I don’t remember when they changed it, but Netflix no longer asks you if you want to watch another episode. Instead, it tells you you are going to unless you take immediate action. You have the option, if your drive to get on with your life is strong enough at that moment, to spring to your feet and stop the countdown before it’s too late.
Back in 2008 I quit putting the news on first thing in the morning. I had noticed that I didn’t really watch it, it was just comforting to have on, and that made me suspicious. So I stopped. The effect was strangely jarring—my breakfast-making routine seemed unnervingly quiet. Suddenly it was just me, my kitchen, and creeping thoughts about my job and my boss and whatever troublesome project we were on at the time.
For some reason just having the TV on seemed to soften the reality of those mornings, and turning it off seemed to intensify my problems. It was like life finally had room to square up and confront me directly, whereas with the TV on it could only make glancing contact.
You might have noticed this phenomenon too. Even when the TV has only been on in the background, life and all its responsibilities suddenly become a lot more vivid the instant it plunks off. And that can be a strangely uncomfortable moment, to be in a quiet room once again, suddenly quite aware that the rest of your day and the rest of your life is undecided, and you’re at the helm.
Often we already have an impending obligation somewhere else, and that’s why we turn it off in the first place. But without another vine to grasp the moment we let go of the TV, shutting it off reintroduces a certain existential weight to our experience.
One of the least-acknowledged peculiarities about human beings is that we can scarcely bear being in the moment we’re already in. It’s rare for us to truly be at ease in an ordinary present moment, if we’re not being entertained, gratified or otherwise occupied by something. We’re always planning better moments than this current one, or at least trying to soften or improve it with entertainment or food, or anything else that delivers some predictability to our experience.
Just letting life flow by, without adding anything to it, distracting ourselves from it, or fixating on the future, is strangely excruciating for us. It should be the easiest thing in the world to do, just to let time unfold at its own pace, but we’re so uncomfortable with that.
The present moment is seldom good enough. We’ll do anything to avoid experiencing the moment unadulterated, even useless things like biting our lip, reading the sides of cereal boxes, or thumbing the seams of our jeans.
One easy and ever-available way of escaping the present is to turn on a screen of some kind, and flood the mind with moving pictures, sound effects, and a story that belongs, mercifully, to someone else.
Blaise Pascal said all human miseries derive from our inability to sit alone in a room—to do nothing rather than something, even for a little bit—and he was right. We have a generally terrible relationship with how things already are. This is a huge problem for us, because things are always exactly how they are. We’re like fish who dislike water and are always trying to swim away from it.
This is the entire reason I practice mindfulness: to gradually overcome this persistent aversion to the here and now, and learn to be at ease wherever I am without squirming away from it in some way. My aimless TV habit is clearly at odds with that goal.
And TV is a tempting log to cling to when there’s any hint of that discomfort with the present. With a really compelling TV show, we can forget we have lives at all, for a while anyway. While we’re watching, we quickly lose track of the screen the story is playing on, the walls behind it, the room we’re in, the fact that we’re watching TV, and even our basic awareness of being a person, with roles to fulfill and problems to solve. Where’s your job and your to-do list when you’re wrapped up in a season finale? Gone, for the moment.
That’s is why it’s so jarring when the screen clicks off. Oh right, I forgot! I have a life in front of me and I have to make the best of it. Shit!
Don’t think I’m saying TV has no value. This really is a golden age for TV, and you should all watch The Americans and Black Mirror, or any of dozens of other thoughtful and creative shows. What you learn from them will help you in life, which is the show that resumes when you stop watching TV.
But because of its value in helping us temporarily forget ourselves, we tend to abuse TV as a drain for our existential angst. At any given time, we can live, or we can plug into a screen and forget we’re alive. But that only kicks the can down the road. TV can put off, but never solve, the basic problem of being human, which is that we are always in the middle of our lives, with all of our story arcs still unresolved.
I’ve noticed recently that I’ve been using TV and YouTube to fill time a lot. When I’ve got 45 minutes here or there, I watch an episode of something on Netflix. When I’ve got eight or ten minutes, I watch something from a YouTube channel. Often I continue watching longer than I planned.
In any case, what’s the point of simply “filling time”, rather than going on with what would otherwise be the next thing? Watching a 45-minute X-Files rerun just pushes the rest of my life 45 minutes back, and something somewhere must be falling off the far end. I’ve got a thousand books to read, things to make and people to meet, but they get put off because nothing else provides quite the same vacuum of uncertainty and difficulty that an hour of TV offers.
Now that I’m acutely aware I abuse TV in this way, I want to find out exactly how important that “existential drain” effect is. Would life be unbearable without it?
So “No aimless TV” will be my new experiment. I’m stepping away from this habit for thirty days.
Some of my screen-watching does have genuine value, so this won’t be a complete shutdown. Watching football with my friends on Sundays is one of my great unconflicted joys. Watching a movie with another person falls into the same category. And scheduled events like baseball finals or debates (if I watched debates) aren’t the problem, so they’re exempt.
It’s the habit of putting “something” on—while I make and eat dinner, or in the evening instead of reading, or when I’m delaying my return to work after a break—that I want to stop. I know that habit only developed in order to delay or avoid consciously deciding what to spend my time on. That kind of screen-watching just fills gaps in my conviction about what I ought to do next, and there are a ton of those.
So there will be no unscheduled viewing of Netflix or YouTube (I don’t have cable) for 30 days, beginning October 18th, 2016.
I’ll be reporting my results and ongoing observations on the experiment page. You’re welcome to follow along or even do it yourself.
I’m mostly interested to see how many times a day it comes up, what I will do instead, and whether it’s going to be difficult. For some reason this experiment makes me nervous, as though part of me suspects filler TV might have somehow become a crucial stabilizing factor in modern life.
The thought is genuinely scary, and not unbelievable. It would make a good episode of Black Mirror.