We Cannot Amuse Ourselves to Death
And that is far more worrying than the idea that we could.
“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.” — Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves
The world economy is a myth — or at least that’s a point made by Yuval Harari in his landmark success, Sapiens. His broader argument is that our species came to dominate the earth not due to superior intelligence or physical prowess, but rather because of our unique ability to create and share myths, like religion, or the economy. As he points out, there is roughly ten trillion dollars circulating in the world economy, and yet only one trillion of that actually exists. This is sustainable because of credit — banks and other financial institutions will lend out money that does not yet exist, with the calculated understanding that by investing in the future, they will make money, and the economy will grow. Humanity, then, has, consciously or not, created and shared the myth that the economy of tomorrow will be larger, as measured by goods and services consumed within it, than the economy of today. It follows that the health of any economy is measured by its growth.
Since economic growth is measured by an increase in the amount of goods and services consumed, it follows that for an economy to keep growing, more and more resources must be created and consumed within it. Many of these are finite resources, like oil, water, or lumber. Resource finitude is a catch-22 for the modern economy — in order to sustain itself, it must continue to consume finite resources,¹ but the nature of finite resources is just that — eventually, they run out. Harari points out that as the economy has grown, resource finitude has become less of an issue, because our economy has found both new, less finite resources, as well as more efficient ways of consuming existing finite resources. In the case of energy, an example of the former would be creating solar panels to harness the nearly infinite energy of the Sun, while examples of the latter would be fracking (easier access to oil) or hybrid cars (more efficient use of gasoline). Finding these new and more effective ways of harnessing energy has allowed the economy to continue growing, and yet still, given that the projected economy is multitudes larger than the the actual modern economy, it remains true that the economy will have to keep growing to keep up with the credit myth.
There are two main ways for the the economy to achieve this growth. First, it can optimize existing consumption of finite resources, and second, it can find new, less finite resources to consume. There exists, however, beyond those two options, a third, which, for an economy to which anything other than growth (measured by consumption) is an existential threat, would be a perfect solution — a panacea. This option is simple: offer an infinitely produceable and infinitely consumable resource that consumers want. Even better would be if that same resource created its own demand, requiring consumers to take in more and more of it to derive the same level of satisfaction. Drugs are an example of this, but they have a fundamental flaw — consume too much of them, and you die. (It is not hard to see why a resource that eventually kills its consumer is an existential threat to a consumptive economy.) There is, however, a “resource” already, if it can be so named, that fits this description. That resource is entertainment.
According to the dictionary definition, “to entertain” is “to provide someone with amusement or enjoyment.”² Of dictionary definitions I’ve come across, this one seems especially broad, and appropriately so — there are quite literally limitless ways to amuse or invoke enjoyment within people. Amusement, the henceforth defined result of entertainment, is ubiquitous, the result of everything from watching TV to brushing one’s teeth with toothbrushes that light up when used. These shows and products entertain precisely because they amuse, precisely because they blunt the mundanity of everyday life. Admittedly, it does not appear to be wrong for a company to make the use of its products amusing; in fact, it would almost appear wrong for them not to. And yet, I ask you to consider this. It is the nature of a market-based society that the products we consume must be literal reflections of ourselves — our wants; our needs; our insecurities. It is a definite commentary on the character of modern society, then, that so many of the most popular products are the ones that offer — beyond objective utility — amusement.
As an example, the makers behind Ramune (ラムネ), the Japanese soda sold around the world, decided years ago that their product wasn’t good enough on its own, so they decided to alter the process of opening it such that the drinker must press hard on a marble that acts as the carbonation sealant, and pop it into a little carrying pouch in the neck of the bottle. This is a pointlessly hard exercise, but it is undeniably somewhat thrilling, or dare I say — amusing, and people will purchase the soda simply to open the bottle. Many of the most successful products of the modern era have effectively blended amusement into the mundane, because in this era, it is no longer reliably good enough to be simply functional.³ Thus, it is true that our generation is objectively the most entertainment-hungry — and by extension, amused — generation that has ever lived. To understand what this means is to question what happens to a society when the incentives that drive action within that society are rooted within amusement.
In Amusing Ourselves: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman examined this very question, arguing that television had altered the nature of society such that people preferred amusement over truth. He predicted that this shift in preference would manifest in ugly ways within the political sphere, as people became drawn to candidates not for the substance of their person, but rather for the image they portrayed, and the emotions they evoked. (Sound familiar?) For this reason, his book, originally published in 1985, is now considered prophetic, and yet it addresses only the effect of entertainment on public discourse — admittedly worrisome, but far from the whole picture.
What Postman missed, or simply didn’t acknowledge, was entertainment’s potential to have effects far beyond public discourse. Given that it is addictive (i.e. more and more is required to achieve the same level of amusement each time), infinitely replicable,⁴ and infinitely consumable,⁵ the natural result of its gradual progression into modern society is that eventually, nothing will remain untouched by it. It is impossible to argue that the entertainment of today is less amusing than that of years ago, and the reason for this is simple: like with drugs, consumers build up a tolerance to being amused. Unlike with drugs, however, consumers cannot overdose on the source of that amusement, which is, of course, entertainment.⁶
Immersive entertainment is the future — entertainment that engages us with worlds and experiences that appear so real that they may as well be. Already, video games and experiences that utilize virtual reality are normalizing. So too is it true that for many young men out of college, video games are an escape from a world that is otherwise too mundane for minds suffering from the same problem an addict does — needing increased levels of [insert stimulation] to achieve the same satisfaction as before. Whereas television offered the viewer an opportunity to unconsciously consume entertainment, video games immerse players within it. Almost more importantly, they provide the player with something that neither products nor television ever could: the feeling of progress towards a goal, and a true sense of achievement upon hitting it. Layer in virtual reality, and these games essentially replicate the lives players could live outside of the game, the only difference being that the companies providing players with the opportunity to live within the virtual world can make real profit off them by selling them virtual goods — in-game purchases — at zero marginal cost. This model, as pointed out in a recent Vox video, has been adopted widely and effectively by companies savvy enough to take advantage.
What is so profound about this idea — that people will pay for things that have no intrinsic value — is that it brings into question the validity of the entire basis of our transactional economy: money. The intrinsic value of the dollar, or any fiat currency, is essentially zero — it only has value because we as a society have created and shared the myth that it does. It follows, then that if retailers suddenly stopped accepting currency as a medium of exchange, the world economy would collapse. Similarly, if users within freemium apps and players within online or VR-based games stopped seeing value of in-game purchases — goods that quite literally do not exist, and have zero intrinsic value — those apps and games would cease to exist, as well. The economies within online games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft are entirely made up — they are nothing more than collections of code; collections of ones and zeroes — and yet there are millions of dollars of real currency flowing through them at any given moment because people are willing to pay for the virtual goods within the games, and the only truly objective measure of a good’s value — virtual or not — is just that: the willingness of a consumer to pay for it. Unlike the economies of old, which by nature of supplying finite goods, allowed only for finite consumption within a finite world, video games allow for infinite consumption within an infinite number of infinite worlds.⁷ Thus, it appears that the consumption of an infinitely produceable, infinitely consumable, and addictive resource — immersive entertainment — will be the panacea of panaceas for an economy whose mythical nature means it requires continued growth to survive.
Postman wrote about the effect of entertainment on public discourse because that’s where he witnessed its most pernicious effects. As important to consider, now, is what the effect of entertainment will be on society once it has permeated everywhere.
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Originally published on my blog.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Yuval Noah Harari, Neil Postman, Ben Thompson, and James Allsworth for inspiring the thoughts that lead to articles like this. Thanks also to David Perell for his feedback.
¹ When I say that the “economy is consuming” something, I mean that actors within that economy are consuming something. The economy is nothing more than a collection of actors producing and then consuming resources, but I wanted to clarify exactly what is meant by saying that the economy is consuming something because it is not entirely clear that the economy is a tangible entity, but it is undeniably a mythical entity comprised of many tangible entities — humans.
² From here on, I use entertainment and amusement almost interchangeably, but I try to point to entertainment as the driver of amusement, i.e. cause and effect. The sentence structure that follows would be that we consume entertainment because it amuses us, not that we consume entertainment because it entertains us, or that we consume amusement because it entertains us, though the three sentences mean the same thing. It’s just a language choice.
³ There has actually been a spike in popularity of goods that pride themselves on being purely functional. If anything, this bolsters my point.
⁴ To say that virtual goods are infinitely replicable is not entirely true. Their production still relies on the use of finite inputs — labor, energy, etc.
⁵ Similarly, to say that amusement itself is infinitely consumable is probably not entirely true. Consuming amusing content will not kill us, but there’s still a limited number of hours in the day, meaning we cannot do it truly endlessly. Amusement is, however, something that we can consume far more of than we could of a resource like water. Similarly, our consumption of it is not constrained by the same scarcity that a tangible good like oil is.
⁶ Maybe we can. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s killed anyone yet — at least not directly.
⁷ Limitless virtual worlds that enable limitless consumption will still rely on scarce resources — elements, labor, energy, etc. — but it is undeniable that the level of consumption they will enable will be less than the consumption enabled by the economies of the past, which relied on the consumption of almost exclusively finite resources.