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February 17, 2020

YANG | Free Entertainment Is Eating Up Your Free Time

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have always had a love-hate relationship with entertainment. I’m too pretentious to openly embrace its blatantly encoded vulgarity that goes against the artful aesthetic of indeterminacy. I’m also so drowsy that I couldn’t help but succumb to consuming entertainment for its presumed effect of immediate, sheer pleasure. What if such an effect goes obsolete? Rather than romanticizing entertainment for its low barrier, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe its current state in the digital economy as ubiquitously tolerable. We are always somewhat entertained by the inundation of content across platforms, yet we are always left with much to be desired.

What do we do when we seek entertainment these days? Entertainment is intrinsically social. As a microcosm of society, entertainment provides reference points that prompt our discourse on culture. Entertainment is cultural discourse disguised in the form of everyday mundane leisure. Before delving into the contemporary context, it is crucial to first historicize entertainment with the advent of information technology.

Information-based entertainment started with sending secret Morse codes through telegraph and chit-chatting over the phone. For these forms of entertainment that were still grounded in interpersonal communication, the acceleration of the transmission of message first brought the annihilation of time and space. Cultural references began to be made outside of one’s community, and a mass culture was slowly forming when things were commonly known across social groups. And then came radio and television, through which content began to be broadcasted to a mass audience all at once. The transition to mass dissemination of entertainment amplified our cultural discourse with an increasingly broader reach. This is the pinnacle of the commonly understood notion of entertainment. In this golden era of entertainment, people consumed a lot of entertainment, and talked about entertainment a lot. The quality of the content was superb, and the public conversation was so potent that it gave rise to major cultural shifts. Mass culture rose to prominence, and discourse on culture was naturally embedded in everyday conversations.

And then came the Internet, the decentralized network that was envisioned to realize the countercultural ideals of a non-hierarchical community. The Internet was designed to be free and open to all. (Yet in sharp contrast to such vision, its materiality and affordance make the digital divide the status quo.) On paper, the Internet appears to be the medium for mass culture to flourish with the acceleration of social interactions among everyday people and of constant exposure to cultural artifact. Further, with the platformization of cultural production, the dichotomy between the exposure to entertainment and the discussion on entertainment has been obliterated. Yet as the Internet makes our life increasingly social, it also obscures the changing patterns of work and leisure.

Entertainment is often believed to be grounded in our leisure and entirely extraneous to our work, yet it is growingly intertwined with and embedded in all social interactions mediated through the digital platforms. We can no longer just sit down and expect to be entertained without performing labor for the tech giants that grant us affordances. We also can no longer just focus on interacting with people we care about without being spammed by the inundation of pop-up ambushes.

So, what does entertainment entail in the digital economy? Is scrolling through your news feed entertainment? What about commenting on your friend’s post? Is engaging in discourse on Twitter by posting memes entertainment? What about engaging in discussion in the fan community of your favorite TV show? Is watching a video on Youtube entertainment? What about a clip on TikTok? I believe that all these are entertainment in a broader sense, but they all come with a rather hefty price –– free. This is the least affordable entertainment has ever been, and the labor relations between audience and content providers is increasingly being normalized by the free market.

Our attention economy is essentially grounded in the commodification of time. In order to stay on the platforms — the means for social participation in the digital age — one can no longer delineate where the fun stops and the exploitation begins. We are told to accept this new relationship with entertainment in order to keep it free. To “compensate” tech companies for the free access they grant us, we have to screen through content to help them train their algorithms that are engineered to maximize our screen time. We are helping the platforms to waste our attention on lackluster content, and the more we consume such content, the more disappointed we are, the stronger our craving for entertainment will be and the longer we will stay on the platforms.

While the commodification of culture has always been central to the critique of entertainment, this emerging commodification of our interaction with cultural artifacts is a vicious cycle that would lead to collective stupidity. In the pre-Internet era, human decisions that would decide social changes were shaped by critiques, and entertainment was the means leveraged for public discussion. Now, these decisions are made by algorithms with the maximization of profit as the ultimate pursuit. Last semester, I talked about how Netflix is losing its originality and how noise music is the resistance we need.

This trend toward a digital monoculture is accelerating as no changes have been made. So don’t just sit back for five seconds and wait for the option to skip the ad to pop up. Let’s reclaim our leisure and entertainment. Let’s break up Big Tech. But how? I don’t know. We don’t know yet. But I want to start the conversation.

Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at syang@cornellsun.com. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.