Digital Media Will Probably Explode My Brain (and other relevant concerns)

For some reason, I remember the first time I ever saw "Friends." My sophomore year of college had just ended. I was sitting at a friend's house back home, waiting while he got dressed, or argued with his parents, or cooked up heroin or something. The TV happened to be on, and here was this show I'd heard about vaguely — some sitcom that was supposed to be pretty good, finishing its first season. Hardly anyone watched TV in their dorm rooms back then. The fortunate few had one of those little VCR/TV combos, but everyone else had to drag themselves down to the common room and hope the girls weren't watching "Melrose Place." Whole swaths of the year would pass without glimpsing television. I'd come home and all the commercials would be different. I'm joking about the heroin, by the way.

So here were six people, sitting in a cafe, already on their way to becoming famous. Chandler said something Chandlerish. I chuckled. Decent cast, decent show. I wasn't one of the viewers who got hooked, but if I happened to be flipping channels at 8:00 on a Thursday, I would watch. That was my entire relationship with it, right on up through Rachel not getting on the plane.

Which seems weird to think about now, because here's the thing. I'm not sure I'll ever watch a show that way again. The digital revolution may have sort of ruined my brain.

Let's look at "How I Met Your Mother." Various friends have told me it's funny, and that I should check it out. Fifteen years ago, my response would have been, "Sounds good, I'll watch it next time it's on." Now? The only response I'm capable of giving is, "Sounds good, I'll put season one on the queue." See how that's different? Instead of enjoying a fun little sitcom, I just added (I checked) 136 22-minute episodes to my list of things not accomplished.

See, once upon a time, my media was fuzzy. There were few solid lines, no numbers. Shows like "Friends" could drift in and out, and it wasn't big deal. Then the Far-Flung Future happened, and all of history's content was not only available, it was indexed and footnoted. Hey, don't get me wrong, that's a fine piece of work by the Far-Flung Future. Whatever my twisted, wizened heart wants to watch, there it is. The thing is, now my media is nothing but lines and numbers, regulated by the unflinching eye that is the queue.

Sweet mercy, the queue.

One would think that I'd be into that level of ordered data, seeing as how I just got through explaining that I'm into that level of ordered data. And yeah, I am. I'm the guy who always lets the song play to the end — even if it means hovering in place for eleven extra seconds — because that's when iTunes ticks the "last played" counter. If a genie offered me that playcount data going all the way back to my childhood, I'd be like, "HELL YES GENIE LET'S DO THIS," to the point that the genie would back away uncomfortably.

Think you're better than me, podcasts? HUH?

The problem is that I'm now also a slave to it. Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, everything has a queue number, and my completist brain wants to check down those numbers to zero. I mean, podcasts alone, good God. They're great, but they reproduce like locusts. Trying to keep that little blue number down means listening to podcasts at some unusual junctures. If you're a podcast listener and your commute is ever drastically reduced, just give up and destroy your computer.

(Pro tip: After fifteen seconds, iTunes will mark the podcast as partially played, and it won't show up in the unplayed tally. This helps quite a bit when saving an episode for later. Especially if it's Kevin Pollak's Chat Show, which can run over two hours apiece.)

Personally, my threshold is around twenty unlistened podcasts, beyond which the overwhelming begins. But hell, I've seen people who keep that number in the hundreds. One particular friend of mine had a Netflix queue that flirted with a thousand, like it was a baseball stat or some crazy shit. These folks must have some component in their brains that I don't, and there have been moments when I've considered stealing it from them. Sorry, borrowing it. That sounds way better. Borrowing. Yes.

Well it's time I grappled with this beast. I'm going to make my media fuzzy again. Twitter's Biz Stone talks about how he declared email bankruptcy and simply deleted his whole inbox, which is exactly the kind of take-charge freedom I need. First order of business, start deleting some of these older NPR podcasts. Right now. Here we go. Doing it now. Just ... okay, I can do this, shake it out. Deep breaths. Pressing delete. In 5 .. 4 .. 3 .. 2 .. you know what though, I did kinda want to hear this one about the history of oncology. Why don't I just listen to that and then figure out the rest.

Come on, it's only forty-five minutes long.