Up until the turn of the century, we’ve accessed entertainment media by purchasing tangible goods (even if the actual product wasn’t). But digital distribution methods, storage-infinite portables, and the instantaneous speeds of an ubiquitous high-speed network have changed all that – indefinitely. So how do we treat the act of using and enjoying media – whether it be film, music, videogames, or books – when offered services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora, Steam, Gamefly, and Project Gutenberg? When you have tens of thousands of films available for a nominal monthly price, or the ability to listen to any song any time without cost, or download and read any public domain book on a single, portable device?

Let Me Re-Phrase That

How about looking at it like this: instead of spending a cool $14 on a music album you play in a CD player, listening from track 1 to track 13 in a linear fashion, you instead get (for the same price) instantaneous access to infinite playlists of any artist, album, song, or snippet from here to the other side of the planet. And every time you begin listening to a new song, you’re kindly suggested a dozen more artists just like the one you’re listening to. Click, tap, swipe.

Even if you aren’t considering the medium of streaming, we’ve moved from listening to “full-length” albums and EPs to distributing single downloadable tracks anywhere you are connected to an Internet service provider. It’s instant-on, instant-access. Anywhere and everywhere – no need to take a train down to the record store.

Or what about books? Instead of carefully selecting a Penguin Classics for $12 at Borders, you stare at a list of thousands of classic literature titles, all free, all downloadable to your Kindle. How do you choose where to begin when you see so many free options? How do you value just one of them, once you’ve downloaded it?

What to watch tonight? Way too many choices. I’ve spent more time slicing the selection on Netflix than I ever did dawdling through Blockbuster aisles. And if you don’t think you’re going to like a movie fifteen minutes in — easy fix: back button, insta-substitute.

Living in Excess

In the age of insta-excess, we’re slowly endangering the value of worth in art and entertainment. With services like Netflix and Spotify stuffing our browsers and mobile devices with more than we could ever enjoy in a lifetime, we also may be losing our appreciation for the monetary worth of entertainment. How much does an artist or studio make from a publisher’s contract with Spotify? How about Netflix? Project Gutenberg? Does it matter?

Add to that assumption the attention span of an engaged participant and you start to see a magnified problem – harder to find time to stay focused and read a significant numbers of pages in one sitting, watch an entire film, play through a large chunk of a single-player videogame // check phone // walk around // distract yourself // back again.

The technologies and entertainment mediums of our time have changed. But the efforts around their creation haven’t. Can there be a balance? Are we left to watching movies, listening to music, reading books, and playing games without actually owning any of them, merely licensing the ability to watch at our leisure? Do we care about book shelves and collections, about offline viewing, about going back and playing an old game on an old system packed away in a storage bin?

Rewiring the Brain, Accepting the New Reality

Perhaps this adjustment only pertains to those of us who experienced this transformation in media access over the last decade. For everyone born afterwards, it’s all they will ever know. We’re living in an environment with distribution methods unfathomed by previous generations. Since the invention of bound books, actually.

The new reality is insta-access, which also happens to be insta-excess. Owning content is on its way out; licensing its use on a variety of owned mediums is in. Perhaps this is how it’s going to be. The quaint bookstores of yore selling physical bound volumes likely won’t disappear, but it’s evident that they’re tied to a previous civilization. How we’ll value music, film, games, and literature going forward may be decided by algorithms, suggestion systems, and social sharing services. I hope it’s not, but these are the mechanisms built into the new distribution channels (digital stores and streaming products) that didn’t exist in previous incarnations. Insta-excess may end up providing more benefits in the long-term, if, of course, we end up finding more leisure time.