By Mary Janevic
For a period of time in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I watched I Dream of Jeannie reruns every afternoon in the empty time between school and supper. It was 24 minutes of zany fun, as ancient Middle Eastern lore met the U.S. space program. But I always felt a little deflated when the closing theme came on, since it meant that I had to wait an entire day for the next episode. Impatient, I fantasized about lounging on silky pillows, like the ones in Jeannie’s bottle-home, in front of a television that magically played one episode after another of my favorite shows.
Decades later, my wish came true, thanks to the modern sorcery of technology. On-demand viewing and an endless supply of content now allow us to summon exactly the entertainment we want, when we want it. My own kids happily binge-watch Fresh Off The Boat, just as I dreamt of doing with Jeannie.
Alas, technologies designed to make our lives more fun have a darker side, and no one knows this better than parents. The more kids can access precisely what they want on a screen, the more they stay tethered to their devices instead of doing something active or creative. And lately I’ve been thinking about a subtler drawback of our just-for-you world. My kids miss out on all the things that are not just for them.
Let me explain by going back to tweenage me after a Jeannie episode ended. Dinner wasn’t yet ready. I was comfortably sprawled in front of the TV, but all the shows I liked had ended. So I was stuck watching the 5 o’clock news. I learned about the Soviets in Afghanistan, whether the employment rate was up or down, and how our Detroit Tigers were doing.
Looking back, some of my more memorable discoveries as a child came about only because I didn’t have access to entertainment that I would have preferred.
Each summer we would spend a month with my grandparents on their Missouri farm. In those days, nobody toted their own music around with them, so my siblings and I blew the dust off my uncle’s teenage collection of 45s in the attic. We whiled away long afternoons listening to A and B sides of oldies that we eventually grew to love: the Beach Boys, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, The Royal Guardsman.
It was the same with reading material. When we would visit our great-aunts and uncles, my siblings and I didn’t have tablets to keep ourselves occupied while the adults chatted. So we would read whatever we could find. At Auntie Ann’s house, it was Catholic Digest (I always turned to the jokes first) and U.S. News & World Report. I looked forward to Sunday afternoons at Aunt Rose’s so that I could catch up on aliens, Hollywood stars, and their occasional intersection in the National Enquirer and Weekly World News.
And at home, I read Time magazine. The church bulletin. The Detroit News. Why? For the same reason I watched the news after Jeannie. Because these things—none of which were aimed at my demographic or tastes—were all that was on offer.
That is a situation my kids rarely find themselves in. No matter where they are, they can find what they want on YouTube, Apple Music, Netflix. They seldom watch, listen to, or read anything they didn’t select themselves—or that wasn’t suggested by an anxious-to-please algorithm.
Our cultural lives have become increasingly bespoke. Tech companies and content purveyors are finding ways to optimize our experiences (and their sales) through customization. Recommended for you. People also bought. People like you read. You might like. Often we do like. But these clever algorithms move us only incrementally from where we started.
As a child I discovered the odd and charming Bogwoppit by Ursula Moray Williams because it was next to Wilder on the library shelf, as in Laura Ingalls. Amazon would have recommended other old-fashioned, prairie-kid books, but Dewey’s content-blind system gave me British fantasy instead. I was hooked.
Electronic searching now takes us directly to what we seek, often with similar, AI-generated options appearing on the periphery. We are less likely to stumble across things that have nothing to do with what we are looking for. But randomness is powerful in its purposelessness. It’s nature throwing things up against a wall to see what sticks. It’s the force that propels evolution.
The trade-off of having what we want at our fingertips means less opportunity for serendipity, for necessity to give birth to invention. I work at a university, and we like to throw around words like interdisciplinary and cross-pollination, recognizing that something uniquely valuable comes from being exposed to unfamiliar perspectives. We might like being in our comfort zones, but we don’t learn much there.
Now our comfort zones follow us around everywhere. This is true for all of us, of course, but Gen Z kids are the first to grow up in such a highly curated world. It could be that the sheer volume of what kids can access these days more than makes up for this fact. My seventh-grader watched a North African rap video the other day for his French class. His older brother and I recently kept our eye on a grizzly cam in Alaska.
And it’s also possible that this lament is straight-up nostalgia on my part: a desire for my kids to experience the same flavor of discovery that I did as a child, anachronistic though it may be. Perhaps it is a longing for a world with fewer shiny things being waved at me; things I can’t turn away from because they are designed to appeal to me. Yet there is something about constantly being surrounded by our preferences that makes me uneasy, as a parent and as a person. Getting exactly what you want all the time sounds great. But as anyone who is familiar with genie stories knows, there’s always a catch.
Mary Janevic is a health researcher in Michigan. She loves to snuggle up with her three kids to binge-watch baking shows.
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