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Is Netflix Turning Us into Robots?

The best science-fiction stories are prophetic, penetrating into the often-disturbing future that awaits society downstream of its current trajectory. 

Ray Bradbury’s excellent Fahrenheit 451 depicts a society that outlaws and burns books for being dangerous and divisive, replacing them with immersive, nearly omnipresent television. In some rooms, all four walls are replaced with screens, and customizable options use algorithms to incorporate the viewer’s name and life history into the programming. Despite providing more options than ever before and the most immersive virtual experience imaginable, the technology ultimately enslaves the characters rather than offering them freedom or relief. Recently, a real-world news story caught my attention and seemed to validate this classic visionary tale. 

Netflix—the reigning king of the increasingly crowded streaming landscape—announced the implementation of a new feature called “shuffle play.” The feature is exactly what it sounds like, “letting subscribers turn over the decision of what to watch next to the streamer’s algorithms” (Variety). This sentence, which would have provided Ray Bradbury with rich fodder for another sci-fi novel, is reported casually, underscoring the reality that perhaps we are now living such a story.   

Netflix COO, Greg Peters, explains that sometimes users come to the service “and they’re not really sure what they want to watch . . . It’s really working for us where our members can basically indicate to us that they just want to skip browsing entirely, click one button and we’ll pick a title for them just to instantly play.”

Before getting too sensationalist, I should note that the “shuffle play” feature is an option the majority of viewers are likely to ignore (at least for now). At the same time, the feature was popular enough during its initial limited-release period to make it permanent. In some ways, it is an inevitable byproduct of the staggering and unprecedented quantity of entertainment available today.

The rise of streaming as the dominant form of visual entertainment largely stemmed from the promise of “freedom.” 

Freedom from the rigid programing of network TV. 

Freedom from unwanted channels.

Freedom from soaring costs.

Freedom to binge. 

Freedom to watch whatever, whenever, wherever.

It’s an enticing sale’s pitch, yet more and more consumers now seem to be drowning in the endless ocean of this abundant freedom. With so many competing streaming platforms, FOMO (fear of missing out) drives us to subscribe to more and more of them (spiking the cost back to the “dinosaur age” of network TV). Within each of these streaming platforms, the libraries of content continue to swell exponentially. Netflix, driven by quantity over quality, recently boasted of its intention to release an original film every single week of 2021. The word of the day seems to be more . . . more . . . more

Where do these developments leave us? It’s difficult to say, but two things seem clear: First, we are charging further and further down the path of virtual enslavement. Second, we need to reevaluate and take charge of our recreation time and entertainment consumption. 

Entertainment is an act of recreation, which by definition (literally re-creation) is meant to restore and refresh. “Vegging” as a limited and purposeful act can be healthy (necessary, even). But using escapism as a regular “posture” or prolonged habit is counterproductive. As we all know by now, few things are less restorative and recharging than mindless binge-watching. The Bible wisely counsels, “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Proverbs 13:4).

There is a significant difference between enjoying an intriguing movie or show and simply “watching to watch.” In the first situation, the viewer is in greater control, driven by an interest in something specific. On the other hand, “watching to watch” is—bluntly put—merely the desire to do nothing. The content is irrelevant and interchangeable (“Just pick it for me, Netflix!”). What we really want is simply to be watching something and doing nothing.

Streaming features such as “auto play next episode” or “shuffle play” are intentionally designed to keep people watching long after their interest lags and the mental or physical benefits of the activity have been replaced by slothful fatigue. Against the gravitational pull of these forces, I suggest four simple guidelines:

1. Whenever possible, disable any “auto play” features that might suck you into watching “just one more episode.”

2. Set healthy time restrictions (for example, one hour per day). Not only will these boundaries guard you from the temptation of mindless binging, but they also allow you to enjoy watching shows without worrying about what you “should be doing instead.”

3. If you scroll through the video library for more than five minutes without anything catching your attention, turn off the TV and choose another recreational activity (read a book, go for a walk, call a friend, take a nap).

4. Try to come to a streaming platform with a movie or show already in mind (a new episode from one of your favorite shows, a movie you’ve been hearing lots of positive buzz about, etc.) rather than directionless browsing. 

There is nothing wrong with enjoying recreation time. We were not created for “all work and no play.” We require rest physically but also mentally and spiritually. God set a healthy example for us by resting on the seventh day of creation. At the same time, let’s be careful that the entertainment promising us freedom and rest isn’t delivering us enslavement and fatigue instead. There are many healthy forms of recreation available, and Netflix cannot make the choice for us.        

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