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Arts and Culture.

Netflix: The Imperialism of Insulated Media Atmospheres


By Nov 06, 2017

The term “Netflix and Chill” entered popular use around the year 2014 as a cutting edge euphemism for intimacy in line with the 20th century “movie date at my place.” Herein, Netflix acts as a kind of reassurance that the environmental conditions of an insular, private space will be met for the act of the so called “Chill” to take place. Sexual innuendo aside, the use of the popular term reveals an interesting development in contemporary conceptions of video sharing platforms such as Netflix which underlie their very nature. That is, the degree of their colonisation of our private spaces to the extent that the fact of their presence itself may come to be conflated with the preconditions for an insulated atmosphere. Not only has Netflix colonised our individual space, but as producer, distributor, and presenter its own operation it is also insulated. Thus, the paradox of the age of hyper-connectivity concurrent to our physical retreat into private spaces of media consumption reveal the problematic nature of Netflix as an insulated media outlet which enters our likewise insular homes.

            In his 2009 book Terror from the Air, German cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk identifies “man is not only what he eats, but what he breathes and that in which he is immersed.” Likewise, “cultures are collective conditions of immersion in air and sign systems.” However, since the advent of portable audio players in the 1970s, personal media use developed as a routine accompaniment to everyday life, and as mood regulation increasingly became an extension of self-care, to an ever greater extent people became immersed in private media atmospheres. While our engagement with public ambience did not totally disappear, the self-regulation of our own media environments meant that the distinctions between individual ecologies became ever more pronounced so that “in each person, he [Sloterdijk] recognizes a singular existence breathing his own air, surrounded in a distinctive climate envelope, and integrated into a personal ‘breathing economy.”

While it progressively insulates itself, Netflix users continue to perceive their engagement along the lines of the neoliberal imperative of free choice in media consumption, masking the rhythm of adherence to the hegemonic ideology.

            While, the retreat into self-regulated media environments freed people from universal totalitarian mood regulation through such means as public audio systems playing ambient Muzak in regular intervals, it likewise brought to fore the neoliberal systems of governmentality wherein, as Paul Rouquet argues, “the continued functioning of the state became reimagined as practices of self-care, so much that people believe they are acting out of their own self-interest rather than in accordance with external social demands.” Though the topic of this article is Netflix, I will first consider the case of the iPod playlist as a transitional example between the 1970s portable audio players and contemporary experiences with streaming and video sharing. Michael Bull, a prominent media scholar from the University of Sussex and founder of the field of “sound studies” identifies that while iPod listeners are free to personalize their playlists however they wish  their “rhythms freely chosen largely match the energetic demands of the workday” so that they consume “upbeat music for the morning, a newscast on the way to work, something energizing for the midafternoon, an audiobook for the commute home, and something relaxing for  the evening and before bed.” Seeing music as a way to cope with the banality of daily life, paradoxically “just as users wish to liberate themselves from the oppressive rhythms of daily life, so they appear to sink deeper into them.” As personal media use holds out the promise of self-determination, the technologies also serve as ways for social institutions to offload more of the labour of subjective maintenance onto an increasingly isolated subject.

            Despite the attuning of individual insulated media atmospheres with the overarching ideological purposes of self-regulation, in personal audio players and iPod playlists, the framework of choice remains much larger, and the potential for subversion much less than in the recent proliferation of video sharing platforms, with Netflix leading the way. While Michael Bull’s study of iPod playlists reveal that their construction are not as much the product of free choice as previously thought, nonetheless the circulation of capital through sales and transactions of a seemingly endless catalogue of songs allows for a relatively large breadth of variance in commodity types consumed by the user. Furthermore, the fact of iTunes, Spotify, and other music sharing platforms overwhelmingly remaining in the realm of distribution, leave an open end at the site of production so that an additionally large range of media commodities are created for circulation.

Despite the attuning of individual insulated media atmospheres with the overarching ideological purposes of self-regulation, in personal audio players and iPod playlists, the framework of choice remains much larger, and the potential for subversion much less than in the recent proliferation of video sharing platforms, with Netflix leading the way.

            Netflix is fundamentally different from previous media sharing platforms at all three levels of production, distribution, and presentation. Namely, that in many cases it is firmly in control of all three stages between product conception and viewer reception. While the iPod user constructed his own playlist, Netflix determines the catalogue of available movies per region and audience group with often problematic results. For example, while the European Union is itself a large film producer, 66% of Netflix’s European catalogue consists of Hollywood productions. In contrast, European produced movies and TV series account for only 17%, and in many countries such as Austria, there are no local productions at all. Netflix original productions are likewise centralized in English speaking countries. In light of such issues with its catalogue, it is no surprise that as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings declared the company to be the “birth of a global TV network,” it was simultaneously accused of being a medium for the United States’ cultural hegemony.

As personal media use holds out the promise of self-determination, the technologies also serve as ways for social institutions to offload more of the labour of subjective maintenance onto an increasingly isolated subject.

            However, contemporary complaints of Netflix’s cultural imperialism are ultimately only symptoms of the fundamental issue of its simultaneous insulation and penetration into private spaces of media consumption, retaining all the while, the perception of “choice” that media sharing services inherited from earlier portable media platforms. Netflix today not only distributes entertainment commodities but by moving into the realm of production itself, it has halfway closed the open-end of previous media sharing platforms. As a result, it increasingly controls messaging through biases inherent in artistic production and catalogued distribution. In this way, its narrowing of the variance of consumption options pulls it towards the earlier pole of totalitarian ambient media and propaganda. While it progressively insulates itself, Netflix users continue to perceive their engagement along the lines of the neoliberal imperative of free choice in media consumption, masking the rhythm of adherence to the hegemonic ideology. The fusion of these totalitarian potentialities manifests not only as exterior self-regulation but enters and conflates with our most intimate spaces - evident in the rise of the euphemism “Netflix and Chill.” Hence, the potential of Netflix to become a “global TV network” is likewise one which has unlocked the potential of contemporary modes of video sharing as Herman Broch argues, to bring “large modern societies… under the domination of mass-psychological mechanisms.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.

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