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The 19th Century and Netflix

The New York Times has an article about the polarizing effect of new media. It's an argument that's been around for several years: we have lost a shared cultural television experience with the proliferation of cable and internet entertainment. Shows such as "All in the Family" and "Mash" were watched by nearly everyone in their time, but today people pick and choose and time-shift their entertainment. As thin as television can be (so the argument goes), at least in the old media days it was a shared experience and common cultural language.

As the article notes, the irony is that with more options there is more creativity. Television is, on the whole, vastly better than it was in prior decades. The complexity of plots, many characters, and immense creativity of today's shows dwarf prior decades. Yet no one show dominates the language or thoughts of our era, in comparison to shows in the past.

But this has happened before. There was a time, somewhere in the 18th century and earlier, when one could have read all of the great books and writings. With the growth of literacy and mass publishing, we find from the 1800s and onward the impossibility of reading everything, even in a particular genre. There's simply too much good stuff. (This is good news for literary and television critics, as they act as guides through all of the options. We need docents.)

Books and literacy also broke the shared experience of the theater. Dramatic performance was the lionized art form for much of world history, as Greek tragedy, comedy, and Shakespeare dominated the arts. There was always the possibility for some people of reading these plays, but literacy and printing limited this to a few. With the novel and literacy comes a new mass art form, where people read in solitude and then share that experience later. We can draw a parallel between dramatic performance and old television media, where people watched it in groups and it was in real time (you couldn't rewind or pause, at least before VCRs), and between books and Netflix (which tend to be more solitary and can be paused and reversed).

Books and novels have, of course, become hugely influential in world culture, and we have negotiated their proliferation just fine. In fact, it makes it quite fun to debate which books are the best, or influential, or in the canon. It's a continually evolving process, and quite democratizing. Voices that, in the past, had almost no options for expression can now be heard. The same will happen for new media and Netflix. We can already see the accepted canonicity of shows such as "Breaking Bad," "The Sopranos," and "The Wire." There is a bubbling up of great shows that stand the test of time, and there is a sharing of the experience with others (at least asynchronously).

Clearly there is a transition and a loss from old media to new media. But with this transition comes gains, just as the novel brought us gains and new possibilities in human culture. In that sense, we needn't be reactionary to these changes. It is vital that we celebrate the democratization and quality that is now present in new and exciting ways.

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