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In an Always-On World, Maybe We Don't Need to Watch it All - Right Now

This article originally appeared in March 2015 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Did you see season three of House of Cards? How do you think Mad Men will end? Wait, you haven't seen Breaking Bad? What's wrong with you? OK, let's talk about The Walking Dead. ...

Some television shows have acknowledged some frustrations with current viewing habits. The IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia featured a skit titled "spoiler alert" in which the characters asked each other, "Did you see...?" Const

antly yelling "spoiler alert," the group couldn't land on a series they were all caught up on to discuss. Recently, Jimmy Fallon referred to binge watching on The Tonight Show, saying: "Thank you, Netflix, for releasing season three of House of Cards and ensuring the only words I utter this weekend are, 'Let's just watch one more.'"

The overwhelming number of choices coupled with a never-ending stream of show recommendations from others can understandably cause just as much frustration and anxiety as entertainment. For many, the best way to remain caught up on current shows is simple. Binge watch. One term we should associate with binge watching is "present shock," which is described by media scholar Douglas Rushkoff in his book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

Binge watching can be described as a result of present shock. Rushkoff argues, "Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real-time, and always-on." One of the book's primary arguments is that in today's technology culture, "Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the tweet; the status update." This is usually true but what happens when interesting and attractive narratives come along in an era defined by present shock?

The answer is to watch it now — all of it, right now. Present shock sets in. Once the second season of House of Cards debuted the number of people I knew who watched all 13 episodes in two days surprised me. This year, I came across a few people who went a step further and watch all episodes in a single day.

The sheer amount of entertainment at our fingertips today is unprecedented and can be intimidating. Between the ease of affordable media from online retailers to the streaming services from Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, Amazon Instant and the new HBO Go application, what chance does a pop culture enthusiast have? So many options coupled with an interest in many shows can result in present shock and results in binge watching for many people.

Present shock also can be applied here because when one show is over there is always another you are eager to start (and finish to get to the next one). This technological age of anxiety is often accepted as a result of the 24/7 news cycle described by Rushkoff as "a constant stream of crises that are inescapable, no matter where we go." The same can be said about the current state of streaming entertainment — it's ubiquitous, constantly calling for our attention. However, even before streaming services I recall students bragging about watching an entire season of "Lost" in a single weekend. While binging is nothing new, streaming services have only made binging easier.

Rushkoff's answer to present shock generally speaking is balance, which is more complicated than it appears. In order to achieve balance we must take responsibility not just for our time but also our lives in general. Obligation to watch everything now is an epidemic that I see with my friends, students, and colleagues. There appears to be some kind of prestige for some people who are the first to get through a season.

In this digital age of anxiety it is impossible to be caught up with everything, and that's fine. Don't forget that we can control how present shock may affect us. We don't have to be "always-on," as Rushkoff says. There is always another episode, there's always another show, and (spoiler alert!) there will never be enough available hours to finish them. Take your time, live your life, and when you get a chance — watch that next episode.

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