The Buffet Effect

Y’all know Sturgeon’s Law, right? 90% of everything is crud. But what doesn’t get as much attention is Sturgeon’s Corollary: 10% of everything is not crud. And you know what? That can get to be a bit of a problem.

This is the golden age of entertainment, and it’s getting goldener every day. Today’s SF readers have their pick of half a century of backlist classics, and I’m not just talking Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Le Guin: between ebooks and the Espresso Book Machine, the whole notion of “out of print” is out of date, and even the most obscure of golden oldies will soon be only a button-push away. Meanwhile, so many new SF books are published every year that even the mighty James Nicoll, who reads almost one a day, wonders if he can call himself well informed within the field.

We’re drowning in a deluge of distractions, so many that even when you filter out Sturgeon’s Law’s 90%, there is still far too much good stuff out there for anyone to read and watch. Books compete with DVDs of Lost and Heroes and BSG, and with William Shatner singing Rocket Man on YouTube.

Meanwhile, the death-grip that gatekeepers like publishers and Hollywood studios once held is slipping. A straight-to-video release was once the kiss of death: nowadays, movies like JT Petty’s terrific horror-western The Burrowers are discovered by devoted audiences via Netflix—or BitTorrent—rather than the multiplex. Self-published books like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Scott Stigler’s Infected have gone on to be bestsellers, and are certainly better than many books anointed by a major publisher’s imprimatur.

So how do you decide how to spend your attention, when there’s so much out there? Never mind the message: just choosing your medium can be a dilemma. Should you order a book from your Amazon wishlist, download a novel to your Kindle, browse the free ebooks on Feedbooks, log on to World of Warcraft, download a new video game from Steam, get a DVD at Blockbuster, download a new movie from Netflix, see if the Pirate Bay is still up, or stream some classic TV from Hulu or YouTube? Heck, you could even go wander through a bookstore, or see a movie in a theatre. Call me twentieth century.

And God forbid you also like non-SF: if so, then you’ve just added Jane Austen and Cormac McCarthy and The Wire and the Coen Brothers and The Deadliest Catch, plus all those relatively obscure masterpieces like Kieslowski’s Decalogue, to the list of competitors clamouring endlessly for your attention. Wait, you like sports, too? Congratulations, you are now officially doomed.

I’ve written about the post-scarcity society here before, but it’s only just occurred to me that as far as entertainment is concerned, we will live in such a world very soon, if we don’t already.

So what do we do?

In my highly anecdotal experience, people tend to react to this overwhelming cornucopia in one of two ways: either they swear allegiance to one particular subfragment of genre, and deliberately steer clear of all else, or they try to sample a little bit of everything1. I call this the buffet effect2.

I used to be a specialist. Now I’m a sampler. Fifteen years ago, I felt like I had read most, if not all, of the good SF that had ever been published. Nowadays, I’m not sure that’s even possible; specialists have to focus on smaller subgenres, such as horror, or cyberpunk, or military SF.

As a sampler, I find myself reading one or two of an author’s books—and then moving on. I have read and really liked two Charles Stross novels, for instance, which once upon a time would have meant devouring everything he’s ever written. Instead I’ll have to overcome a certain reluctance to buy another book of his. I want to read them all, don’t get me wrong; but at the same time, I find myself subconsciously thinking of the “Charles Stross” box as already ticked, and wanting instead to try a brand-new dish from the endless buffet.

I find myself no longer willing to waste time reading mediocre crap. It’s like eating a bad meal in Paris; there’s really no excuse. Another emergent property is the slow fragmentation of canon. It’s harder to talk about books with other people, because there are so many good books out there that fewer and fewer have been read by a majority. Specialists can at least talk to one another. But what’s in store for us samplers?

The problem (and it is a problem, although admittedly a very nice one to have) is only going to get much worse. I’m awfully curious what its other repercussions might be—so, naturally I turn to SF to look for hints. But there aren’t many books that deal with the buffet effect. Or, at least, not many that I’ve read.

Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Vinge’s Rainbows End both portray groups of passionate specialists—Disney fans, or Pratchett fans—becoming major social forces. (Neither seems to mention samplers, though I still hold that our cross-pollination is important.) But offhand I can’t think of anyone else out there writing about the ramifications of Sturgeon’s Corollary and the buffet effect. Do such authors exist?

Let me know, and I’ll be sure to sample them forthwith.


1This isn’t just true of entertainment, incidentally. You see the same thing in the travel sphere. The world is far more accessible than it ever was, thanks to cheap airfares, Internet everywhere, and ubiquitous English skills; but you can’t go everywhere, and you probably shouldn’t try. (People who say “it’s a small world” generally haven’t seen much of it.) So travellers tend to either imprint on the first exotic/faraway place they visit, and return again and again, or spread their travels thinly and skim the surface of as many nations and continents as possible.

2A couple of other psychological analogies spring to mind, too: analysis paralysis, where “the sheer quantity of analysis overwhelms the decision making process, thus preventing a decision”, and the bystander effect, which states that the more people there are in the vicinity of an emergency, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

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