Preparations for the Indy 500 have begun.
I’m sorry, what?
Preparations for the Indy 500 have begun.
I’m sorry, what?
By: James A Pearson
Our current era of on-demand television series does more than facilitate binge-watching—it encourages it. David Foster Wallace already told us what happens next.
Against my better judgment, I’m watching another episode of The West Wing as I write this. It’s streaming on Netflix in a window next to this one. It’s my third episode of the night, my 80th or so this month.
When I left Uganda this winter I had finally broken the 300-page barrier in David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan novel, Infinite Jest. I’ve started it three or four times in the past and aborted each time for attentional reasons. But 300 pages felt like enough momentum, finally, to finish. Then I hit my first American airport, with its 4G and free wi-fi. All at once, my gadgets came alive: pinging and alerting and vibrating excitedly. And even better, all seven seasons of The West Wing had providentially appeared on Netflix Instant. I’ve only finished 100 more pages in the two months since.
I always binge on media when I’m in America. But this time it feels different. Media feels encroaching, circling, kind of predatory. It feels like it’s bingeing back.
The basic currency of consumer media companies—Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, NBC, Fox News, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.—is hours of attention, our attention. They want our eyeballs focused on their content as often as possible and for as many hours as possible, mostly to sell bits of those hours to advertisers or to pitch our enjoyment to investors. And they’re getting better at it, this catch-the-eyeball game.
Consider Netflix. These days, when one episode of The West Wing ends, with its irresistible moralistic tingle, I don’t even have to click a button to watch the next one. The freshly rolling credits migrate to the top-left corner of the browser tab, and below to the right a box with a new episode appears, queued up and just itching to be watched. Fifteen seconds later the new episode starts playing, before the credits on the current episode even finish. They rolled out this handy feature—they call it Post-Play—last August. Now all I have to do is nothing and moralistic tingle keeps coming.
It’s a simple opt-in/opt-out trick. The classic case study here, strangely enough, is organ donation. Countries that require their citizens to opt in before they’ll be considered organ donors often have donor rates in the teens or lower, while countries that presume their citizens are organ donors—unless they explicitly opt out—often have 90-percent-plus rates. Netflix, instead of asking me to opt in to the next episode, just presumes I want to watch another one in 15 seconds, unless I opt out. As I’m sure the Netflix brass happily projected, my episode-watching rates are up.
All sorts of media companies are deploying new tricks. Facebook notifications are no longer confined to Facebook; they’re on browser tabs, on phones and tablets, in as many emails as you forget to turn off, and recently started to feature an annoying little sound on my laptop (one that can thankfully be turned off, unlike Netflix’s Post-Play). It seems like every new phone app I download wants to send me push notifications, so its developers can grab my attention whenever they like. Even a competitive-cooking show my mom watches on basic cable doesn’t cut to commercial between back-to-back episodes anymore, and is designed so every mid-episode commercial break is also mid-cliffhanger.
A recent study on human willpower, involving college students and baked goods, should be cautionary here. Its results suggest that our willpower gets tired, like a muscle, so when we use it a lot in the course of a day we end up hardly being able to use it at all by day’s end. It seems to follow that, faced with media’s stronger, more regular seductions, we’re bound to give in earlier and more often. Perhaps this helps explain why the ends of long American workdays often feature alcohol, dessert, and hours of consumer media.
Then there’s the actual content. It’s probably clear to anyone over the age of 18 or so that content has undergone a sort of Incredible Hulk de-evolution that makes it both dumber and somehow also much more powerful. A good example of this (brought to my attention by a random post on Facebook) is TLC, founded as The Learning Channel by the former Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, together with NASA, to enrich American minds, but which now grips American eyeballs with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Ratings, no doubt, are up.
The media of my childhood, mostly weekly television shows and overused VHS tapes, was like a good pet. Sure, it was a little costly to keep around, but it was lovable, and I could always shut it out in the yard for a while. Now, though, media is always with me, always trying to snag my attention and siphon away as much as possible to sell to advertisers. It feels like it’s evolved from a cute little pet into a frighteningly efficient parasite.
Media has all the basic necessaries of an evolutionary form. Take television. It reproduces episode by episode and season by season, with variation, under the weight of the selective pressure of ratings. And unlike genes, which can only reproduce vertically from generation to generation, the elements of television can propagate laterally, as networks copy each other, spreading beneficial traits more rapidly across the medium. Shows that succeed in the ratings game survive and reproduce for another season and are copied, while shows that fail are killed. It seems newish series like Honey Boo Boo and Hoarders and Storage Wars have evolved some sort of primordial cocktail of novelty and faux voyeurism that, when delivered with quick edits and dramatic Muzak, is nearly irresistible to a large subset of American eyeballs.
In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a film (also called Infinite Jest) so entertaining that anyone who starts watching it will die watching it, smiling vacantly at the screen in a pool of their own soiling. It’s the ultimate gripper of eyeballs. Media, in this absurdist rendering, evolves past parasite to parasitoid, the kind of overly aggressive parasite that kills its host.
Wallace himself had a strained relationship with television. He said in his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram” that television “can become malignantly addictive,” which, he explained, means, “(1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems is causes.” Though I don’t think he would have labeled himself a television addict, Wallace was known to indulge in multi-day television binges. One can imagine those binges raised to the power of Netflix Post-Play and all seven seasons of The West Wing.
That sort of binge-television viewing has become a normal, accepted part of American culture. Saturdays with a DVD box set, a couple bottles of wine, and a big carton of goldfish crackers are a pretty common new feature of American weekends. Netflix bet big on this trend with their release of House of Cards. They released all 13 episodes of the first season at once: roughly one full Saturday’s worth. It’s a show designed for the binge. The New York Times quoted the show’s producer as saying, with a laugh, “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day.” They don’t say what kind of laugh it was.
The scariest part of this new binge culture is that hours spent bingeing don’t seem to displace other media consumption hours; we’re just adding them to our weekly totals. Lump in hours on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and maybe even the occasional non-torrented big-screen feature film and you’re looking at a huge number of hours per person.
In 2009, according to the media research company eMarketer, the average U.S. adult consumed about 10 hours and 32 minutes of media per day. (That’s including multitasking, so if you spend an hour browsing on your iPad while watching TV, that counts as two hours.) By 2012 that total was up over an hour to 11:39 per day. That’s almost eight hours more per week, per person. Now multiply that by America.
Before reading Wallace, I thought the only real use for absurdity, besides pure, often strange entertainment, was the reductio ad absurdum form of argument, the kind that uses a statement’s absurd or just plain false implications to show the statement itself must be false. (Like, for instance, “If the world is flat then we can have a peek over its edge.”) But Wallace uses absurdity differently, as a sort of funhouse mirror of truth. Lured in by outrageous images, we find they are reflections of ourselves. This is truth through absurdity, veritas per absurdum.
In Wallace’s book, a Canadian terrorist informant of foggy allegiance asks an American undercover agent a form of the question: “If Americans would choose to press play on the film Infinite Jest, knowing it will kill them, doesn’t that mean they are already dead inside, that they have chosen entertainment over life?” Of course vanishingly few Americans would press play on a film that was sure to end their lives. But there’s a truth in this absurdity. Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.
An optimally adapted parasite takes as much from its host as possible without damaging the viability of the host. In order for us to stay viable hosts for the media parasite, we need only enough waking hours away from media to make money and to spend that money on advertisers’ offerings and/or media’s costs (and of course to feed ourselves and, like, stay alive). Media will gladly take all our other hours. Think about normal adult American life: After working, spending, and consuming media, how many hours do we really have left? Of course it will never get all of our spare time. But it captures more of our hours every year. Media is on an evolutionary trajectory, a curve bringing it closer and closer and closer to Infinite Jest.
My son said some things on the way home from school today that gave me so much hope for the future that I just had to share them.
He is in middle school. He’s becoming more and more involved in social media and gaming and spending time with his peers without his parents.
This is terrifying.
I mean not as much so as when my nieces get to be this age… (then I’ll be a basket case)… but still with all the things going on with the internet and parents being so powerless to stop bullying once it starts… what can we do?
So what my son told me today … well it was nothing short of incredible…
basically… he said we’re doing it right. Society IS changing. All of the talking about bullying IS changing things for this next generation. or at least for his school.
They have had no fewer than 5 assemblies about bullying in their school this year. They talk about what is ok behaviour and what is not. And do you know how the kids have reacted? If someone acts in a way that is perceived to be bullying everyone thinks that kid is a weirdo. Don’t waste your time with them… and pretty soon they don’t act that way anymore.
To my son’s mind there are no bullies in his middle school. He feels like there might be some come in at the beginning of the year, but based on the what is socially acceptable in the school, that it will simply go away. (my words not his). If the behaviour crops up, the cultural response is so negative that it can’t be sustained.
I’m astonished. Removing bullying by peer pressure. SO FANTASTIC.
This highlights the importance of educational institutions as a component of culture. Not just for these kids now, but for our society in the future. Things can be different.
So let’s keep talking about this stuff, what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t, empowerment, acceptance, and all things awesome.
Balenciaga wedding dress, 1957
From the Cristobal Balenciaga Museum
I want this, too.
In my mind this is exactly what I would have worn for my wedding. Where were long sleeves then!
Douglas Adesko’s work is meant to comment on how many families struggle to eat together thanks to busy schedules and digital distractions. According to a recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, kids who frequently eat meals with their families report having better relationships with their parents and are at a lower risk for abusing drugs.
…While he’s happy for Family Meal to spur debate on food economics and environmental sustainability, Adesko says grand social commentary is not his primary intent. He wants to make gorgeous, detailed images, and he succeeds. The personality-rich characters in Family Meal make for compelling tableaux.
“What I’m most interested in is trying to foster feelings of connection and recognition by documenting people in everyday circumstances,” he says.
Could this be a correlation though not causation? Could families with good relationships be more likely to eat as a group?
There’s a lot to discuss here
OH MY FUCKING GOD WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON HERE
“It’s like I was saying, kids: don’t take shit off of anyone.”
….this photo 0_o
Ok so I have pictures of my neighbours’ with a car on fire out front… I have pictures of a moose… I have pictures of a blow up swimming pool in the yard… but damn I have never imagined that you could get a picture of all of these things at the same time. Plus baby moose! hmmm photoshop? if so really well done.
[Image: 6-piece blue colored background with a Siamese cat.Text reads: “Can’t move because of pain, ‘You’re so lazy’”]
Someone asked me about my weekend yesterday and I said well I over did it on Saturday so had to stay in bed until 2:30 on Sunday coz of pain. Response “that’s really lazy”
My absolute favourite people are the ones who say… ‘good for you, you must have really needed that time’. I could just hug them. (and I’m phobic about touching people)
The metaphor of a steel forge has got me through a lot of pain over the years. A little story I tell myself when things seem unreasonably difficult.
This video has some great visuals to go with that and a very moving story.
Recently, someone (I wish I could give an attribution) suggested the concept of levelling up… that things get really tough at different stages of life which fits in with what I know about parenting and what I’m learning about getting older. You don’t ever really stop growing up. The levels are infinite… just hope for some beauty and respite between ‘boss battles’.
This amazing post brought me to tears and then joyful smiles. I’ve been through a lot in the last 6 months, and see so much here I relate to. I hope you do the same, and find your way to your own piece of corn.
Seems like there are two worlds, the veneer of interactions where everyone tries to be ‘normal’, and this other thing going on behind, so many of us share, that is probably the real normal.
For about 24 months I’ve bee working through 20 years or so of stored anger. Turns out ignoring the sandpaper of life isn’t so healthy.
Thanks for the validation.
With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here’s Space Oddity, recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the World.
Huge thanks in the making of the video to the talented trio of Emm Gryner, Joe Corcoran and Andrew Tidby, plus Evan Hadfield and all at the CSA.
Welcome home Commander! Ya done mighty good.