Regardless of whether you’re on your feet all day or stuck behind a desk, there are few things more comforting than finishing off the workday with a plate of food (or a bottle of wine) and a steady stream of your Netflix queue. When I finished my last class in grad school, I went home and, half-asleep, plunged head-first into a winding marathon swim of episode after episode of The Office for the first time ever. By the time Jim and Pam started dating I was in a full-on comatose state, and seriously addicted.
I asked my friends and family if they had ever seen the show (and of course they had — I was the freak for not having seen it until the week the last episode aired). This led into a brief discussion of all the show’s basic tenets. How sad was it when Steve Carrell left, how funny was it when Dwight killed Angela’s cat, let’s now loudly hum the opening music in the credits. And that was the extent of it. The episodes, for the most part, I had consumed on my own, one following the other, a tireless stream of instant gratification that was at once satisfying and anticlimactic.
I was briefly haunted by the fact that in 2005, when the first season aired, I was 16 years old and now that moment of the show’s apogee of popularity was gone. It was like listening to the Beatles. Like most people, I love the music, but I will never truly understand what it was like in the era of Beatlemania.
Old images of shiny-faced Americans in the 1950s show families crowding around a TV, a focal point for social entertainment. Now many images of television formatting today are a far outcry from those of the past. Whether its students gasping for air between their thesis by watching House of Cards' first season in three days or someone’s mom watching a couple episodes of Downton Abbey before bed, the growing norm of instant streaming has become a singular activity, or, if plugged into the correct technological equipment, a social activity that cancels out the normal cable of our childhoods, like the two-hour euphoria that was TGIF. I mean, they brought us both Steve Urkel and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Like the iPod meant a decline in AM/FM radio listeners, so do sites like Netflix and Hulu enable consumers to shut out cable TV.
I will never deny the pleasures of having my iPod while on a noisy train. It makes the trip go faster and secludes me from loud commuters. But just as every car of every train has more and more people staring into their phones or tablets, headphones safely secured, perhaps more and more people will find themselves at home, plugged into their laptop, laughing at the new season of Arrested Development by themselves.
It reminds me a lot of a recent New York Times op-ed from Jonathan Safran Foer about the disconnectedness that evolves from cell phones and texting, where he states, “These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication… but diminished substitutes for it. And then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes.”
It’s true. It is nice not to have to endure a movie’s awkward sex scene with your parents in the room, or to delve into those guilty pleasure shows that nobody can know you watch. It’s nice to skip the anguished to-be-continued and skip right to the good parts of the plot.
But the end result is still only a fragment of the fun of sharing popcorn with your roommate and talking your way through a crappy movie. I’m not suggesting we cancel our instant streaming accounts or stop listening to our iPods on the train. But does anybody remember dancing to a song the entire room — and the neighbors — can hear? Watching a season finale, or an award show, or a movie during the holidays, with your friends and family sprawled around the living room? Those are things that instant streaming, and earplugs, cannot displace — as long as you don’t allow it.