As it’s gotten easier to be entertained, it’s gotten harder to choose not to be.
Fifteen years ago, Steve Jobs changed the way we thought about music. We went from buying albums to buying songs. It’s true that the iTunes platform made it easier for us to find and store our music, but it’s also true that we shifted from having to decide whether we wanted to buy a whole album for $15 to having to decide if we liked one song enough to buy it for a buck.
There were many brilliant aspects of this shift; one of them is that $15 is a high enough amount for most of us that weighing it out triggers our economic decision-making processes, whereas 99 cents often doesn’t (unless we’re buying apps). The upshot for Apple is that a lot of people bought a lot more music.
Amazon’s book marketplace has done a similar thing for books. As much as I prefer physical books to digital ones – especially for non-fiction, which accounts for about 95% of my reading – I’ve mostly said goodbye to walking around bookstores with an armful of books because I know I shouldn’t get all of them (at $15–$30 a pop) but can’t to decide which one or three I should put back. I have a few scores of books that I know I’ve bought because I was tired of walking around the store and didn’t want to spend the rest of the day thinking about it.
Of course, we’re now moving on from the wonderful world of songs for 99 cents and books for less than $5 with the likes of Spotify, Kindle Unlimited, and so on – we can now get subscriptions to our music and books. For the last decade, we’ve seen the rise in subscription-based games like World of Warcraft, Eve Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Star Trek Online. Then there’s the rise of Hulu, Netflix, and streaming television, all of which give us yet another way to subscribe to be entertained.
It’s easy for New Economists to spin a yarn about how novel and amazing these changes are, but let’s face it, we’ve been subscribing to entertainment for years via cable television. Even when we haven’t paid for cable, the every-few-years purchase of new devices (televisions) amounts to the same thing. The chief difference at this point is not that we’re subscribing to entertainment, but how tailored that entertainment is to our particular preferences.
We went on that brief history tour because I wanted to contrast the subscription mindset with the point-of-purchase mindset. The reason all of the subscription-based entertainment models work so well is that they bypass our decision-making processes so covertly. The costs are a given, as is the consumption of the entertainment. We’re doubly incentivized to not be bored.
Think about how much different your consumption patterns might be if you had to manually pay $4 every Friday for your weekend Netflix/Hulu or DVR binge. Or if every night an alert popped up on your TV, asking you if you wanted to spend $2 to watch your favorite or recorded shows.
Of course it would be inefficient for our interactions with media to be that way. The companies that offer us the services wouldn’t like it and we wouldn’t, either. There would be way too much thinking and decision-making involved.
It’s now easier than ever to be entertained however we wish to be — it comes right to us, on demand, without our having to decide to pay for it. Of course, a lot of people are also more time-strapped, impatient, cash-poor, and under-actualized than they’d like to be. Many people are far out of balance with their creating, connecting, and consuming needs.
As Aristotle said: “Whatever lies in our power to do lies also in our power not to do.” It’s just gotten a lot harder to shut the entertainment off than to turn it on. Another sign of what we gave up when we gained abundance.