We are two countries, and we may not come back together


The death of the monoculture is a good thing. We’re better off for having shawarma and pho and not just McDonalds. We are better off to be able to watch all of the films and listen to all of the music, rather than be stuck with what was on rabbit-ear TV. It is a good thing that the sum total of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips.

But there are some drawbacks. Since it is not longer jocks vs. nerds, rock n’ roll vs. country, action movies vs. romance we share far fewer things. 

Over 100 million people watched the last episode of MASH in 1983. This year, 19 million people watched the last of Game of Thrones. That is a huge drop-off. Only the Super Bowl gets those kinds of ratings now. 

It is not about the quality of TV, it is about the shared cultural experience. 

Derek Thompson has a piece at The Atlantic that looks at the country’s cultural splits by focusing on bowling alleys and movie theaters. 

“America’s bowling alleys haven’t just depopulated; they’ve gone dark, along with thousands of churches, restaurants, bars, cafés, gyms, theaters, and almost every other physical space that could preserve or nurture a physical community.”

“Mirroring this civic fragmentation, America’s media and entertainment industry has spun apart, and the spinning is accelerating. On December 3, the film studio Warner Bros. announced that subscribers of the company’s digital streaming service HBO Max will be able to watch all of its 2021 film releases at home, on the same day that they’re released in theaters. The movies affected by this decision aren’t humble indies. We’re talking Dune and The Matrix 4—the sort of films that, if they were released exclusively in theaters next year, might earn a domestic box office roughly equal to the GDP of Micronesia.”

He goes on.

“Cinemas are an example of the decline of semiweekly gatherings in the United States—even if they’re less chatty establishments. In the 1940s, the average American bought more than 30 movie tickets a year, regularly packing into theaters with scores of strangers. In the past few years, that figure fell below four. In 2020, movie tickets sold per-person will fall below one—possibly for the first time since the late 1800s.”

He gets to the point. 

There is no going back to the 1950s. We will never again be enfolded by those bespoke mid-century circumstances, the scarce broadcasts and broadsheets. The dividing forces are too strong and too many. The film experience pushed out across millions of flatscreens; the live-television networks splintering into millions of digital entertainment queues; the news dissolving into innumerable political realities: One by one, these are not evil trends. But they add up. Or, more aptly, they divide. They individuate.

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