The other day I was driving through a part of Auckland I used to live in, when I first came up from Christchurch, many moons ago. The small assortment of shops remained the same, all apart from one glaring omission – the video store. What had now become yet another outlet for a US fast food chain, used to be where my kids and I would spend discerning hours choosing the films that would form a part of a weekend’s steady entertainment. I am pretty certain that all of the video rental stores have disappeared and it got me thinking about the massive change in how we consume entertainment and the effect it has on our society and culture.

I’m actually old enough to remember the days before video rentals and the utter joy of busing into town in Christchurch to see the latest films on offer – even if they had been released in the US and elsewhere over a year before. Movies were pure, fantastic, escapist, delight and the theatres themselves were often works of art – much, much different to the multiplex facsimiles that now litter every major city and town. Going to ‘the flicks’ was a pleasure that had remained constant ever since films were first released to wider audiences in the 1920s.

Video was something else. I was introduced to this dizzying new world while on holiday with my family in England in the 198os. My cousins had a brand new video player and a membership card to the local rental store. My brothers and I duly trouped along to witness the coming waves of a brave new future – selecting films and watching them at home – with a pause function to ensure you never missed a second while scouting about in the kitchen for snacks.

“Hiring and watching films was a staple of our family entertainment for the next 30 years.”

We drove my father insane begging for a video player when rental stores opened up in New Zealand the following year. Our persistence paid off after chipping away at him for many months, and it was possibly convincing him how much money he would save instead of going to the movies that won him over. From the moment we unpacked our brand new National video player and went through the challenge of setting it up, we never looked back. Hiring and watching films was a staple of our family entertainment for the next 30 years.

“I have a thing about mobile phones. A love/hate relationship. Mainly that I hate that I love them.”

Then, without any real warning, it all ended. In the beginning of the two thousand and teens, Netflix set the tone for a new form of media consumption, that while offering incredible choice and convenience, has left an indelible mark on us. Where before a family, or group of friends could sit around the lounge and enjoy a film together, Netflix has driven us to quiet places to binge watch series, films, documentaries and stand-up comedies, alone. Water cooler stories now are focused on, “What are you watching? Have you seen this? Have you seen that? Oh you must, it’s great.”

I have a thing about mobile phones. A love/hate relationship. Mainly that I hate that I love them. When I travelled to Europe recently I was confronted everywhere with the ways they have changed our world. At a football game, most of the crowd filming themselves watching the game. At airports – every traveller lost in their little box. On tube trains in London, commuters transfixed upon their little screens. We have become more isolated and alone because of a technology that gives us access to practically everything in the world, in real time.

“But binge-watching TV shows now accounts for a sizeable share of sickies, as more people race through programmes than ever before.”

It’s not that I’m a Luddite, I love technology, it’s just that I lament the impact that it has upon us. Going back to Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or Neon, or Lightbox, or whatever other platform entices us like moths to a flame – my real issue is bingeing. I’m as much a culprit as anyone else. I fully understand how difficult it is to not keep watching more episodes of an enthralling series. It’s addictive – pure and simple, but I do recognise the issues that bingeing has on something that is addictive. It doesn’t end well.

That’s why I wasn’t at all surprised by the findings of a recent story on The Guardian about Netflix and excuses about not going in to work. “Calling in sick to work is usually associated with hangovers, holidays and actual illnesses. But binge-watching TV shows now accounts for a sizeable share of sickies, as more people race through programmes than ever before. According to a Radio Times survey of 5,500 people, 18% said they had specifically called in sick so they could watch TV at home. (Source: “One in five TV viewers phone in sick to binge-watch shows,” The Guardian, June 10, 2019).

One in five, a fifth, 20 percent. That’s a pretty significant number and illustrates the addiction in action. I can only hope that, like all other behaviours focused on entertainment, it may change for the better over time. Perhaps there will be some future technological marvel that will drive us back toward books, or even films. Who knows. I do know that I am at the first step of the 12 step online television and film recovery process. My name is Steve, and I’m an addict.