The wild valuations for budding social networks, like Snapchat, are puzzling because they alternately seem like fads and like nuclear reactors about to explode. After all, consensus in Silicon Valley is that Facebook's billion-dollar purchase of Instagram was a bargain. Before social networks, fads were contained to seasons. Pogs, Magic cards, wrist slappers, Tamagucis and other toys for adolescents usually lasted a school year, enough time for everybody in the class to go through the cycle of excitement and boredom, in sync with everybody else.
While social networks resemble phenomena that come and go, they are built atop a cascade of fad-like events happening in pockets. In the original, single fad model, excitement rises and falls collectively. In a fad wave, as the excitement is about to crest, an external force injects excitement back into the wave. In the case of MySpace, there was an initial three-month honeymoon, when a new user tried all the features and posted on their friends' walls. As their excitement died down, a new group of friends joined, changing the experience of the social network. They went through their own excitement cycle, trying new features, and posting on everybody's walls, meanwhile renewing that first user's interest. By the third month of the new group's cycle, another group of friends joined, extending everybody's cycle by a few months, and in tandem the original user's, until everybody found themselves using the network for a year and a half.
Because the phenomena outlasts the typical timespan for a fad, many social networks seems like they are going to last. But every time the fad is renewed, the length of the renewal period for older users shrinks invisibly, until everybody gets bored at the same time, no new groups join, and the network crashes.
The best films of the 1930s are as good as the best films of the 2000s. While the frequency of great films has increased—since there are more films—the greatness of the exemplars in the medium peaked within a few decades of the technology maturing.
A film is like a meal. The best possible tasting meals can only go as far as our capacity for appreciation. The best cheeseburger is as enjoyable as the best sushi. No matter how many chefs or how many devices come along to aid in cooking, the best meal of 2014 will be roughly as good as the best meal of 2013. Meal quality only involves a few metrics, such as taste and texture. Achieving greatness in each metric requires expertise, but not superhuman expertise. An added difficulty comes in the timing of taste and texture, but just as sushi can be designed to deliver the right story in the first, second, and lasting seconds of chewing, the right cheeseburger can be mixed with the right milkshake to create the perfect song of a meal as well.
Likewise, the appreciation of storytelling in film is confined to the limited palate of humans. There's a maximum amount of suspense that a film can achieve. There's a maximum sense of cleverness, since exemplars in surprise, layering and nuance can't be topped. Art direction is limited: a very soothing enjoyment of image flow can't be more soothing.
Room for growth exists when the medium is broken into components. For example, there can still be a more perfect cheeseburger, and the best possible actor has not been met yet. But films and meals as a whole category are medleys, and don't rely on the excellence of the individual components, but the overall enjoyability of the experience, for which our appetites appear congenitally limited.
Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, convincingly argues that, despite the appearance of a bloody twenty-first century, the world has a long-term trend of declining violence, both in terms of war-related deaths and homicides. Most of the book explains that the trend is real, but only a small portion of the book suggests why the trend exists.
Because the trend is so long-ranging and smooth, it implies a single, large causative feature running through mankind's existence. Pinker suggests that the cause is the transition to Market Pricing ethics, where every human is valued in proportion to the benefit they provide to society. This immediately sounds cold and dehumanizing, but perhaps Market Pricing is so prevalent because everybody is simply more valued now. Competition for resources is less important than cooperation over resources. States must collaborate to solve global warming, cities must collaborate to solve regional transportation infrastructure concerns, and neighborhoods must work together to properly stack high-rise buildings.
As the world becomes more crowded, humanity becomes more and more dependent on superstructures for their survival. Pinker chooses the start of the trend out of convenience, when data first became available, but the start also coincides with the creation of what he calls "The Leviathan," which are city-states whose rulers care a lot about whether or not their subjects are fighting.
At each stage of history, we surrender more and more of our independence to systems that organize humans. We cannot survive now without civilization, and those who have chosen not to civilize, have gone extinct. Organizations such nations, institutions, and religions, are racing in search of better mechanical and social technology to survive in a crowded field, meanwhile their human being constituents become further and further integrated for the good of the group.
We might already know what immortality feels like. We live long lives, separated into stages, with discrete groups of relations and environments that come and go. The friends a person had 20 years ago may be different than the friends they have now, and so, at least to their old group of friends, they're dead. Their former coworkers, their former habits, and their old home, all once represented them. If, "All you touch and all you see, is all your life will ever be," as the Pink Floyd lyrics go, then all that people ever were exists in the memories of others who they are no longer acquainted with. People get divorced, start new families, relocate, or enter new life stages, which brings them into contact with a new web of memories to live through.
So even if we conquer physical death and live one long, unending life, how much different would it be than living through a series of little lives with their own beginnings, middles, and ends?
The problem with conspiracy theorists is their astounding memories. They usually express their theories as an overwhelming array of dots that may or may not be connected. But because they are so overwhelming, not every one of them can be debunked. For example, even though there are a handful of books debunking every common conspiracy theory about the 9/11 attacks, there are many orders of magnitude of interesting details that still need to be checked. For conspiracy theorists, the dots themselves are the point. There are just so many of them, that if they go unanswered, can only mean one thing.
We want a future that is filled with blinking lights, neon spectacles, and shiny flying cars. We want it to be like the movies, like The Fifth Element or Speedracer, completely unfamiliar and exciting. And yet, what is becoming clear is that the future will look very much like today. The experience of being in an self-driving car will be more like riding a compact bus for one. It won't be like The Minority Report, with first-class four-seaters gliding on a web of interlocking magnetic levitation tracks. Since the future arrives through the channels of mass consumerism, everything has to be familiar and cheap in order to sell.