited, though. Here’s a compelling tweet from a year ago: “If something is too expensive for most people to buy, standardize and produce in volume. If later it becomes so cheap that people are no longer price sensitive, make an artisan version.” From this perspective, the evolution of the internet to date can be understood as merely the first phase of the cycle, with the artisan phase coming next. The things that internet platforms currently deliver more efficiently than the systems they replaced — everything that feels suddenly overabundant now — can, through this lens, be understood as a standardization of information to facilitate its mass distribution. This is true of social interaction, “content,” and even knowledge itself. The bounty is currently so overwhelming that it feels like a pure improvement. How dare we complain that Netflix degrades the experience of watching a single movie, when it offers us an inexhaustible quantity of movies relative to its predecessors.

Look at how our attitudes toward food have evolved: While industrial food production massively increased the carrying capacity of the human race, the food was generally lower quality, and more recent movements like the paleo diet emerged as the more expensive (artisanal) corrections to those long periods of standardization. Now we can imagine, and see the beginnings of, a similar pendulum swing in our attitudes toward everything that software has eaten. What will the digital paleo diet look like? That’s an interesting question, but here’s an equally important one: To whon is that paleo diet available? The artisanal version of something that has been cheapened for mass consumption, as we all know, is more expensive, practically by definition, as it reintroduces scarcity (and the associated enchantment) into a climate of excess. Unfortunately, when scarcity returns, the world has already rebuilt itself upon the assumption of excess; every hunter-gatherer could eat a paleo diet but eight billion of us can’t now. A few weeks ago Nellie Bowles published an article titled “Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good,” and while the article itself didn’t go as deep as I’d hoped, the title was evocative enough. Whatever the digital paleo diet ends up being, it will probably also be a luxury good.

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Drew Austin

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I write about cities and technology at https://kneelingbus.net. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter here: https://eepurl.com/cxO73D