Reed Hastings, co-founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Netflix
Reed Hastings, co-founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Netflix. Photo: catwalker/

Your last minutes of free time

What do Netflix, Spotify, Clubhouse, and almost all the big techs in this world have against doing nothing? I try (sigh) to explain this here

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One of these days, a reader asked: “does anyone here, besides me, have FOMO [acronym for fear of missing out, or fear of being left out] of a podcast?” The massification of the format in the last two years has been marked by the emergence of many good shows. Indeed, listening to everything that seems interesting to us has become a challenge in itself, and another source of discomfort, that feeling of being left behind.

This week, Daniel Ek, founder, and CEO of Spotify, was asked in an interview to The Verge about the threat of Clubhouse, the new social network based on real-time audio. Some argue that the Clubhouse format could be for podcasts what social media was for blogs: a simplification that, due to its greater convenience and production volume, crushed the previous format. If this hypothesis is confirmed, all the (pretty heavy) investment) that Spotify has been doing in podcasts could turn out to be a huge waste of time.

READ ALSO: Analysis: from Clubhouse to Twitter Spaces, live audio moderation challenges social media

In the above-mentioned interview, Daniel began his response by quoting a famous phrase from Andy Grove, former Intel‘s CEO: “Only the paranoid survive.” Then, he said that he is paying as much attention to Clubhouse as he is looking at gaming phenomenons such as Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. “All forms of media and entertainment is minutes that could have been spent listening to audio instead. So we’re definitely paying attention to it,” he stressed.

He is not the only one thinking like that. In January 2019, Netflix executives published a letter to the company’s shareholders detailing the business’s supposed ‘threats.’ To the surprise of some, Netflix’s biggest concern was not other streaming services, but a video game. “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than with HBO.”

At that time, Reed Hastings, co-founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Netflix, said at a shareholder conference that his company’s job is to highlight Netflix so that when its customers have free time, they choose to spend it with the service.

READ ALSO: Streaming platforms have 77.9% growth in total hours watched in 2020

Besides podcasts, today we have series, movies, books, video games, social networks, (of course) Clubhouse… a multitude of distractions within reach of a click to occupy our free time. It is a lot, really—a volume of things humanly impossible to follow.

The readers yearn regarding the avalanche of podcasts that suffocates them are neither accidental nor exclusive to them. It is, in fact, pieces of a violent dispute between the big tech companies for our attention that affect us individually

“‘Attention Economy’ is an ideological description that tries to rationalize treating communication as a commodity,” summarizes Rob Horning, editor of Real Life magazine.

While reading Daniel’s interview, I recalled the book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, written by the essayist and art critic Jonathan Crary. In it, Crary argues that sleep is the “only remaining barrier, the only enduring ‘natural condition’ that capitalism cannot eliminate.” Well, not for lack of commitment or attempts by the big tech companies, as Daniel and Reed’s statements would exemplify years after the book’s publication, not to mention others that preceded them and will be tried in the future.

The digital, with its infinite possibilities, where the limits of time and space are obliterated, exacerbates this war for our free time. Crary’s book is from 2013, when online life already seemed fast, but today, just like a good wine and unlike most of the “content” that keeps us busy on the internet, it sounds almost prophetic.

The market, of course, has detected the dilemma it created and presented itself to solve it on its own terms, that is, with more technology and in a more invasive way

I’m talking about productivity apps that promise to solve the puzzle of crowded calendars; apps that summarize 500-page books in 12 minutes and that speed up the playback of podcasts; algorithms that automate decision making according to “your taste”; biometric bracelets that monitor sleep in order to “optimize it.”

It is a pity that none of this solves the problem and, in many cases, makes it worse.

READ ALSO: Spotify to launch in new markets, the Caribbean, Central and South America included

It is as if life were a game of us against ourselves and in which the only possible outcome, as Buyng-Chul Han argues in the short but excellent The Burnout Society, is failure, the “society of tiredness.” Performance society, positivity excess—well, you name it.

Despite the efforts of Spotify, Netflix, and so many other tech companies to infiltrate every minute of our days, we still have sleep as a last collective and inescapable refuge, a kind of paradox, in which we break free by the imposition of nature, by a trace of our indelible humanity.

“Sleep,” writes Crary, “is an irrational and intolerable claim that there can be limits to the compatibility of living things with the supposedly irresistible forces of modernization.” This is a good starting point to claim time, our time, away from those who want it at any cost.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes