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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
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
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.
More Good Reading
Rob's op-ed piece on The Canada Council and science fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on science: ten lost years
Rob's op-ed piece on multitasking and attention deficit
Rob's op-ed piece on a bright idea for atheists
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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