clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Court Mann: Netflix and Spotify will make you numb if you let them (so don’t)

As it turns out, algorithms are a poor substitute for human curiosity

When was the last time you really went digging?

Not literally, of course — this column covers entertainment, not archaeology. I’m talking about music and movies and TV shows. Can you remember plunging your hands into the metaphorical soil and finding something that wasn’t given to you? Was it recently?

Netflix and Spotify have been my preferred streaming services, largely because of their price point, available content and user interface. (See: cheap, bottomless, intuitive.) Lately, though, they and I have been engaged in a struggle. It’s a struggle against homogeneity and a particular kind of lethargy that can erode one’s desire to dig. In the general public discourse, this lethargy elicits an equally lethargic “meh.” It’s all relatively cheap (and legal) music, movies and TV shows, so why think too hard about it, right? Don’t ruin this for us, Court.

First, I’m going to kind of ruin it. Then, at the end, I’ll try to save it.

The inertia of sameness

Netflix is slotted to spend over $17 billion on new content in 2020.
Deseret News writer Court Mann wrote that Netflix has been his preferred streaming service, largely because of its price point, available content and user interface.

Back to this public discourse. Facebook’s woes, where a user’s own behavior on the app turns the user experience into an echo chamber of utter sameness, are discussed ad nauseam. And for good reason. Its social and political implications are huge and frightening. These may not resemble the issues facing Netflix and Spotify, but I think they all originate from the same place, and that deserves more discussion.

It’s about algorithms and the way they deliver more of what we’ve told them we like. Whether its Facebook, Netflix or any other leisure app, they all use algorithms to regurgitate similar content back to users. With streaming services, though, the regurgitation plays out quite differently: Facebook pushes users to ideological extremes, while streaming services pull users away from the fringes of their own individual tastes.

Take Spotify, which might suggest the Monkees if you’ve listened to a lot of the Beatles. The Monkees were fun, sure, but they never traversed any musical ground that the Beatles didn’t, so the musical journey kind of ends there. With Spotify, its algorithms become a centripetal force.

Imagine a world where it was the opposite — where streaming services nudged you toward the radical and Facebook made your ideologies more centrist. That’s the world I want to live in. It seems way more fun.

The exercise of curiosity

In a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, he quotes Rule 3 in columnist Megan McArdle’s “12 Rules for Life,” which states, “Always order one extra dish at a restaurant, an unfamiliar one. You might like it, which would be splendid. If you don’t like it, all you lost was a couple of bucks.”

Gladwell adds, “The exercise of curiosity requires a risk, a sacrifice — a commitment.”

When you outsource that curiosity to an algorithm, then you remove that risk. Algorithms aren’t human. My reliance on them makes me feel a little less human, too, because it removes me from the yearning of it all.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, pictured in 2013, said, “The exercise of curiosity requires a risk, a sacrifice — a commitment.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell, pictured in 2013, says, “The exercise of curiosity requires a risk, a sacrifice — a commitment.”
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Think of your most meaningful experiences with the arts — the stuff that’s anchored your soul, that’s really taught you about true humanity. If you hadn’t first yearned for something, would those experiences have sunk in so deeply? Without yearning, it’s all just cotton candy: tasty but fleeting.

Our arts/entertainment preferences are usually shaped the most during our youth. While I think that’s true, I believe less and less in the common logic behind that claim. Youth are impressionable not just because they’re experiencing things for the first time, but because they approach those experiences from a position of yearning. They want to know and feel more than the things they’ve already known and felt. I think people miss their youth because they really miss this particular trait in themselves.

Old techniques, new tools

For the record, I don’t miss the volatile years of my youth. Writing this, though, has taken me back to those years, when I felt perpetually astounded by some new band or book or movie. This era — Napster’s golden age of the early 2000s, when every song/video/movie was available, free and super illegal — was a weird time for media consumption. You could theoretically find anything, but that file-sharing software didn’t tell you where to look. There were no algorithmically generated playlists and movie suggestions.

So how did I find anything? It was the active, old school ways that people had used for decades: suggestions from friends, something I read in a magazine, a smaller band opening for a bigger band at a concert, etc. This hybrid of old techniques and new tools fostered a wild, enriching period of artistic discovery for me. Yes, I still had to dig, but even a shallow dig yielded all kinds of treasures.

Fast forward to now. My own entertainment consumption is at its most enjoyable when I take a similar approach. I won’t abandon streaming services or their suggestions, but I refuse to rely on them exclusively. I still ask friends, I still read magazines (albeit online), I still watch the opening bands at concerts. I integrate new tools where I can, like the Shazam app, and Instagram pages dedicated to forgotten musical and cinematic gems.

Basically, I still dig. And yeah, sometimes my passion wanes. But I can't abandon that passion just because I’m getting older.

The reality is this: There is more incredible music than you could ever hear in your lifetime, more life-changing books than you could ever read, more profound movies than you could ever watch. This means that if you’re willing to dig — and thus, to move — then you will surely be moved by the things you find. Isn’t that a beautiful guarantee?