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Netflix and failures of precommitment

- March 27, 2009

We swore it would be different this time. We were older. We had a child together. Predictably, though, we’ve failed again. We are Netflix suckers.

The problem is not with Netflix as such, but the pathological nature of our efforts at precommitment. Historically, when we have created our Netflix queue, we’ve been guided by the pursuit of higher pleasures in the Millian sense. We’ve imagined ourselves being edified on a Friday night by Born into Brothels, or Little Dieter Needs to Fly, resolving not to flip channels until we find the latest VH-1 series featuring Bret Michaels and a tractor-trailer packed with would-be brides. Because of the costs associated with not watching what arrives – the monthly fee will be wasted, we’ll have no other movie to watch – somehow we figure that the commitment attempt will work, and we’ll pursue poetry rather than pushpin for once. Yet the strategy inevitably fails.

When we lived in Baltimore, our recourse once Fanny and Alexander arrived was typically to drive 15 minutes to the nearest video store to rent Old School. Rather than keeping our Netflix membership when we moved to Morningside Heights three years ago, we had a brief moment of freedom from our games of self-binding: we were able to stop by the video store on our way home and rent Freaks and Geeks without the problem of time-inconsistency. With the demise of Kim’s (R.I.P.), however, we were out of luck. So with some resignation, we returned to Netflix, and we thought this time we’d get it right. After all, we are largely captives of our apartment with our 14-month-old son, Izzy; what else do we have to do on a Friday night? Remarkably, though, rather than acknowledging our true selves – people who own The 40-Year-Old Virgin on DVD – we imagine Izzy contentedly putting himself to sleep while we settle in to watch The Battle of Algiers (our current selection, which has been with us for nearly two months).

Our repeated failures at precommitment are predictable on many grounds. This is not least because on Friday night, the bad television is our siren, but until the cats acquire the capacity to take away the remote and put in the DVD, we have no one to bind us to the mast. The monthly fees are insufficiently high to induce us to comply, and with the regrettable discovery that we have On Demand video capability, we don’t actually lack alternative film options. In Ulysses Unbound, Jon Elster changed his previous views about precommitment (in the constitutional context) to hold that people typically seek to constrain others rather than themselves. So although my husband and I may never be capable of effective self-binding, we can look forward to the possibility of compelling Izzy to watch The Maltese Falcon.

Thanks for letting me visit, everyone.

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