The framers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence could not have known. They could not have foreseen how commoditization, consumerism, globalisation and always-on media culture would come to transform our culture. They did well to insert “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
But they failed to consider our collective evolution — if you would wish to denote it as such — towards a sophisticated culture of binge. Significant numbers of us have long binged on physical goods, money, natural resources, food and drink. However, media has lagged, somewhat. But no longer. Now we have at our instantaneous whim entire libraries of all-you-can-eat infotainment. Time will tell if this signals the demise of quality, as it gets replaced with overwhelming quantity. One area shows where we may be heading — witness the “fastfoodification” of our news.
When Beyoncé released, without warning, 17 videos around midnight on Dec. 13, millions of fans rejoiced. As a more casual listener of Ms. Knowles, I balked at the onslaught of new material and watched a few videos before throwing in the towel.
Likewise, when Netflix, in one fell swoop, made complete seasons of “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” available for streaming, I quailed at the challenge, though countless others happily immersed themselves in their worlds of Washington intrigue and incarcerated women.
Then there is the news, to which floodgates are now fully open thanks to the Internet and cable TV: Flight 370, Putin, Chris Christie, Edward Snowden, Rob Ford, Obamacare, “Duck Dynasty,” “bossy,” #CancelColbert, conscious uncoupling. When presented with 24/7 coverage of these ongoing narratives from an assortment of channels — traditional journalism sites, my Facebook feed, the log-out screen of my email — I followed some closely and very consciously uncoupled from others.
Had these content providers released their offerings in the old-media landscape, à la carte rather than in an all-you-can-eat buffet, the prospect of a seven-course meal might not have seemed so daunting. I could handle a steady drip of one article a day about Mr. Ford in a newspaper. But after two dozen, updated every 10 minutes, plus scores of tweets, videos and GIFs that keep on giving, I wanted to forget altogether about Toronto’s embattled mayor.
While media technology is now catching up to Americans’ penchant for overdoing it and finding plenty of willing indulgers, there are also those like me who recoil from the abundance of binge culture.
In the last decade, media entertainment has given far more freedom to consumers: watch, listen to and read anything at anytime. But Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice,” argues that our surfeit of consumer choices engenders anxiety, not satisfaction, and sometimes even a kind of paralysis.
His thesis (which has its dissenters) applies mostly to the profusion of options within a single set: for instance, the challenge of picking out salad dressing from 175 varieties in a supermarket. Nevertheless, it is also germane to the concept of bingeing, when 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad” wait overwhelmingly in a row like bottles of Newman’s Own on a shelf.
Alex Quinlan, 31, a first-year Ph.D. student in poetry at Florida State University, said he used to spend at least an hour every morning reading the news and “putting off my responsibilities,” as well as binge-watching shows. He is busier now, and last fall had trouble installing an Internet connection in his home, which effectively “rewired my media-consumption habits,” he said. “I’m a lot more disciplined. Last night I watched one episode of ‘House of Cards’ and went to bed. A year ago, I probably would’ve watched one, gotten another beer, then watched two more.”
Even shorter-term bingeing can seem like a major commitment, because there is a distorting effect of receiving a large chunk of content at once rather than getting it piecemeal. To watch one Beyoncé video a week would eat as much time as watching all in one day, but their unified dissemination makes them seem intimidatingly movie-length (which they are, approximately) rather than like a series of four-minute clips.
I also experienced some first-world anxiety last year with the release of the fourth season of “Arrested Development.” I had devoured the show’s first three seasons, parceled out in 22-minute weekly installments on Fox as well as on DVD, where I would watch episodes I had already seen (in pre-streaming days, binge-watching required renting or owning a copy, which was more like a contained feast). But when Netflix uploaded 15 new episodes totaling 8.5 hours on May 26, I was not among those queuing up for it. It took me some time to get around to the show, and once I had started, the knowledge of how many episodes stretched in front of me, at my disposal whenever I wanted, proved off-putting.
This despite the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses quality to binge-viewing. If everyone is quickly exhausting every new episode of a show, and writing and talking about it the next day, it’s easy to feel left out of the conversation if you haven’t kept pace. And sometimes when you’re late to the party, you decide to stay home instead.
Because we frequently gorge when left to our own Wi-Fi-enabled devices, the antiquated methods of “scheduling our information consumption” may have been healthier, if less convenient, said Clay Johnson, 36, the author of “The Information Diet.” He recalled rushing home after choir practice when he was younger to catch “Northern Exposure” on TV.
“That idea is now preposterous,” he said. “We don’t have appointment television anymore. Just because we can watch something all the time doesn’t mean we should. Maybe we should schedule it in a way that makes sense around our daily lives.”
“It’s a lot like food,” he added. “You see some people become info-anorexic, who say the answer is to unplug and not consume anything. Much like an eating disorder, it’s just as unhealthy a decision as binge-watching the news and media. There’s a middle ground of people who are saying, ‘I need to start treating this form of input in my life like a conscious decision and to be informed in the right way.’ ”
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