“Lauren”, as I will call her, advances slowly towards me, seemingly half-asleep, with hollow, sunken eyes framed by heavy, dark panda circles, contrasting sharply with her unhealthily pale, almost translucent skin – the result of spending too much time cloistered away indoors, in darkness. Having not seen natural light for so long, she can barely remember what the sun is. She is irritable, impatient, with her mind fixated on one thing and one thing only – and she cannot have it; it will not be available to her for at least a few months, but she cannot wait that long, she must have it now. Hence her impatience, and waspish venting of her frustration at having to wait; she must be gratified at once in order to find calm.
No, this isn’t a sketch of the opening scene of a B-grade zombie film that I’m thinking of pitching to any Hollywood studio boss who will give me the time of day. Lauren has been reduced to this pitiful state by a very real new plague that is sweeping the world, a plague that only a few in a million seem immune to, and which bears no mild, early-warning symptoms that a patient could recognise as a cue to seek treatment before it was too late. I am not talking about Zika or Ebola or swine flu; horrific though those diseases are, they are at least containable, for the most part. But quarantining sufferers of this particular public health emergency makes no difference at all; for every patient that is successfully isolated, another ten, twenty, fifty or hundred pop up elsewhere, many miles from each other, often on different continents, rendering efforts at containment utterly useless, and making a mockery of John Snow’s 1850s work on epidemiology. I am, of course, talking about the phenomenon of binge-watching.
I should just make it clear, at this point, that “Lauren” does not actually exist as a tangible person whose physical attributes (bar her sunken eyes and pallid complexion) I can describe. Rather, she is a composite character, borne from multiple people whom I know, and given a pseudonym shared by none of them, in order to spare their blushes. And blush they very well might, engaged as they are in the pursuit of devoting as many consecutive hours as they possibly can to watching Game of Thrones. Or Breaking Bad, or 24, or House of Cards (the American version), or Orange Is the New Black, or whatever their chosen “box set” of television series happens to be. I understand that it is now the vogue not to watch one episode of a series per week, the way we always used to, but to chew through an entire series in a single day; nothing less is sufficiently gratifying. Which strikes me as being one of the most mindless ways possible in which to waste one’s life.
The rise in the prevalence of binge-watching seems to be part of a wider problem of the growing inability to defer gratification for any period of time, even a period as short as a day. Countless research has been done by psychologists to try to understand the effects of delayed versus instant gratification; the most famous being Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow experiment”, conducted at Stanford University in the Sixties and Seventies. In it, Mr Mischel presented a group of preschool children with a marshmallow and told them that they could either ring a bell at any point to summon him, and eat the marshmallow, or wait until he came back of his own accord (no more than 15 minutes later) and be given a second marshmallow to eat. When re-evaluated as adolescents and adults, the difference between the children who could wait for the second marshmallow and those who couldn’t was stark: those who were able to delay gratification turned out to be better at planning ahead, more able to manage stress, less aggressive or hyperactive, less irrational or impulsive and less likely to be overweight or have substance addiction problems than their impatient counterparts. Most strikingly, the children who could restrain themselves, and so earn a second marshmallow, were far more likely to have successful relationships, as they were more likely to work through difficult patches rather than simply end a relationship.
But Walter Mischel was not the first to identify inability to defer gratification as a problem, ooh no. Walt Disney beat him by nearly thirty years with Pinocchio, released in 1940 and widely considered to be one of the greatest animated films of all time. Scholars who devote themselves to analysing films like literature have concurred in identifying Pinocchio as a portrait of mid-century American child-rearing and middle-class values, for its emphasis on the virtues of thrift, perseverance and hard work, and its converse message that irresistible desire for instant gratification ultimately leads to life as a beast of burden, symbolised by the transformation of the residents of Pleasure Island into donkeys. On the other hand, as almost everyone will know from either the film or the original 1880s book by Carlo Collodi, the wooden puppet-boy Pinocchio was reborn as a real human boy once he had demonstrated that he had conquered that particular vice in himself, something that committed binge-watchers seem unable to do.
I mentioned earlier that I consider binge-watching to be one of the most mindless ways possible to waste one’s life, because of its isolating effect on the binge-watcher, as their maintenance of the habit drastically reduces their opportunities for human contact, and limits them to insufferably mundane topics of conversation on the rare occasion that they are able to communicate with the outside world, away from the television or computer and stack of box sets. Nor am I alone in this viewpoint; Adam Gopnik, who sometimes contributes to A Point of View on Radio 4, articulated the hypnotic, drug-like effect of binge-watching as the perfect subsumption of everything else. Mr Gopnik meant that literally, observing how such pursuits as theatre-going, visits to museums or restaurants, eating and breathing all become secondary to the binge-watcher’s devotion to following the ins and outs of TV series’ plot lines, before predicting a time in the not-too-distant future when a box set will emerge that is calculated to last exactly as long as a person’s life, leaving them no time to do anything but fix their eyes relentlessly on the flickering screen, perhaps with a device on their lap to text or twitter, but otherwise completely engrossed by the programme. Not even Aldous Huxley imagined anything quite as dystopian in his brave new world as the devotion of one’s entire life, from birth to death, to watching box sets, but unless there is a dramatic shift in our relationship with them very soon, a generation will emerge of people with no patience, vampire-ish photophobia and eyes as square as the screens on which they watch their sacred box sets.