Chin: Netflix and Chill: Digital Intimacies

Digitization has opened up new spaces for introspection.

by Clara Chin | 4/13/18 2:05am

I used to pride myself on never reading digital copies of books, carrying multiple tote bags to the library in addition to my large backpack full of all the readings I needed for final papers. Over the course of several terms of traveling to and from Dartmouth between off-terms and breaks, I realized that it wasn’t practical to have a personal library on campus of over 80 books that needed to be stored in a giant rolling duffle bag. Instead, I took an approach of compromise, purchasing hard copies of only my favorite books, movies and music, and began cultivating my laptop’s online digital library. As somewhat of a Luddite who still believes in the value of art in hard copy, I learned to appreciate the minimalism of digitization. However, the potential in digitizing art that is consumed on a daily basis, like films, music and literature, goes beyond minimalism.

Art in the digital age translates to streaming movies on Netflix, Kanopy and Mubi instead of watching films in the traditional theater; listening to music on Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud and Youtube instead of on record players or stereos; reading PDFs and eBooks instead of paperbacks and hardcovers. I used to imagine cultivating my own personal library when I was a child. But rather than imagining what a future physical library might look like, it is easier for young people to select works for a personal digital library. As someone who mourns the decline of physical copies of the art that the public consumes every day, I also view the digitization of art as productive for the individual and the private mind. Typically, those who laud the digital library do so on the basis of various forms of accessibility as well as its ability to create social bonds through music sharing and online commenting. But digitizing art also opens up space for introspection and “me time” — essentially, a richer private life.

Digital music, for instance, allows a unique form of introspection. Because individuals do not have to listen to music on a large device like a stereo, the music passes through less space before reaching them. Digital music makes simpler the use of personal devices and earphones, through which music plays directly in one’s ears. This counteracts the tradition of listening to music as a primarily social activity; it lacks the large physical scale and loudness of concerts, the sociality of small salon performances and the distance that an individual might feel listening to a stereo alone. With headphones, the music is playing directly in the listener’s head. While one can listen to music in this way in a private space, it is also possible to enjoy music privately while in public. Digital music thus acts as a barrier between the listener and the outside world, allowing the listener to synthesize the images, smells and tactile details from around them while eliciting any mood they choose from their personal and portable music library. In small doses, this allows a music listener to signal to people how social or private they would like to be. The listener can engage with the outside world in a different way: as a passive observer rather than as an active participant.

Those who argue against movie streaming service often do so on the basis of scale. The general claim is that movies streamed online do not capture the experience of seeing films in the theater — sound quality is worse, there is no audience and the screen is typically much smaller. While this is true, streaming a film serves a different purpose than watching a movie in a theater. Many people watch movies to feel a certain way, but going to a theater usually involves dressing up, or at the very least looking presentable. When watching a film online, one can watch it alone without the pressure to impress anyone. Alternatively, watching a movie on a personal device can also constitute an intimate experience, which is why the phrase “Netflix and chill” has become increasingly popular to describe the dating or hook-up culture today; the way people allow others into and out of their private lives has become contingent upon their use of digital media. Especially considering that Dartmouth students are prone to experiencing a fear of missing out, staying in can seem dauntingly uneventful. However, with an exciting movie library full of possibilities, the prospect may be a little more comforting.

It is only the use of electronic books that does not make the reading experience more personal and individualistic, since reading is less of a social activity anyway. But together, the digitization of music, film and books allows for the curation of a personal multimedia library. Digitization thus constitutes potential spaces for sociality in an asocial sense. The rise of digital media can be understood through the term “Communication Age,” but in many ways, people’s lives today may also be understood as part of an “Anti-Communication Age.” Communication is obviously a vital part of people’s everyday lives; individuals interact with one another on a day-to-day basis. But because people are increasingly in contact with others, this makes alone time especially significant. The digital space allows for new types of anti-social activities that open up space for private contemplation in the modern age.