Infinite TV: Curate Your Brains Out

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My father, about 1956, watching our one channel:  WBNG 12 Binghamton.

We now have an infinite amount of TV.

We have over-the-air free TV, satellite TV, cable TV, YouTube, and endless professional and amateur streaming programs.  We have Big Ugly Dishes, small ku band dishes, smartphones, smart TV’s, DVRs, DVDs, BluRay 4K 8K Apple TV Amazon TV videos on social media and it goes on forever forever forever.

MJ Robinson in TELEVISION ON DEMAND:  Curatorial Culture and the Transformation of TV (Bloomsbury Academic 2017) says that that forces each and every one of us into a curatorial role.

That means that we now spend more time trying to find stuff to watch than actually watching it.  (Exaggeration mine, not Robinson’s.)

Fun, isn’t it?

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No, being a curator – of anything – is not fun.  It’s poring over lists and items, and trying to pick the “best”.  And, as Barry Schwartz pointed out in his bestselling book of a few years ago, there’s nothing that causes more stress than having to make a decision.  Especially when the choices are infinite.

Television is in a “liminal state”, according to Robinson, an anthropological term that essentially means “in transition”.  You and I would say, “TV is changing”.  Academics say, “TV is in a liminal state”, and then babble on about mystics and shamans, and then wonder why governments threaten to stop funding the soft social “sciences”.

AI, or artificial intelligence – algorithms – are coming to the aid of us amateur curators as we try to figure out what to watch.

Have you noticed your DVR or phone giving you viewing suggestions that most often show up like those “12 albums for 1 cent!” come-ons of our youth?  Our phones follow us into the bathroom, our TV listens to our conversations, our car hears our every fart and jittle, priests get a list of your sins two weeks before confession, our dogs are embedded with chips that read our moods.  Based upon your past trail of clues, the devices around you help you curate, or pick, what you watch on television.  And everything today is some form of television.

There are still national TV networks.  HBO is still around.  Is TBS still around?  Amazon, who sells you toilet paper, now sells you TV, and you happily buy it.

But you can go niche.  You can go little TV.  You can watch the broadcasts of the home-based minister of a faith that exists only in his or her head.  (You and three other viewers.)  You can watch pet-bathing channels.  Channels showing guys (it’s always guys) waxing their trucks or tube swapping their vintage electronics.

You can broadcast your own TV channel, just like I can blog my own little newspaper.  Buy a camera.  Find a streaming service.  Done.  Isn’t this fun?  All for six readers or six viewers.

Now, if only you – or Amazon, or Apple, or NBC – could figure out something worth broadcasting.

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Because in this environment of infinite TV choices, there is still nothing you can come up with that’s worth watching.  With infinite choices, I’ve pretty much “curated” my TV viewing down to CNBC World, CNBC, and, haha, Orioles baseball.

It comes down to attention.

I only have 1 unit of Attention at any given time.  Oh, you may think that you can multitask.  No you can’t.  You only have 1 unit of Attention, too.

How on earth do an infinite number of broadcast choices get your attention?

Robinson in TELEVISION ON DEMAND says that AI will help recommend stuff to us.  It will lead us all out of the swamp.

Or, I worry, will it lead us into narcotic solitude, stuck in our own autistic world of video trivia?  Will it “save” us as well as it has done with social media?  How is that working out?  “Apply a little more, a little better AI, better and faster and more advanced algorithms” say the researchers.  Yeah, sure.

Meanwhile, the choices shout at us, louder and louder, in more extreme ways, the way candidates do.  They must bust through the muck.

But they can’t.  We only have 1 unit of Attention each, at any given moment, for infinite numbers of broadcasters to grab.

This Golden Age of TV is going to collapse.  With the next economic downturn or depression.

Then we will all sit at home, with our rooms in darkness and with our meagre Basic National Income allowance, and watch Barney Rubble smoke Winstons on PBS.

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We’ve Been Hooked Then Abandoned

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The story of our lives is one of:  A)  getting addicted to something, and then:  B)  getting abandoned.

Good things end.  I’m not talking about kids growing up or getting old or things wearing out.  Those things are bad enough, but they aren’t artificial.

I’m talking about artificial, capitalist-style desertion.  Since the industrial revolution, and especially since the turn of the 20th century, marketing, advertising, innovation, and technology have enchanted us and then broken our hearts.

We’re given – sold, actually – a bill of good things.  Take TV.

TV ended in the mid-1980’s when intelligent comedies such as “Barney Miller” and “Taxi” wrapped.  Oh, there was “thirtysomething” a few years later, which fell prematurely to self-indulgence and class envy.  There was the original “Twin Peaks”, and even this year’s Showtime version.

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Then what?  TV abandoned us.

What’s left?  “Hannity”?  “The Property Brothers”?  Some reality shows?

Hell, my wife and I came across “The Beverly Hillbillies” a few weeks ago, and in it are cultural references to ancient Greece that would fly over the heads of today’s college graduates.  “Hillbillies” now comes off as hip and campy compared to today’s fare.

By the late ’80’s, video games arrived to fill the gap.  We got hooked.  At least white males did.

I remember “Earl Weaver Baseball” and “SimEarth” and “SimCity” and “SimLife”, then “Pharaoh” and “Stronghold” and “The Sims”.

Since then?  Video games are muck.

The graphics cause motion sickness.  They are almost all shooters.  They’re all designed for lower-demographic 12 year old boys whose parents don’t pay much attention to them.

We got addicted to the time sink of video games, and then our friends like Electronic Arts abandoned us.

Thus adrift at sea, we were picked up by the internet.

Surfing, Facebook, and the web in general became the new organizing principle of our lives.  Technology was called our savior.  We believed it.  We bought it.

Now San Francisco, the symbolic home of high tech, is one vast homeless shelter, and California’s economic inequality is infamous.  The products they gave us are seen in research as causing depression, loneliness, envy, anger, rage, and political divisiveness, fed by our very own “friends”.

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via Cnet

I was asked to join Facebook about 10 years ago by a real-life friend (as opposed to an artificial digital one) who, in typical school playground drug pusher style said, “Oh, come on, Gregg, it’ll be fun!”

I was hooked.

But now we all know how Facebook and the internet in general are a waste of time, are annoying, cause rage and impoliteness, post fake news, allow radical political groups to emerge, hack our bank accounts, steal our credit card numbers, and on and on.

And, worst of all, the internet is overflowing with ads for crap products and it is . . . boring.  Really shit-awful boring.

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I won’t even mention the porn.  Did I mention the porn?

After you’ve seen every breast on the planet several times over, what can captivate further?  Is there anything capitalism can provide to fill up the next 10 or 20 years?

No, it can’t.  Capitalism has shot its wad.  It has forced us to undergo detox several times, and we’ve caught on to its games.  Capitalism is a liar.  So is socialism, even worse.  All “isms” fail the, “Come on, it’ll be fun!” hype after several detox cycles.

You can see the failures of several other cultural subsets, which only makes things worse.

I see small schools such as SLU pushed out of college hockey by big money, or at least made permanent laughingstocks, good for an easy win.

I see small market professional sports teams neutered, especially in baseball.  I’m sure MLB was delighted with the Boston/Los Angeles World Series.  It’s a miracle Milwaukee got as close as they did.   That won’t be allowed to happen again.  So no sports addiction for me.  What fun is a stacked deck?

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There was a time when I could walk from my corner home on Leigh Street down to Appleton Arena in Canton, NY (pop. what, about 5,000?) and see future NHLers beat Cornell and Yale.  The walk took about one minute.  The game was free or nearly free.  I thought a lifetime of sports was going to be a safe addiction.

And the same with cars.  The market got us all addicted to cars.

The ultimate was a low-slung sports car.  Now all cars are SUVs, which look like jacked-up hearses.   The car addiction fuel has dried up.

I don’t want this to sound like a “things were better in the good old days” lament, because  they weren’t, and that’s not what I’m saying.

I’m saying that modernity has a rhythm of creative destruction that makes us all unhappy, all the time.  We await the Next Big Thing.  We have to, because the game and show developers, the auto manufacturers, the geeks, the university administrators, and the CEOs all lose focus by going for the easy and/or big $$ rather than quality.  Markets are overhyped, then they “mature” (rot).

What happens now that we’ve caught on?  What happens when we refuse to get addicted again?

More importantly, what do we do tonight?  And tomorrow?