Few things have changed day-to-day American life as much as the free flow of digital entertainment and information from producers to consumers over the past decade. Netflix began streaming content in 2007, and Hulu followed the next year. HBO, Showtime, Starz, and a host of other streaming services followed. By now it is possible to watch on demand just about every TV show, movie, and sporting event there has ever been.
Spotify launched in 2008, making it possible to stream just about any song that has ever been recorded. Want to learn something? Head to YouTube, or Khan Academy, or to any number of world-class universities that post their course lectures online free of charge.
For the first time in human history, people can consume exactly what they want, when they want, how they want. It has become a boutique world.
The shift doesn’t stop with entertainment. We are boutique consumers of news and commentary now, too. Where there were once just a few news outlets for most Americans, there are now, quite literally, thousands. And they are all accessible at any minute of the day with a few simple keystrokes. The raft of information available to anyone who wants it dwarfs what was available just a generation ago. The idea of waiting for the evening news or the morning paper seems quaint on the best of days, and ridiculous most others.
But all of this upside is not without potential ill effects. As we plunge headlong into a boutique pop culture, or more appropriately multiple boutique pop cultures, we come to miss both the wholesale and retail versions that defined previous eras of American social life. The ramifications of this will play out over decades and will prove to be at least as important as the immediate gratification this shift entails.
To understand where we are, it’s important to understand where we’ve been.
For most of our history, we were wholesale consumers of information. Entertainment and news came from precious few sources, and people either accepted them or lived without. News came from the local newspaper and in short reels at the movies. By the 1950s, network news (and television more generally) was the new kid in town, and a national cultural identity began to develop.
And no sooner had it fully developed than it was under threat, as cable TV redefined the entire space in the move to retail consumption. The three channels available to most Americans became hundreds. There was one dedicated to nearly every niche market imaginable. Although cable news started by playing things straight, before long clear ideological markets had developed. Progressives don’t watch Fox News. Conservatives don’t watch MSNBC. No one is all that clear on who watches CNN. It seems as if it has ever been so, but this division is a relatively recent turn of events. It’s almost impossible to remember now, but at one time the entire nation got its news straight from the mouth of Walter Cronkite. And everyone believed what he said. It really was that simple.
The move to boutique consumption, made possible by the ubiquity of high-speed internet access, has brought us to a new level of complexity. And the benefits are clear.
Most important is the beauty of boutique living. Everything is available at every moment. With Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and message boards of every description, just about anyone can interact with their favorite athletes, actors, writers, and even newsmen. For all the talk of inequality and social disparity in present-day America, the distance between the observed and their observers has been flattened, and remarkably so.
So what’s the problem? For all the advantages that have come with the shift from wholesale, to retail, to boutique consumption, somehow it feels like something essential has been lost. As we retreat into our respective corners to enjoy the things we enjoy, we are balkanizing ourselves along preferential and, more important, ideological lines. And everyone is guilty. With each passing year we enjoy less and less in common with one another. The bonds that hold us together are loosening.
This was Robert Nisbet’s mid-twentieth-century fear in a nutshell. In his landmark book The Quest for Community (1953), Nisbet showed that a growing individualism would result in a loss of community, which would in turn rob Americans of the ability to resist the encroaching power of the federal government. He was right, but he could not foresee the role that technology would play in isolating people further, only this time in very small pockets of their own making.
So what is to be done? First, be cognizant that you live in an echo chamber of your own making. Make the effort to break out of it from time to time. Take a wholesale view of things every now and again by reminding yourself of what links us all rather than dwelling on your own parochial concerns.
Second, check out the retail space inhabited by others. Leave your own world behind for a while and spend some time in the larger worlds still shared by groups of people who have thoughts considerably different from your own.
Finally, return to and enjoy your boutique space, but do it without forgetting that other people, radically different from you, are doing it too.
Dr. James R. Harrigan is director of Academic Programs at Strata, in Logan, Utah, and CEO of FreedomTrust in Denver, Colorado.
Complement with Dr. Harrigan on how superheroes are using their powers increasingly against government, Jane Clark Scharl on whether community is possible in America today, and Daniel J. Mahoney on rescuing culture from cultural appropriation.