In David Foster Wallace’s classic novel, Infinite Jest, there’s a movie that is so entertaining that anyone who views even a small portion of it will give up all desire to do anything else in life in order to keep watching. Throughout the book, characters who see it give up family, friends, careers, even eating and sleeping, just to continue watching the film.
The overarching theme of Infinite Jest is that it’s possible, both as an individual and as a society, to be too entertained. And much of the book’s 1000+ pages are about the absurdity of such a society. Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in the early 1990s, a time when televisions were just starting to get dozens of channels, news was being broadcast 24 hours per day, video games were taking over the minds of young kids, and blockbuster movies were earning unheard of amounts of cash at the box office each summer.
At the time, Wallace had just gone through a recovery program for alcohol and drug abuse. Yet, despite getting clean for the first time in his adult life, he noticed something strange: he couldn’t stop watching television.
Wallace seemed to understand that as media multiplies, so does competition for attention. And as competition for our attention multiplies, content is no longer optimized for beauty or art or even enjoyment—but rather for its addictive qualities. When there are two TV channels, the channel doesn’t really have to worry about you clicking away, they just make the best show they can. But when there are 200 channels, suddenly that channel must do everything it can to keep you watching as long as possible. Wallace saw this problem coming decades in advance, and with his personal understanding of addiction based on his recovery experience, he seemed to grasp the addict culture we’d all soon be a part of.
Today, we regularly mistake this addictive media for entertainment. There’s some psychological function deep in our brains that tells us, “Well, I just spent six hours watching this show, I must like it a lot.” When, no, its script is actually a mediocre piece of hot trash and you’re being manipulated by cliffhangers and bad writing for hours on end to keep watching. The same way you get hijacked into scrolling through social media way more than you’d actually like to, your brain gets hijacked to watch “just one more episode” to find out if so-and-so really died or not.
In social media, this “it’s addictive, but I also kinda don’t like it” phenomenon has been recognized and discussed to death. But in other areas of media and entertainment, we haven’t caught on yet.
Streaming services and Hollywood are the obvious culprits here. How many more mediocre Marvel Universe movies do we need to prove this point? How many more bad Star Wars spin-offs? How many bad Netflix shows with every episode ending in a cliffhanger? Everyone complains about how Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas anymore. Well, there’s a reason nothing new is getting made: endlessly adding content to the same well-worn storylines keeps people hooked. Constantly playing to people’s sense of nostalgia and remixing classic genres is a risk-free way of guaranteeing viewership.
Music is in a similar place. For a while now, market research on music streaming services has found that people spend more time listening to old music instead of new music and the trend on this is in the wrong direction. Music lovers are voting with their mouse buttons and those mouse buttons are going back in time, not forward.
Veteran music producer Rick Beato has made a number of videos lately talking about how popular music the past few years has gotten simplified to the point where it’s one or two chords and a single melody, repeated over and over for two or three minutes. No chorus. No bridge. No variation. No build-up or release. Just an endless hodgepodge of catchy sounds repeated, one after another.
Part of this is because the economics of music streaming is such that artists have incentive to not create the best songs or albums possible, but rather to create as many small, simple songs that prevent you from clicking away as possible. It’s created an artistic environment where it’s better to have 200 decent, listenable songs rather than 20 brilliant songs.
A similar problem plagues YouTube, where the biggest creators rack up millions of views doing inane things like opening a thousand Amazon boxes or giving away cars to their friends, over and over and over again. On the one hand, it’s not that interesting. On the other, you find yourself mindlessly clicking on the next video, and the next, and the next, and the next.
When everything is measured in terms of engagement, content will be optimized for addictiveness. Not entertainment or artistic merit. Not intellectual substance or creativity. Pure, plain addictiveness. That means we, the consumers, get a higher quantity of more predictable, less innovative, less interesting art in our lives.
In the realm of art and music and film and television, this is really annoying and frustrating. It requires each of us to sift longer and harder to find something new and great. But where this optimization for addictiveness gets dangerous is another part of culture that I want to talk about… *takes a deep breath* …politics.
I’ve written before about how most people in the United States agree about most things, yet somehow our political parties and government continually find ways to do things most people don’t like. Many pundits have attributed this inconsistency between the public’s desires and the government’s actions with theories about the primary system or entrenched special interests or polarizing social media.
But what about this? Politicians—like Hollywood executives, pop stars, and YouTube creators—are incentivized to generate more engagement. Not great results. Just more engagement, all the time. Therefore, their actions are not optimized to produce smart policy or common sense bills or a shrewd compromise, but instead to grab and hold our attention as long as humanly possible.
David Foster Wallace saw this coming too. The president of the United States in Infinite Jest is a former pop singer who obsesses over his television ratings, thinks policy discussions are too boring and considers war with Canada based on how good his photo ops would be in military camo fatigues. In the book, terrorist groups run rampant, as the battlefield is not for territory or resources, but for eyeballs and headlines.
Ultimately, nobody can manage our attention but ourselves. We can get mad at Netflix or Spotify or the Senate. But ultimately, these systems are loose reflections of our own attention habits shining back at us. Change our attention, change the systems. There’s an old saying that people “vote with their feet.” Well, today you need to vote with your eyeballs and mouse clicks. Don’t watch the next episode of that poorly written piece of garbage that keeps teasing you with characters almost dying. Don’t listen to the next half-assed album with 27 different two-minute tracks. Don’t click on clickbait. Don’t mindlessly scroll through TikTok and YouTube, rewarding people for attention-grabbing stunts. And don’t watch or respond to politicians and pundits who try to blather on and on about pet issues but never actually get anything done.
In the chaotic, entertaining mess of Infinite Jest, there is the story of Don Gately, a recovered alcoholic who would literally rather die than relapse into his substance abuse. When I first read the book years ago, Gately’s storyline seemed out of place. Amid all this futuristic mayhem of short attention spans and insanely addictive entertainment and neurotic teenagers, Gately’s narrative seemed like an oddly conventional story of personal triumph over one’s demons and an ability to sacrifice oneself for others.
What I realize now is that Wallace wrote the character of Don Gately as an example of what we would all need to aspire to become: recovered addicts. People who can cut themselves off cold turkey, who can turn off the drug. People who can manage their own attention and not fall victim to endless streams of mindless engagement. People who can step above the fray of political addiction and demand substance over bluster. And not just for our own sake. For everyone else’s as well.