The Future of Narcissism

Alright, so my old friend Travis necroed a note I had posted on Facebook some four years ago about the disposability of content in the modern age. Because it was short, here’s the entire thing note reposted:

Most people don’t realize this, but we live in what used to be called the future.

Don’t believe me? It’s true. Historians are already prematurely calling this the Digital Age, because it can at times seem like the whole world is online and connected to your fingertips. Since we’ve officially entered into the Web 2.0 (that’s a buzzword that you can show off to your boss with) era, there’s been a massive outpouring of words, pictures, and videos of all shapes and sizes.

The problem I have with this is two-fold.

First, the signal to noise ratio has risen to stratospheric levels. For every piece of useful information, there are a hundred pictures of someone’s cat. For every scrap of genuine human insight, there are a hundred teenage girls bitching about a hundred other teenage girls. It’s sometimes possible to tell at first glance what is and what isn’t time-wasting garbage, but the general clues of misspelled words and poor web-formatting aren’t always enough.

Second, our digital medium has a very poor staying power, if any. There was a time in human history when everything that was written down was important, because writing itself was expensive. Papyrus kept well, and can still be read today, whereas our computers don’t come with floppy drives anymore, and the term paper you wrote last semester can’t be opened on your new computer. If your parents made a Betamax home movie, chances are it would be incredibly difficult for you to find a way to play it.

It may not matter to you now, but this era in human history, this Digital Age, is leaving nothing of cultural value behind. There will be too much sewage for the historians to wade through, and the cost of reviving old technology from the dead will be too much work. This is, perhaps, the cost of cultural technology; because everyone can be heard, no one can be heard; because it is easy to create, it is easy to lose.

(Everything from this blog is auto-imported into Facebook, and Google Buzz. If you’re reading this post at one of those places, this is your warning: I like to talk about things that aren’t really all that interesting.)

Anyway, in some hypothetical future where human society has collapsed and been rebuilt, and future historians/anthropologists/archeologists are looking through the remains of our society, they’re going to run into a few problems, as stated above. Hardware and software keep shifting through phases of adoption and obsolescence, which means that the effective lifespan of any digital work isn’t really all that long – even if it’s still on a disk, the odds of the software and hardware supporting that file on that medium get lower and lower with every year.

But the other problem with time as it relates to digital media is that there are some hard limits on how long that stuff can even last. Here are some figures pulled from around the net:
  • Magnetic tape (VHS): 25 years
  • Optical media (CD/DVD): 100-200 years
  • Solid state (flash drives): 10 years
  • Paper: 100s of years
  • Plastic: indefinite
(Sources here, here, here, and here.)

Now obviously there are a huge number of considerations involved in “how long something lasts”. When I say that paper lasts for hundreds of years, that assumes ideal conditions: dry, cool, microbe-free environments, with acid-free paper. And for many of the things on that list, the time for decomposition is longer than the actual product in question has existed (I’m older than the DVD). In a way, that list is pretty pointless.

So what the future historians find will depend on how far into the future they are, and the extent of the destruction caused by whatever it was that wiped out all of the people. If they’re a hundred years in the future, our history will be a strange sort of patchwork to them, the surviving evidence being a patchwork of discs and plastics. They’ll be able to see all our movies and music, but none of our blogs and websites but whatever’s been printed out. Of course, I have been known to underestimate the tenacity of those in the “soft sciences”. It’s also possible that someone will finally invent fast than light travel, move ahead of the outgoing radio signals, and learn about the past by intercepting those transmissions (or without FTL, waiting for lucky signals to bounce off comets/asteroids/etc.).
Regardless of all that, my original point was about what they would find if they got access to a random sampling of all this information being produced by us. The answer, of course, is that they would get a giant load of irrelevant crap; part of the reason there’s so much data floating around is that we, as a society, are falling further and further into the well of personalized content. This is standard long-tail distribution stuff; because it’s free to read and write online, there’s been a huge explosion of stuff. If you like model trains, you can find a whole host of websites, blogs, and forums dedicated to that one thing. The same goes for pretty much any subject on the face of the planet.
All of this is only really feasible because of search. Without search, the huge amount of data would be a confusing mess of hyperlinks. With it, the mess gets organized around whatever it is you were looking for.
That’s all well and good, and there are many who would argue that this mess is the path to enlightenment. But the other side of this glut of information is that people isolate themselves into their particular interests, creating echo chambers that lock them out from the rest of the world. This has always happened, but online (where the vast majority of discourse takes place) the long tail (mostly) eliminates the need for conversational compromise.
That’s where narcissism comes into play. On the web, you don’t have to change anything about yourself, because you will always be able to find people who like you just the way you are. You can spew out whatever is on your mind, and odds are that at least a few people will find it interesting enough to read. In this way, people get turned in on themselves.
But this isn’t anywhere near the endgame for narcissism. As I’ve theorized in my post The Future Will Be Customized, there will come a time in the future when pretty much bit of media that you consume will be generated by artificial intelligence, synthesized to your preferences. This is a natural extension of long-tail dynamics; instead of stopping at a certain level of “nicheness”, the tail continues on forever, until works are being produced that appeal to only a single person. It will happen because it’s possible, and because there are economic/social/cultural benefits at every step of the process towards getting there.
So historians who will be looking at the future that hasn’t happened yet will see a widening of media until it comes to the point of oblivion. Eventually, reading a novel will tell you far more about the person it was crafted for than it will about the society that person inhabits. This also extends beyond the realm of fiction; Google News already gives me a customized feed of information that’s tailored to what stories I’ve read in the past, gradually building up a news narrative specifically tailored to me.

This is the end game. People surround themselves with the world they think they want, cut off from everything that doesn’t give a positive feedback. The machines don’t take over through strength of arms or by holding our technology hostage, but instead by giving us exactly what we want.

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The Future of Narcissism

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