On my multi-week hiatus from Parse.ly, I drove from St. Louis through Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Quebec. I listened to satellite radio from New Haven to Montreal and back down to New York City. The winding roads that cut through the Appalachians and the White Mountains get poor FM reception. Instead of searching for the station with the least static, I settled on Sirius XM.
Satellite radio is designed to simulate a multitude of options. If you can think of a possible radio station, it probably exists somewhere on the Sirius dial. For example, there are enough country music stations to cover all consumer demographics. “Willie’s Roadhouse” (classic country), “Prime Country” (‘90s country and more), “The Highway” (new country), and “Outlaw Country” (rockin’ country rebels). An equivalent variety exists for classic rock, punk, rap, soul, etc. In theory, this constructed diversity of music should satisfy every possible desire. No longer must listeners drive beholden to regional radio variations. All difference is internally generated. The careful cultivation of musical diversity cannot help but feel planned and artificial, though, like the contrast between fields of wildflowers and formal French gardens. There is a pleasure in either ecosystem, but I perhaps betray my preference for English landscaping, which at least makes a claim to wilderness. Similarly, I enjoy the inefficiencies of ordinary radio: static, kooky local stations, and the subtle shifts in musical landscape from one area to the next. After a few days of listening to satellite, I was bored. Unlike the department store or online marketplaces, satellite radio promises to fulfill every desire but fails to produce new desire in the process. Satellite radio is too efficient for its own good.
The rhetoric of disruption has been criticized for its failure to apply the term appropriately. Despite appearances, I do not think that satellite radio “disrupted” traditional radio, per se. No truly new markets were created, no new customers acquired. Rather, the technology converted clients of an antiquated service. Satellite radio was not a disruption to the “people listening to music in cars” market. Satellite radio was an intervention.
I believe that most so-called disruption in social and digital media follows a logic of intervention. New social and digital media technologies rarely disrupt established markets. As with satellite radio, social and digital media tech intervenes in a market, changing the course of consumer behavior but never fracturing the market beyond recognition. Even the emerging market in e-books is merely a simulation of paper book markets. Digitization demands the migration of media from real to virtual spaces, but the economics of those virtual spaces remain fundamentally similar to their real counterparts.
The real danger for interventionist technologies is that, like satellite radio, they will become too efficient. The modulation of desire in capitalist economies requires the perpetual suspension of satisfaction. That is a fancy way of saying that commodity consumption can never reach a point of exhaustion. That is a fancy way of saying that we will always need something more to purchase. What are we to make of services like Spotify that promise the exhaustion of music, or Google Books that promise the exhaustion of libraries, or Twitter that promise the exhaustion of social discourse? These technologies are self-defeating propositions.
When there is nothing left to buy, nothing left to consume, when we own every song and book and have expelled every pithy witticism our desiccated brains can squeeze out, what will we have left except to bathe in the room temperature ether of the Internet? Today’s hysteria about “overstimulation” seems entirely misplaced. We do not occupy a world without boredom; we live in a digital universe where boredom is the only common currency.
That is not to say that some artists will not offer pushback, will not introduce friction into our superconducted systems. The possibility for disruption only increases when systems become over-efficient. Now, the most pressing concern is the incubation of talent that is willing to accept less than maximum data, maximum speed, and maximum choice. Otherwise, we may face a future in which disruption is foreclosed by general apathy.