Convenience of Streaming Services

[5 August 2011]

By Rob Horning

An article at the AV Club by Sam Adams looks at the implications of Netflix’s streaming service and the growing popularity of Spotify, a music-streaming company. He begins with an observation that seems unassailable to me—“Convenience and choice are the watchwords of the digital era, in which content must be instantly accessible and as quickly digested, lest consumers flit off to some more welcoming destination”—but I was confused by the analysis that follows, which didn’t really explain why consumers are so susceptible to novelty and what he calls the “convenience trap,” the willingness to consume what’s available as opposed to what is presumably good for you. Adams fears we may be “unconsciously downgrading anything that isn’t so ready at hand.”

But what does that mean? Why does everything have to be graded? And does an unconscious grade have any meaning? If you can’t bother to make the effort to make your tastes conscious, then what difference does it make to you what you watch? And why should anyone else care? Adams is concerned that the great works may be lost to history if streaming services don’t assimilate them to their streaming libraries: “Spotify’s great, unless you want to listen to anything Hüsker Dü recorded before its major-label debut. Would you trade New Day Rising for the Black Eyed Peas catalogue?” This doesn’t strike me as a serious question. If you badly want to hear New Day Rising, try this. If you care about music, you probably won’t let Spotify dictate what you can or can’t hear, and digital reproduction has made it fairly likely that digital copies of everything will survive and proliferate. (Our real archival concern should be with the survival of analog artifacts that have yet to be digitized—even though digitization may lead to a not entirely representative version of a work surviving.) The people who have a lot invested in their entertainment choices will supplement streaming services with ready alternatives. The people who don’t diversify their supply basically don’t really care, and why should they? Because certain art is good for them, and they should be made to consume it through clever institutionalized market nudges?

Adams’s implicit concern seems to be that the tasteless masses will be left to languish in their cultural ignorance because the streaming services they thoughtlessly adopt don’t force more redeeming content on them. And he also seems to think that if you are not cleaver enough to make redemptive consumer quests for the great works, you will be too dim or disinterested to understand them: “If you’re not inclined to put forth the effort to get yourself in close proximity to a given artwork, will you be willing to expend the mental energy necessary to understand it?” Apparently if one lives next door to the Prado, Goya’s works there become more or less indistinguishable for you from Hagar the Horrible comics.

Working hard to gain access to a work has nothing intrinsic to do with being willing or able to interpret it. Adams offers an S&M take on art appreciation, that art should dominate and master us while we subserviently mold ourselves to its masterful lessons: “the viewer—not, please, the consumer—is fundamentally subservient to a work of art, in which it is our responsibility, and often our pleasure, to come to the work rather than expecting it to come to us. After all, shouldn’t art be inconvenient, if not in the sense of being difficult to access, then because it forces us out of our comfort zones, requiring us to reckon with its way of understanding the world?” I am pretty sympathetic to this, but I don’t think my attitude needs to be generalized. It’s not the only way to engage with art. And though I may try harder to get something out of a show I have to travel far to see, that doesn’t mean I necessarily cruise through a nearby show on autopilot.

The idea that difficulty is necessary to have a “real” art experience is similar to the idea that something more real happens when the art encounter is “spontaneous”—being surprised by the beauty of a sunset, etc. It is always tempting to extrapolate a dogma out of such experiences when they are profoundly affecting, but that would be a mistake. I don’t think there is a prescription for assuring edifying aesthetic moments. Instead, when people try to push some recipe for the aesthetic onto someone else, they are imposing an encapsulated version of a status hierarchy that favors them. Ultimately, whatever they are pushing now (no matter how universal the principles are presented to be) will be repudiated later in pursuit of some fresh form of distinction. Isn’t this an extremely elitist question: “How much more likely are you to bail on, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, when with a few clicks of your remote you can be watching a favorite episode of Friday Night Lights?” This seems to mean: You dummies should be watching the hard stuff (like me) but instead you are weak and let the technology trick you into watching what is mere middlebrow entertainment. You’re trapped in your own lazy tastes.

Adams points out that “we carry around unspoken assumptions about what’s long and what’s short, what’s easy and what’s hard, and when those assumptions calcify, we may no longer be aware they’re there.” Yes, this is how ideology typically works, and it extends far beyond how we choose to entertain ourselves. Making ourselves aware of our unthinking assumptions about what is common sense is probably always a good and worthy practice. But we don’t encourage people to join in that project when we imply that the reason it is necessary is so that they can conform to some other dogma about what cultural product is correct and appropriate. That replaces one politicized mystification with another. Yes, Netflix—like may consumer goods manufacturers—would probably love it if we consumed simplistic mind candy as quickly and as often as possible; that’s good business for them. And that incentive contributes to their trying to shape and promulgate a certain ideology about what it is fun to do. Their pay structure contributes to a materialization of that ideology. Convenience almost always serves an agenda of accelerated consumption, which is passed off as maximized happiness or efficiency. (You’ve consumed more, so you are better off!) But implying that people need to consume the “right” things instead of the convenient things seems to substitute an elitist ideology for a consumerist one, and may trigger reactionary retrenchment among the consumerists one may be trying to rescue with screenings of Bela Tarr films and copies of Metal Circus.

In 2007 I made the argument that subscription services “almost make the idea of having selective musical taste superfluous. Not there is anything wrong with that; musical taste’s centrality to identity seems a peculiar quirk. Nonetheless, taste in commercial music comes down to what music you are willing to pay for specifically. If you are paying to have it all, you effectively have no taste.” That is, in a consumer society we have this sense that you have to put your money where your mouth is to “prove” your taste. The idea that you need to suffer to acquire access to “real” art in order to appreciate it has a similar inflection to it—that art needs to be scarce to have an aura of significance, which derives from people earning/paying for the privilege to consume it. But it seems more interesting to break out of the idea that scarcity imposes some mystical meaning on things to see what they might mean beyond that.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/145847-/