Netflix and Faust

The gang over at Wired have an interesting piece here on the marriage of writing with behaviorism; or perhaps I should say, content with the Skinner box.

A Skinner box is a device invented by the father of behavioral psychology, B. F. Skinner, and used to study animal behavior.  The people at Netflix have discovered that you, too, are an animal.  (You rascal, you!)

Because, as Wired tells us, Netflix, which first saw light as a DVD rental service, is now in the television business — that would be the television industry now — because they, along with HBO, AMC, and a host of other cable “providers,” have discovered that “quality original programs mean big money.”  (Let this quotation teach you to beware of any magazine writer using quality, original, and money all in the same sentence.  I know — I am a magazine writer.)

How did this remarkable equation come to be discovered?  And what exactly, does Wired mean by quality and original?  Does it mean this:

Paradise Lost = $!

Read on.

The revolution of quality original big money, it turns out, started with The Sopranos.  This series was a modernized-for-television version of the Godfather pictures, featuring James Gandolfini as modern-day mob boss Tony Soprano.  We got to see his home in the suburbs, his suburban family, his suburban lawn — we even got to see Tony in therapy (he falls in love with his female therapist, proving that the Godfather is really just one of us, after all).

In one episode from the first season, Tony takes his daughter on a senior-year tour of prospective colleges and, in the course of their travels, discovers a fink who ratted out the Mob some years before and then disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.

In that episode, we got to see Tony strangle the no-good snitch with his bare hands.  Then he went and picked up his daughter, and they continued their college tour.

This sort of thing is what Wired means by quality and original.  In plain words, it means subject matter that defies traditional standards of televisable decency.  You know, all that “family values” stuff.

In the traditional television account of a guy like Tony Soprano, Tony had to die at the end of the episode because he has done bad things.  It’s sort of like, in those days before the television revolution of the Sixties, you could have had a prostitute in the teleplay, but only if part of St Patrick’s Cathedral fell down on her and killed her at the end.

But we’ve “progressed,” see?  We’re more sophisticated now.  More worldly.  Cooler.  Or, as Karl Rove famously told Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

I mean, you can hardly require that Tony Soprano pay a debt to society when George W. Bush and the “American” financial sector have gotten away scot free.

This comparison demonstrates what we now mean by quality, as in, for instance, A Murder of Quality, one of John le Carré’s early books, in which George Smiley appears as a detective solving a killing.

How do we know that Tony’s execution of a citizen who “did the right thing” and turned state’s evidence — the kind of Square John, good-good behavior that William Bennett, after all, sang the praises of years ago in his best-seller, The Book of Virtues — how do we know this killing is a quality thing, as opposed to Peter Falk’s first major feature role as psychotic hitman Abe Reles in Murder Inc.?  After all, Bosley Crowther panned that movie in the New York Times.

Well, it’s simple, really. You just need a metric.  Bosley Crowther didn’t have a metric, but we do, and so does Netflix:  we look at the receipts.

Tony Soprano and company made beaucoup receipts — lots more than those tired gangster movies of yesteryear, like Underworld, USA and the aforementioned Peter Falk vehicle.  (Really, though, we have to give Falk some credit, since Murder Inc. had pretty fair receipts, itself, and even got Falk an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.)  But the point is, with this metric of ours, we finally have a standard we can depend on to accurately measure everything.  We have The Dollar.

The Dollar is an old American standard, actually, with us for a long time, though it fell from favor starting on about Tuesday, October 29, 1929, and only recovered its attractive lustre beginning in the 1980s, when we finally elected a president with Alzheimer’s who slept through cabinet meetings.  (Come to think of it, Mister President was an actor, too though not as big as Peter Falk.  Or as good.)

The Dollar is the deciding factor in the paradigm of Ultimate Salesmanship. Ultimate Salesmanship, as opposed to your part-time job in the Sears garden shop when you were in high school, is compelling — your customer has no choice but to buy. He, and she, literally cannot resist your pitch. They will, willingly and joyously, surrender to the cunning and subtle charms of Our Sponsor.

And there is one area of capitalism which has achieved this highly desirable situation — the peddling of addictive drugs. You know, methamphetamine, heroin, crack cocaine, that sort of thing. Products that make you feel good.  Products with a guaranteed, built-in, irresistible appeal. Products that practically sell themselves!

And the guys over at Netflix have decided that this model forms the paradigm for television programming. In so many words, Netflix will get you hooked on their drug.

The drug, of course, is television itself, and television has become compulsory in “American” society. Everywhere you go, there’s a television — your veterinarian, your bank, your favorite restaurant, the airport, the bus station — coming soon to a subway platform near you, no doubt.

And Wired’s article sings the praises of television designed to hook you, which is what Netflix, and everybody else in the realm of King Video, aim to deliver. This is where the Skinner box comes in.

Actually, though, it’s where you get into the Skinner box, as Wired’s Lizzie Wade relates:

After shouldering through the crowds on the Vegas strip, it’s a relief to plop down in a comfy chair and watch TV-even if you have electrodes taped to your skull. In fact, that’s just part of the fun here at Television City, the state-of-the-art lab nestled inside the MGM Grand Hotel, where CBS studies how people watch TV. For 10.5 hours a day, 365 days a year, tourists view advertisements, pilots, and never-before-seen episodes of their favorite shows, helping the network pick new programming and gauge how new characters or story lines on current shows will play with their audiences. While the TV City volunteers are busy registering their real-time opinions of the content on iPads, the iPads are watching them back, tracking their facial expressions and correlating them with mood. If you grimace and hit the so-called Tune-Out button-letting researchers know that you would have turned off the TV if you were watching at home-the creative team behind the show will hear about it the next day. “Generally, people are good at telling us what they like,” says David F. Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corporation and president of CBS Vision, the network’s research division. But there are things “people don’t realize are turning them off.” That’s where the electrodes come in. In concert with eye tracking, they capture brain wave activity during advertisements, gauging attention, emotional engagement, and memory activation. One current area of focus at TV City is “priming”-how what you see before a commercial break affects your reaction to the spot. So sit back, put your feet up, and let the computers observe your every brain wave. Maybe next season you’ll come across a show that feels eerily like it was made just for you.

Now, this sort of thing has been going on from the beginning of writing, reading, entertainment, bread and circuses. But now, thanks to all the technology of our moderan world, coupled with pin-point, surgically precise behavioral analysis, the owners of the medium of communication — not the writers, mind you — can tailor their product so finely as to virtually guarantee their audience.

Which is what “science” is for, n’est-ce pas?

That is, science is for The Dollar.

Compare this widely acknowledged truism of late stage capitalism with the line uttered by big money star of yesteryear, Paul Muni, in that top money-maker, The Story of Louis Pasteur: “I do not do this for myself, Marie. I do it for humanity.” (Now, that’s entertainment!)

The catch, though — there’s always a catch, isn’t there? — the catch is found in Wired’s (and television’s) answer to the age old question, “Why do people tell stories in the first place?”

We are story-telling animals, as Peter Mathiessen observes in his recorded talk on writing and Zen Buddhism. “People who stop telling stories,” he says, “disappear.” And God knows, Netflix, CBS, and the whole gang at Wired, don’t want to go disappear-O! And lose all Those Dollars?!

So we come to understand that people tell stories for the same reason that they do everything in “America”: to make A Dollar.

And really, there is no other reason for existence itself in this culture, a culture I can only call “America.” There is no other reason to act. There is no other purpose for anything. Remember when Mister President said that war made us rich? If you’re doing something, and you’re not doing it for The Dollar, then you’re probably a drag on The Economy.

This even applies to fucking, which is Good For The Economy since it’s necessary if we’re going to create more and new consumers.

But is our love of The Dollar the actual origin of storytelling? How many Dollars did Sophocles get for Oedipus Rex,? How many car insurance policies did The Iliad sell? For sure, guys like William Shakespeare and Henry James always — always — wrote with an eye to The Dollar. That’s why Shakespeare tells dirty jokes and James rewrote his magazine serials before they went out as novels in hard covers.

Everybody needs to make a living, for Christ’s sake.

But my question goes to fundamentals: if we did not have The Dollar, would we still tell stories?

I think the answer to that question is yes.

The premise, after all, of the “creativity” of TV City, which earns Wired’s delirious accolades, is that people like stories that make them feel good, and that feeling good means getting high. Like the heroin addicts do.

After all, getting what they want is what makes the Netflix gang, and B. F. Skinner, feel good, right?

And feeling good — the way a heroin addict feels good once he shoots up — that is happiness, right?

Well, what exactly do we — as in “we the people” — mean by happiness?

In search of at least a tentative answer, let’s consider one of the great stories of presumed Western civilization, the story of Faust, who sold his soul to the Devil, in the form of his agent, Mephistopheles, in return for getting what he wanted — which is happiness, right? This version of the story is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s retelling of Goethe’s classic, translated by Thomas P. Whitney, in the 1968 edition of his great prison novel, The First Circle:

“After all, the very concept of happiness is conditional, a fiction.”

“No, dear Professor, pardon me. Read Vladimir Dahl. ‘Happiness’ comes from a word that means one’s fate, one’s lot, what one manages to hold onto in life. The wisdom of etymology gives us a very mean version of happiness.”

“Just a minute! My explanation comes from Dahl, too.”

“Amazing. So does mine.”

“The word ought to be researched in all languages. I’ll make a note of it.”


“Never mind! Let me tell you something about comparative philology —”

“You mean the way everything is derived from the word ‘hand’ — as Marr would say?”

“Go to hell. Listen — have you read the second part of Faust?

“You’d better ask whether I’ve read the first part. . . .”

. . .

“The second part is on the heavy side, I admit. But even so, what an idea there is there! You know the contracts between Faust and Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles will receive Faust’s soul only when Faust cries out, ‘Oh, moment stay! You are so fair!’ But no matter what Mephistopheles offers Faust — the return of his youth, the love of Marguerite, easy victory over his rival, limitless wealth, knowledge of the secrets of existence — nothing can force the ultimate exclamation from Faust’s breast. Years pass. Mephistopheles himself has grown weary of pursuing this insatiable being. He sees it’s impossible to make a human being happy, and he wants to give up the fruitless attempt. Faust, who has by now aged a second time and grown blind, orders Mephistopheles to gather thousands of workers to dig canals and drain the swamps. In his twice-aged brain, which seems to the cynical Mephistopheles to be clouded and insane, a great idea has been kindled: to make humanity happy. At Mephistopheles’ signal the servants of hell appear — the lemurs — and begin to dig Faust’s grave. Mephistopheles wants only to bury him and be rid of him, no longer hoping for his soul. Faust hears the sound of many spades digging. ‘What is that?’ he asks. Mephistopheles remains true to his spirit of mockery. He tells Faust the swamps are being drained. Our critics love to interpret this moment in a socially optimistic sense: because he believes he has done humanity a great service and because this thought brings him his greatest happiness, Faust can now exclaim, ‘Oh, moment, stay! You are so fair!” But if one analyzes it, wasn’t Goethe laughing at the illusions that underlie human happiness? In actual fact, there wasn’t any service to humanity at all. Faust pronounces the long-awaited sacramental phrase one step from the grave, utterly deceived, and perhaps truly crazy. And the lemurs immediately shove him into the pit. What is that, a hymn to happiness or a mockery of it?”

“Oh, Lev, my friend, I love you the way you are right now, when you argue from your heart and talk intelligently and don’t try to pin abusive labels on things.”

“Wretched descendant of Pyrrho! I never knew I gave you pleasure. But listen: At one of my prewar lectures — and they were damned bold for the times — on the basis of that quotation from Faust I developed the melancholy notion that there is no such thing as happiness, that it is either unattainable or illusory. And then a student handed up a note written on a piece of graph paper torn from a tiny notebook: ‘But I am in love — and I am happy! How do you answer that?'”

“What did you answer?”

“What can you answer?”


That’s a couple of stories, actually.

Netflix can’t tell either one.

Quotation du jour, 1 April 2013

If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom, and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.

— W. Somerset Maugham