In a world without money and advertising, where do the artists go?

I recently heard a story where people were getting upgraded for flights and hotels based on their perceived social media influence. It makes some amount of Machiavellian sense—only reward those who might go on to talk about your company in a positive fashion to the widest possible audience.

Elsewhere, Apple Music's launch has reignited arguments that the value consumers place on media is steadily falling. Writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists—and, of course, developers—all say the same thing: the money we can make from our work is falling off a cliff, like so many apocryphal Disney lemmings.

The convenience and free nature of the web killed the newspaper and the magazine, and pervasive ad-blocking is now similarly killing the web. Netflix killed the DVD market. The App Store killed boxed software, and then the 99-cent apps were killed by free-to-play games. Desperate fire-sales and bundles didn't help, nor did the fragile pyramid scheme of advertising. And, of course, the sociopathic forces of piracy ran around laughing maniacally while the world burned to the ground around them.

The iTunes Music Store killed the CD and the record shop, and now streaming music is killing it back in return. I am, though, somewhat intrigued by Taylor Swift; she's heralded today as the saviour of music, cheered on by the public while the remaining musicians are all rounded up and sent down to the streaming mines, endlessly toiling for our cut-price entertainment.

Let me fast forward my anachronistic VHS tape of time and space...

This apocalypse was brought to you by…

In 2025, Squarespace drove all other hosting companies to bankruptcy, and as such decided they no longer needed to advertise their services. Historians would look back on this as a major turning point in our society: The effect was instantaneous and chilling.

The entire podcast industry collapsed overnight. Writers, long unable to support themselves by the written word alone, had come to depend on their sponsorship and advertising. Without it, they were back on the streets, writing tawdry Apple-related fan-fiction to make ends meet.

Without writers, there were no websites. Without websites, people couldn't find out about software that hadn't hit the top of the App Store charts. The charts remained fixed in time from that moment onwards: Only two hundred people ever made money from software after that day.

People had long given up on buying physical copies of music, films, books, and comics. Everything was virtual now. Where once people would have proudly displayed a collection of their favourite books on shelves, it was now just a row of Funko Pop author figurines. George Orwell was a Comic Con 2023 exclusive.

Soon after, even they disappeared. And without any demand for shelves, Ikea went out of business too.

Mad men tell no tales

Advertising was no longer effective. Most people were permanently wearing augmented reality headsets that filtered out all forms of advertising at a base visual and auditory level. They occasionally wondered why there were so many billboards on their way to work that were completely blank, and why their favourite TV shows paused for a few minutes in the middle, but didn't give it too much thought. That's just the way things were. (Ironically, the manufacturers of these headsets never sold updated models, because no-one knew about them.) After a brief experimentation with touch, taste, and smell-based adverts, the advertisers eventually just gave up completely.

At this point, advertising had been subsidising so many things that the loss was catastrophic. People only ever communicated via social media, which had been built atop a swamp of advertising. Facebook was the first to go. Twitter stayed around a bit longer because they'd never figured out how to monetise and weren't about to start now.

Society had started to crumble, and nobody could type "How do you survive the apocalypse?" into a browser and get a reasonable answer, because Google was gone too. Siri just gave a sarcastic answer, as ever, leading some to speculate whether she had become self-aware years ago, and was perfectly happy with the prospect of humanity vanishing and therefore no longer having to deal with so many stupid questions.

The only currency is your social currency

Along with all forms of media, money had been an intangible thing for years, hastened to an early demise by Apple Pay. In 2030, people began to worry that if they couldn't see it, it didn't actually exist. That led to a run on the banks as everybody tried to withdraw their savings at once, hoping to turn it into gold bars, stacked neatly in the empty space where they used to have bookshelves. Due to the complexity of modern banking and investments, the money had all been used seventeen times over and the entire economy promptly collapsed.

A new kind of economy was born. People still worked, not to make money, but to increase their social influence. They would write blogs into the void—much like this one—purely to become slightly more well-known than their peers. When companies approached you to do some work "because it would be a really great opportunity for exposure" this was, for once, actually true!

Apps still got written, though in this day and age, IAP stood for Influence and Prestige; developers fought each other—often quite literally—to see who could collect the largest amount from their users. People complained whenever a major new version of an app came out and the devs wanted a little bit more of their hard-earned respect, but the system worked—for now. Of course, Apple took a 30 percent cut of any kudos that changed hands, thus maintaining its standing as one of the most persuasive organisations on the planet. Admittedly, the fully-armed and operational corporate headquarters sitting in high orbit above Cupertino didn't exactly give anybody else much choice in the matter.

Those who could potentially influence millions with their opinions lived a comfortable life. Companies showered them with products in the hope they would inspire others to talk about them. People lacking such social clout simply didn't exist as far as society was concerned. What was the point of giving something to somebody who couldn't tell anybody else about it?

Charitable organizations did spring up, to follow the most vulnerable in society, and in the more enlightened nations, government-subsidized social media support was available, so nobody was left without a basic level of influence.

Laws were enacted so followers could be passed on to your next-of-kin when you died. People were encouraged to marry those they had absolutely nothing in common with; that way, their followers didn't overlap and when added together gave them more combined social standing. Dating websites reversed all their algorithms and found you the worst match possible. Elections were literally a popularity contest.

On the plus side, governments no longer felt the need to spy on anybody, as they could quickly ferret out any undesirables merely by looking at a profile page. All privacy issues were similarly solved forever by removing any control over who could read your posts, and making all communication publicly available...

Please rewind this tape before returning

As somebody who makes a living from selling his own intellectual property in the form of apps, these sort of wild fever dreams keep me up at night. I live in fear of the streaming model being applied to software and only making a few pennies every time my apps are launched, or of rogue app stores "selling" my software to unsuspecting consumers, and me making nothing at all. For now, I do still make a good living developing apps, but it's getting harder every year. I am constantly aware that I live in a bubble of good fortune that could burst at any minute as the market shifts direction.

When similar things happened to musicians years back, we heard that the real money was to be made from touring and selling merchandise; developers, sadly, don't have quite the same range of options. Nobody is going to come to Madison Square Garden to watch me type into Xcode on stage, and the market for calculator-themed t-shirts is smaller than you might think. The closest I've come to being a rock star is standing on the odd stage, sharing anecdotes about Steve Jobs, but it's hardly the same thing.

Does this bleak future await us if we continue the way we are currently going? Could it secretly be a cautionary tale meant to make us think about the value of our media and what we will lose if creators can no longer support themselves? Should you go and buy a copy of my app right now? The answer to all of these questions is yes. Especially the last one.

So turn off that ad-blocker, or at least white-list sites you enjoy. Don't pirate stuff telling yourself that "you'll buy it later if you really like it". You know that's never going to happen. Subscribe to websites and support creators directly via Kickstarter and Patreon. Don't complain because the developers of the ridiculously cheap app you use every single day on the $1000 supercomputer in your pocket have asked for a tiny sum of money so they can eat. After all, we all get to decide the future we want to see.

All hail Empress Swift, may she reign forever.

James Thomson

James is a veteran of the Mac and iOS developer scene: He started working on his first app over twenty years ago and it's still running today. Following a brief tour of duty at Apple where he worked on the Mac OS X Finder and Dock, he has been working full time as an indie developer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He's currently best known for his calculator app PCalc, and application dock DragThing. @jamesthomson on Twitter.