Culture Clips: Alone … With Our Screens

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Plugged In reviewed a strange little video game last week called Death Stranding. Our own Bob Hoose calls it part shooter, part adventure game, part building game and all weird. While dark and bloody, the game has also earned the most nominations this year from the Game Awards (an awards “show” that was watched by around 30 million people last year, mostly through livestreams).

But listening to creator Hideo Kojima talk, it sounds as if he created the game as a rumination on loneliness. Look at this paragraph quoting Kojima from Time magazine:

“I feel always lonely in society,” he says in an interview before [an event publicizing the game] speaking through a translator provided by his company. “There are so many people who play games feeling like that, like they don’t belong in this society. They don’t really feel comfortable.” He wants players to share that deep sense of isolation as they play Death Stranding. “You’re all alone playing the game,” Kojima says. “And you’re trying to connect this fractured society by yourself. The world is beautiful, but you’re small, just a tiny speck. You feel hopeless and helpless and powerless. You feel so lonely.”

Loneliness can seem like an epidemic in today’s screen-crazed society. So what do we do about it? Give ourselves more stuff to watch on those screens, of course.

We talked last week about the stuff that Disney+ is adding to our entertainment plate. But that might be just the beginning. According to The New York Times’ Brooks Barnes, we’ve now officially hit a “seismic shift” in the entertainment industry—just as significant as the transition to “talkies” in the 1920s and television in the 1950s. While Netflix helped set the template, Disney+ signals the move of traditional entertainment producers into the mix: HBO Max joins the fray next May with 10,000 hours of content (even though its backers say it aspires to be more a stand-alone, multi-property cable bundle than the next Netflix). Peacock, NBC Universal’s service, will offer 15,000 hours of programming next spring. And lots of smaller players are already here or on the way.

Barnes suggests all that streaming means fewer movies in theaters and more on “television.” The line between movies and television itself is growing blurrier all the time, and there are even talks about merging the Oscars and Emmys together.

Exciting times, right? Well, not according to consumers. Barnes quotes a study that says half of us are pretty ticked about needing all these subscription services to watch what we want to watch.

And the competition in that streaming world is growing evermore fierce.

Netflix, the streaming world’s biggest big dog, watched Disney+ launch and seemingly said, “Oh yeah?” with an original (and expensive) movie called Klaus, that features the traditional 2D animation that made Disney famous in the first place.

But while Netflix notoriously trusts its analytics to determine what shows to greenlight (and, apparently, which to give a second season to before the first one even airs), Disney says it doesn’t need no stinkin’ data to make shows that people want to watch. Or, at least, not as much as Netflix does.

“We might not always follow the data,” Disney’s Kevin Mayer told Vox. “We might have great, creative ideas that don’t fit right into where the data would point you to make a program, so we’re going to use both our judgment or the ideas we have in place, the capacities that we have in place, and the data that tells us what to make. Certainly, we will be paying attention to that.”

And Netflix isn’t just catching shade from Disney. Comedian/actress Mo’Nique is suing Netflix for underpaying her, alleging racial and gender discrimination.

Meanwhile, Apple TV+ is having its own issues. After its flagship series The Morning Show received mixed reviews upon its release, the show’s creators suggested that the critics just didn’t like Apple.

Maybe the critics were vapers. Apple just erased all apps related to e-cigarettes and vaping from its app store. But while e-cigarette use continues to climb, traditional smoking continues to drop. In fact, only 13.7% of Americans smoke regular cigarettes these days—the lowest percentage on record.

We have no evidence to suggest that people are scrapping their smartphone habits as easily. But anecdotally, quitting your phone can have healthy benefits, too. Why, Digital Trend’s Shubham Agarwal ditched his own smartphone and picked up an old-fashioned slider-phone—albeit one with some more up-to-date bells and whistles. And he kinda likes the experience. “It made me realize how insignificant most of what I used to do on my phone actually is,” he said.

Two-dozen students from Adelphi University gave up their smartphones for a week (as part of the school’s “Life Unplugged” class) and reported an upgrade in their lives. “Everything is perfect right now,” said student Jacob Dannenberg. “I’m having a lot better relationship … it’s a stress-free environment [with] no pressure about social media.”

But smartphones aren’t going away anytime soon. Neither, for that matter, is porn—as much as most of us would like it to. We can see plenty of skin on television these days, of course, and Emilia Clarke admits that she felt pressure to do nude scenes when starring in HBO’s Game of Thrones. And while several high-profile companies are no longer working with the online smut peddler PornHub, high schools in Boston are beginning to sponsor after-school “Porn Literacy” classes (given that so many teens have been exposed and consume it) as a way to make sex education classes more relevant. (it doesn’t involve watching any porn, by the way, and the class’s creators say it’s designed to “promote communication, consent and critical thinking.”) Others hope that frank-talking chatbots might be the next solution to what critics call a “broken” sex ed system.

We should probably talk about the Grammy nominations before leaving for the week but, frankly, I don’t want to. I’d much rather talk about how prolific actor Nicolas Cage has snagged a role that he was, quite literally, born to play: that of Nicolas Cage. Called The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage will play himself as he’s trying to get a role in a new Quentin Tarantino film and sometimes talks to an arrogant 1990s version of himself. It also involves (according to The Hollywood Reporter) a drug cartel, a grouchy teen daughter and (true to life) mountains of debt that force Cage to take pretty much any job that comes along.

Finally, a movie I can’t wait to review.