During these COVID-19 stay-at-home days, I’ve watched a lot of movies, old and new. Many cultural shifts are caught on film over the decades, but I’ve been most surprised by the change in pacing. In films from the 70s, individual scenes are long. They’re filled with pensive pauses and close-ups, and you get entire minute-long shots of pure framing and mood-setting. Movies from recent years have fast cuts, with not a single moment wasted. A modern feature-length film feels much denser in the sheer amount of content and audiovisual spectacle it gives to the audience.

There’s another density shift between modern movies and YouTube videos. Nowadays, a single, well-made ten or twenty-minute video packs as much content and excitement as a full movie. I’m not much of a YouTube fan at all, but watching indie vloggers over the past few weeks of quarantine has been infinitely more engaging than primetime television of old.

The core dynamic behind this surge in stimulating content is the massive, decentralized (democratic?) nature of social media. YouTube videos, for example, have not always been this exciting. But they’re quick to make in huge numbers and get feedback on, so they’ve been much faster to evolve than full movies. Millions of creators have iterated on their short-form content in Darwinian competition for our attention, so we’ve iterated our way to entertainment where even the mundane stuff packs one hell of a punch. It’s like seeing an evolutionary algorithm optimize for our eyeballs in real time.

The outcome of this rapid evolution is nowhere more apparent than on Instagram. Millions of beautiful women,1 competing for likes and followers, have been iterating towards optimally attractive pictures. And they’re putting past generations to shame. I remember seeing the tabloids of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The sex symbols of the time got just as much interest as those today, but the difference in photo quality or attractiveness is enormous. Looking at shoots of major models from then – the Spice Girls, Madonna, Britney Spears, and so forth, but to viewers in 2020, those photos look mostly unremarkable. Going back further, would a swimsuit photo of Marilyn Monroe, the most famous sexual icon of all time, even catch your attention scrolling through Instagram? Not mine, frankly.

What has changed? After all, being attractive has always been important. While Marilyn Monroe’s time was more conservative, the 90s were culturally similarly liberal to today. How are today’s Instagram influencers – tens of thousands of them – publishing photos that are in a complete different league, way beyond the top-100 supermodels of the 1990s?

What has happened is simple: the iPhone has armed hundreds of millions of women with a studio-quality instant camera, making it possible to shoot, share, and receive feedback on hundreds of photos in a single day. Along the way, once-professional tools like photo filters and lighting have been commoditized. Consequently, the barrier to entry for competition has been obliterated, and in the free market of attention, this competition among millions upon millions of women globally, in rapid iteration over billions of photos, has yielded tens of thousands of Instagram models that regularly produce photos that are lightyears better than anything made even ten years ago.

Again, what is happening in aggregate is an evolutionary process: broadly, Instagram influencers, who are mostly women, are optimizing their pictures to draw attention, mostly from men (and as a corollary, from other women who look up to them). In this optimization, they are approaching superstimulus – they’re implicitly identifying the features that men most respond to, then slightly exaggerate them. If the reception is positive, then that becomes the new baseline, and you rinse and repeat.

This iteration toward superstimuli is everywhere that our cravings can be exploited in any way. In entertainment, food, news, porn, drugs – they are domains of free-market competition for consumers’ attention and favor, with marginal trial-and-error experiments every day, ever inching their way to getting our neurons to fire as powerfully as possible.

Where does this lead? It gave us Vine and TikTok, for a start. If you had told someone in the 80s or 90s that 6-30 second videos would take the entertainment world by storm, they would’ve been surprised to say the least. That’s less time than in the setup for a joke. It’s shorter than a standard TV ad. And we’re quite clearly not hitting any resistance in terms of minimum timespan yet – entertainment can and will become more compressed, though I struggle to imagine what that will actually look or feel like.

I expect that social media will continue to squeeze out the traditional media institutions. There are two reasons for this: first, the barriers to entry are eroding rapidly. Distribution has become commoditized, and the institutions no longer function as gatekeepers. Tools once limited to corporations – special effects, lighting, even CGI – have similarly become accessible to budding creatives. Secondly, and more importantly, in social media, you have billions of creators/consumers. As a decentralized mass in free-market competition, they iterate every day, and our entertainment evolves to become ever more enticing.

On the corporate, traditional side, we have Quibi. The folks at Quibi broadly had the right idea from looking at YouTube, Vine, Snap Stories, TikTok, etc. – people want shorter, more compelling, denser content. Consumers just skip and fast-forward through TV shows, sometimes even through YouTube videos. There’s a lot of hunger for densely packed bite-size episodic entertainment, and Quibi was the first real institutional attempt to satisfy that public craving. But Quibi fell short – you can speak about the various reasons for its failure, but a key issue is that the content ultimately wasn’t compelling. And I expect that institutionally-directed (“centrally planned”) content can simply never be as good as content that arises from mass Darwinian competition (“free market”). I wouldn’t be surprised if traditional film and television studios subside over the next fifteen years, as independent creators become both far more empowered and far greater in numbers.

David Foster Wallace anticipated the ultimate conclusion of this trend in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, a novel most generally about how people seek entertainment (stimulation) in their lives. While substance abuse (perhaps the most obvious form of superstimulus exploitation) features heavily, the driving force in the novel is a film: the titular Infinite Jest is a movie so perfectly entertaining that a viewer will be enthralled by it, watching it on repeat, unable to eat or drink until they die. That seems like a far cry from where we are today.

However, on a macroscopic level, you could argue that we’re already there: we live in a society of political infotainment, where everyone is permanently outraged – or very well entertained. Despite their deep interest in the current affairs, actual engagement (voter turnout, passed legislation, etc.) is low. Everyone loves the stimulus and the simulacrum of the real thing, but no-one engages the actual substance. And we’re in dire straits as a consequence. In the political arena, as a public body, you could very well claim that we are perfectly enthralled, and it’s killing us.

But there’s a counterpoint. This trend matches a pattern, where fears of change between one generation and the next always seem new and pressing, but those changes actually have been going on forever. For example, many people today might complain that the young have worse manners and spend less time on schoolwork than the previous generation. But that complaint has been uniformly raised by every generation since the days of Socrates. Fears that the modern generation is too engaged in new, dubious media and not enough in the valuable media of old, has also been raised every year since antiquity. Maybe the true pattern is that as we optimize in a direction, approaching some superstimulus, the underlying goalposts change, and we never quite fall into the Siren Song trap of Infinite Jest, but we keep on moving. Time will tell.

  1. I’m writing this from a heterosexual male point-of-view. I have no doubt that the mechanics in other attraction directions are similar, but in a context like this I can only write about my own subjective experience. Moreover, the Instagram influencer trend is female-dominated, so I think this is broadly accurate, though I am painting with a big brush.