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Court Mann: Netflix and Spotify will make you numb if you let them (so dont)
Author Malcolm Gladwell, pictured in 2013, says, The exercise of curiosity requires a risk, a sacrifice a commitment. - photo by Court Mann
When was the last time you really went digging?

Not literally, of course this column covers entertainment, not archaeology. Im talking about music and movies and TV shows. Can you remember plunging your hands into the pop culture and artistic soil and finding something that wasnt given to you? Was it recently?

Netflix and Spotify have been my preferred streaming services, largely because of their price point, available content and user interface. (See: cheap, bottomless, intuitive.) Lately, though, they and I have been engaged in a struggle. Its a struggle against homogeneity and a particular kind of lethargy that can erode ones desire to dig. In the general public discourse, this lethargy elicits an equally lethargic meh. Its all relatively cheap (and legal) music, movies and TV shows, so why think too hard about it, right? Dont ruin this for us, Court.

First, Im going to kind of ruin it. Then, at the end, Ill try to save it. Stay with me?

The inertia of sameness

Back to this public discourse. Facebooks woes, where a users own behavior on the app turns the user experience into an echo chamber of utter sameness, are discussed ad nauseam. And for good reason. Its social and political implications are huge and frightening. These may not resemble the issues facing Netflix and Spotify, but I think they all originate from the same place, and that deserves more discussion.

Its about algorithms and the way they deliver more of what weve told them we like. Whether its Facebook, Netflix or any other leisure app, they all use algorithms to regurgitate similar content back to users. With streaming services, though, the regurgitation plays out quite differently: Facebook pushes users to ideological extremes, while streaming services pull users away from the fringes of their own individual tastes.

Take Spotify, which might suggest the Monkees if youve listened to a lot of the Beatles. The Monkees were fun, sure, but they never traversed any musical ground that the Beatles didnt, so the musical journey kind of ends there. With Spotify, its algorithms become a centripetal force.

Imagine a world where it was the opposite where streaming services nudged you toward the radical and Facebook made your ideologies more centrist. Thats the world I want to live in. It seems way more fun.

The exercise of curiosity

In a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwells Revisionist History podcast, he quotes Rule 3 in columnist Megan McArdles 12 Rules for Life, which states, Always order one extra dish at a restaurant, an unfamiliar one. You might like it, which would be splendid. If you dont like it, all you lost was a couple of bucks.

Gladwell adds, The exercise of curiosity requires a risk, a sacrifice a commitment.

When you outsource that curiosity to an algorithm, then you remove that risk. Algorithms arent human. My reliance on them makes me feel a little less human, too, because it removes me from the yearning of it all.

Think of your most meaningful experiences with the arts the stuff thats anchored your soul, thats really taught you about true humanity. If you hadnt first yearned for something, would those experiences have sunk in so deeply? Without yearning, its all just cotton candy: tasty but fleeting.

Our arts/entertainment preferences are usually shaped the most during our youth. While I think thats true, I believe less and less in the common logic behind that claim. Youth are impressionable not just because theyre experiencing things for the first time, but because they approach those experiences from a position of yearning. They want to know and feel more than the things theyve already known and felt. I think people miss their youth because they really miss this particular trait in themselves.

Old techniques, new tools

For the record, I dont miss the volatile years of my youth. Writing this, though, has taken me back to those years, when I felt perpetually astounded by some new band or book or movie. This era Napsters golden age of the early 2000s, when every song/video/movie was available, free and super illegal was a weird time for media consumption. You could theoretically find anything, but that file-sharing software didnt tell you where to look. There were no algorithmically generated playlists and movie suggestions.

So how did I find anything? It was the active, old school ways that people had used for decades: suggestions from friends, something I read in a magazine, a smaller band opening for a bigger band at a concert, etc. This hybrid of old techniques and new tools fostered a wild, enriching period of artistic discovery for me. Yes, I still had to dig, but even a shallow dig yielded all kinds of treasures.

Fast forward to now. My own entertainment consumption is at its most enjoyable when I take a similar approach. I wont abandon streaming services or their suggestions, but I refuse to rely on them exclusively. I still ask friends, I still read magazines (albeit online), I still watch the opening bands at concerts. I integrate new tools where I can, like the Shazam app, and Instagram pages dedicated to forgotten musical and cinematic gems.

Basically, I still dig. And yeah, sometimes my passion wanes. But I can't abandon that passion just because Im getting older.

The reality is this: There is more incredible music than you could ever hear in your lifetime, more life-changing books than you could ever read, more profound movies than you could ever watch. This means that if youre willing to dig and thus, to move then you will surely be moved by the things you find. Isnt that a beautiful guarantee?