The price of participation

AUGUST 21TH, 2016 — POST 230

I cancelled my Netflix subscription last night. It didn’t have anything to do with the service’s selection, price, or to try either Amazon Prime or Hulu. I just don’t have a TV or proper sound system anymore. I sold my TV, gave away my stereo when I left Sydney at the beginning of this month, and having just secured my first apartment in New York, I don’t exactly have the cash flow to buy either again. So a Netflix subscription isn’t worth a whole lot. I won’t be dipping into The Get Down to see if critics have got it right. And not having a TV means I’ll probably head to the cinema next week to see Verner Herzog’s latest Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World because buying it through iTunes won’t be worth it if I’m watching it on a 15” MacBook screen.

I don’t have a game console anymore, let alone a PS4 or PC, the two platforms on which No Man’s Sky is available. A game whose hype has had it top of every game and tech site, it was an insta-buy for me the moment I saw it. But things change and it’s yet another cultural product I’m not equipped to participate in. I do still have an Apple Music subscription. I am able to participate in the crazily-anticipated release of Frank Ocean’s Blonde which hit the service exclusively last night. For $9.99/month, I’m still able to be a part of a mass cultural event such as this. And sure, if I didn’t have a subscription, and now that I don’t for Netflix or any video streaming service, I could turn back to piracy — but that still relies on a solid internet connection billed monthly, not to mention at very least a thousand or so dollars for relevant hardware.

The ease at which information — and specifically in the cases I’m talking about cultural information — can be disseminated across the internet has done two significant things. Firstly, it has set up cultural events in which participation feels like a moral imperative. Secondly, it has allowed deep siloing off of these products behind explicit or implicit pay gates. Simply being part of the world has become phenomenally expensive.

Hardware is expensive. Connectivity is expensive. Content is expensive. But when so much of the world is conducted across the organism these three make, these costs buy entrance into the contemporary. I’m reminded of Finding Paul Miller, the documentary by The Verge about one of its editors leaving the internet for a year. It wasn’t long before the physical disconnection Miller experienced became a more profound participatory disconnection. Meetings with friends were littered with references to things he just didn’t know and couldn’t have an opinion on. And this was years before the mass online cultural events we see so often today.

I spent the morning at IKEA buying what will likely be the only adornment to the huge room my partner and I are renting in Brooklyn. A mattress, pillows, sheets, and a doona (they call them “comforters” here, dad). Not even a bed frame. There’s something about monastic essentialism that is attractive. I’ll read more, I’ll write more …until I realise not having a desk or a chair might present itself as a problem to these ends. And all the while the world will tick on. There’ll be shows I miss, only able to read about. There’ll be games — god, so many games — that’ll make waves I’ll be unable to ride. The world will continue with me taking a smaller and smaller part in it.

All because of the price to participation.

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