[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Technology and the End of Culture

A guest editorial by Robert J. Sawyer

First published in Toronto Computes!, May 1997

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Here's a trick that'll make you money: every time you go to a party where more than twenty-three people are present, bet somebody a dollar that two people in the room have the same birthday. You won't win every time, but you will win more often than you'll lose.

There'll be a new version of this trick a few years from now: betting whether any two people watched the same TV program at eight o'clock last night. Right now, with only about fifty choices in even the best-serviced TV markets, you need just nine people to have a better than even chance that two of them watched the same show (assuming all choices are equally popular).

But soon we'll have a thousand choices — meaning people will have to choose almost at random. With that many choices, you'll need a group of thirty-eight people before the chances are better than 50:50 that any two of them will have tuned in the same show. And, of course, the odds are only one in a thousand that the person you happen to be speaking to watched the same show you yourself did.

For half a century, television has made up the background of our day-to-day lives: everyone knows Lucy and Ricky, Kirk and Spock, Columbo, J. R. Ewing, and Seinfeld, Kramer, George, and Elaine.

But technology is about to change all that. We're on the verge of having not just a few dozen channels to choose from, but many hundreds. Even if you're only interested in English-language TV, you'll have your pick of Canadian programs, American programs, British programs, Australian programs, Jamaican programs, and dozens more.

And that's not all: multimedia production capabilities will soon be within the reach of every computer user, and cable-TV companies are moving to provide Internet access. Desktop TV will become a reality: just as anyone today can publish his or her own electronic magazine, so tomorrow every home will potentially be a TV studio.

What happens to culture in a thousand-channel universe? I'm not talking about highfalutin art — I'm talking about shared experiences and shared thoughts.

The answer is that culture crumbles: the more choice we have, the fewer of us will make the same one — and the fewer things we'll share.

As a writer, I'm ambivalent about the bookstore chain called Bestsellers. You've seen it: little shops in malls that only stock the top-ten titles. My books never show up in there; neither do most of the ones I consider worthwhile.

But, still, there is something to be said for having huge numbers of people reading the same works: the good ideas in David Foot's Boom, Bust and Echo (the number-one bestselling book in Canada last year) are now shared by a large percentage of the population — and the bad or poorly conceived ideas in that book have been given considerable scrutiny and roundly debated.

But as traditional publishing disappears, that's going to change. Everybody will be reading something different, downloaded from a different web site. New ideas won't enter the culture, and analysis of what's being presented will be spotty at best.

The members of the Seinfeld cast are getting huge raises next season. That makes economic sense only because so many people watch that one program. Now, Seinfeld and 60 Minutes and Traders are all terrific shows — but without big audiences, they can't survive.

Fragmentation is going to result in more choice, yes, but the choices will be of lesser quality. Instead of one Seinfeld, we'll have countless no-budget home-produced shows, even cheesier than the one depicted in Wayne's World.

Marshall McLuhan may have been right in the 1960s when he said that new technologies were remaking the world as a global village — but now we're on the verge of seeing that village Balkanized. It is possible to have too much of a good thing: when everyone is a creator, who will be left in the audience?

So, enjoy Seinfeld while you can. It may be one of the last broadly shared cultural experiences the human race ever has.

Robert J. Sawyer of Toronto won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995. His latest novel is Frameshift, published by Tor.

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Rob's op-ed piece on Stephen Hawking's call to colonize space
Rob's op-ed piece on Michael Crichton blending fact and fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on the private sector in space
Rob's op-ed piece on privacy — who needs it?

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