CHICAGO — Last Saturday, I asked my wife how she wanted to spend the evening. “Well,” she said. “We could take the dog for a walk or watch something on a screen.”
My face must have fallen. “You know what?,” she said, brightly. “We could do both.”
In the first phase of this pervasive COVID-19 nightmare, screens dominated our locked-down lives, providing education for our children, a gateway to buying stuff and almost all of our entertainment options. The economic consequence of this was a massive win for international in-home content facilitators and providers like Zoom and Netflix, a devastating loss for local restaurants and live music venues, and a ground-shaking pivot toward streaming from previously diversified entertainment conglomerates like Disney. The power base in Hollywood has changed more in the last six months than the previous six years.
Futurists are predicting that the pandemic has accelerated the permanent decline of everything from watching movies in traditional theaters to standing in line at theme parks. But as we approach what is looking more and more like a second lockdown, this one timed alongside a cold, dark winter here in the upper Midwest, are those in-home screens going to dominate everything again? Is Big Tech going to once again take home all the spoils? Are we all going to let that happen? Are we content to so reorder our lives? Like, permanently?
It’s hard to say. Local cultural enterprises tend to be more tactile and intimate, since venture capitalists prefer to focus on that which can be duplicated and scaled. The tactile and intimate is not having a banner year.
In recent days, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a suspension of indoor dining in Chicago and much of the state, putting huge financial pressure on restaurants and bars forced to cope with a dizzying procession of ever-changing rules and regulations, even as other businesses have been allowed to operate far nearer to normalcy. Justified as they may be as the virus rages, such restrictions inevitable result in an advantage for national chains better able to withstand an economic downturn than a local tavern-keeper who has rent to pay this week. And once eateries are forced to focus on home delivery, that diverts a big chunk of spending to technology companies like DoorDash who’ve swallowed up a huge share of what once was a locally controlled delivery market.
Live entertainment was already mostly shuttered but the new rules have forced even the gutsy comedy club Zanies, which was operating at a reduced capacity in both Chicago and Rosemont, to close. And independent music venues seem to be marching ever closer to extinction, alongside the neighborhood bar.
Screens, of course, remain open for business.
So are we all looking at more of the same over the coming months? Is screen fatigue (a) real and (b) in any realistic way avoidable? And will anything substantial be done by governments to preserve the fabric of our culture?
Some business columnists are arguing that the tech giants are not going to repeat their explosive growth this winter because they’re already tapped themselves out. Consumers are getting weary of their in-home offerings and will now seek out local options, or some other escape from the Hulu grind. In this line of thinking, the first lockdown led people to binge on their Amazon Prime queues, staring at their screens all night long, but that very prospect now is about as exciting as a cleaning the apartment. One Netflix series is starting to look like another and we’re growing tired of the de-localization of what we are consuming. It’s not nurturing or sustaining in the way that our old lives used to be.
On-demand content always seems to exist in a vague ether, floating in time and space, especially as the length of time between now and the old normalcy starts to increase. Binging was fine for a while in a crisis, but it doesn’t connect us to the kind of meaningful community that many people need.
And, of course, spending your night watching a screen is starting to feel a lot like the same thing many people are doing all day for work.
This time around, perhaps we are arriving at a better understanding of these dangers in where we do or do not spend our money.
The question, of course, is how well these beleaguered entities manage to fight back against this stealth takeover, now that they have had several months to get used to a new world order that helped Big Tech but only hurt them. Will anyone outside of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix be able to effectively fight back in this environment?
That question cannot be answered without considering what governments do or don’t do. So far, those policies have only accelerated the growth of Big Tech at the expense of the rest of the economy. Chicago restaurants, for example, are so busy trying to keep ahead of head-spinning changes in regulations that they have little or no energy left to figure out how the world is changing and what their role in a new landscape should be. After all, we all have to be concerned not just with what we are or are not doing during this rough winter, but what will still be there when we eventually come out the other side.
There are signs of hope. Streaming by non-giant entities is improving: the huge demand for the Goodman Theatre’s recent presentation of its classic production of “Death of a Salesman” with Brian Dennehy was a reminder of the public appetite for nostalgic content that exists outside of the heavily hyped channels. Innovative ideas (“An igloo tonight, love?”) have sprung up for outdoor dining in a cold climate. Comedians have taken to performing shows on pickup trucks. Drive-ins now abound. Plans are being made for better utilization of the outdoors, even in chilly weather. People stand in line for food at outdoor Christmas markets all over the world. Maybe more people will be willing to put on their coats to sustain the fabric of their own communities: Amazon is not known for its hygge.
Everyone is stymied, of course, by the same agonizing question: for how long are we all doing this? The challenges of still being there when this thing ends (when? when? when?) are different from doing cultural business in the here and now. People are being ripped apart by trying to tend to both of those things at once.
Unless you’re Big Tech.
Or unless government and private citizens figure out what we are in danger of losing and wake up to the danger of total destruction and domination.
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