Are we running out of ideas?
The other day, I was talking with some friends about whether there is less good music being created now than in the past. Of course, that’s a highly subjective question. Whether music seems good or not depends on personal taste and personal experience, not just on the music itself. Also, musical tastes change over time. With that said, however, it seems to me that the frequency of good new music has declined over the last 20 or even 30 years. In the 1980s and 1990s, every year had a number of hits that almost everyone knew, and almost everyone would have a list of personal favorite songs from the past year. That seems to have ended, not only for Gen-X-ers like me, but also for millennials and zoomers.
There are other signs that music is stagnant. There haven’t been any important new genres of music since the early 1990s. There were a few medium to small ones, such as the dubstep/EDM wave of the mid 2000s, vaporwave and K-pop. But those don’t compare (from my admittedly subjective perspective) to the popular music revolutions of the past, such as the British invasion (mostly the Beatles), punk or even grunge. The musical revolutions of the 1960s to the 1990s had a much deeper and broader impact on music and popular culture than anything that has happened since.
Of course, many things have changed since the 1990s. The internet profoundly changed how music is produced, distributed and paid for. That is the obvious explanation for a change in the type and quality of new music.
Music has become a space that you can explore, rather than a sequence of events in time. It has lost its temporality. Music used to define decades. These days, a 1980s song from Japan can become a huge “hit” on YouTube. In the past, the newest music was the most relevant. Top 40 radio was the soundtrack for the current time. Even if you didn’t like it, you heard it everywhere. There wasn’t that much good music from the past to explore, and exploring it was costly and difficult. Today, we have accumulated a huge amount of music, and people can freely explore it on the internet.
So, the times have definitely changed for music. But I think there is another reason for the apparent decline in the frequency of good new music. I think we are running out of it.
There is a huge space of possible songs, but the space of good songs is much more constrained. For a song to be good, it must match human psychology in certain ways. It must have sound patterns that humans find appealing. It must have lyrics that humans find meaningful. And it must be somewhat original.
What if most of the good songs have already been sung?
Creativity seems like magic, but it isn’t. Creativity is a search process. There is a space of possible songs that is defined by human psychology and our ability to make sounds. The artist is an explorer who searches through that space looking for good songs. I’m not saying that creativity is just a matter of searching. It requires good taste to select a good point in the space. It requires technical skill to manifest that point in a work of art. But the biggest challenge is simply searching through the space of possibilities. That’s what makes it seem like magic.
Somehow the creator finds a good point in a vast space of bad ones, like finding a needle in a haystack. A good search strategy helps, and so does luck. But the most important factor is the existence of good points to discover. If most of the good points have already been discovered, finding a new one is hard.
The information revolution has given us information abundance, including an abundance of art. Over the past few decades, it has become much easier to produce and distribute music. I don’t have hard data to support this conjecture, but I would guess that the majority of all music ever created was produced in the last two decades. People have been doing a lot of searching in song-space, and they don’t seem to be finding much. We could be running out of good songs that haven’t already been discovered.
If so, the future of music is stagnation. We will just listen to the same songs over and over, without any new ones being added.
The same might be true in other areas, such as literature, movies, science and politics. When was the last ground-breaking novel written? Movies seem to have degenerated into endless repetition of familiar themes, such as the “superhero” movie. There was an explosion of creativity on YouTube in the early to mid 2010s, but that seems to be slowing down as well. There are no more viral videos like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or Boxxy’s “Foar Everywun Frum Boxxy”. More tragically (perhaps) than the decline of viral videos, there has been little progress in basic science since the 1960s. Most scientific research is just turning the crank on research programs that generate papers without producing any important results. In politics, we have people debating communism, fascism and liberal democracy, the same ideas that people were debating in the 1930s and even earlier. We seem to be stuck in a rut.
Our culture has a built-in assumption that progress is unlimited. That is especially true in the realm of ideas. We assume that there will always be new ideas to discover. What if that assumption is false?
Human psychology isn’t magic. The human brain has a finite capacity for creating, storing and grasping ideas. Even though the space of possible ideas is huge, and beyond our ability to fully explore, good ideas might be very rare points in that space, and we might have already discovered most of the easily accessible ones.
Even if there are good ideas buried deeper “in the ground”, we would have to dig deeper and deeper to extract them, as we are doing with fossil fuels. At some point, the return on investment becomes negative. I suspect that we have already passed peak idea production, and are going into a long decline. I am not 100% convinced of this (new?) idea, but it’s important to consider the possibility that we might be running out of ideas. We can’t assume that the supply of good ideas is inexhaustible. It might be very limited.
Even if we are far away from peak idea production now, it is worth thinking about what it would be like to run out of good ideas to discover. If we maintain modern civilization for a long time, eventually almost every good idea will be stored in the data banks of our civilization, categorized and easily retrieved. What would life in that civilization be like?
Imagine a future with no new ideas.