I’m worried. I’m worried that experiences are becoming disposable. I’m worried that in our striving to make experiences simpler, easier, and faster, we’re also somehow stripping their soul, their meaning.
The subtext beneath this implies that we are supposed to use the time, money and attention that simpler, easier and faster frees up to consume even more experiences. But before we get a chance to really connect with any single given experience, before we can press beyond its surface, before it has a chance to naturally unfold and leave us changed, we’re off to the next one, and the one after that, and so on, and so on.
This raises an important question for designers: is it out job to merely accelerate experience consumption, or is it to deepen and enrich experience connection?
While our own individual answers likely strike some balance between these two extremes, the trend I’m afraid appears to be very much toward acceleration at the expense of connection.
Economically, this makes a lot of sense. Today’s experiences are off-the-shelf products, mass-produced, mass-marketed and mass-consumed. But an experience can only be monetized once, so superficial disposable experiences are much more economically attractive than deep lasting experiences because they can be monetized more frequently.
The economics of the matter then encourages the design of experiences that are standardized, that have extremely short self-lives, and that are disposable. These are to the human soul what McDonald’s is to the human body.
Enough with the abstraction, let’s get concrete.
I don’t listen to music the same way anymore. I don’t know many people who do. When I was a kid all my music was on tape and I didn’t have a lot of money to throw around. So getting new music and listening to it took a lot of time and effort. This time and effort meant listening carefully to each track, listening to whole albums at once, and listening to the same albums over and over again. It was like developing a relationship.
Today I have several gigs of music on my hard drive and I subscribe to Yahoo’s music service which puts several hundred more only click away. I keep some of it on my Zen on constant shuffle (not so sure about the shuffling since it seems to really be enjoying Goldfrapp these days). I have an incredible variety that crosses genres, decades, continents and even tastes, only a click away—and it has all started to blend into one relatively undifferentiated mass of sound with which I have absolutely no emotional connection.
If I don’t get a visceral jolt from a song, click and its on to the next one. Like a junkie I’m chasing that one great high, that one great hook. I can hardly listen to the same artist more than twice a day–and why should I with thousands of artists all clamouring for my ear and approving mouse click. I’m no sooner coming down from the sugar sweetness of Mint Royal than I’m twanging away with Niko Case or camping it up with the Sissor Sisters—it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s all sooo easy. And the medium’s inherent ease keeps me hungry for ever more music, keeps me hooked to the service, and helps ensure that I don’t get too attached to any one song, band or genre.
What originally seemed like such a blessing, is turning into a bit of a curse. Obviously I can still listen the way I used to–nothing is really preventing that. But the medium itself has evolved to tersely discourage close listening, to discourage connection. The medium wants you, it needs you to listen to more, more, more tracks by more artists, more superficially, more disposably. It needs you to consume not connect.
The entire business model of disposability is predicated on rapid, massive, non-reflective, superficial consumption. Fine for tissues, but for music? For experiences?
The effort involved in both production and consumption of music is evaporating. The individual song is fast becoming completely disposable, cheapening music into becoming mere background hippness for life as a Mitsubishi commercial (thanks for ruining T.Rex and the Wiseguys for me Mitsubishi). Its fast, its easy, its non-committal, its autonomic, and there’s plenty more more more where it came from, so no need to pay too much attention to what you’re hearing now.
Truth be told I can no longer stomach the Thievery Corporation because it is so disposable. Forget about the medium, the content itself doesn’t want you to connect with it. It’s mere auditory decoration, mere vapid paint by numbers West Elm lifestyle ‘hipness’ for your ears. There’s nothing to connect with. But I degress…
Of course your personal music experience may be quite different from mine–I’m sure it is at least a little different–and you may not really see it as disposable. That’s fine, because my point here hasn’t been to wax ludditic and moan about how things aren’t as good as they used to be (although I do wonder how Kate Bush would do if she was just starting out today).
My point (in case it got lost in all these words, words, words, dear Polonius) was simply to illustrate the disposability of experience by contrasting my music listening experience of today with yesterday’s, and ask the question of design how will we balance the tension between accelerating consumption and deepening connection without losing our souls or our jobs?
Next time I’ll get into television and how advances in distribution are driving the experience of watching tv shows in the exact opposite direction from listening to music, in terms of experience and connection.