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.
A competitive-cooking show 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.
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.