Coming Soon: Privacy and the Entertainment Industry of the Future

On the occasion of our 40th anniversary, who better than this award-winning screenwriter to give us a glimpse into what culture will look like in the decades to come?

In the future, the line between entertainment and everything else will be a lot blurrier.

Entertainment will be the engine of the economy, politics, education and community. It’s already a huge industry, and that will only accelerate over the next four decades. Your ultimate value to the global economy will be something you don’t even think of as a commodity: your attention.

Your high school class clown was onto something. Forty years from now, billions will be spent on, and made from, concocting elaborate and insidious schemes just to get you to pay attention.

In the year 2057, there won’t be a distinction between entertainment and the rest of your life. But you will still want to be told stories—people will always love stories. What will change is how the stories find you.

In 40 years, your presence both online and in the real world will have been dissected, analyzed and wrung dry of every last drop of information from your entire life—a robust data set comprising the totality of your personal choices.

So, when you want some kind of storytelling experience, the artificial intelligence that runs the various systems you subscribe to will offer an appropriate option. And you will trust the algorithm. If it says you’ll like it, you’ll probably like it. You’ll comfortably hand over control of your taste to the companies that curate your entertainment life. Because 40 years from now, you’ll have a different relationship with trust and taste than you do now—just as your current ideas of privacy and identity are wildly different from how people thought about privacy and identity 40 years ago.

You’ll experience immersive virtual-reality narratives structured to simultaneously tell you a story and also change the story to suit the ebb and flow of your attention span—tracked through your eye movements, facial expressions, body posture, heart rate, sweat production and sexual arousal—and the content will be specifically geared to your individual preferences, politics, identity, history, hobbies and kinks.

Every story will be about something you’re interested in. You will never be bored. You will never be required to watch something that might upset or provoke you. You will never be asked to change your mind. The privilege you will pay for this is to never be challenged.

Maybe this future sounds awesome to you. Maybe it sounds creepy and depressing. Either way, by the time you get to 2057, it won’t be science fiction. It will be everyday life.

Over the next four decades, culture will get increasingly atomized. We’ll all exist in self-affirming pods of curated information and gentle reinforcement.
Nowadays, many of us look back at past eras of mass pop culture with nostalgia. TV shows everyone watched. Movies everyone saw. Songs everyone heard. Books everyone read. The idea that culture could get even more fragmented is distressing.

Except, of course, lots of us also look at that mass pop culture and notice not community and connection but isolation and invisibility. The faces that weren’t allowed on our screens. The voices that weren’t included in our harmonies. The fragmenting of culture might not seem so bad to someone who never got to see their reflection mirrored back by pop culture.

There has never really been just one culture. There have always been dense layers of overlapping cultures within each of us. It’s just that in 40 years, every layer, no matter how niched or obscure, will be parsed by future companies trying to sell you something.

In the future, everyone will be reflected back at themselves. In the future, you’ll pay to only ever see yourself in the cultural mirror.

The identity wars of our era will continue, the clash between identities of birth and identities of choice getting more fervid and confounding as we all ask ourselves: Who am I? Who was I? Who do I want to be?

But in 40 years, the real culture war will be about authenticity.

In our own time, the Internet has given us the entirety of human knowledge at the click of a button—and it has also created a mental state where fact and fiction collapse into information, where anything that is said has equal credibility, where truth is a subjective choice rather than an objective reality, where we can cocoon ourselves in only what we already believe.

This will get worse. Reality will be further contorted into convenient narratives by politicians and corporations who benefit when we can’t tell truth from lie.

Over the next four decades, the job of culture will be to tell the truth however it can. Each of us will have to decide if we want to be braced awake by honesty or lulled into submission by a pop culture that assures us the system has our best interests at heart. Art and fiction will bear the burden of telling truths to audiences who don’t particularly want to hear them. Music especially, with its direct emotional connection, will be a crucial way to provoke and challenge—as long as it’s catchy enough to dance to.

In 2057, books will still exist. Music will still exist. Plays and ballets and operas will still exist. Movies and TV series will still exist but in less rigid forms, the screens expanding to fill all our senses. Which isn’t a bad thing. The length and structure of movies and shows have always been functions of how they were best sold, not how they were best told. Whatever we call it, storytelling with actors performing written scenes has been the dominant form of entertainment for thousands of years. That’s not going to change. But it will evolve, as it always has, chasing the cutting edge of technology while retaining its basic dramatic principles.

We like stories about people facing a crisis. We always will. Usually we prefer those people to be attractive.

So, yes, actors will still exist in the future. It’s just that to solidify their celebrity, the ambitious ones will have to run for political office to consolidate their fame. I’m so sorry to tell you this, but in 40 years our political culture will be overrun by celebrities of every stature and vintage. If you feel even the slightest goodwill for a celebrity, it will be harnessed into political power—just as notable wealth or family name or military valour was harnessed in previous eras.

Four decades from now, every cultural artifact you’ve ever felt any affection for will be revisited, rebooted, reimagined. Every toy turned into a movie, every TV show into a play, every book into a video game, every song into a restaurant, every snack into an opera, every fad or trend or vogue into countless cultural forms—as many as possible for as long as possible.

Get ready to be asked to enjoy whatever you like right now for the rest of your life. The fidget-spinner musical will win a Tony one day.

Then again, that repurposing is nothing new. I had this story idea I told some friends about—my own private oral story­telling tradition. I finally wrote it down, and the novel—All Our Wrong Todays—came out in February. Now I’m writing the screenplay for a Hollywood movie adaptation of it. When I signed the studio contract, I had to negotiate terms for the possible musical, video game, TV series and so on. Even for the novelization of the movie adaptation of my novel. True story.

This is standard. You always negotiate this stuff just in case. Because Hollywood knows that when you get a good piece of material, you wring it dry of every last drop of possible profit. It’s the same thing technology companies do with your personal data right now—you’re just a good piece of material to them.

Forty years from now, they’ll just be better at it. And 40 years from now, you won’t even care.

But here’s the thing: I’m writing this on the back deck of a cliffside cabin looking out over the ocean while the sun sinks, fat and fiery, behind the mountains that ring the horizon. This place has no Wi-Fi or cable (it barely has cell reception); there’s an old TV and a stack of VHS tapes of hit movies from the 1990s. And when I’m ready to send this to my editor, I’ll have to drive into town to do it from the local one-room library.

Culture isn’t just what we’re given, and it’s not just what we take. It’s also what we choose.

Forty years from now, maybe we’ll have had enough. Like lab monkeys that pick the lock of their cage and escape even when they’ve never known anything else, in the future we may be ready to let the batteries of our devices run out, the screens go dark, the endless blare fade away—and try to remember what it felt like when only we knew what we wanted.