Are We Streaming Our Lives Away?

Last year, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I came across a friend’s post, which read:

“Have completed: The Crown, Mrs. Maisel, The Morning Show, Mandalorian, The Politician. What next?”

What followed were over fifty comments with suggestions about what else my friend should watch.

In this age of streaming, we have become addicted to the activity itself. In the old days, if we loved a show like M*A*S*H*, we tuned in for a half-hour each week at the same time and stayed with the show for its entire run of ten or so years.

Now, we think nothing of streaming ten hour-long episodes of a show over a weekend and then moving on to the next must-see.

And there is so much to see! Not only do we now have a record 532 current scripted shows on network and cable channels, plus apps, but now almost any show that has ever existed can be streamed online.

The pandemic has made the streaming scourge even worse.

Not long ago, I discovered that Dark Shadows, a favorite after-school show when I was a kid, could be streamed on Amazon Prime. I started watching it during my solo at-home meal times. It was as good/bad as I remember it and as compelling as it was then. But after about thirty episodes, I realized that this exercise was simply not doable — the run of the series consisted of over 1200 episodes! Even if I watched two episodes per day, it would take over three years to get through all of them. Certainly, I could find better use for my time.

The new shows — indeed, it is kind of a golden age for television again — have become social media conversation (formerly water cooler conversation). So, if everybody is talking about Ted Lasso, you suddenly feel like you need to start watching it to get in the loop: FOMO, fear of missing out.

I’m relatively new to streaming myself, having begun sometime in 2019 (good timing on my part). I’ve had some catching up to do. In the first year, I plowed through the first five seasons of Cheers, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Fleabag, Damages, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, When They See Us, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and a season of Oz. Just as the pandemic hit, I was viewing Pose and The Morning Show.

Since the pandemic, I’ve streamed all of House of Cards, The Murder of Gianni Versace, Breaking Bad, Better Caul Saul, Ozark, Schitt’s Creek, Homecoming, and several seasons of the old Roseanne and Two and a Half Men. (My taste is decidedly both highbrow and lowbrow.) I’ve still not seen classics like The Sopranos and Mad Men.

Nielsen reports that Americans watch about four hours of television per day. However, when you add in streaming on iPads and phones (preferred watching for the 15–34 year olds), that number jumps to over six hours. That’s the average, meaning that even with a job, other activities, holidays and vacations, the everyday average is still six hours. That number has likely risen dramatically during the pandemic.

In 2014, streaming of programs and movies was relatively new and uncharted territory. Only the year before, Arrested Development was released on NetFlix, and a good many viewers watched the entire season in one weekend. Binge-watching was born.

When was the last time someone told you, or posted on social media, “You must read these ten books!” With all this streaming, who has time for books?

By spending all these hours passively watching instead of actively engaging the mind and imagination through written words, are we further rotting our brains? I can’t help but think of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, published in 2014. He makes the case that without deep reading, there is no deep thinking.

As a former English major, I still read about two books a month, but years ago I could read forty books a year. Most of the books I now read are biographies or current events or self-help. I’m finding it more difficult to let myself drift into fictional worlds via the written word.

If we add to this the must-hear podcasts — taking up what used to be reading time on the daily train or bus commute — and the endless library of music at our fingertips via Spotify and other music-streaming services, we are literally plugged in all the time.

This is not too far from what Ray Bradbury envisioned in his novel Fahrenheit 451, when Montague’s wife spent her days watching reality TV on a wall-sized big screen with her earbuds firmly in her ears, while constantly self-medicating.

As I often tell my college students, “If you are not paying attention, I guarantee someone in power is paying attention for you.” In other words, if we are numbed by entertainment, we do not see what laws are being changed and do not hear what issues are being discussed. We could be harmed long before our awareness kicks in.

Perhaps a bigger concern is that we are losing time connecting with each other in meaningful ways. While we may sometimes watch something with a friend or family member, streaming is mostly a solitary activity. If everybody in the house has their own device, each parent and each child can go to a different room and watch what they want. No discussion necessary.

Most discussion is now online from the privacy of our rooms, whether we are commenting on the latest political outrage, speeches at the Oscars, or great moments in sports. We have so many options at our fingertips that I suspect many of us are looking for reasons not to go out for meetups.

I remember as a child, our family liked to watch Donny and Marie, a variety show in the late ’70s starring the Osmonds. One night while we were enjoying the show, my father leaned against the door from the kitchen and said, “They didn’t get where they are by sitting on their ass and watching TV.”

It’s an odd moment I’ll never forget, and all these decades later I see that he was absolutely right.

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Kevin Scott Hall

Kevin Scott Hall

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.