Have you noticed how nothing ever really ends anymore?
This thought came to me as I was listening to an interview with Adam Alter, the author of a chilling new book about how today’s technologies are increasingly irresistible. Alter described how our favorite apps — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to name but three — have feeds that go on forever, and why this one design feature makes it almost impossible to not to get lost in them. They’re literally endless.
When you think about it, more and more aspects of our lives are characterized by these infinite loops.
We used to leave work at the office. Now the workday is never over thanks to our ever-present smartphones. When we do manage to put them down, we might relax with Netflix. Alas, as soon as you’ve watched a show, there is another helpfully cued up — one that you actually have to stop from starting. Of course, there are entire other seasons and series to consume. Netflix has us hooked, and the drug dealer lives in your house while the supply is immediate and endless.
Even if you manage to stop at just one (and who really does anymore?), the episode doesn’t really end there. There are recaps to read and sub-Reddit discussions to peruse, talk shows (like “Talking Dead”) to participate in a collective commentary that prolong the half-life of those programs deep into real life.
When TV series appear to end, they don’t actually. They live on in spin-offs, sequels and prequels. For those of you dreading the “end” of Game of Thrones, for example, don’t fret. It might spawn as many as 6 more series on which to binge.
Movies have entire universes to explore and rides to relive their magic at the Magic Kingdom. The merchandise industrial complex — the true engine of profitability for music, films and other “toyetic” (yes, that’s a thing) franchises — tempts us with the T-Shirt, the Bed sheet or the branded fast food treat. And when that cycle is (seemingly) exhausted, it just means it’s time for a reboot.
Endless has become the holy grail of business models. Facebook wants us to endlessly scroll to sell more ad impressions. Disney wants your daughter to follow that fifteenth viewing of “Frozen” with a purchase of that lunch pail and a visit to their theme park. As long as you pay your subscription, the World of Warcraft developers don’t care that your addiction is causing you to lose sleep, friends and even your job.
Perhaps this only applies to products meant to entertain us? Sadly, real life is now treated much like entertainment, and cable news has followed suit. Like a river, it just flows. CNN is one continuing “Breaking News” chyron, whether for a real event like Hurricane Irma or the reality TV Trump presidency. While the New York Times still publishes a daily paper, the website refreshes constantly. Can anyone ever remember the days of morning and evening “editions”?
Our relationships reflect this trend, too; they increasingly don’t have stops and starts. There is no romantic courtship at the beginning or dramatic break-up scenes or an end in a world dominated by Tinder, “Netflix and Chill”, “friends with benefits” and ghosting.
Even death doesn’t seem permanent anymore. This week, the new spy movie “American Assassin” comes out. It’s based on books by the late Vince Flynn — a series that still continues after his death with an authorized ghostwriter. A few years ago, Elvis Presley released a “new” single — even though he was no longer with us, of course. His estate authorized a remix of an old song that promptly shot to Number 1 on the Billboard charts.
Finally (or perhaps not-so-final?), Silicon Valley CEOs are famously trying to extend life, if not escape death, through bio-hacking all the way to their Singularity dreams. It seems like we’re incapable of accepting any ending, even those encoded into our genes.
Why is this important, you may ask? Because having, finding, and accepting an end is important. Endings mark conclusions but also new beginnings.
We are robbed of greater meaning when we give in to a culture where the story never ends, the feed never stops, the distractions pile up and all relentlessly tug at our fragile, fragmented attention spans.
Mark Twain wrote that a central rule of the art of storytelling was “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” We need endings to make sense of narratives — even if we don’t always agree with them.
We also have to mindful of what this is doing to our minds. As Adam Alter points out, ”life is more convenient than ever, but convenience has also weaponized temptation.” Despite our apparent sophistication, we are simple creatures. In an era when the CEO of Netflix publicly admits that the “competition” he obsesses about is not Amazon or Apple but sleep (!), we need more than just willpower to overcome fiendishly addictive products and services.
What’s worse, we’re seeing just the tip of the iceberg. Truly immersive experiences like AR and VR are just around the corner. If we can’t resist wasting time on Angry Birds and YouTube now, how will we fare with the allure of Avatar-like virtual worlds?
Endless is as unsustainable as it is unhealthy. There are limits and laws of nature that these activities bump up against: the amount of waking hours in a day, the amount of discretionary income we have, and the amount of waste and excess our fragile environment can absorb.
I’ve had enough of endless; maybe you’re getting sick of it, too. Next time Netflix prompts you to “just play another”, consider resisting (or at least stopping before the inevitable cliffhanger that leaves you hankering for more). Set a limit on your Instagram scrolling. When you’re standing in line at Starbucks, look up and around you rather than down at your screen. If we lean into those moments of “boredom”, we might be surprised what ideas, insights and interactions might occur.
Let’s also be more skeptical of what Big Tech is selling us. Remember when using these services that if you don’t know what their actual product is — you’re the product. Finally, be selective about how you spend and invest your time and attention; you should treat both like the scarce, priceless and non-renewable resources that they are.
This is the end of my rant. But feel free to continue it …