#165: Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?

The 2000 Onion article “Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn’t Own a Television” captures a familiar trope from that era, complete with the perfect protagonist: a goateed Chapel Hill resident who works at a frame shop and wears all black. The joke feels anachronistic now: The rapidly-maturing internet and its democratization of information would soon leave the classic ‘90s snob behind, along with whatever cred one might have gained from not having a TV. Today, owning a television or not simply doesn’t matter that much, as the medium has been fully unbundled and absorbed by other devices and apps. The concept of “watching TV,” meanwhile, has been decoupled from the physical object we still call a television. What’s so special about having one fewer screen in your house than everyone else? I don’t own a TV yet I waste more time on the internet than I ever could have wasted on cable channel surfing (although the intervening moments of productivity help to disguise that). Not owning a smartphone, on the other hand—that would actually be a statement.

The recent trajectory of television—both the device and the medium—is a microcosm for the broader evolution of media over the past few decades. People love TV. We love it so much that we want it everywhere, flowing through the pipes like water and dispensed from as many faucets as possible. Televisions themselves have become less and less expensive relative to their quality, to the point where it feels like they’re being given away for free (if you don’t own a TV it’s probably not due to the price). The medium has evolved just as rapidly, becoming more fluid, no longer organized in 30-minute blocks but endless streams of fungible content (“video”) that you can watch on your phone or laptop in whatever increment you have time for: TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix are each ideal for a different duration. A lot of the programming we remember from twenty or thirty years ago has made the leap to one of those new platforms, but plenty of it is lost forever—perhaps still archived in some dark recess of YouTube but impossible to remember and not really intended for long-term preservation. Recorded music has obviously undergone a similar transformation, evolving from vinyl records to compact discs to MP3s to streaming audio over a similar time span.

Media formats seem to be transforming at an accelerating rate, even as the residue of the old remains. An idea I keep returning to is the cyclical relationship between consumer abundance and scarcity, as summarized by this 2018 tweet: “If something is too expensive for most people to buy, standardize and produce in volume. If later it becomes so cheap that people are no longer price sensitive, make an artisan version.” The rise of fast fashion and direct-to-consumer products exemplify the two opposing stages of that cycle, but media has followed a different path since its broad transition from analog to digital: Standardization and abundance have only increased. That abundance is somewhat overstated, however, as it’s frequently punctuated by intense bouts of creative destruction at the individual level, in which we lose everything we had from the previous phase and start from scratch (2016 was the year I horrified my younger self by discarding my entire CD collection). This recent Atlantic essay about Spotify and the future of our music libraries paints a foreboding picture that we have all surely imagined: “Spotify listeners’ ability to access their collection in the far-out future will be contingent on the company maintaining its software, renewing its agreements with rights holders, and, well, not going out of business when something else inevitably supplants the current paradigm of music listening.” Assuming that all of that will happen requires some amount of faith. Each prior transition has seemed to increase our collective abundance and preserve the prior phase with at least some integrity, even as our claims to ownership of that media become increasingly tenuous. It feels inevitable that the next shift will do the same, but maybe that’s an illusion too. What if we just keep getting lucky?

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