Elan Mastai’s de­but novel, All Our Wrong To­days, is a time-trav­el­ling lit­er­ary smash. On the oc­ca­sion of our 40th an­niver­sary, who bet­ter than this award­win­ning screen­writer to give us a glimpse into what cul­ture will look like in the decades to come?

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The future of cul­ture is as bleak (or hope­ful) as we want it to be.

In the future, the line be­tween en­ter­tain­ment and ev­ery­thing else will be a lot blur­rier.

En­ter­tain­ment will be the en­gine of the econ­omy, pol­i­tics, ed­u­ca­tion and community. It’s al­ready a huge in­dus­try, and that will only ac­cel­er­ate over the next four decades. Your ul­ti­mate value to the global econ­omy will be some­thing you don’t even think of as a com­mod­ity: your at­ten­tion. Your high school class clown was onto some­thing. Forty years from now, bil­lions will be spent on, and made from, con­coct­ing elab­o­rate and in­sid­i­ous schemes just to get you to pay at­ten­tion.

In the year 2057, there won’t be a dis­tinc­tion be­tween en­ter­tain­ment and the rest of your life. But you will still want to be told sto­ries—peo­ple will al­ways love sto­ries. What will change is how the sto­ries find you.

In 40 years, your pres­ence both on­line and in the real world will have been dis­sected, an­a­lyzed and wrung dry of ev­ery last drop of in­for­ma­tion from your en­tire life—a ro­bust data set com­pris­ing the to­tal­ity of your per­sonal choices.

So, when you want some kind of sto­ry­telling ex­pe­ri­ence, the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that runs the var­i­ous sys­tems you sub­scribe to will of­fer an ap­pro­pri­ate op­tion. And you will trust the al­go­rithm. If it says you’ll like it, you’ll prob­a­bly like it. You’ll com­fort­ably hand over con­trol of your taste to the com­pa­nies that cu­rate your en­ter­tain­ment life. Be­cause 40 years from now, you’ll have a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with trust and taste than you do now—just as your cur­rent ideas of pri­vacy and iden­tity are wildly dif­fer­ent from how peo­ple thought about pri­vacy and iden­tity 40 years ago.

You’ll ex­pe­ri­ence im­mer­sive vir­tual-re­al­ity nar­ra­tives struc­tured to si­mul­ta­ne­ously tell you a story and also change the story to suit the ebb and flow of your at­ten­tion span—tracked through your eye move­ments, fa­cial ex­pres­sions, body pos­ture, heart rate, sweat pro­duc­tion and sex­ual arousal—and the con­tent will be specif­i­cally geared to your in­di­vid­ual pref­er­ences, pol­i­tics, iden­tity, his­tory, hob­bies and kinks.

Ev­ery story will be about some­thing you’re in­ter­ested in. You will never be bored. You will never be re­quired to watch some­thing that might up­set or pro­voke you. You will never be asked to change your mind. The priv­i­lege you will pay for this is to never be chal­lenged.

Maybe this sounds awe­some to you. Maybe it sounds creepy and de­press­ing. Ei­ther way, by the time you get to 2057, it won’t be sci­ence fic­tion. It will be ev­ery­day life.

Over the next four decades, cul­ture will get in­creas­ingly at­om­ized. We’ll all ex­ist in self-af­firm­ing pods of cu­rated in­for­ma­tion and gen­tle re­in­force­ment.

Nowa­days, many of us look back at past eras of mass pop cul­ture with nos­tal­gia. TV shows ev­ery­one watched. Movies ev­ery­one saw. Songs ev­ery­one heard. Books ev­ery­one read. The idea that cul­ture could get even more frag­mented is dis­tress­ing.

Ex­cept, of course, lots of us also look at that mass pop cul­ture and no­tice not community and con­nec­tion but iso­la­tion and in­vis­i­bil­ity. The faces that weren’t al­lowed on our screens. The voices that weren’t in­cluded in our har­monies. The frag­ment­ing of cul­ture might not seem so bad to some­one who never got

to see their re­flec­tion mir­rored back by pop cul­ture. »

There has never re­ally been just one cul­ture. There have al­ways been dense lay­ers of over­lap­ping cul­tures within each of us. It’s just that in 40 years, ev­ery layer, no mat­ter how niched or ob­scure, will be parsed by com­pa­nies try­ing to sell you some­thing.

In the future, ev­ery­one will be re­flected back at them­selves. In the future, you’ll pay to only ever see your­self in the cul­tural mir­ror.

The iden­tity wars of our era will con­tinue, the clash be­tween iden­ti­ties of birth and iden­ti­ties of choice get­ting more fer­vid and con­found­ing as we all ask our­selves: Who am I? Who was I? Who do I want to be? But in 40 years, the real cul­ture war will be about au­then­tic­ity. In our own time, the In­ter­net has given us the en­tirety of hu­man knowl­edge at the click of a but­ton—and it has also cre­ated a men­tal state where fact and fic­tion col­lapse into in­for­ma­tion, where any­thing that is said has equal cred­i­bil­ity, where truth is a sub­jec­tive choice rather than an ob­jec­tive re­al­ity, where we can co­coon our­selves in only what we al­ready be­lieve.

This will get worse. Re­al­ity will be fur­ther con­torted into con­ve­nient nar­ra­tives by politi­cians and cor­po­ra­tions who ben­e­fit when we can’t tell truth from lie.

Over the next four decades, the job of cul­ture will be to tell the truth how­ever it can. Each of us will have to de­cide if we want to be braced awake by hon­esty or lulled into sub­mis­sion by a pop cul­ture that as­sures us the sys­tem has our best in­ter­ests at heart. Art and fic­tion will bear the bur­den of telling truths to au­di­ences who don’t par­tic­u­larly want to hear them. Mu­sic espe­cially, with its di­rect emo­tional con­nec­tion, will be a cru­cial way to pro­voke and chal­lenge—as long as it’s catchy enough to dance to.

In 2057, books will still ex­ist. Mu­sic will still ex­ist. Plays and bal­lets and op­eras will still ex­ist. Movies and TV se­ries will still ex­ist but in less rigid forms, the screens ex­pand­ing to fill all our senses. Which isn’t a bad thing. The length and struc­ture of movies and shows have al­ways been func­tions of how they were best sold, not how they were best told. What­ever we call it, sto­ry­telling with ac­tors per­form­ing writ­ten scenes has been the dom­i­nant form of en­ter­tain­ment for thou­sands of years. That’s not go­ing to change. But it will evolve, as it al­ways has, chas­ing the cut­ting edge of tech­nol­ogy while re­tain­ing its ba­sic dra­matic prin­ci­ples.

We like sto­ries about peo­ple fac­ing a cri­sis. We al­ways will. Usu­ally we pre­fer those peo­ple to be at­trac­tive.

So, yes, ac­tors will still ex­ist. It’s just that to so­lid­ify their celebrity, the am­bi­tious ones will have to run for po­lit­i­cal of­fice to con­sol­i­date their fame. I’m so sorry to tell you this, but in 40 years our po­lit­i­cal cul­ture will be over­run by celebri­ties of ev­ery stature and vin­tage. If you feel even the slight­est good­will for a celebrity, it will be har­nessed into po­lit­i­cal power—just as no­table wealth or fam­ily name or mil­i­tary val­our was har­nessed in pre­vi­ous eras.

Four decades from now, ev­ery cul­tural ar­ti­fact you’ve ever felt any af­fec­tion for will be re­vis­ited, re­booted, reimag­ined. Ev­ery toy turned into a movie, ev­ery TV show into a play, ev­ery book into a video game, ev­ery song into a restau­rant, ev­ery snack into an opera, ev­ery fad or trend or vogue into count­less cul­tural forms—as many as pos­si­ble for as long as pos­si­ble.

Get ready to be asked to en­joy what­ever you like right now for the rest of your life. The fid­get­spin­ner mu­si­cal will win a Tony one day.

Then again, that re­pur­pos­ing is noth­ing new. I had this story idea I told some friends about— my own pri­vate oral sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion. I fi­nally wrote it down, and the novel—All

Our Wrong To­days—came out in Fe­bru­ary. Now I’m writ­ing the screen­play for a Hol­ly­wood movie adap­ta­tion of it. When I signed the stu­dio con­tract, I had to ne­go­ti­ate terms for the pos­si­ble mu­si­cal, video game, TV se­ries and so on. Even for the nov­el­iza­tion of the movie adap­ta­tion of my novel. True story.

This is stan­dard. You al­ways ne­go­ti­ate this stuff just in case. Be­cause Hol­ly­wood knows that when you get a good piece of ma­te­rial, you wring it dry of ev­ery last drop of pos­si­ble profit. It’s the same thing tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies do with your per­sonal data right now—you’re just a good piece of ma­te­rial to them.

Forty years from now, they’ll just be bet­ter at it. And 40 years from now, you won’t even care.

But here’s the thing: I’m writ­ing this on the back deck of a cliff­side cabin looking out over the ocean while the sun sinks, fat and fiery, be­hind the moun­tains that ring the hori­zon. This place has no Wi­Fi or ca­ble (it barely has cell re­cep­tion); there’s an old TV and a stack of VHS tapes of hit movies from the 1990s. And when I’m ready to send this to my ed­i­tor, I’ll have to drive into town to do it from the lo­cal one­room li­brary.

Cul­ture isn’t just what we’re given, and it’s not just what we take. It’s also what we choose.

Forty years from now, maybe we’ll have had enough. Like lab mon­keys that pick the lock of their cage and es­cape even when they’ve never known any­thing else, in four decades we may be ready to let the bat­ter­ies of our de­vices run out, the screens go dark, the end­less blare fade away—and try to re­mem­ber what it felt like when only we knew what we wanted.

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