By Bob Charest, Why You Should Care NH
The long cold snap we’ve survived has been an invitation to renew my acquaintance with an old friend. I can remember the days when this friend would send me to my mailbox two or three times a week, eagerly anticipating what was coming in red and white packages.
Each of those packages would contain a DVD, and forgive me for showing my age, kids, but this is the way I used to experience that icon of modern-day entertainment, a service called Netflix. Those were the days when your Netflix subscription was tiered depending on the number of movies you could rent simultaneously. In these good old days, if you were on the three-DVD plan, you were considered to be fairly serious in your movie watching. Binge viewing? What was that? We could have only wondered back then, in those halcyon days of five to ten years ago.
Since my conestoga wagon has left the station, and the days of being able to watch movies for a fairly inexpensive price have followed suit, I fell out of love with the Netflix way of doing things. Part of it was an unpredictable internet service that introduced me to the agony of buffering and a rotating circle in the center of my TV screen that seemed to twirl indiscriminately at the most inconvenient times. The last straw came when a thoroughly engrossing movie froze up on the screen, which no level of electronic trickery and cursing could thaw. Don’t anyone tell me how “The Sixth Sense” ended; I still don’t know. I suspect it had something to do with a time warp.
Since then, Netflix and I have always remained friends. My subscription has continued, but my viewing enthusiasm has lessened. We fell out of love.
That is until recently, when I decided to see what pleasures awaited me in categories that I have been assured were selected specifically for me based on my past viewing history. (It’s like Netflix really, really gets me … that is until I start watching what they’ve selected.)
I can tell you that watching television in this manner is time exhaustive. You are required to invest a good 10 to 15 minutes in a show that slowly drives you into a catatonic state, or worse, makes you curse the world and demand destruction to humanity. I often wonder why anyone in his right mind would have created such drivel.
And Netflix has the ability to mire you in this kind of a nightmare, over and over again. It’s tough to determine from the brief descriptions that greet you if what you are about to donate some of your brain cells to deciphering is worth the effort. How often I have made it to a point when I realize this beast isn’t going to deliver. There is no redeeming value forthcoming, and to waste more time in the pursuit is a fall down a rabbit hole.
I started watching something the other night that was a remake of a French television series: a premise based on people returning from the dead, with all the resulting drama, to say nothing about the tax and credit card headaches this would create. It sounded promising, yet it wasn’t ten minutes before I was yelling at my television set. People being mind-blown by the sight of a loved one presumed dead a few years before wouldn’t act like that, I screamed. (And how would I know? I wouldn’t, but I suspect it would not be the way depicted here: Parents standing around with their mouths draped to the floor, saying nothing, not even a “Where the heck did you come from?”)
I also wondered what all the hype was about a few months ago when “13 Reasons Why” debuted. Unless you were under a rock at the time, schools everywhere started sounding the alarm bell that maybe we didn’t want our kids watching something that encouraged, or at least glamorized, suicide. I made it through three episodes. That was my limit. I couldn’t understand how anyone could be mesmerized by fake rich kids acting cooler than cool, and all the adults, including the school authorities, were dumber than rocks. I even voiced this opinion on a website somewhere, and someone “schooled” me on the fact that perhaps I might have had the necessary faculties to filter out the B.S., but a teenager might not. Fair enough.
While doing research for this column, I came upon a recent story on CNBC.com that the DVD portion of Netflix’s business is far from dead. It is slowly headed toward the grave, but the service still has 3.4 million subscribers, as compared with its 117.6 million digital subscribers worldwide. As it sheds users, its distribution centers have been shaved from a high of 50 across the country a few years ago to the 17 distribution hubs remaining. CNBC reported that one ex-employee says the company sees this part of the business sticking around until 2025.
And like everyone else, I discovered “Stranger Things,” and I was intrigued by the first six episodes, and now that I’m into Season Two, a little less so. I feel like I’m in the upside-down most days of my life. Still, a good show, and I will continue watching.
But it’s taken me only ten paragraphs to get to the real point of this column. (I do after all have to make it relate to the title of Why Should You Care, NH?)
Something happened the last time I watched Netflix that made me think perhaps Netflix has an ability to do things no other medium can accomplish. It actually forced me into doing research. I watched a movie that was so indecipherable to my puny brain that I had to immediately go to the internet in an effort to determine: What exactly was this movie I just watched about anyway?
The movie was called “Arrival,” and it starred Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker in a science fiction plot that never gets old, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned: the often-retold story of mysterious aliens who visit our planet and cause all kinds of commotion, even though these particular aliens are peaceful and pretty much just float there inconspicuously, if it is possible for giant podlike spaceships 60 stories tall to be inconspicuous.
The “heptapods” inhabiting these spaceships are here to communicate with us. They are much different from us, with their seven trunk-like appendages, a set of eyes that rim the entire top of their bodies, and a way of communicating that is unlike anything here on earth. Are they observing us for scientific reasons, or are they just tourists? More importantly, what do they want?
This is where Adams and Renner come in. They are scientists, a linguist and a physicist to be precise. They are enlisted by the military to communicate with these alien things, and the back story revolves around Adams’ memories of her daughter, her now-dead daughter. How this all fits together is the actual reason for the movie.
But for me, something didn’t quite fit, so I went looking. Lo and behold, “Arrival” is based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life.” It’s actually a novella contained in a book of short stories of the same name. So after checking that book out of the library, I read the story.
What Chiang has created here is a world that doesn’t work like ours. He is concerned with an interesting philosophical question related to the passage of time. We understand time as a linear concept: It moves in a straight line. We are born, we live, and we die. But what if a race of beings from far, far away experiences time in a different format, say in a circular pattern? The author returns again and again to explain this concept by way of the refraction of light. What if a light ray hitting a body of water deflects upon entry and makes it way to the end point by way of the shortest distance, and what if that end point is known in advance? We already know the whole story: how to get from point A to point B. That middle stuff, the actual journey, is just filler. We experience it, even though we already know what will happen. (No plot spoiler here, just a question: If you know the future, would you go through with living in the here and now?)
Much of the short story is geared to explaining how Dr. Louise Banks, played by Adams in the movie, deciphers the aliens’ language and asks some important questions that can be applied directly to our own lives.
One of them is this question: Does the language we speak inform, or guide, the thoughts we think? Applying this to earthly creatures, would an English-speaking American see the world differently than, say, a native Russian speaker who uses language fashioned from Cyrillic script? Just imagine how much more you could write if you were using 33 letters rather than 26! Or to take this to an interesting level, how about a North Korean dictator who communicates in language that is expressed on paper by symbols, as in the Hangul system? Do these people understand the world in a different way than we do? As Google tells us, the Hangul alphabet contains just 24 letters and 27 digraphs. The actual letters are broken down into 14 consonants and 10 vowels, and written horizontally from left to right.
Do Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un think differently from Donald Trump because of the languages they speak? An interesting premise, to be sure. Probably not a good example because many of us think all three of these guys are in a class by themselves.
But the concept is an interesting one. Think about that the next time you are communicating with someone who isn’t a native speaker. Is their view of the world different from yours?
And now for my real point, which I will now club you over the head with: Isn’t it time we all started communicating with people whose view of the world is different from our own? Say, people other than the ones we discover by way of an algorithm on Facebook?