The neuroscientific case for art in the age of Netflix
How will we spend the remaining 700,000 hours of the 21st century? - that's the strongest opening sentence I've seen in a long time.
When my daughter was growing up I was struck by how much young children want to watch the same videotape over and over (and over ...) until the grown-ups want to scream. I concluded that kids were so attached to stories just because they can be endlessly repeated. They watched to learn cause and effect, including theories of minds. In everyday life the same event doesn't always have the same consequences; the same act can be followed by different responses from others. In a cartoon it's so much clearer what is supposed to happen in a situation. And it happens reliably, with every new viewing. You can thus more readily learn the rules that enable you to later deal with the exceptions. This gives the toddler a kind of master view over reality that exceeds what was available in pre-modern times (oral storytelling, cave paintings, songs?) I guess this idea is kind of an opposite paradigm from the overfitting hypothesis, but it suits the cognitive level that kids have. You need fitting before you have to deal with overfitting. If so, it's like our brains were somehow pre-prepared to take developmental advantage of recorded media.
Does it really help us learn faster or better? It's probably too late to answer that. You might set out to compare children who are normally surrounded by screens and those who live in deliberately more tech-primitive society. But there would be so many confounders for any conclusion, and no ethical way to control for them.
One of the best essays I have ever read. Thanks so much for your insightful writings.
However, I´m worried about my sons, (and most of the teenagers and young people) with habits of consumption that hold on to video social networks (tiktok, instagram). Why is that so attractive? They are not Netflix, video games or fictional entertainment movies. I cannot see how this would contribute to fulfill the hypothetical OBH outcomes. I don´t know the figures, but teenagers very probably expend more time on video social networks than video streaming platforms. How could them exit the supersensorium?
I will try to convince my sons on your wonderful closure. "So in your own habits of consumption, hold on to art. It will deliver you through this century.".
There is so much here to digest. Wonderful essay, Erik.
My Substack, which is all fiction, was named based upon a feature of the supersensorium -- Future Thief. The idea that I could write speculative short stories so stimulating that they would appear to steal a person's time. It's a grand experiment to think that I could accomplish this against the likes of Netflix, Hulu or Disney.
Although it's only anecdotal, I have had several subscribers mention that reading fiction requires a level of "work" that is not required with non-fiction, or other forms of entertainment. In order to digest the content, they wait, and save time, even though it only requires 10-15 minutes in most cases to read. Yet, many are willing to binge watch 6 hours. I'm trying to reconcile this with what you're talking about in your essay, and I wonder if you can shed some light on this phenomenon. Is "competing" for attention the only way to succeed, or is there a way to bring people back?
So good Erik. A "text-your-friends-the-minute-you-finish" kind of essay.
Fiction externalizing dreaming as cooking externalized digestion nails it. And your line about not consuming fiction leading to jaundice really hit me. After college I "rediscovered" reading. I started cranking through non-fiction books. I would proudly tell others that I "don't watch shows", then quote David McCullough ("However little TV you watch, watch less.") Who has time for Netflix when there's Taleb to read?
But there's a certain feeling of emptiness that comes from only consuming the real. It was a vague, hard-to-pin-down feeling. But it's the jaundice you mentioned. Now I watch some shows. But mostly I'm on fire for great novels. I have trouble describing how much better (richer? more scintillating?) I've found the best novels compared to typical entertainment. Every other page of "Middlemarch" has a Michelin-level sentence so beautiful that I have to pause for a moment to savor it. You can't help but have a high standard once you've been exposed.
A really awesome and well written piece Erik. Written pieces like this, that draw awareness to mass hallucinations and fictions are themselves attempts at bringing back knowledge from 'the other world'. And in fact also attempt to cause new hallucinations and fictions that would maybe better benefit society. I would be interested in seeing this idea developed further to comment on the consumption of social media; in my opinion it is the ultimate super stimulus. With influencers being characters that are perpetually available to the viewer through a variety of platforms, and many people already stuck in the super stimulus. Hopefully a critical mass of people can tear themselves away from the stimulus and realise just as in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest just how much of the world around us we have already soiled; and begin to reverse the trend.
Great essay, very thought provoking. I find the OBH generally convincing overall, albeit maybe a bit... over fitted. I suppose I can only speak for myself (and the few others I have discussed this with), but a lot of the dreams I have (or at least the ones I can remember I suppose), dont really make any sense as being 'mind-expanding', and instead feel much more like mushing together of subconscious emotional memories in ways that are very familiar and unoriginal. So as much as find a lot of Freud very dubious, I think theres elements of the psychoanlaytic approach that do perhaps deserve some consideration here. I can't say either that I've experienced any sort of correlation between particularly exciting/dull periods of life and an inverse quantity and variety of dreams. Presumably that's an empirical question that could be tested on a larger scale?
One other bone I have to pick (and I should say again I loved the essay overall). I find YN Harari's (and others) loose use of words like 'fictions' and 'stories' to describe mass social constructions like religion, money etc as just really lazy writing if im being honest. Its the kind of thing you hear near the beginning of a school level philosophy class, where someones trying to sound smart but doesn't really have anything substantive to contribute. Culture and consensual social concepts and how they work and interact on different levels is still a very undervalued area of analysis in my view, and it frustrates me no end (as you can probably tell) when public figures hand wave at it all as just fictions/stories/stuff we made up. I get the YNH at least is saying that these things are crucial from to human civilisation, but I think he still makes an error by bundling everything together as one simple category of 'stories' as if the important point to make is that 'money' is the same thing as jack and jill went up the hill. He does seem to think that also, based on what I've heard him say elsewhere, with facile comments about 'fake news is nothing new, we already had religion'. We need to think about and debate these things and how they work more, and every time they are framed in a way suggests that they are all one simple category of which the most salient characteristic is that they are 'not real' (which is definitely debatable) it just acts as a further barrier to this.
Anyway, again loved the essay. TikTok is definitely the thing from Infinite Jest, as I'm sure others have said
I want to comment with something insightful, but not sure what to say except "thank you". Your newsletter is one of the best things I read these days.
Not since graduate school a few decades ago, I felt as challenged and amazed and just smarter after reading something.
So thank you once again.
My biggest quibble with your piece is this line: "One could give a long historical answer about how exactly we got into this cultural headspace, maybe starting with postmodernism and deconstructionism...". If we aren't going to take the marketing of certain French thinkers for "popular" appeal - Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard all take aesthetics and the Canon very seriously, especially with say, Deleuze's paens to Kafka or Derrida's admiration of Joyce. Art was very important to Deleuze, for one, who assigns it a large selection in his "What Is Philosophy?" alongside science, and generally treats aesthetics very importantly.
Also, it seems that much nonfiction floating around nowadays is pretty middlebrow and puerile, written by "thought leaders" and TED speakers. We might contrast it in the past, where the average "intellectual" might have some more acquaintance with say, Kant, or advances in physics. It's the capitalist mediocriticization, middlebrowification of nonfiction, to expect books to have clear given takeaways that are easily abstracted from their contexts, and to expect any effort from the reader is "obscurantism'. Mark Fisher notes that the popularisation of a Nietzsche is self defeating, as the difficulty is the point of Nietzsche - this can be usefully extended
I spent much of the article hoping that the culmination point of it all would be an argument for some form of objective aesthetic consensus and when it arrived I almost pumped a fist. I think that the reversal of the erosion of standard - standard which, while being exclusionary by nature, can still have broader accommodations than any given personal 'taste profile' can absorb - is a much-underrated and understaffed front in our general struggle to establish a new and effective kind of intellectual culture fit for the future of liberalism, pertinent to many areas beyond pure aesthetics.
After all, historically speaking, cultures that innovate are cultures with an artistic consciousness, at least in those areas where innovation is most fertile, and we look to the art of innovative cultures bygone probably for the precise reason you suggest: that it allows us insight into how these people, as it were, 'dreamt', and thus broke up and reorganised the seemingly impregnable matter of fact surrounding them.
Do you know if work has been done to investigate the precise ways in which the human brain reacts when viewing, for instance, a great work by Mizoguchi vs. a Kevin Feige production? Do they engender different levels of neural activity, or activate different departments of the brain etc.?
"The only cure for too much fiction is good fiction." YES. I totally agree and think this is a general principle: the only cure for too much bad X is more good X, whatever is X.
Personally I start watching a lot of Netflix content but only rarely I continue watching after the first minutes of the first episode. I know quality when I see it, and I protect my time against poor quality. Similarly, I don't dedicate more than ten minutes per day to social media. I prefer reading quality sites like this.
Dear Erik, another Banger! So much to unpack here, but my first thought is being reminded of some lyrics from Father John Misty’s Total Entertainment Forever:
“No gods to rule us
No drugs to soothe us
No myths to prove stuff
No love to confuse us
Not bad for a race of demented monkeys
From a cave to a city to a permanent party
When the historians find us we'll be in our homes
Plugged into our hubs
Skin and bones
A frozen smile on every face
As the stories replay
This must have been a wonderful place”
I’ll circle back with more thoughts, maybe after a dream or ten.
Fantastic Erik. I wonder what you make of the propensity of advanced capitalist societies to produce the greatest variety of fictions, if not the greatest quality? I sometimes think that it’s the children of capitalism--those who grow up in its thrall--who are most addicted to the screen. Just a couple of random thoughts after a fast read--I will definitely return to this great piece.
I was surprised you mentioned "Infinite Jest" but not "E Unibus Pluram". Writing in 1993, Wallace was skeptical that computers (he calls them telecomputers or TCs) could provide a better alternative to the fantasies of TV, as some believed. Criticizing one such believer, futurologist George Gilder, DFW wrote:
You can just see saliva overflowing lower lips in boardrooms as Gilder forecasts that the consumer's whole complicated fuzzy inconveniently transient world will become broadcastable, manipulable, storable, and viewable in the comfort of his own condo. "With artful programming of telecomputers, you could spend a day interacting on the screen with Henry Kissinger, Kim Basinger, or Billy Graham." Rather ghastly interactions to contemplate, but then in Gilderland to each his own: "Celebrities could produce and sell their own software. You could view the Super Bowl from any point in the stadium you choose, or soar above the basket with Michael Jordan. Visit your family on the other side of the world with moving pictures hardly distinguishable from real-life images. Give a birthday party for Grandma in her nursing home in Florida, bringing her descendents from all over the country to the foot of her bed in living color."
And not just warm 2D images of family: any experience will be transferrable to image and marketable, manipulable, consumable. People will be able to "go comfortably sight-seeing from their living room through high-resolution screens, visiting Third-World countries without having to worry about air fares or exchange rates ... you could fly an airplane over the Alps or climb Mount Everest - all on a powerful high-resolution display."
We will, in short, be able to engineer our own dreams.
It'd be unrealistic to think that expanded choices alone could resolve our televisual bind. The advent of cable upped choices from four or five to forty-plus synchronic alternatives, with little apparent loosening of television's grip on mass attitudes and aesthetics. It seems rather that Gilder sees the nineties' impending breakthrough as U.S. viewers' graduation from passive reception of facsimiles of experience to active manipulation of facsimiles of experience.
It's worth questioning Gilder's definition of televisual "passivity," though. His new tech would indeed end "the passivity of mere reception." But the passivity of Audience, the acquiescence inherent in a whole culture of and about watching, looks unaffected by TCs.
The appeal of watching television has always involved fantasy. Contemporary TV, I've claimed, has gotten vastly better at enabling the viewer's fantasy that he can transcend the limitations of individual human experience, that he can be inside the set, imago'd, "anyone, anywhere." Since the limitations of being one human being involve certain restrictions on the number of different experiences possible to us in a given period of time, it's arguable that the biggest TV-tech "advances" of recent years have done little but abet this fantasy of escape from the defining limits of being human. Cable expands our choices of evening realities; hand-held gizmos let us leap instantly from one to another; VCRs let us commit experiences to an eidetic memory that permits re-experience at any time without loss or alteration. These advances sold briskly and upped average viewing-doses, but they sure haven't made U.S. televisual culture any less passive or cynical.
The downside of TV's big fantasy is that it's just a fantasy. As a special treat, my escape from the limits of genuine experience is neato. As my steady diet, though, it can't help but render my own reality less attractive (because in it I'm just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all my time pretending I'm not in it), and render me dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant.
It's tough to see how Gilder's soteriological vision of having more "control" over the arrangement of high-quality fantasy-bits is going to ease either the dependency that is part of my relation to TV or the impotent irony I must use to pretend I'm not dependent. Whether passive or active as viewer, I must still cynically pretend, because I'm still dependent, because my real dependency here is not on the single show or few networks any more than the hophead's is on the Turkish florist or the Marseilles refiner. My real dependency is on the fantasies and the images that enable them, and thus on any technology that can make images fantastic. Make no mistake. We are dependent on image-technology; and the better the tech, the harder we're hooked.
The paradox in Gilder's rosy forecast is the same as in all forms of artificial enhancement. The more enhancing the mediation - see for instance binoculars, amplifiers, graphic equalizers, or "high-resolution pictures hardly distinguishable from real-life images" - the more direct, vivid, and real the experience seems, which is to say the more direct, vivid, and real the fantasy and dependence are.
An exponential surge in the mass of televisual images, and a commensurate increase in my ability to cut, paste, magnify, and combine them to suit my own fancy, can do nothing but render my interactive TC a more powerful enhancer and enabler of fantasy, my attraction to that fantasy stronger, the real experiences of which my TC offers more engaging and controllable simulacra paler and more frustrating to deal with, and me just a whole lot more dependent on my furniture. Jacking the number of choices and options up with better tech will remedy exactly nothing, so long as no sources of insight on comparative worth, no guides to why and how to choose among experiences, fantasies, beliefs, and predilections, are permitted serious consideration in U.S. culture. Insights and guides to human value used to be among literature's jobs, didn't they? But then who's going to want to take such stuff seriously in ecstatic post-TV life, with Kim Basinger waiting to be interacted with?
The overstaturation of fiction/entertainment seems akin to RNA replication errors; and since they are are abstractly related to empty calories and porn, people are being given dreams that are ill-suited to help them navigate reality in a way that best prepares them to live to their fullest potential as contributors to the species. Oftentimes the stories may even be to their deficit, but that's not to say that I don't also want to have something mindless to relax to. But how do we keep others from only choosing the empty carbs? I think that's what culture is for. And I have hope that society is primed for a great big change for the better.
I love the comparisons made of sugar vs food, porn vs intimacy, social media vs friends, and now The Entertainment vs a genuine, edifying story, or maybe just call this myth.
Maybe there are dimensions. Or, maybe a spectrum with two poles is an inadequate analogy. Maybe there are spectrums within the spectrum of "How we should be using out time." In that case, we need efficient entertainment that also edifies, which is the argument for art in the first place.
Sometimes I think of dreams and story as the running of simulations. Like how scary movies and haunted houses give us practice at handling things via exposure.
But I like this idea of dreams exercising and optimizing the brain so that it is able to make better decisions in the morning. All of our social tools (manners, culture, religion, art, law,, etc.) have to be navigable for the person to pursue their purpose. So maybe dreams prune the steps that are habit so that the decision can be instinctual rather than waste the processing power. This makes me think of how original ideas are just a new combination of what already existed.
Then with stories done well, they can unlock something new that humanity had yet to think, feel, or express at least; or help navigate a new way of things. To run a scenario or simulation of what might be, or how it could be. (Like Reels by people who show how to properly communicate with another rather than the rivalrous communication that destroys relationships.) When it is modeled it becomes a possibility. But maybe we need to sleep on it before it to become an adaption we can use.
Evolution is a daily occurrence of choices that skew towards an adaption.
It seems to me that this "aesthetic spectrum" has to exist at the level of individuals, not societies. Accepting your hypothesis, what "dreamlike" stimulus is useful to my brain to prevent it from overfitting to narrow reality depends on my experiences and categorizations and framings. It also depends on how I interpret and frame this new stimulus. Does it fit neatly into the systems my brain has already constructed or does it force them to stretch and expand? It seems like cultivating an "aesthetic spectrum" at a societal scale would have to look something like helping people to recognize that feeling of almost discomfort wherever it pops up and chase it down. Explore the novelty, regardless of what society has labeled it, and expand your thinking. We'll have to hone our ability to differentiate this from the, perhaps more comfortable, but ultimately mindless consumption of the familiar. Until we have a deeper understanding of individual minds, no one else will ever be able to point to art for you. You'll have to find it for yourself.