So I don’t generally watch a lot of TV “live,” that is when the television programs I do enjoy are broadcast at their regularly scheduled times. Instead, like so many people in the digital age, I often watch TV shows on demand through websites like Hulu.com or the networks’ own streaming options. It is just an easier way to watch what I want, quite literally when I want. In general this seems like a really neat opportunity, something that most people who have access to the Internet would embrace and there is much evidence to support claims that it is a well-received technological advance. But an article by The New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook in the latest issue has got me thinking that perhaps this technological innovation that ostensibly bolsters my personal freedom might have some unintended and overlooked downsides.
This is not the point of the article. Rather, Seabrook highlights the rise of websites like YouTube.com and the marketshare of entertainment that is being siphoned by this relatively new source for video programming, amateur and professional alike. Quoting a YouTube.com executive, Robert Kyncl, Seabrook relays:
“People went from broad to narrow,” he [Kyncl] said, “and we think they will continue to go that way — spend more and more time in the niches — because now the distribution landscape allows for more narrowness.”
…People prefer niches because “the experience is more immersive,” Kyncl went on. “For example, there’s no horseback-riding channel on cable. Plenty of people love horseback riding, and there’s plenty of advertisers who would like to market to them, but there’s no channel for it, because of the costs. You have to program a 24/7 loop, and you need a transponder to get your signal up on the satellite. With the Internet, everything is on demand, so you don’t have to program 24/7 — a few hours is all you need.”
These comments, true and intuitive as they are in retrospect, got me thinking. Is this necessarily a good thing? Granted, there is a freedom that comes with the ability for the rich and poor, the powerless and powerful, the manifold masses to express themselves alike in creative formats online. That is something I do not wish to abandon, but rather encourage. What gets me thinking in a cautious way is the trend toward increasingly insular and niche-like forms of information-gathering and even entertainment.
I don’t think that a hegemonic arbiter of what should and should not be broadcast (as was the case with the networks and has been the case with cable channels), largely influenced by advertising revenues beyond any other factor, is the better option. But should we be careful about boxing ourselves into our own self-righteous and pre-determined world? By appropriating complete control of our “news sources” and entertainment, have we simply created a condition that repeats and justifies our pre-conceived notions and world views?
There is something to be said about being exposed, at least periodically, to information, ways of thinking, opinions and entertainment that we didn’t preselect. There are cultures, philosophies, ways of thinking and forms of entertainment (creative expression) that we will miss the more we predetermine what it is we are willing to watch or that to which we are choosing to listen.
In ecclesial matters, this is reflected in which cable television programs (such as EWTN) or websites (any variety of sites) people view or read. One who only watches EWTN will begin to think and be affirmed in such thinking that the views expressed on that channel reflect authentic Catholicity, when in fact that particular network does not have a monopoly on Catholic thought or outlook. The same is true in the websites we select to read or follow. I am often guilty of this, as I imagine most of us are, because it is much more difficult for me to intentionally look at sites that express views with which I am not fully in support rather than reaffirming my preconceived notions in some other venue.
I believe that the more we become an “on demand” culture, the more difficult it will be to expand our intellectual, cultural and ecclesial horizons. We will need to make a more concerted effort to expose ourselves to other ways of thinking — which does not mean you have to appropriate everything you read, hear or see. Otherwise, I am convinced things will only become more polarized in the civil and ecclesiastical political realm, in our own self-righteous views of how things should be and in our interpersonal relationships.
Think about ways you might expand rather than limit your worldview, and then indulge your desire to be entertained or informed in the way you most prefer.