[how does digital media change our ethics of consumption? what does it mean to “own” a text or to “subscribe” to content? – NT]
by Ian Crouch – The New Yorker – Oct. 21, 2013
The basic Spotify program runs its advertisements at a higher volume than its music—Ian Crouchthe Advance Auto Parts jingle, to cite a frequent demonic companion, thunders out of the speakers on my desk, jolting me from whatever autumnal, folky singer-songwriter-induced reverie I happen to be in at the moment. The ad arrives, blusters, and then departs, leaving the lightly strumming, earnest Scandinavian mumbler I’ve got on struggling to reëstablish the mood.
My response, each time, is lip-curled outrage: How dare they blast my ears with this commercial nonsense? For Go to Meeting and Hundred-Per-Cent-Pure Florida Orange Juice? There was a stretch of a few months, last year, when they ran an Audible ad starring a character named Ian, and I was convinced that they were bugging me in an even more invasive way, until I found out that the ad was general and that my name had become common enough for commercials. How dare they? How dare the magical program that delivers all the music I would ever want to hear directly to my computer completely free of charge advertise at me? Where do they get the nerve to constantly, and so loudly, prod me toward commerce? If only there was something I could do, some way to make the ads stop.
Seventy-five thousand or so think pieces have been written over the past few years in an attempt to pin down the particulars of the Millennial generation. I propose a more succinct diagnosis, one that could get in and out with about five words: “My father’s HBO Go account.” Or, if that’s too long, let’s cut it down to four: “My mother’s Times subscription.” As in:
“We’ve been binge-watching ‘Game of Thrones’ for the past week.”
“Nice! I didn’t know you had HBO.”
“We don’t, but we’ve been using my father’s HBO Go account.”
“That Snow Fall thing, wow, huh?”
“Oh, I reached my limit of free articles for the month reading the wedding announcements.”
“No problem, you can use my mother’s Times subscription.”
Not since Prohibition has criminality been so brazenly discussed in polite company. It’d be shameful to confess such things, of course—I’m twenty-nine, employed, and can at least afford to pay too much for my apartment and my coffee—were the words not typically met with knowing looks and supportive nods and news that your friend had been using her sister’s Netflix account since 2009.
The popular diagnosis for “My Father’s HBO Go Account” disease is false entitlement—and, sure, that’s a good definition for assuming you can always get for free what you should certainly be expected to pay for. It’s a generational and class scourge: a no-collar crime.
But I would like to volunteer another, more timeless self-diagnosis, one that I think might cover many of my peers, too: I am a cheapskate. Never in the history of the modern world has there been a better time to be a cheapskate. All you need is a connection or two—a mother, a father-in-law, a brother, someone else’s brother, some mystery uploader in Estonia—and you’re flush with all the news or moving images or music that you could possibly consume. In the past, cheapskates could be prodded into shelling out cash for this stuff—there was no other choice. And so we begrudgingly parted ways with our money, doing things like paying sixteen bucks at Sam Goody for a CD locked in a plastic anti-theft device. If I were able to travel back and corner my middle-school self wandering those aisles at the mall, his eyes would light up with the magical tales I’d tell him. Not about coming romance or adventure, but about how free everything would be in the future.
Think of it as the Consumer Law of Motion: a cheapskate who is at rest will stay at rest unless an external force acts upon him. Ten bucks a month would make all my Spotify problems go away. But … nah. And so I’ll grit my teeth through another ad for “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Not too long ago, I went to a concert at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I’d gotten a good seat on the floor thanks to a program called “20 Under 40,” which allows patrons under the age of forty to purchase two tickets for twenty dollars apiece, the idea being that the classical-music industry is struggling to attract a new generation of fans, and so must dangle enticements. It’s a real problem, and this is a smart solution. But under forty? Good lord. Thirty-nine-year-olds are supposed to be pillars of their communities, men and women in sensible clothes, with good-sized children and mortgages and the growing capacity to support cultural institutions such as the symphony.
Instead, it seems more likely that, in a decade, I’ll still be malingering in better seats than I deserve, in the one J. Crew suit I own, sitting next to people who had the bad fortune of aging past forty and so being compelled to pay full price. I’ll lean over: “Thanks guys, this show is great!” And then, after I’d gotten to know them: “Oh, and also, if you don’t mind, I forgot my uncle’s Pandora password, and can’t get logged in again. Can I use yours?”
But even cheapskates can still be tricked or tempted to make a full-price entertainment payout from time to time. And when we do buy something, we flush with the thrill of children playing dress-up with their parents’ clothes. What’s an even better feeling? When we can, as we might say, pay it forward, and share our largesse. Like a proud papa, I log into the Netflix account that I actually pay for and see some strange documentary on my recently watched list. Or notice that seven episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” have been viewed. I lean back on the couch, puff out my chest a bit, and feel the satisfying beneficence of charity offered. Here I am, a modern Guggenheim, a Carnegie. Later, a friend offers her thanks for being able to catch up on “Breaking Bad” in time for the finale. “It was only a password, my dear,” I respond. “Not a big deal at all.” This must be what it feels like to be a MacArthur. Or just a grownup.
llustration by Roman Muradov.