by Theo Moore
“it got awful reviews”,
and so it goes for eternity…
On Netflix, there’s just too much to choose from. Žižek, the hairy Hegelian philosopher, has some interesting things to say about free choice – I’d like to apply his ideas to the way that Netflix has changed how we consume TV and film, and what that might mean for the future of the entertainment industry.
On free choice he proposes; “when we are deprived of universal healthcare, we are told that we are given a new freedom of choice (to choose our healthcare provider) … when we can no longer rely on long-term employment and are compelled to search for a new, precarious position every couple of years, we are told that we are given the opportunity to reinvent ourselves.” With Netflix we are presented with the freedom to choose from a never-before-seen amount of content yet, paradoxically, we spend so long sifting through the lists that we rarely find what we’re looking for; either that or we get caught in the zombifying cycle of binging the newest must-see series. Žižek believes that in noticing these “unfreedoms” as he calls them, “we experience our freedom as what it effectively is: a burden that deprives us of the true choice of change.” Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves; I’m not saying that Netflix is a conspiratorial, anti-revolutionary agent implemented to keep us stuck in an endless cycle of consuming one piece of mass-produced entertainment after another, but if cinema used to be about escapism, the constant loop of “the next episode begins in more time than it takes for you to lift your frazzled brain from your pillow at 3am”, could be conceived, by minds with a penchant for conspiracy, as more of a trap. In 2017 Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, said that the streaming giant were now ‘competing with sleep’ for our attention.
In his book Like A Thief In Broad Daylight (2018) Žižek presents the curious case of the Light Phone 2, a mobile phone that has only a few essential tools built into it (messaging, an alarm clock, etc). Žižek notes that all of us have, at one point, felt “the superego pressure” to use all of our smartphone’s applications, failure to do so perhaps leads to a sense of futility; step up the Light Phone 2, a phone you buy because of what it can’t do. It can’t tempt you onto twitter, or make you feel technologically inept, because it simply doesn’t have the capabilities. Žižek argues that here we are “caught in a circular paradox: first you pay for all the additional functions provided by smartphones, then you pay even more to acquire some freedom and get rid of these additional functions.”
In applying this to streaming services, I wonder if, in the future, cinema might present itself in a similar way. If the Light Phone provides a temporary escape from the pit of choice, then going to the cinema may offer a similar reprieve from Netflix’s abundance. Netflix has come under fire from a number of notable directors who disapprove of their policy to either offer streams and theatrical releases simultaneously, or to forgo the big screen entirely; some are worried that this might eventually spell a dramatic decline in the numbers heading off to the pictures. As Netflix swallows up more and more opportunities for cinematic release, we are left with a few big blockbusters (those who can still afford the marketing) to choose from when we venture away from our laptops. Ironically, the unlimited choice of streaming services might lead to a decline in the future’s limited cinema listing. The Light Phone is not a replacement for our smartphones, it only exists because they do. Perhaps in a sad future, cinema will fulfil this role in its relationship to streaming sites. We won’t go to the cinema for the experience, the popcorn and the big screen, we’ll go because it’s not Netflix.
The Light Phone 2 also represents a yearning for nostalgia. We are nostalgic for, what only recently became, the olden times where our phones couldn’t connect to the world wide web and social media hadn’t yet thrust itself into the centre of our day to day lives. Netflix realised, we’re also nostalgic for reruns. They paid $100 million dollars last year to keep Friends on their service. Although, interestingly, the on-demand, watch whenever you want model of Netflix might only work for our old favourites. For their newer original releases, Netflix sometimes prefers a more traditional distribution method: weekly instalments for TV shows (Better Call Saul, The Good Place) and limited theatrical releases for big budget movies (The Irishman, Marriage Story) before they’re available to stream. Perhaps their revolutionary binge broadcasting is better suited to the shows we know and love, some may actually prefer to wait, and savour each episode of the newer and more exciting releases.
Žižek argues that if we purchase the Light Phone 2 “we are not expected to throw our smartphone away.” No, the Light Phone 2 “just enables us to gain some breathing space.” Some breathing space away from all that choice. Without smartphones, the Light Phone is just regressive technology, it “only works properly if the threat of the smartphone continues to lurk in the background.” If we were to simply get rid of our streaming sites now, in an attempt to revert solely to old-school cinema and broadcast television, we would simply be regressing. It is the present and the future it seems, but, be it the Light Phone or the television, we can, at least for now, dip back into the past if we need to.