On the grazing habits of the post-scarcity culture vulture

Paul Raven @ 29-04-2009

stacks of booksIn a world so full of entertainment choices that you could probably spend your entire life reading or listening or watching without ever having to repeat yourself, how do you choose what to enjoy next?

Favouring a single genre is one solution, of course, but even that’s a bit tricky nowadays, as pointed out by Jon Evans over at Tor.com. Just reading every science fiction novel published in a year would be quite a challenge if you wanted to hold down a job at the same time.

Evans thinks he’s identified two major coping strategies in our world of entertainment post-scarcity:

In my highly anecdotal experience, people tend to react to this overwhelming cornucopia in one of two ways: either they swear allegiance to one particular subfragment of genre, and deliberately steer clear of all else, or they try to sample a little bit of everything. I call this the buffet effect.

I used to be a specialist. Now I’m a sampler. Fifteen years ago, I felt like I had read most, if not all, of the good SF that had ever been published. Nowadays, I’m not sure that’s even possible; specialists have to focus on smaller subgenres, such as horror, or cyberpunk, or military SF.

As a sampler, I find myself reading one or two of an author’s books—and then moving on. I have read and really liked two Charles Stross novels, for instance, which once upon a time would have meant devouring everything he’s ever written. Instead I’ll have to overcome a certain reluctance to buy another book of his. I want to read them all, don’t get me wrong; but at the same time, I find myself subconsciously thinking of the “Charles Stross” box as already ticked, and wanting instead to try a brand-new dish from the endless buffet.

Interesting; I find myself kind of caught between the two states, personally, in that I go through brief periods of specialisation until I get distracted or derailed by some shiney new discovery, be it an author or style or subgenre; getting a commission to review a new title can provide an unexpected change of direction, too. [image by ginnerobot]

What about you – how do you decide what’s next in your to-be-read (or to-be-watched or listened-to) piles?


The road to post-scarcity

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2009

geodesic architectureIt seems that nothing can prevent Futurismic fiction regular Jason Stoddard from looking for the silver lining to every cloud – even beyond his fictional output. [image by dno1967]

Point in case: his recent article for transhumanist/futurist organ H+ Magazine, which glories in the sprawling title “First Steps Towards Post scarcity: or Why the Current Financial Crisis is the End of the World As We Know It (And Why You Should Feel Fine)“.

A lot of the ideas Stoddard raises will be familiar to science fiction readers, and many of his points are made by looking at the current situation from a different angle to the fashionable mode of doom and gloom. For example:

We’re also already starting to see some examples of near post-scarcity. Consider computers and communications. If you’re willing to use a computer that’s a couple of years old, you can probably find a hand-me-down for free, and then happily talk to your friends around the world on Skype using free public wi-fi.

Or consider that in the last Depression, the main worry was simply getting enough food. Today, the marketplace is more worried about maintaining the marketing budgets of 170 different kinds of toothpaste than about ensuring that everyone has toothpaste. There’s a lot of padding in the system. Couple a financial crisis with this overweight, inefficient system, and you have the stage set for the first transition to post-scarcity: a comprehensive rethink of our concept of value.

You could easily accuse the piece of being Panglossian, but I’m inclined to think that’s a deliberate rhetorical gambit on Stoddard’s part – countering an excess of negativity with a big slice of sf-nal optimism. I’m not that confident that we’ll end up in a nanotech-powered utopia devoid of all wants and needs within my lifetime, but then I’m also not convinced that we’re going to slouch our way into a scenario of global misery and decline. As usual, reality will probably end up somewhere in between the two idealised poles of punditry… but I’m not ashamed to admit I hope it ends up closer to Stoddard’s vision than many of the others.