Jumping the shark is about reaching peak information, where the chances that an investigation will reveal a new discovery become so low that the effort becomes suicidal. There is nothing new to reveal about the present configuration or the environment. Most of the relationships have been tested and avenues explored, and the ones that haven’t are so improbable and illogical that testing them will do more harm than good. The problem is not that there are no more ideas, but that the ideas are no longer related to anything that can change in a survivable way. You say something brilliant, nothing changes. You say something stupid, nothing changes. You say nothing, nothing changes. Or, rather, the past changes repeat themselves. Despite the unbelievable wealth of great ideas that are available at the touch of a button, our the opportunities available to us are shrinking, not expanding. You get up, go to work, push some papers, receive some complaints, go home, and nothing you’ve done makes any sense to anyone. You can still blow things up and offend people, but not in a way that opens new horizons. These disruptions, whether terrorist or oppressive, just hurt.
“Jump the shark” is wonderfully evocative, describing anything that has run out of useful ideas and has started breaking itself down in an effort to find a spark or escape the confines of the ideas that it has already used up. This seems to be happening at an accelerating rate, but the phrase is getting harder to use. Most phrases become cliche over time, but the problem here is that the entire culture has jumped the shark. Yes, Yahoo jumped the shark before Twitter, but instagram was conceived beyond the shark – a concept without clue. Trump and Brexit are, in that sense, the result of global civilisation having jumped the shark. See, e.g., Fast and Furious 8 and the marvel movie universe. While everybody agrees that they are stupid, nobody has an idea of what to do differently, or how to escape the new surreal. What are we to make of the fact that three rich men are reenacting the space race, 50 years late, without a hint of irony? It is no longer possible for any individual institution to jump the shark because the shark has been jumped universally. You have to jump the shark just to get a seat at the table. Or, as SNL put it, “absolutely nothing matters anymore.”
Stories – narratives of culture and history – bring people together by showing them how their lives intertwine with those of other people. They build communities and give people something to talk about at the water cooler, right up until they jump the shark and the whole idea of community fails catastrophically.
Cars are the symbol of post-war civilisation. They were wonderful when they first came out, but then came a time when you needed a car to have a home and a job. And then even soccer moms needed cars. At that moment, which was different for different people in different places, the car jumped the shark. The car went from being awesome and emancipating to being stupid and confining because everybody else’s cars took up so much space. Actual cars kept getting better, but the car became a net suck. There are still places where you can have a home and a job and no car, but you have to be pretty clever to have a job that pays well enough.
From the Guardian:
“Now that Trump has been elected leader of the nominally free world, democracy has jumped the shark. But absurdity is nothing new to Guantánamo – a place where peaceful hunger strikes (the last remaining form of protest for detainees) are renamed “non-religious fasts” and suicide is described as SIB – self-injurious behaviour, or “an act of asymmetrical warfare”. It’s a place where even books make the authorities uneasy – Crime and Punishment and Uncle Tom’s Cabin have been banned, along with Jack and the Beanstalk. Thankfully, Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith is still allowed in – but his books are not (which he tells me is one of the few kindnesses the guards have shown to the prisoners).”