Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Entertainment Without Experience

I still rent movies in the form of physical DVDs, because I like to feel personally engaged with the media that I consume. When I decide to watch a film, I settle myself in front of the television, usually with dinner on my coffee table. As it is now winter, a movie usually means swaddling myself in a blanket and seeing that a pot of hot tea is near at hand. Food and drink are my only distractions, and far from being genuinely distracting, they usually enhance my enjoyment of two hours or so of closely watching a film. I am perhaps too obsessed with small rituals, but many of my activities do require suitable circumstances, and I am rather proud of that fact. It makes me feel as if I am getting the fullest sense of fulfillment from whatever I am doing, even if it is something as banal as watching a television screen alone in a dim room.

Some of the DVDs that I rent begin playback with a commercial for “Blu-Ray with digital copy,” and thus give me what I think is a glimpse of the exact opposite of valuing direct engagement with activities and their settings. Digital copy is a service that allows you to download a copy of a Blu-Ray disc you’ve purchased to your laptop, smart phone, or other electronic device, because apparently there is significant demand for high-definition entertainment on the go. The demand does not actually surprise me, but I thought such demand was already fulfilled by a product called everything that exists in the real world.

The commercial for Digital Copy includes a housewife addressing the audience and explaining that her family loves movies, but they just aren’t always home to enjoy them. Since she speaks directly to me through the fourth wall, I think it’s pretty unfair that I can’t talk back to her, because I have questions. If your family isn’t home to watch movies, it’s probably because they’re out doing other things, right? Why, then, would they perceive any need for electronic entertainment? Do you want to be able to keep up with the Kardashians when there’s a lull in your child’s recital and she’s not actually on stage? Is a basketball game not exciting enough if you can’t squeeze in a couple scenes from Die Hard between periods? If you’re not always home to watch movies, just wait. Movies are specifically for when you are at home.

If you think those aren’t the sort of circumstances to which the woman was referring, you haven’t seen the commercial, because one of the examples that it actually depicts of Digital Copy in use is a boy sitting on a bench outside at a basketball court, dressed in athletic wear, watching a movie while two other boys play basketball behind him. This scene is offered essentially without comment, and it frightens me to think that that might mean that other people are not baffled by it, as I am. I look at it and I see a product being advertised by showing something fun happening off in the background, where the product is specifically not being used.

The best possible explanation I can give for such a scene is that the advertisers are trying to convey that the solitary boy has something to do while he waits for one of his friends to rotate out of the game. But that’s hardly better than suggesting that the kid just watch a movie instead of participating in the other activity in the first place. Our participation in the world around us requires more than just phasing in when action is required of us. In the case of a basketball game, what about cheering on your teammates? It’s not irrelevant that there are other people on the court, and it’s easy to imagine that they may be offended to see that you need to delve into fantasy while they’re in the game. What about watching your opponents to gain some insight into their technique, strengths, and weaknesses? What about just enjoying the game itself as a form of entertainment? If you can’t be bothered to do any of that, and would rather load up a movie while you’re just waiting your turn, I can’t draw any conclusion except that you’re no more than half-invested in the activity in the first place, and probably shouldn’t be bothering with it at all

Still, at least in the basketball scenario the interaction between people is secondary. The same cannot be said about raising one’s child, which is a major part of the commercial. The ad returns to a mother’s narration, and she explains about how digital copy allows her to get more accomplished while she entertains her child. As an illustration of this, we see her grocery shopping while her small child sits in the back of the shopping cart staring at a handheld gaming device or some such. I can’t help but bristle at the woman indicating that she believes her job as a mother is to entertain her child, rather than to invest herself in raising it.

It seems to me that it’s a terrible parental attitude if you think of your child as an obstacle that you have to overcome while you go about your daily routine. I still distinctly recall working on the floor in a retail store and hearing a child screaming at the other side of the aisle. It wasn’t crying, or screaming about anything in particular, it was just making a rhythmic, piercing noise that carried throughout the building. It went on for minutes, and as the child was in my line of sight, I could see that it’s mother was standing beside the cart in which the child was sitting, and was going about her shopping while plainly ignoring the noise. At one time, society might have faulted that mother for failing to intervene with her child’s bad behavior, and teach it why what it was doing was wrong. Now it is apparently coming to be accepted that the solution to such a problem is not parenting, but technology. I wish it was better recognized that that alternative serves the parent, but never the child.

Ever since the advent of television, parents have apparently treated home entertainment as a way of ignoring their children. It’s flawed thinking that guides a parent to suppress her child’s impulse to act out with technological distractions, rather than correcting that behavior. But even if the child has no such impulse, it’s flawed thinking that guides a parent to offer distractions lest the child be bored. Your everyday interactions with your own children are perhaps more valuable than the activities into which you specifically intend to include them. There are a lot of things that kids need to learn about the adult world – the real world – as they’re growing. By instructing him to watch Finding Nemo for forty minutes while she shops for groceries, the hypothetical mother in the digital copy commercial is missing numerous important opportunities to teach her child about nutrition, about money and budgeting, about etiquette and social interaction. I would be surprised if the ascendant tendency to keep children’s attention distant from parental activities did not retard their social development over time.

But what’s retarded social development if the entire social structure is changing so as to no longer expect direct interaction? I find that with every passing year there is a larger proportion of people who are shocked, frightened, or personally offended by being spoken to by someone they don’t know personally. I see more people going out of their way to avoid eye contact with strangers on the street. I still don’t have an iPod, and remember being upset by seeing them gain prominence to such an extent that I came to naturally expect people to be walking around with their ears plugged at all times. And that doesn’t just bother me because it prevents people from hearing the voices of those who might otherwise have spoken to them. What really makes me pity the perpetually distracted is that it prevents them from hearing the entirety of the world’s day-to-day sound. To me, that remains an important part of human experience. It puts your life in context with where you are, and assures some measure of diversity of perception, beyond that which you personally seek out for entertainment.

I witnessed the ascent of the iPod and saw it as the end of natural hearing, and now with the growing access to television and film in all times and place, I feel that I’m witnessing human beings sacrificing the sense of sight, as well. Amidst this constant change, it’s very easy for me to envision current trends as leading eventually to some dystopian future, wherein human beings are constantly plugged into electronic distractions that assure productive complacence and see that nobody ever looks at the sky or listens to a bird song. Honestly, it’s gone so far in that direction that someone thinks the TV Hat is a good idea. Sure, the thing looks utterly laughable, but it also looks like something we would have laughed at as ridiculously over-the-top and implausible if we saw it as part of a depiction of the twenty-first century in a science fiction film from the eighties.

I live a painfully dull life. Few things could be more tragic to me than the thought that in the future, my insular, impoverished existence may be more experience-rich that that of most everyone else, as they’ll all be so accustomed to constantly having something to watch or listen to that they’ll never be fully present to anything they do in this enormously diverse world. The demands for constant entertainment passed the threshold of ridiculousness for me a long time ago. Will there ever come a breaking point when the rest of society agrees that the demand for distraction has outstripped the number of things there are to be distracted from? Or will we keep following the same trends until distraction itself becomes the entirety of our experience?

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