On Everythingitis, artists vs critics & priests vs magicians
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Idea of the Week: Everythingitis
I. The Symptoms
I was a teenager proudly brandishing a shiny new iPod Touch when I first contracted Everythingitis.1
I’d never had a touchscreen device before and was blown away by its possibilities. Not only could it store my music and videos, but it could also download books, take notes, write reminders and set alarms. Tantalisingly, a cornucopia of additional potential use cases lay in wait in the App Store.
I set about creating my first Everything System. My entire life was going to be run from my iPod Touch.
Or so I thought. It transpired that the life of a teenager was alarmingly simple. My ‘notes’ consisted of an ongoing record of my K/D ratio on Call of Duty and a couple of fantasy setlists for my favourite bands. I had physical copies of the books I wanted to read, and anyway, reading them on a tiny iPod screen just gave me a headache. I downloaded various trackers but didn’t have anything I wanted to track.
Before too long, I was back to solely using the iPod to listen to music and play Jelly Car.
I’ve experienced recurring bouts of Everythingitis ever since. It’s usually onset by the arrival of some new technology I’m excited about. Usually, the symptoms pass pretty quickly as the novelty factor wears off or as external factors intervene (my girlfriend was surprisingly unsupportive of my attempt to create a ‘digital hub’ for our flat by sellotaping a Fire Tablet to our wall).
Most recently, an ill-advised attempt to build a second brain using Roam Research resulted in a fairly disgraceful amount of hours spent trying to optimise a perfect everything system encompassing a to-do list, journal, note database, to-read list, habit tracker, relationship tracker and food tracker. I was convinced this would be the answer to all my problems: a perfectly optimised system, a Minority Report-style dashboard for my entire life.
I used it for about a week. I’m now back to Apple Notes.
Everythingitis also infects our stories.
We’re living in the age of the franchise. Every blockbuster film seems designed to set up a seemingly infinite number of prequels, sequels, spin-offs and remakes, all of which will cross-refer to each other with cameos, quips, crossovers and callbacks. Self-contained stories are increasingly being pushed to the sidelines in favour of studios’ big pitches for the new Everything Machine.
Did we need three feature-length films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 310-page book children’s The Hobbit? Did Spectre, the fourth Daniel Craig James Bond film, need to retrospectively relegate the previous three films’ villains to being mere subsidiaries of the evil Spectre organisation? Did we need a movie based around the fictional real-life astronaut who inspired the fictional toy Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story? (That one makes my head hurt).
Superhero films are perhaps the most virulent carriers of Everythingitis. They heralded the arrival of the franchise, and they now herald the arrival of the latest Everythingitis trend: the multiverse (stories based around saving the universe are so 2019).
The latest Spiderman, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange movies all explore the multiverse concept. The upcoming The Flash movie also promises multiversal shenanigans.
The multiverse is, quite literally, Everything. Everything that can happen has happened and will happen.
More precisely, everything that the consumer could ever want can happen and will happen.
Tobey Macquire is back as Spiderman! Patrick Stewart is back as Professor X! Michael Keaton is back as Batman!
Hate superhero films? Never tried to create a master productivity system? I bet you’re feeling pretty smug right now!
Well, I’ve got some bad news for you.
Check your fingers next time you are browsing your phone. Are they scrolling or swiping? If so, I’m afraid to tell you that it’s likely that you are also infected by Everythingitis.writes that we are in "a scroll-and-swipe doom loop culture." When we scroll Twitter, TikTok or the news, we consign ourselves to stories without end. We scroll, and swipe, and scroll, and swipe; each dopamine hit reminding us that Everything is at our fingertips. All the time. An unlimited stream of content, all in one place.
Tech companies have cottoned on to this.
Every thing is trying to become an Everything machine. As Ted notes:
“I focus on TikTok, but every major social media outlet is moving in the same direction. Facebook launched its Reels globally last year. Around that same time, Instagram copied TikTok’s full-screen scrolling interface. A few months later, Twitter did the same. YouTube also has its ‘Shorts’ option. And now Spotify—which has such huge impact on our music culture—also aims to be more like TikTok.”
Amazon, Apple, and Google have all released different forms of ‘content hubs’. Mark Zuckerberg’s amusingly barren Metaverse is, at least in theory, supposed to be a fully realised digital world that contains everything we would want in the real world and more.
Everythingitis is everywhere. It’s in our stories. It’s in the apps we use. It’s in our attempts to create perfectly optimised productivity systems.
But what causes it?
II. The Cause
There are all kinds of arguments based on the usual Big Ideas. Big tech. Consumerism. Mass culture. The decline of religion. Etc.
For now, my answer is far more straightforward.
In the words of John Wick: consequences.
Two things are simultaneously true about the human experience:
We like to think of ourselves as Strong and Independent Decision-Makers. We want to feel like we have agency over our decisions.
Every choice we make comes with a consequence. These consequences can be good and bad. This can be scary.
Everythingitis deludes us into thinking we can preserve the agency of choice without suffering the consequences. If Everything is on the table, then we can make whatever choice we want, safe in the knowledge that we are not closing down any future opportunity. It’s life as an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The trouble is: a choice without consequence is not a choice. By embracing Everything, we embrace Nothing.
I thought a master productivity system would give me control over all inputs of my life. Tradeoffs would become a thing of the past - I would simply have to input the data and let the system do the rest. What happened? I lost focus on any tangible outcomes. I became so obsessed with capturing Everything that I failed to focus on anything in particular.
Metaverse stories seemingly provide unlimited storytelling opportunities. Characters can be resurrected, plotlines reversed, and decisions unmade without any storytelling repercussions. But, as the latest series of Marvel films have shown, without consequence, stories feel, yep, you guessed it, inconsequential. Why should we care if everything can be undone in the next film?
What is the point of swiping through hours of content if we forget about it all as soon as we finish?
We are so scared to commit to Something that we leap on the chance to experience Everything, failing to realise that in doing so, we are embracing Nothing.
III. The Cure
For a decision to matter, to feel meaningful, it has to bear a consequence.
To try and preserve Everything is to ignore a fundamental truth of the human experience: our lives are defined as much by the choices we don’t make as by the ones we do.
This is the great sacrifice of the storyteller. To bring a story into existence, we must brutally cull the infinite amount of alternative stories that could have existed in its place.
This is why the film Everything Everywhere All At Once can be seen as both the apotheosis of Everythingitis and the harbinger of its demise.
At a critical point in the film (spoiler alert), the protagonist, Evelyn, gains complete power over the multiverse. She can literally see and do everything everywhere, all at once. She can access the bodies of an infinite amount of different Evelyns, each with their own lives and stories. Unconstrained by consequence, she realises that nothing matters. Why should she care about any one thing if Everything is available to her?
Everything becomes Nothing.
How does Evelyn escape this state of nihilism? She makes a choice. She chooses to exist in her mundane, unsuccessful life, with all its limitations, frustrations and consequences. In doing so, she decides what matters to her. She chooses to find something worth living for.
Here lies the cure for Everythingitis.
Next time we feel the allure of Everything, we choose Something. Focus on one productivity metric rather than all of them. Engage with stories that have real stakes and consequences. Interact with content rather than scrolling through it.
We shouldn’t have to settle for Everything.
Instead, we can choose Something.
The Enchantment Diaries
"Tomorrow's culture is always dictated by the artists. The artists make culture, not the critics."
I’m not sure whether Velvet Underground actually had more influence on modern music than the Beatles (I much prefer Velvet Underground). Still, I love the broader point Bowie is making.
It’s not hard to extrapolate beyond just music. Lots of tech writers criticised the iPad at first…
Priests vs Magicians:
“According to Durkheim (and me), humans prefer to bind together not so much by directly and explicitly valuing each other, but instead indirectly, by choosing something “sacred” outside ourselves to see the same together (and differently from other groups).”
Robin goes on to distinguish priests and magicians:
“The difference is that priests are seen as officially authorized to connect people to the sacred, while magicians, in contrast, are free-lancers instead trusted at best by individual clients. That is, priests are communal, while magicians are individualistic.”
It seems that one can make a good case for the arts being “sacred” under this definition. If so, who are the priests and who are the magicians?
I wonder what David Bowie would have thought…
From Orson Scott Card’s intro to Ender’s Game:
“Why else do we read fiction, anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody's dazzling language—or at least I hope that's not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not "true" because we're hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.”
This is delightfully on brand with everything I wrote last week. I wish I had been aware of this quote before I published the essay!
Returning readers will know how much I love Steve Reich’s album Music for 18 Musicians.
I’ve tried various other (supposedly) similar compositions since discovering the album a few years ago, but none have captured me in quite the same way.
Thanks tofor introducing me to this.
That’s everything for today. Have an enchanting week!
Everythingitis: the desire to include, access, and control everything.