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Against Netflix

Too many great minds waste away their time watching Netflix. Worse, we have made that culturally acceptable. For a TV-temperance movement.

Leopold Aschenbrenner
Leopold Aschenbrenner
4 min read

It has become fashionable to lambast big tech corporations and social media sites, the Facebooks and Twitters and Googles, blaming them for a litany of social ills. Seemingly escaping this ire has been the—in my view—most pernicious by far: Netflix.

Simply put, Netflix (and its imitators) produce too many TV shows that are too good—and too easy to binge. Consequently, too many great minds spend their time watching TV rather than thinking and inventing and creating.

The Greatness We Lose

Consider the writer Matthew Yglesias. He just wrote an excellent book, which partially inspired my last post. Recently, Yglesias tweeted:

Someone asked … “how’d you get this book written without taking time off work?” and the dumb boring answer was basically “didn’t watch much TV for six months.”

He adds,

I am perfectly aware that the difference between times when I’m most productive & creative and times when I’m not is how much of the week I waste on watching television, yet tonight I’m almost certainly going to finish season two of Hannibal.

Yglesias, turn off the TV! Write more books instead! Heck, write more tweets, if you prefer!

Just think of all the original ideas Yglesias could be contributing if he continued to abstain from watching TV. Of them we are being robbed. That is an epic tragedy.

Why Modern TV Is Different

I don’t mean to pick on Yglesias. In fact, I don’t blame him. Modern shows are just too good. As a result, it’s become accepted—even the norm—among elite, educated classes to watch inordinate amounts of TV.

Modern shows are different from classic TV in two key ways. First, they are much more engrossing. Netflix shows are just on a different level in terms of quality than what TV once offered. Second, they are bingeable. Instead of tuning in for an hour each week, Netflix encourages viewers to enter the dark hole of watching episode after episode after episode. This becomes a vicious cycle. Viewers binge late into the night, lose sleep, and then don’t feel energetic enough to do much in their free time the next day besides…watching more Netflix.

Movies were always pretty engrossing. But the boundless quantity of content on Netflix—as well as their deliberate addictiveness—puts it on a different level.

To be sure, the broad America public has always watched extraordinary amounts of television, in particular retirees. For them, the improved quality of modern shows is surely an upgrade. But I do think Netflix has distinctly changed the culture around TV among the young and educated.

As an undergraduate at Columbia, it was extremely common for students to spend much of their free time engorging themselves on Netflix. Many were caught in that maelstrom of bingeing, losing sleep, and then bingeing more. What was most shocking was this practice’s sheer acceptability. Watching dozens of hours of Netflix a week wasn’t something out of the ordinary, something people were embarrassed by. Rather, Netflix bingeing was a core part of the culture, something people would make countless memes about and base their identities on. Amazingly, people’s chief complaint was often that they had exhausted all of Netflix’s content (how do you even do that?!).

Yglesias got his start blogging in college. Would the next Yglesias be able to do the same? Or would his free time and energy instead be sucked up by the latest, ever-more addictive Netflix show? What a loss for civilization that would be.

For a New Temperance Movement

Again, I don’t blame the students. I am victim to the same human follies. But I do blame the culture we have created. We don’t tell our bright young minds that it’s alright to waste away your days drinking or abusing drugs. Sure, some end up doing so regardless, but the cultural tabu keeps those impulses in check. Why do we tell them it’s alright to waste away your days watching Netflix?

Indeed, there has been considerable pushback against video games, which for some are a similar time suck. While many still struggle, this cultural pushback has kept video games in check. At least among the educated classes, Netflix and its imitators have become the far greater time suck.

For those who can enjoy TV in moderation—great. Modern shows are often meaningful art worth appreciating. The problem with modern TV is that for many, it is closer to alcoholism than a one-off drink. One you watch that first episode—take that first drink—it often doesn’t stay at one episode—as it doesn’t stay at one drink.

Perhaps it is time for a modern TV-temperance movement. It would be worth encouraging moderation in TV consumption in general. But given that many TV habits resemble alcoholism, it may be appropriate to take a more radical approach: advocating TV-abstinence. Although complete avoidance of TV may be difficult at first, once it becomes a habit, I think most wouldn’t miss much. But they would enjoy an abundance of reclaimed time and energy. And the rest of us would enjoy the wonderful works they create with that newfound time and energy.

Brains in Vats

The culture we establish around Netflix matters not just for the present, but for what comes next. As entertainment technology relentlessly advances, are we destined to become brains in vats, nominally pumped full of artificial bliss but doomed to lives of passivity and complacency?

Look, if that’s what the Europeans want to do, they should go for it. But part of what makes America special is a certain harshness—first embodied in the Puritans and their quest to settle America’s unforgiving wilderness. Great achievements, new ideas, ingenious inventions emerge from a culture that prizes travail and perseverance, not one that prioritizes comfort and ephemeral satisfaction.

A blithe acceptance of Netflix has insidiously infiltrated our culture. We should push back. Let’s look to the stars, not the next episode.

Leopold Aschenbrenner

Research in Economics @ Forethought Foundation and Global Priorities Institute (University of Oxford). Emergent Ventures grantee for Progress Studies. Columbia valedictorian.

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