I’ve fallen into a dangerous habit from which it can seem impossible to recover. I am addicted to the ease of watching streaming TV shows on Instant Netflix, even as those same shows fail to live up to any hope of streaming as the ideal technology for the unusual. Apparently, I am not alone: as Sam Adams just speculated in his essay on the “convenience trap” of Netflix: “In essence, Netflix is gambling that its customers are less concerned about watching the right movie than watching right now. What if it’s right?” It’s a chilling question, but a familiar one—does popular culture decline when the force of instant gratification outweighs deliberation?
Movie theaters are one of the few settings left for watching something without distraction, or at least under the pretense of focus. Going to see a movie used to be an event: now, the home entertainment experience is far closer to the same level of technology than ever before. This is part of why the industry has become so attached to the idea of 3D–it’s a way to recapture the supremacy of the theater and also try to enforce concentration by regulating an environment to an extreme. Try to work on your home laptop while wearing the 3D glasses required for an at-home 3D television: it doesn’t really work.
TV is an often-on presence within a household, and now streaming Netflix can play that same role. When I’m watching Netflix, it’s usually because I’m working. Whether you buy the argument that multitasking is a myth or not (and personally, I don’t), there are a number of repetitive tasks that are often accompanied by television. Unfortunately, the better quality the show or film, the less likely it is to fit into a routine that involves laptops, writing and productivity. Thus, it seems obvious that part of the blame lies not with Netflix Instant itself but with our lifestyle choices: if I am, for instance, likely to spend my time answering email or working until all hours, a show like Greek on seemingly endless play suddenly seems like a sensible solution.
But another argument is that streaming on-demand video (like the battling titans Netflix and Hulu Plus) actually improves the quality of our choices: that we are no longer stuck with the “whatever’s on” philosophy of television. I may be watching Greek, but at least I no longer use the Home and Garden network as a regular accompaniment to marathon work sessions (at least, not as often!) Is that improving the quality of our viewing? Or have we swapped one limited set for another, and in doing so embraced convenience over quality?
The “Instant_Netflix” account on Twitter recommends titles worth watching in the slowly growing streaming library—but often, those still leave a lot to be desired (Titan A. E., anyone?). It’s already impossible to experience all the great stories of popular culture. With the rate knowledge and publishing is expanding, there’s far more available than anyone can hope to read. The plight of the reader in the twilight zone, confronted with endless time and broken glasses, is the mirror image of our own, but with a new twist: we are surrounded by an ever-growing number of stories, but it is our attention span rather than our vision that may be lasting. Something like Titan A.E. becomes a quick, and thoughtless, click far more readily than a film which demands concentration.
There are great films mixed into the database of Netflix “Instant”, but the path of least resistance is often littered with B-list films. Convenient pop culture of this kind doesn’t challenge us: instead, it works to blend into our lives to the point where it is barely noticeable. It sits in the background—for instance, I can stream episode upon episode of Greek with a click of a button, no real interruptions, and no need to continue to choose. Even the act of rising from our seat and moving DVDs requires a physical investment that Netflix does not demand. It continually reminds its user that accepting the offerings on Instant will be less aggravating than mail-order. The recent change in pricing plans reflects not the idea that their DVD mailing service is worth more–instead, it’s a recognition that regardless of limitations on content, the streaming solution is portable and easy.
One of the major complaints of online publishing is that the best work doesn’t always rise to the top. Instead, the most popular work is found—and often that means work that caters to the widest audience will be the most successful, while niche works find fame within their targeted subcultures. But other art goes mostly ignored, never amplified enough to break through the noise of the web. Cultural gatekeepers used to curate the noise. In the mainstream publishing industry, they still do, deciding which books will make it into print and which films will be released into theatres rather than condemned to the “direct to dvd” bargain heap. We’re not without cultural moderators entirely. In streaming Netflix, the same rules play out: what’s new? What’s popular? Those are the first works that become visible.
There are so many ways something like Netflix could evolve. Some of it has already been realized–in including more obscure (and thus cheaper) films, Netflix does offer the opportunities for niche marketing. In theory, given the lack of volume purchasing required, it shouldn’t take as large of an audience for something to become profitable. But the reality of the industry does not yet reflect the dream of a cultural storehouse: instead, it is no different from Clay Shirky’s vision of the cognitive surplus, filling the same role as gin and television before it in making unexpected time pass more quickly. Using instant steaming can too easily become a question of choosing a film to fill a time, rather than choosing a film or show to enrich it. In an era with so many stories and ideas, there’s no excuse for boredom, and Netflix is certainly part of that formula. But will it ever fulfill the dream of enriching our culture through providing for a range of audiences, rather than catering to an imagined mainstream the company envisions as enamored with cheap to license work? If television and the internet become inseperable companions, and cable is shunted to the wayside, will edgy experiments like True Blood find their niche? Or will they be forgotten under the press of season upon season of would-be standard fare? Better TV and film is intentionally more immersive, but are we really moved by a single immersive experience very often anymore?