There’s a subscription service for everything nowadays—food and drinks: coffee (particularly Nespresso-style capsules), tea, gin, beer. For household goods: dishwasher tablets and laundry detergent. There’s even one for the sort of products you should be replacing regularly, such as razors and toothbrushes. I’ve signed up for several (perhaps too many) and have found that some are far more useful than others.
You have to use something on a regular and predictable basis in order to not run out too soon or have a dozen spares when the next package arrives. Introductory deals quickly lose their appeal when you have to pay full price, but they can also be awkward or deliberately annoying to cancel. I should know, I’ve been caught out repeatedly.
Most media is consumed via subscriptions, too. Apple Music and Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime, NowTV. Who still buys CDs or DVDs (strangely though there are still 2.4 million Americans who get Netflix via post in DVD format), or even purchases music to download? And in that same breath, Apple has announced that iTunes is being discontinued next month, to be replaced with Apple Music and Apple TV apps.
This week, it also launched Apple Arcade, a subscription-based games service launched on the App Store. It gives users access to dozens of games—in time, there will be over 100, with zero ads and no additional payments at any time. “How Apple Arcade Will Reshape Mobile Gaming,” reads Wired’s headline. It is offering high-quality games from established mobile gaming studios, such as Ustwo Games who produced the stunning Monument Valley. “The genres range from strategy and fantasy to absurdist golf,” Wired summarise. “Some, like Sayonara Wild Hearts, seem wildly ambitious.”
After a free one-month trial, access to Apple Arcade will cost £4.99 a month, a thoroughly good value given the range of games available, and one subscription can be shared with up to five family members. But the service goes beyond just mobile gaming—it will soon be available on Macs and Apple TV too.
Recent years have seen a shift away from paid mobile apps—remember Doodle Jump?—to free-to-play games with in-app purchases, generally to remove apps, access further content, or buy in-game currency. Here, Apple hopes to redress that, focusing on user experience without distraction.
Subscriptions give more power to the production companies, meaning they have more up-front capital and are less reliant on advertisements and gimmicks. Generally, this allows them to be more creative, experimental, and take on bigger risks. It’s what has allowed HBO, for instance, to make Game of Thrones, or Netflix to produce shows like The Crown. But it also requires these platforms to continue bashing out hit content in order to keep their subscribers. At the end of each one of those blockbuster series, Netflix, for example, loses massive percentages of its subscribers.
Subscriptions, however, fundamentally change the relationship between vendor and consumer. You don’t own your Spotify library. Netflix can remove programmes and films whenever they want, and they do so all the time. There are no guarantees, apart from their own original content, which they might cancel. Given the success and popularity of such companies over the past few years, many major U.S. networks are following suit. Friends and The Office, perennial favourites on Netflix in the U.S., will leave the platform in 2020, instead streaming exclusively on HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s streaming service.
The crux of the issue is that access only lasts as long as your subscription. No matter how much money you give Netflix, they’ll never let you download and keep Friends, or Orange Is The New Black, or Glow. This isn’t even limited to purely digital systems. NuraNow offers a headphone subscription, but stresses that it is not a rent-to-own program, like many phone contracts where you end up owning whatever you rent in the first place. It seems slightly insidious, yet understandable, that any device you rent from the company remotely deactivates the moment you fail to pay an instalment.
And more services are coming. Disney+ will have the studio’s entire back catalogue of movies, as well as Disney channel programmes, original content, and the libraries of subsidiaries: Pixar, Marvel Studios, Star Wars, and 20th Century Fox. This streaming service will be big—and competitors should worry, Apple included. It is launching Apple TV+ on 1st November, promising original content from the likes of Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan, Oprah, and many more.
Paying for half a dozen different subscriptions really starts to add up, no longer centralised under Sky or similar satellite TV packages. And, without physical artefacts, you can’t share your library with friends and family. Having less ‘stuff’ (CDs and DVDs and video games) might be useful for the nomadic millennial lifestyle, but also feels somewhat empty. I find it hard to remember quite what I have and haven’t watched, while being thoroughly spoilt with choice. Perhaps it is time to unsubscribe.
Last month Netflix’s CFO David Wells announced that in 2018 alone the streaming giant would be forking out upwards of $8 billion on producing 700 original titles. For relentless binge-watchers and professional procrastinators alike, this was probably equally exciting and daunting news. However, on a more serious note, this is in many ways emblematic of the attention-driven digital economy we now find ourselves in, defined by sheer excess and algorithmic consumption, and its effect on how we consume culture; extending to every corner of the cultural landscape, not just film and TV.
As Netflix strives for a global monopoly, pumping out unprecedented amounts of content in over 190 countries to around 118 million users, it is arguably us the consumers that are suffering as a result. The oh-so-hopeful neoliberal dogma of endless free choice is ironically underpinned by a snake-like grip on production, distribution and consumption. Hours upon hours have been spent staring gormlessly at my TV, trudging through the endless ether of rubbish on Netflix to then, in sheer frustration, give up and start Peep Show for the 13,683th time. If Netflix hadn’t already proved you definitely can have too much of a good thing, then surely this is it. In its search for worldwide economic and technological capital, Netflix has sacrificed quality in favour of incessant mass-production.
Minus the intellectual-elitism, this is all somewhat reminiscent of the work of German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer and their work on the culture industry. They argue that capitalism (Netflix as a proponent here) has sought to it that culture is resorted to almost-mechanical mass-production in order to meet only our most basic needs, leaving us docile and idle consumers at the expense of culture’s potential for subversiveness. This account comes from a sneering disapproval of popular culture, which I think is a bit reductive, but what’s interesting here is that, like many of the digital platforms we use on a daily basis, Netflix also has control over how and what we consume on a personal level. Its process of recommendations supposedly accounting for around 80% of content watched on the platform.
Netflix’s recommendation system works by taking a detailed log of our individual viewing habits and spitting out multiple profiles on each user based on taste as well as behavioural patterns, which are then pooled into thousands of different audience groups. Then, this data is pumped through an algorithm that combines it with an extensive collection of tags on each and every episode, which can include anything from specific genre-traits to moods or emotions that are invoked when watching. These tags are meticulously compiled by Netflix staff and freelancers who watch every TV show and film from start to finish. Even the little image previews you see on the homepage are selected from a number of choices per TV show or film based on that same data—using algorithms to work out which image is most likely to make you click that title. When you break down the process in this way and consider just how much control Netflix has over what we consume, the romantic idea of endless free choice in the neoliberal digital economy seems like nothing other than an illusion.
It’s clear that culture is at a precarious point right now. With Netflix striving for a worldwide monopoly of distribution and production in film and TV, constantly expanding into new geographic regions and pumping out a stupid amount of original content, it ends up running the risk of overshadowing local producers across the world and sacrificing culture’s value in the process, whilst at the same time using our online habits to control what and how we consume. This extends far beyond just film and TV too. Take Spotify for example, we now have access to a previously unimaginable amount of recorded music yet we still often find ourselves stuck in a never-ending loop of the same old stuff, our recommended artists permanently haunted by that friend with the terrible music taste who used your account that one time.
Some might argue that it’s never been better, precisely because of the sheer amount of different content available. However I think it’s less about a dull, homogeneous cultural world than one that’s been forcibly fragmented into so many different niches within an attention economy that, in seeking to keep us habitually logged on, uses algorithms to keep us in a perpetual loop of recommendations. As a result, this has left us confined to restrictive patterns of consumption so tailed around our ‘data self’ that it becomes almost impossible to escape from. Big data and algorithms are deeply ingrained in how we consume culture, but as we’ve seen with the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, their presence is being widely felt not just in the cultural, but also the social and political realms too.