More than you can eat


The beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel (Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, 1190, 9th century France)

Great cultural shifts occur when supply outstrips demand. When eat all you can produce becomes more than you can eat, when read all you can find becomes more than you can read. 

The steady growth of literacy in the Middle Ages produced such a book culture that by the 15th century it was no longer a question of reading all you can find – as it had been the case before -, but find more to read than one has time in a lifetime.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the secondary modernity caused by the digital turn has revolutionised cultural markets to such an extent that the offer now outruns individual consumption. Take music. Listeners used to pay a premium to get a seat at one of the few concert halls (few relative to total population). Then came recorded music – supply grew but it was still limited by distribution. Streaming overcame that limitation, but it also introduced listeners to a consumer’s dilemma – what to listen to when the supply seems (though it is not) unlimited.

The same applies to movies, books, and scholarly publications, especially as the scientific community is increasingly more committed to digital publication.

As supply becomes limitless, our time is the new battleground for those who seek to claim it. New games call for new rules.


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