As we enter Labor Day weekend, it is one of the last weekends to barbecue or take the final vacation of summer. But, the extended weekend means more time to catch up with friends or watch the next episodes of Stranger Things or prepare for the re-release of Gilmore Girls. But, can you name a point in the history of the English language when the term “binge” has been virtuous, valuable, or even culturally acceptable? The word has almost exclusively been associated with excess and indulgence. Binge drinking. Binge eating.
But now binge watching? Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have introduced a whole new cultural phenomenon and changed the way we use certain words.
Walking into work on Monday and explaining to your coworkers which Netflix show you binged over the weekend isn’t shameful; in fact it’s expected and readily approved.
Moderation used to be a virtue. To be temperate, self-controled, and not easily given to excess.
But our culture seems to agree with Oscar Wilde when he said “All things in moderation, including moderation.”
While our streaming TV habits can’t be easily explained, they do reveal key insights into our culture milieu. We binge for a lot of reasons, so I don’t intend to condemn or confront— just observe.
1. We love the narrative, yet it has diminished our value of time.
Stories have been the life of a culture throughout all stages of history. But, our current ability to create, share, and innovate stories has empowered our stories in new ways. Rather than waiting until the evening around the campfire for the patriarch to tell more of the family tale, we have the ability to consume and curate from the best storytellers the world on demand.
We love the narrative. The characters, plot movement and spin, the rise and fall of emotion, and the grip of tension as a story reaches a climax. Narratives spark a part of our brains that lies dormant for much of our other daily activities. When we settle in to watch our favorite TV show in the evenings— and dive into the depth of a story — part of us feels more alive.
Yet, our love of story has shaped our value of time. In economics, a product derives its value from the price someone is willing to pay. By definition, something is worth, what someone will pay for it.
Time has a similar economic scale. Time’s value is not based on how much we will spend to acquire it, but on the value of what we chose to spend it on. Time derives its value from how carefully or flippantly we spend it. When we spend nearly 3 out of our 24 hours a day— perhaps even more on the weekend— in passive entertainment, we no longer ascribe the same value to our time. In doing so, I take the value of an hour, and what I could accomplish or experience in that time and significantly reduce it.
Our binge culture has lessened the value of time. A few hours of the day has become so invaluable that “binging” is an appropriate or even a praise worthy use of time. Consequentially, we neglect other active engagements— reading, writing, friends, cleaning, running, playing, family, and working.
2. We are engaged in the narrative, yet we often use it as an escape.
The best stories help you get lost. The world, characters, and interaction draw you in and keep you in a foreign world. After watching two or more episodes every night, the story begins to take over your sleeping and waking dreams. It finds its way into your thoughts on the commute to and from work, and it distracts us as we stare out the window at 3pm.
Great art should enrapture you into the experience. The shows that we dive headlong into with ease are demonstrating the qualities of good art. This is one of the supreme values of art— the ability to enchant its audience with a new world or idea. A painting, piece of music or audio story, can take you to a new place through their work.
Yet, the beauty and compelling character of these stories can lead us to escape our own narrative. We are tempted to value foreign stories more than our own. There is value in beautiful, well crafted narratives that express human-ess in poignant ways and we ought to praise the creators of these stories for their creations. These excellent creations should be consumed. However, our volume of consumption in binge culture has shifted the emphasis in an unhealthy direction.
I would assert that valuable cultural creations ought to animate our imagination toward our own stories.
But, the plethora of stories on my Netflix page temps me to avoid my own story. If I get bored by my story (work, family, hobbies, etc.) I can choose from an unending list. Because we are so consumed by the stories we watch, we lose perspective on our story. It does indeed shape our desires and gives us a different picture of “the good life.” But it often serves as an escape from our reality into a different (better?) world.
3. We are compelled by the narrative, yet it is often the wrong narrative.
The stories our culture tells compels us to act towards the world of the story. The lives of the characters seep into our desires and we begin to emulate or at least desire aspects of their lives. These stories tell us a narrative about what we should love and pursue in life.
When storytellers idealize a career, a place to live, the perfect life partner, or how to overcome life obstacles, we listen. We see, desire, and believe in this way of life. As noted above, we tend to avoid our own stories in favor of the world on the screen.
Yet, far too often our culture tells us the wrong story. The predominant narrative that we hear in our culture is that humanity is able to overcome evil.
Salvation becomes anthropocentric. We can clean heal the world and ourselves if we find the goodness in us.
Consequentially, the sin nature is minimized or denied. No longer do we need hope or healing outside of humanity. Humanity can be good enough, if only we try harder, find our personal destiny, or reach inside the find the goodness buried there.
More tragic still, the work of Jesus on the cross is ignored. Mankind doesn’t need payment for our sins, we need to bootstrap our way to personal fulfillment and cultural good.
Perhaps the biggest danger with binge culture is that if we are listening to this story continually we will forget about our own sinfulness and our need for Jesus.
What are your thoughts on the implications of “binge culture”? Have you seen it impact the way you think or act?