Netflix and the Illusion of Freedom
The End of the Tour, a film based on a series of interviews with the late acclaimed author David Foster Wallace by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky was released this past summer. Wallace made for a particularly fascinating interview subject, especially in light of his unexpected suicide about eight years ago. The movie has sparked a renewed interest in his work, which covers a virtuosic range of styles and content, including short stories, novels, and essays on contemporary issues. One of the most common themes throughout his body of work is entertainment's subtle yet powerful effect on society, especially that of television.
Wallace's most celebrated work was Infinite Jest, released in 1996. This novel became notorious for its page count of 1,079, including almost 100 pages of endnotes, which contain important plot elements. To put it mildly, this book is not light reading. Also notable is Wallace's 'maximalist' attention to detail in the novel, which expresses itself in rich explorations into the streams-of-consciousness of multiple characters, and brings his vision of an alternate version of contemporary American society to life. According to Wallace's retelling of American history, television was eventually replaced by what he coins as the "Interlace TelEntertainment" system. This technology "pulses" programs to viewers' watching devices on demand, taking the passivity out of the TV watching experience.
When I first came across Wallace's description of this system while reading the novel, I realized his words were eerily prophetic. Pioneered by Netflix, streaming entertainment has become a major player in the entertainment business, and for the typical middle class high school or college student, has basically replaced television as the quintessential leisurely pastime. The recently popular phrase, "Netflix and chill," requires no elaboration, but crassly shows the centrality of this medium in our culture.
Current college students are in an interesting transitional position, having spent their childhood watching TV, and may have wasted obscene amounts of time in high school streaming TV shows and movies on Netflix or Hulu. At first glance, we might consider these experiences as seeming fundamentally different. The classic portrait of a TV watcher is the couch potato, hypnotized by whatever he or she is watching, most likely while munching on something grossly unhealthy. Us Netflix users might feel an air of superiority over those who watch TV because of the technological sophistication we associate with streaming, and more importantly, it just feels more personal. Because we get to choose to watch what appeals to our ultra-refined tastes, the entire streaming process becomes one of self-validation. This element is missing from the experience of watching TV, an activity so simple that its futility is more obvious to us.
This isn't an earth-shatteringly new phenomenon. The culture of consumerism has slowly but surely become entrenched in American society over the last century. Typical advertisements rarely emphasize the functionality or necessity of a product, but are more likely to persuade you that you should buy something because it will deeply and powerfully affect you as an individual. When was the last time you saw a car commercial that focused on the vehicle's ability to get you from point A to point B, instead of something along the lines of how it can help you embrace your adventurous side?
While these kinds of products claim to appeal to who we are, they don't actually help us build character in any substantive way. They merely make sure that you wear your identity loudly and proudly on your sleeve, guaranteed to make others realize your value. The cultural obsession with services like Netflix has shown us the harsh reality that not only do we have to express ourselves to others, but to express ourselves to ourselves.
The desire to recreate a world in our own images extends beyond the political boundaries we draw for ourselves. Starbucks caused a major uproar in right-wing circles when their annual holiday themed coffee cups failed to be "Christmassy" enough for Christian customers' likings. Regardless of the fact that most of the symbolism we see around Christmas time was conceived as a secular marketing tool, the fact that people could feel so personally threatened by the imagery that adorns their coffee cups is frightening. We can probably learn more about people's fixation on consumer products from this affair than anything valuable about religious liberties.
On the other side of the political spectrum, around this past Halloween, primarily liberal college campuses were bitterly divided over the issue of regulating students’ Halloween costumes, out of concern over racist or offensive caricatures. Although it goes without saying that it’s wrong to wear something you think others may be offended by, the outpouring of outrage calling for administrative action seems to be rooted in the same issue. Personal integrity and self-confidence have fallen by the wayside to a desire to see the world presented to you as your personal utopia. Of course, having deeply rooted values means that you may have to fight for them at times, but this doesn't mean you should expect them to be reflected towards you by default.
With this palpable sentiment in our cultural climate, it would be wise to take heed to David Foster Wallace’s keen insight into what the future could bring. Infinite Jest's numerous twisting and turning plotlines revolve around a single film so entertaining that it entrances viewers to the point of utter dysfunction. Because the film's "victims" experience the greatest imaginable pleasure by watching it, they become totally disinterested in anything else, including performing basic life functions. Services like Netflix provide us with the similar illusion of total control and freedom. Not only do they subtly wrap the same old unproductive behavior in a sleek new package, but also give us false expectations of reality. Getting too comfortable with the immediate gratification model of Netflix will result in action paralysis when we realize that the real world doesn’t work this way. We shouldn’t mistake the appearance of the accomplishment of our goals with the patience and hard work it requires.