I’m consuming media all wrong these days.
I get my television, movies and video from my laptop. I get my music from my phone. I get my books through my car stereo. And I’m playing games on basically everything. I’m pretty sure my SoniCare toothbrush has Angry Birds on it. It’s bizarro world out there these days.
Over the past two weeks I’ve cancelled two services that once seemed absolutely essential. After years with the company, I packed up my DirecTV HD receiver in a cardboard box and said goodbye to satellite television and, by extension, all conventional broadcasts. Even more monumental, I took a similar opportunity to get rid of my phone land line, moving entirely to my cell phone — is “cell phone” even a relevant term anymore? — for communicating with the outside world.
These were hard decisions that were considered in great detail and, I must admit, met with great reticence from my wife. I’m sure for some people the idea of still having a house phone is as anachronistic as having dial-up or a television without HD capabilities, but they are familiar, proven technologies, and who knows what life might be like without them?
Calling to put in the cancellation felt like a Here-There-Be-Dragons kind of moment. Our ship has yet to sail off the edge of the Earth — and I doubt we will — but I still find myself staring back at the receding shore.
The truth is, we’ve barely noticed that the landline and TV signal are gone. The world has turned several times, apparently, since the sun set on their ilk. Thinking on it, I’m not sure I’ve placed a call on my home phone this year, and both Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant were already well established fixtures on the television.
Besides, for the most part the television hasn’t been something I’ve paid much attention to for a couple of years now. Netflix has become a delivery system for my kids to occasionally watch cartoons. Prior to the recent change in Netflix that allowed for multiple profiles, the service was a wasteland to me, because unless I was hankering for a good, solid episode of Bob the Builder, its recommendations to me were not age appropriate.
I have almost completely moved to watching content through my laptop, and usually that isn’t even Netflix. It’s far more likely to be content on Youtube, or streams of gaming tournaments or people playing on Twitch.tv. Where once there existed things like Must See TV and HBO, now there are guitar lessons, let’s play episodes and content from Felicia Day and The Nerdist.
It’s not just that I got rid of my satellite provider. It’s that I had entirely stopped watching the content they offered months ago, if not years ago, and only just now had accepted that the game had permanently changed.
But the shift in my habits doesn’t stop there. No, I’ve also become a listener of audio books. Throughout the first half of the year, the entire Game of Thrones series was my constant companion to and from work. Since then, I’ve been chewing through Audible.com content at a healthy pace. Oh, look at this. David Sedaris reading his own short essays? Yes please.
I do realize that by absorbing books in this way, I’ve inadvertently wandered into a semantic and syntactic debate, where frankly I don’t know where I land. Can I now say that I’ve read the Game of Thrones series, or is the listening experience somehow fundamentally different? One could argue, of course, that the art of storytelling began far earlier with the spoken word than with the written word, but frankly that’s an academic exercise at best and lit.-major snobbery at worst.
However, like the experience of watching video on streaming services, it does change the nature of the experience in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. There is a certain feel that comes from stretching out on the couch and lazily surfing channels on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and it’s a feeling that doesn’t really translate to the intentionality of browsing a Youtube catalog. And of course the feeling of listening to a story is meaningfully different from the feeling of getting lost in a book and entering that almost trance-like state of not even seeing the words or the page anymore — just existing in the story as it unfolds in your head. This is not an advisable state to enter when, for example, listening to a book in busy traffic.
The other day I was browsing a local Best Buy and wondering to myself, “Who goes to Best Buy anymore? What am I doing here?!” In this self-critical state I wandered past a refrigerator that had an LCD screen built in where, unbelievably, you could load in and use a variety of apps. I’m speaking here, people, of a refrigerator where you can check Twitter or stream Pandora. I stopped and just gawked at the thing for a full fifteen seconds, imagining what kind of state I would have to be in to simply embrace that my need to check the latest Tweets was so great, so dire, so imperative that I couldn’t lose those precious seconds between the fridge and the phone or computer or Xbox or any of the dozens of devices in my home that allow me constant and interminable access.
Honestly, I don’t actually know if I’m embracing the exponential functionality available and the diversity of experiences I can enjoy, or if I’m grousing about the unnecessary complexity and constant connectivity that has become almost universal. Standing in line at Chipotle the other day, my weakness for chicken burritos having victimized my waistline yet again, I noticed that every person in front of me was glaring down at one device or another. This was a line of ten or so people, and every single one who wasn’t in the process of ordering was either playing a game, checking email, browsing the web or probably tweeting.
Totes gonna get a burrito #hungry #Chipotle.
Now, mind you I had to look up from my own device to notice this event, but the realization somehow horrified me. I could not in good conscience go back to my phablet, and instead tried for a moment to simply take in and experience the surroundings I found myself in. I was instantly bored, and wished I hadn’t been compelled to feel so high and mighty, because I just remembered something I had wanted to check on Reddit.
The long and short is that I’m torn, but I’m also committed. There’s a part of me that misses the old ways of consuming media, and frankly the way you could get away from it. Now I have everything available to me all the time, and as a result I’m both compelled to use it and repulsed by the compulsion. As I lay in bed even now, finishing this article on a cloud-based service where my entire library and catalog of writing are both at my fingertips and entirely virtual, I realize how science-fictiony this would have been to my younger self, excited at owning his first electric typewriter.
My sons will grow up only knowing of the internet, and video, music, media and entertainment as digital content, accessible every-where and every-when. I honestly don’t know if that’s a better or worse way to grow up. My guess is that it’s just a different way to grow up, rather than having an inherent qualitative difference. But for me it’s a weird and occasionally wonderful change, one I’m committed to as I slough off the last remaining vestiges of an analog world, but one that I can’t help being just a little bit suspicious of as well.