The commercial web steams on as a hopped-up, strung-out system of hyperlinks, engineered to mix Barnumesque humbug with authentic reports, and to overlap ads and news—the better to sucker the eye.
But the spirit of mischief that used to define the web has curdled. In place of pranks and profiteering are now exploitation, malice, fraud, racketeering, and warfare. Consider last year’s breakthrough: deepfakes, in which the images and voices of real people are animated in photorealistic pornography and fake news. Digital confections like these exploit individuals, corrupt information space, and undermine the reliability of all digital artifacts.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico. Before coming to WIRED she was a staff writer at the New York Times—first a TV critic, then a magazine columnist, and then an opinion writer. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree and PhD in English from Harvard. In 1979 she stumbled onto the internet, when it was the back office of weird clerics, and she’s been in the thunderdome ever since.
Lost in the funhouse, we’re told to be afraid—and to process every symbol we encounter with heightened diligence. The new catchphrase for web users is “Verify, then trust.” That is, before you so much as laugh at a goony photo of someone, dig deep on URLs and metadata analysis, and scan for the ever-changing hallmarks of image manipulation and deepfakery. It’s not enough to be defensive drivers on the information superhighway. We have to be prosecutorial ones.
I have to admit, this all sounds very … hard. I want a Sunday drive on the web—flight info, advice on plant care, news about Syria. What do I need with deepfake forensics? For all of us dazed and confused, and tired, then, I propose a brand-new media literacy course. Don’t groan yet. It’s called the Netflix Binge, and it’s a criminally easy A. You spend every minute in class not critiquing anything, not studying botnets, not girding your loins for information war. Instead you gorge on hour after hour of highly stylized fiction, including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Seven Seconds, The Honorable Woman, Hinterland.
The idea is simple: to suffuse your neurochemistry with fantasy, works of imagination, made-up worlds. The course asks: How can anyone identify an influence operation or distinguish Sinclair from PBS when we’ve forgotten what straight (and good) fiction feels like? So throw open the right brain. You haven’t succeeded in our course unless you’re lost, as Flaubert said of literature, “in a perpetual orgy.”
The Netflix Binge works on the theory that there’s nothing wrong with the web that can’t be fixed by what’s right with it. Close out the brain-cell-bruising Facebook, and skip over to the neural luxury resort that is Netflix. With no mandate to sell ads, and because Netflix’s profit motive craves your love more than your data, the shows aim only to enthrall. Let yourself be enthralled, then, by shows that subdue consumerism—Netflix doesn’t want you bouncing to Amazon mid-binge—instead of amplifying it.
The best fiction to mainline is genre fiction, which rests on major chords and pleasing, familiar structures that make it easy. (No one binges on novels by Georges Perec.) Certainly watch the courtroom dramas, comedies, and thrillers. But streaming the platform’s detective shows brings a particular rapture. That beloved form (b. 1841 with Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) slays on Netflix, with Broadchurch, The Fall, Luther, and Marcella. Each one lands like a homecoming on the English-language mind, as modern detective fiction was invented for and in our language, with its love of rules and exceptions believed to prove those rules. Formal guardrails keep your mind from short-circuiting, the way it can when you spend too much time in front of cable news, with its bank blues, lipstick reds, and chippy dialog. By contrast, detective shows—often shot outdoors these days—offer clouds that inevitably give way to sunshine.
Poe dignified his perverted stories (in “Rue Morgue” a damsel is strangled by an orangutan) by calling them tales of “ratiocination.” Ratiocination is a trained, disciplined procedure of arriving at truth—a use of reason and perspicacity so precise it’s almost supernatural. What’s Poe got to do with media literacy? Elementary: A heightened capacity for ratiocination is the sine qua non of sifting truth from lies.
Detective shows also flatter viewers by making heroic the precise mental operation that lets us enjoy fiction in the first place. Both the hero-detective and the Netflix viewer start with a confounding set of seemingly haphazard things: some blood, let’s say, a broken heel, a dead robin, a human hand. Then there’s an old lady thought to be a cannibal; did she kill the robin? Truth, to detectives, is that which makes the cacophony of happenstance harmonize. Where technologists encode, TV detectives decode.
The Netflix Binge puts viewers in a kind of trance, in which we suspend, for a time, our worry over being conned.
The Netflix Binge puts viewers in a kind of trance in which we suspend, for a time, our worry over being conned. But when a show is over, it’s typically over—the trance lifts, and characters and plots enter your memory bank as imaginary, dreamlike beings. You can sustain the pleasure with your own flights of fantasy, and of course fan fiction and zealous message boards exist, but it’s the rare TV viewer who goes full Misery, kidnapping the Game of Thrones showrunners and demanding they bring back Thoros of Myr.
When Netflix bingers finally finish a series and stagger out into the light, we often look at our phones. And maybe there’s a commercial or political come-on meant to jolt us into greed or outrage—or someone trolling on social media. And maybe what’s at issue is a fact, or maybe it’s a nonfact, but after a glorious full-color Netflix binge it’s all a fraction more resistible. It’s a Quarter Pounder to the steak tartare of a show like Collateral.
There’s no signposting for fiction or nonfiction online. No credit sequences, costumes, music, or art direction to signal that we’re in the candlelit land of fiction and have left the fluorescent factory floor of fact-finding. And while the brain loves truth and the brain loves fantasy, the brain does not like disorientation that requires extreme vigilance.
My Netflix Binge students will know the rules and pleasures of fiction, and know them in their marrow. Ideally, they will be suspicious of any effort to force the grit of real life to conform to three acts with goofy villains and heroes made of tin. That stuff should now fail on its face as journalism, but it’s also abysmal as fiction, as veterans of the Netflix Binge will immediately recognize. Or at least that’s the hypothesis. I’m still hard at work, binging on detective shows, to verify it.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is a contributor to WIRED. She wrote about computational propaganda in issue 26.05.
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