The Audience of the Future: Building the Religious Counterculture

Early in the evening on February 10, the newsfeed alerts on everybody’s phones suddenly began beeping and chiming with a breaking story: Jon Stewart was leaving The Daily Show. I happened to be within watching range of a TV at the time, so I turned it on and it seemed like every station was announcing the news. Jon Stewart, Jon Stewart, Jon Stewart. They were running clips from the early days of the show; pundits were pontificating. It was a whole thing. And then it came time for The Daily Show itself . . . the one where he was going to make this announcement. Or, rather, the one where he had already made this announcement to the live studio audience several hours earlier.

Baby in a tree.

We have a sacred accountability to the future. Illustration by Lawrence Santanello. Credit: Lawrence Santanello ({link url=""}{/link}).

That live studio audience had spread the news after the taping, the networks had picked it up, and by the time the show actually aired, the entire TV-watching public already knew. Now Jon Stewart, being the media-savvy fellow that he is, had guessed in advance that this would happen. And so when The Daily Show began that day, he looked into the camera and said to the TV audience, “You probably know things these people [in the studio] don’t know yet, which is a twist on things but—we’ll get there.”

Maybe if I were a regular TV watcher I wouldn’t have found this as completely mind blowing as I did. But Jon Stewart was speaking to an audience of the future—one that didn’t exist yet—one that would know something and be affected by something that, at the moment he said those words in the present tense, affected no one. At that moment, there was no TV audience that already knew “some stuff that these folks here in the studio” didn’t. But he knew that they would know and so he was addressing them in their future state. And he said, “We’ll get to it. We’ll get there.”

When you think about it, that’s really how time and life work. We have the live studio audience right here, right now—you and me and the people we know and love and don’t love. And then we have the much, much larger TV audience of the future: our grandchildren, our great-great-great-grandchildren, our farms and cities in the year 2200, the entirety of the human and natural worlds of the future that will all be affected by what happens and how we live our lives here and now. Our lives will make sense to them only in the context of things they know but which we can’t possibly fathom. Truly, we are speaking and acting in the present tense but being watched and heard by the audience of the future.

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