Essays on Technology and Culture

“On Demand” and The Stream

There used to be a dream that all your entertainment would come to you on demand. Instead of needing to be at a certain place at a certain time to catch whatever monocultural touchstone was being broadcast, anything we would want could be a button push, or ten, away. This dream has come to fruition for anything that would have been broadcast in the past. Only sports are exempt. Parallel to the rise of on demand media, a new form of media that cannot be simply stored and caught up on has evolved. These are the streams, and you either keep up with them as they come in, or you accept that you’ll never catch up with what you missed. Or both.

Both old, broadcast media and our new streams make demands on us. At least broadcast media’s demands were concrete in time and space. If you weren’t home, and you didn’t set up your VCR or DVR, you missed what happened, that was it. Streams are in our pockets, inescapable wherever there’s a signal to our phones. We don’t want to miss a moment, so we’re always pulling out our phones, distracting ourselves from whatever we’re doing, just to catch up. If certain companies have their way, our streams will be on and in our faces as well. People already get hit by cars while checking their streams on phones. Face-mounted streams won’t be much of an improvement.

Even worse is when our streams make themselves demand our attention. They make our phones buzz and beep with each new activity. Another Pavlovian stimulus to deal with, the sound and sensation are our trigger to salivate and check our streams. We can turn the notifications off, but apps for streams come with the alerts turned on right out of the App Store. When the optimal is not the default, the default wins out for almost everything. Changing settings is a power-user move.

Of course, streams are in their infancy. We are still learning how to handle them; figuring out who is worth following, when is right to check, and what is right to say. Even as we learn, however, they’re still updating. Radio and television stations, in their infancy, at last had the courtesy to sign off at the end of the day. Though now they’re on the air constantly, there’s no need to stay up all hours just for one program when you can watch it at your leisure the next day. Streams never sleep. The operators of streams can have algorithms drop fresh new content into your stream at any hour of the day, multiple times a day. You never have to be without something new to see, and you never are.

We all could benefit from thinking about the streams we let into our lives and what we let into our streams. How up-to-date do we need to be about the things people do and say? What do we truly need to be informed about? The nature of a stream precludes being truly “on demand,” but judicious pruning of what we allow in can make it easier if we want to bother with catching up. There are a fixed number of hours in our day. We all could be more judicious about what we let consume our time, and when. And when it all gets too overwhelming, broadcast media and streams alike have an off switch we shouldn’t be afraid to press.