Auto-Play, Exhaustion and the Death of Intent

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We will continue to play songs similar to the album you just finished.

This is the way of technology today. A stream of content delivered seamlessly to our eyes, ears, and brain that asks us only to start. The beginning is, to some extent, our choice. What happens thereafter feels much more like a downward spiral in which we have less and less control.

This isn’t a completely new phenomenon. It has been building for some time now. I remember inklings of what was about to come watching movies on TV a decade ago. A new movie would start as soon as the credits rolled on the one I had just been watching. Back then I liked it. It was like a shortcut through the boring minutes of scrolling credits during which I’d bounce between channels hoping to catch something else to watch until the top of the hour when a new movie started. For somebody who craved stimulation, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude toward whatever television executive had come up with this idea.

Even if it was the same movie I had just watched, I would start watching it again if I had missed the beginning the first time. The continuous movie loop was addictive. Since then, the pace has only quickened.

Netflix is one of the most egregious offenders. Perusing Netflix is to scroll through icons of movies and shows that instantly start blasting a clip at varying volumes. You have barely one second before that show starts telling you about itself. Can you imagine if people were like that? If every time you looked at somebody they just started shouting about their life to you? I’d walk around with my eyes closed.

Netflix is an activity without end. Finishing a show means you have five seconds before it plays the next episode of that show. Barely enough time to find the remote to say no. It feels like trying to disarm my television before it explodes. Finishing a movie gives you marginally more time to disarm the bomb.

Theaters too have embraced this to some extent, thanks to Marvel movies. They conditioned us to stay through the end of the credits (which seemingly get progressively longer the more special effects are included) to wait for the teaser of the next movie. Theaters will stay full as hundreds of people wait for the additional one, two or even three short trailers that tease the next film or films.

Music is a medium where it is easy to not even notice the auto-play. The intention of choosing a CD or even an album on iTunes has quickly been replaced with streaming services that start playing similar songs when the album you are listening to stops. There have been so many times I have been listening to an album at work and not realized It was over until an hour later when I suddenly noticed I was listening to a different artist.

Reading too (that outdated activity which has been replaced with scanning) is not immune. There is barely a byline at the bottom of an article before scrolling down reveals a new title and a new article. Infinite scrolling means infinite information. There will always be more to read.

Even as I write this in my Evernote app, there is a tool at the bottom that is scanning the text I’m writing and showing me other notes I’ve written that might relate, searching the news for articles about similar subject matter.

This is our new reality. We have entered a state where everything is autoplaying all the time always. This is perhaps a gift for people who struggle with making decisions. But the more decisions like this that are made for us, the weaker I feel our decision muscle becomes.

It makes me wonder what we are actually starting. Are we beginning a song, video, article or we starting an infinite experience? One that only ends in interruption, dead batteries, or sleep.

Yes, technology has removed friction from our lives. Yes, it makes starting easy, almost mindless. The content we consume doesn’t even really need us to choose it. But my worry is the lack of consideration we exercise. We have to make fewer choices and the lack of volition can’t help but change the way we experience the world.

Existing the way we do now feels progressively more like walking through a Vegas casino. Something is always happening, at all hours of the day. Lights, music, and special effects hook you and keep you hooked everywhere you go.

The more we consume, the less individual experiences resonate. Our lives become a cacophony of everything. As silence and darkness disappear from our world, the low thrum of stimulation has become more pronounced. I do not think that more people are being born anxious, I think our world is providing varying and rapidly increasing levels of anxiety as the new normal.

What we consume is now based largely on our consumption history. Content providers are desperate to provide us with something we will love based on what we’ve just consumed. Not to do so is to risk losing our attention, and thus our dollars. This means we find recommendation engines that provide us with countless iterations and permutations of the same type of content. Because of all of this, I retain less, consume more, crave more.

I wish the message at the end of anything said:

Just digest this for a while before you unintentionally half pay attention to the next thing we force-feed you.

I heard Tom Hanks once refer to our culture as the Red Zone channel. If you don’t know, The Red Zone channel is a football channel that switches between games where a team is about to score. There is always something about to happen. Maybe that is the point of sports? But the fact that you are always switching between games without context seems like chaos. Welcome to Cleveland. Now Miami. DETROIT. SEATTLE!

It’s hard for me to imagine where we go from here. Radios built into our ears. Movies playing in our contact lenses. Morphine chewing gum. I hope whatever is next doesn’t turn us into decision impaired zombies physically incapable of ceasing whatever activity we have started; desirous of constant stimulation and incapable of perceiving resonance.

Because intention and resonance are formative for us. Our choices inform the people we become. How we reflect upon and process our lives is how we grow and evolve, or don’t. And those choices are always presenting themselves to us. Want them or not, they keep coming.

Your next life forming decision is starting in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

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