If I had to do a TED talk today, I think one of the most important ideas worth sharing is the following:
-With 7 billion people on the planet, we have become our own force of nature. Things are starting to change faster than you can pay attention to them.
-Because things are starting to change faster than you can pay attention to them, by the time you find out about something it’s already too late. The idea or good is antiquated or gone by that point.
Now, with things changing faster than anyone can pay attention to them, due to the presence of over 7 billion autonomous decisionmakers and all the variables that they generate, this might give us hope that the social experimentation phase of the internet that is Web 2.0 might come to a close because no computers or algorithms will ever be powerful enough to take all those variables into account and therefore the predictive capacity of such computers or algorithms will suffer. Of course, the folks building the Utah Data Center and who run Facebook are gambling otherwise.
One of the most important ramifications of 7 billion people necessarily creating an unpredictable future is that change happens quickly. So quickly, in fact, that by the time something appears on your radar screen it’s either about to be huge or has just been huge. It’s just like the Jay-Z song On to the Next One. Our technoindustrial machine is always grinding on, pounding out the next, freshest, best, most improved, shiniest new thing there is, never halting to stop and admire or be disgusted by its handiwork, with gears and belts lubricated by the blood and fat of the proletariat. A bone crunches every now and again and the machine might shudder. Resources are eaten and razed land left behind. Stop to describe it, and it will have already moved to the next field, devouring a new crop and leaving behind a new stench and roster of victims.
In the book Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish, no sooner had chefs in the U.S. and Europe figured out how incredibly easy to cook and delicious Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonian toothfish) was in the 1990’s, the global fisheries of the species were almost completely depleted. Chefs “discovered” it, and it was gone.
California finally got around to trying to require doctors to report families with circumcised daughters to CPS (flaunting doctor patient confidentiality) just as rates of female circumcision around the world started to decline precipitously due to exposure to western culture and literacy in the early 2000’s. The state also decided to ban bear hunting with dogs when the number of bear hunters that use dogs reached the lowest number ever recorded.
The charity Invisible Children released a Kony 2012 video that went viral this year and was much talked about in February and March. Now they are under fire for making a big deal about an issue that has been steadily improving since before the time they released the video (now Kony’s fighters only number between 100-150).
At the end of last year I was looking for a video to watch without having to pay for it, and I stumbled upon IMDB, the Internet Movie Database. A couple of unrelated searches later and IMDB kept coming up. Within a week all the news stations I listen to mentioned something about IMDB becoming huge.
The same thing happened with Pinterest. By the time anyone reported on how fast the site was growing, it was already too large for new members. Facebook just went public amid discussions in the tech mags about how its end had already been predicted. I can think of a dozen more examples, but I think my audience of zero already gets the point. Find out about something, and it’s probably already too late. That awesome thing you just discovered is about to be eaten up. That awful thing you just discovered is about to be phased out. That cool new company who’s services you just decided you’d like to use is being bought out or going through bankruptcy. That useful app you just heard about that you need to download because you can’t live without it? It’s being destroyed right now in beta testing that will surely lead to software bloat. Krumpin‘ was fossilized by 2007 and jerkin’ is soooo Spring of 2009. Chances are that you saw an unfunny and tired version of the “Shit People Say” meme before you saw a funny one (unless you’re a memewonk). That’s because it was already killed by the time you got around to it.
So, in our “On to the Next One” society, if you hear about a horse that is going to win, you need to bet on it today, right when you hear about it, for tomorrow the vet will have put it out of its misery with gunshot to the head. By the time you feel the need to act on something, it will be too late to act. The thing will be gone.
This is also why globalization, that awesome thing that brought you religion, diamonds, cinnamon, cell phones, refrigeration, cars, and meat, is about to not be your friend anymore. You’re going to hate it by the time you die, because technology will make you hate it. Let me give you an example:
You are a foodie and you live in the town of Cypress Grove, CA, home of the Cypress Grove Cheese Company. You have decided that your single most favorite food here in the entire Garden of Earthly Delights is Humboldt Fog. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that you decided this before Web 2.0. You have spent the majority of your life enjoying this cheese. You feel that being able to enjoy it is one of the only things that makes you truly happy.
Years later, a food writer from the New York Times gets a flat tire in Cypress Grove and has to wait around for a tow in front of a store that cells Cypress Grove cheeses. She buys a slice of Humboldt Fog and loves it, Tweeting about it to everyone on the planet with the advent of Web 2.0. Everyone finds out that your humble, boutique, Humboldt Fog is awesome and they tell all their friends about it.
Seeing the opportunity, the cheesers at Cypress Grove decide to auction all their Humboldt Fog off to the highest bidder online to ensure maximal revenues on a website like eBay. Soon your favorite cheese, the one that makes you happy, is selling for $20 a pound as wealthier folks than you from all around the world buy it up in large quantities because they can afford it. There is no Humboldt Fog left for you, and you can’t buy it anymore anyway. So much for you and your stinking cheese. To make matters worse, the owners of Cypress Grove Cheese, in desperation over how to deal with their newfound fame and fortune, become heroin addicts and commit suicide with shotguns.
If you prefer a less highbrow analogy, imagine being a milpero in Northern Mexico who grew up roasting his food over mesquite charcoal but can no longer afford mesquite charcoal because it is all being sold internationally over the internet, driving up prices prohibitively for you. Now you have no wood to cook over or heat your house with that isn’t poisonous.
This also explains why regular people living in the Caribbean in the 21st century don’t eat Caribbean lobster unless they catch it themselves. When they do catch it themselves, the lobster is usually illegal because the fishery has been purchased by someone with more money, in order to sell the products to those with often even more wealth. These same global forces have made hunting and gathering illegal for the traditional societies who have done it for thousands of years in southern Africa. After all, hunting and gathering raises no revenue for the state or the landowners (and much less requires no notion of “land ownership” to begin with), while big game hunting and safaris can rake in millions of dollars a year. Guess which way of life gets made illegal? Not the capitalist’s. Monetizing everything as we now do in our society can even make a subsistence strategy illegal.
Moreover, now that all goods and services are being sent around the world to the highest bidder, any meaning that was connected to locally-produced goods that are now no longer sold locally has evaporated.
You see, before our cinnamon, refrigerators, diamonds, and cars, if you needed something, you had to make it yourself or you had to get someone you knew to make it for you (and often trade something you valued for it). This gave every single element of our material culture a far more robust network of meaning, culture, and associations than virtually anything surrounding us today. It used to be that the village blacksmith whose kids were friends with your kids and whose wife always faints in church forged your plow blades, and now they are made in China by…people, I guess. It used to be that in order to get that cooking pot that you didn’t know how to make yourself out of native clay, you had to go to a moka thrown for your village by the ongka of the neighboring village. Or in order to get a fist-sized lump of projectile point-grade obsidian you’d have to trade a year’s worth of grinding Olivella shell beads.
Globalization makes everything come easy, and it comes only as long as no one else wants it. But now virtually every object is served to us bereft of any meaning–its traces of culture and humanity scrubbed away by sea breezes and container shipping. Goods come and go just like those breezes, and everything is either acquired too cheaply to pay attention to or is too prohibitively expensive to purchase in our meaningless way.