Human Learning: Binge Culture

Not to put a damper on the holiday revelry, but ’tis the season for bingeing. Many of us will overeat, buy too much stuff, and party a bit too hard. Overindulgence and overconsumption have somehow infused themselves into a time ostensibly reserved for deeper expressions of gratitude and connection. But this isn’t a rant over the crass consumerism of the holidays (as Lucy van Pelt noted, it’s all “a big commercial racket”). Rather, it’s about the cultural normalization of bingeing, and its implications in a wired world.

Studies from a decade of digital saturation are coming in now, and the findings are disquieting. Concerns are mounting over the effects on bodies and brains, sleep deprivation and depression, and in particular the impacts on youth, among other issues. On a societal scale, the discussion is moving toward patterns of distraction, manipulation, and addiction. Even some notable tech insiders have begun to sound the alarm, calling out the influences that pervasive technologies are having on the very fabric of our lives.

Still, there’s humor to be found in the caricature of the tech-fixated, socially-awkward, smartphone-wielding, obsessively-posting, emoji-dropping individual — and it’s likely that we all know people who fit that description (and they’re not all millennials, by the way). Marketers nod ironically (and sometimes develop strategic insights) toward these stereotypes, academics deconstruct the behaviors, and screenwriters create characters to mimic them. And make no mistake, tech platforms are cultivating these personas and designing for their expansion.

Welcome to the era of bingeing, from what we watch to how we consume. Our total engagement is the premier product of this moment, and all the major players are competing over who owns our daily lives. Designing to keep us logged in all the time needs a convenient descriptor so we can see it more clearly — maybe to laugh at ourselves a bit, but also to consider its consequences. One possible addition to the cultural lexicon might be a “bingineer” (i.e., a binge engineer; one who engages in bingineering), which in broader terms would be the conscious cultivation of endlessly looping attention as a commodity.

Before the full emergence of the digital economy, there already were lower-tech versions of this in evidence. One could partake in potentially dangerous behaviors like “binge eating” or “binge drinking,” or somewhat more whimsical (although still highly problematic) doings like the “shopping binge.” Yet these are active behaviors, requiring engagement with the three-dimensional world around us where some semblance of mechanisms for intervention are available. Now, new bingeing forms happen online, through largely sedentary exchanges that trade on our passivity — and for which limited remedies exist.

A recent (and rare) glimpse behind the curtain was provided by Netflix itself, perhaps the quintessential purveyor of binge-worthy digital fare. Indeed, “binge watching” is encouraged on such platforms, with numerous outlets advising us on the best options to view in serial fashion. All of which made it even stranger to see Netflix calling out its users with this cryptic tweet: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?” (More aptly, who knew Netflix cared?)

If this wasn’t odd enough, the Netflix twitter account engaged in subsequent banter that revealed more about the bingeing ethos. One user asked why Netflix was calling people out; the ironic response was, “I just want to make sure you’re okay.” Another inquired as to how many times they had watched Friends, to which Netflix replied, “Not enough.” A few months earlier at a Netflix “Hack Day” a new “binge mode” tool was proposed, and the company has defined a “binge racer” as an even more accelerated viewer. And yes, Netflix has even published an annual “best of” list of all the trends from the “year in bingeing.”

The critical point is that bingeing isn’t merely being tolerated — it’s being cultivated. Netflix’s own press releases have referred to binge-watching as the “new normal,” promoting it as part of a “routine,” and even characterizing it as “heroic.” Critical analyses, however, have noted that binge-watching can affect us like a drug by producing dopamine as with other addictions, and can leave us with the post-binge “blues.” Even before its full societal predominance, bingeing was seen as a potential “pandemic” among young people.

All of this is disconcerting in itself, yet these issues aren’t confined to Netflix or other streaming services. To a wider extent, the online economy is built around repetitive and buzz-inducing actions that mold our digital footprints into a Big Tech “secret sauce” of aggregate data and individualized marketing. We may tenuously have concluded as a society that this is just the cost of doing business, but that can also be said for other behaviors that are responsible for pushing our planet and political systems to the brink.

For many of us it’s easy to get caught up in a diverting program, and with only limited downtime the temptation is often to engage it on a binge. And equally so, the constant utilization of our digital devices is increasingly bound up with the ability to navigate the personal and professional dimensions of modern life. As we move from the holiday season back into the flow of those busy lives, we might strive for a better balance in our habits, starting with resisting the orchestrated temptations of binge culture.

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