Blame it on Burger King. It was 1974 when the fast-food behemoth introduced consumers to the idea they could “have it your way.” That’s as good a touchstone as any in identifying the historical moment when American popular culture stopped being a general commodity and started becoming a micro-service industry.

The term “Internet” was also coined in 1974, but the idea of a vast network of interconnected computers was all but unknown to anyone but computer geeks and military types. Nineteen-year-old Bill Gates was just dreaming up a company called Microsoft. Cable television was in fewer than 12 million homes across the country.

Three decades after we were given the freedom to “hold the pickles, hold the lettuce,” our cultural choices are virtually limitless. The Internet is now in 75 percent of American homes, and in its insidious glow, users can find information and like-minded souls, no matter how obscure their passions. (Don’t believe me? Type in “wildebeest art” on Google and browse through the 17,000 hits.)

Those choices are decadently convenient. Too much of a hassle to schlep all the way to the video store? No sweat. Netflix will keep track of the movies you want to see and send the DVDs right to your door. If even the mailbox is too far, the little TiVo box will compliantly record a whole season’s worth of “The West Wing” for you at the touch of a button. Watch “em whenever you want.

As cultural consumers, we’ve become spoiled. In the name of competition, newspapers – those quaint bastions of “old media” – have been forced to largely abdicate their roles as arbiters and gatekeepers. We don’t have “readers” anymore; we have “customers” to whom we narrowcast news to folks who want to read about what’s happening in their own neighborhood. Last June, 40,000 subscribers across the country opened their mailboxes to find that their copy of Reason magazine had a picture of their own house and surrounding neighborhood on the cover.

As we’re perched near the summit of our consumerist society, what does the view look like? Peer down, and see all the little cocoons of comfort – a Stepfordian paradise of enclaves where you can find news that agrees with your political inclinations, where you don’t have to wait till Saturday morning to watch cartoons and where the discomfort of confronting a different opinion is reduced to a manageable minimum.

Unlimited cultural choice might have evolved with utopian hope that all of us would be better and more diversely informed and entertained. But it’s devolved into a dystopia of cultural myopia, a place where you can find your own little silo of truth, oblivious to the cacophony of ideas blaring around you.

That’s fine, as long as we don’t have to do anything collectively. Like build roads and schools. Or discuss and debate how we enact laws and create communities. Or elect a president.

Would you believe me if I told you that our hope and future lies in the theaters and concert halls and dance studios?

It’s not that such places are strongholds of objective thought – artists wouldn’t be artists if they couldn’t indulge their biases. And though I’d like to believe that live entertainment offers us the kind of high-minded stimulus that keeps us on our toes, I’ve seen way too much bad theater to say that with a straight face.

Rather, it’s the act of going to plays and concerts and recitals that will save us.

Why? Because going to a live performance means going out – one of the few remaining times that we’re in a room filled with people we don’t know much about. That nice-looking guy sitting next to you may have political beliefs that are utterly heinous to you. You don’t know that, though – he’s just the guy who smiled and shifted his legs so you could get through to your seat. He’s a human being, and the niceties and small talk you exchange are your opportunity to make the world a more civilized place.

And because what’s happening on stage is live, you never really know for sure what’s going to happen: The scheduled conductor falls ill in 1943, and a 25-year-old kid named Leonard Bernstein steps to the New York Philharmonic podium and becomes a star.

That undercurrent of real-life, real-time uncertainty flows through all live performance, giving it a thrill-making potential much different – and much more potent – than wondering who’s going to be “The Next Great Champ” on Fox.

Accepting that kind of uncertainty, of course, means abdicating a little bit of security. It means accepting the responsibility for acting – with your own mind and wits – on new information. It means being willing, for a little slice of time, to have it their way, not yours.

It means, in short, the difference between being a consumer and being a citizen.

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