Entertainment

The important questions: Is Netflix killing our curiosity?

One evening not so long ago, tired after a day’s work and
wanting nothing more than to slump into the temporary oblivion
of my uncomfortable sofa, I turned on the television, navigated
to Netflix and hit play on the first item on the splash page: a
banner marquee for
Daredevil,
a Netflix Original Series about a blind New York attorney
turned super-heroic crime fighter.

The strange thing was, I had no interest in
watching
Daredevil. The
premise did not appeal to me at all. I found it monotonous and
boring, its drama predictable, its characters nondescript. I
felt no particular desire to see how its story developed. I was
not what you would call hooked, nor even really compelled. Yet,
I somehow watched this whole show straight through.

This was hardly the first time I had squandered a
precious expanse of free time on something I afterward deemed
not worth the investment. But something about this wasted night
struck me as unique. It had something to do with choice and
something to do with ease.

We glide through the algorithms like
channel-surfing, and revert again to the state of passive
TV-watchers, fine with whatever comes on.

Why did I endure
Daredevil? Because
Daredevil happened at that moment to
be presented to me, and demanded no effort at all to either
start or continue to the end. In my after-work exhaustion I
felt incredibly unmotivated — felt indifferent to everything
and disinclined to think much about what I wanted to consume.
Netflix was eager to decide on my behalf. Algorithms too
elaborate for me to understand determined I may be willing to
watch content the company had furnished the platform for
exactly this purpose. The algorithm probably knew I’d
think
Daredevil was bad.
It probably knew I’d watch it anyway.

For a while, it seemed the generation of cord-cutters had
liberated themselves from passive consumption. The life-long
habit of my parents to sit in front of the TV and
uncomplainingly receive the endless deluge of facile
mediocrity that networks broadcast — canned-laughter sitcoms,
mid-day soap operas, evening news hours, primetime dramas,
movies of the week — was broken for my peers and me by the
control afforded us by the internet and its infinite
opportunities for self-directed entertainment. We no longer had
to settle for what was merely on; we could choose to watch or
read or listen to anything we wanted: a weekend of

The Sopranos instead of a
dinner-hour
The Big Bang Theory
re-run. It was more work than having cable, which made
decisions for you and was on with something ready to go at the
click of a button. But the work almost always paid off.

It’s amazing to consider the degree to which those
avenues of online discovery have seemed to close off in recent
years. Netflix and other platforms like it are the major
culprits. On the one hand, these mega-corporate streaming
services have steadily reduced their back catalogues, pruning
their libraries of films and television series that date back
any older than around 1993. Netflix once offered a sizeable, if
not comprehensive, selection of classical Hollywood cinema and
film from other eras and countries, but in Canada (especially)
no longer does. (Worse, competitors that specialize in these
supposedly niche titles continue to shutter, as FilmStruck
announced it would just last week.) On the other hand, Netflix
has an enormous, ever-growing library of brand new content it
produces in-house — already an inexhaustible trove of
proprietary Originals it wants to shove into our faces and
encourage us to choose by reflex from the jump.

The
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Netflix

The combined effect of this shrinking catalogue of
serious cinema and growing catalogue of Netflix-branded filler
is that choice has been replaced with passivity. An audience
frequently inclined to take the path of least resistance — life
is hard enough without having to spend a lot of time
researching film and television — will only be too happy to
accept whatever Netflix offers on a nightly basis. We are all
of us inherently lazy, and have to fight hard to remain
interested and active viewers; remaining informed and conscious
consumers takes real effort. Netflix exploits that laziness,
indeed cultivates it, by providing precisely the excuse we are
craving to abandon our control. We glide through the algorithms
like channel-surfing, and revert again to the state of passive
TV-watchers, fine with whatever comes on. We don’t even need to
hit play anymore; what’s up next will start in five, four,
three …

This tends to produce a kind of Netflix-sponsored
monoculture. When everyone you know suddenly seems to be
talking about The 
Chilling
Adventures of Sabrina
, a new remake of the old
network comedy of teenage witchery, it’s difficult not to be
skeptical. Are all of us watching this because it’s an
interesting program of artistic merit that’s worth our time and
attention? Or is it just because we turned on the TV and opened
Netflix and it was right there at the top, ready to watch at a
moment’s notice in its entirety? The ratio of people I know who
have watched
Sabrina to the
people who enjoyed it is staggering.

It would be bad enough if we were all merely watching the
same thing. As it stands we’re all watching the same thing, and
most of us don’t even like it. 

This is a different sort of complaint than that a lot of
people like a dumb TV show: it’s not a problem of lowered
standards. We still have standards, only now we seem more
willing to waste our time on things that don’t meet
them.

Are the algorithms the cause, or the symptom? Because
make no mistake, this crisis of passivity is not restricted to
Netflix and bad television. We are indulging in the same
mindless consumption when we boot up Spotify and click through
to the first available Daily Mix or prefabricated playlist
rather than taking the time to sift through our libraries of
saved albums or explore music we’ve never heard but are
interested in. The trouble is this passive attitude deadens an
impulse that ought to be essential to how we live. It kills our
curiosity — our drive to discover and learn more about the art
we consume, to stumble upon a great book or seek out an
unfamiliar record or unearth an obscure old movie.

It’s that impulse that makes contact with art an occasion
to grow and change. And it’s an impulse not only incompatible
with algorithms, but snuffed out by the habits they
instill.

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