Ours is a competitive culture. Perhaps unduly so. Competition is natural enough -- it is, after all, the dynamic of evolution -- and in cultural contexts the impulse to compete drives improvement. Students actively competing with one another gain mutually, regardless of who "wins." Companies competing with one another produce better products and services -- in which case, of course, it is the consumer who wins and who, by that victory, defines the winning company’s success.
Competition is so deeply ingrained in our approach to the world that, even where it doesn’t or shouldn’t exist, we feel obliged to see it, or rather, we do see it, without the awareness that we are doing so. This habit, far from improving us or enriching our experience, often weakens our perception of qualities, causing us to under-appreciate nuance, intricacy, and meaning.
The immediate trigger of my difficulty is the increasingly common habit of rating movies. Like millions of Americans, I am a member of Netflix, a movie-subscription service that asks customers to rate movies they have seen so that the company’s computers, pooling results from all of its customers and applying a patented algorithm (essentially, waving a magic wand), can then make recommendations with a better-than-average chance of matching the customer’s tastes. I have been a member for more than a year and have rated roughly 600 movies. The predictive value of the algorithm has not impressed me. When I bother to order a recommended movie at all, my reaction after watching it tends, as often as not, to be a shrug. Perhaps the weakness lies in the algorithm? Or perhaps there is an inherent flaw in asking customers to rate movies on a scale of one to five?
Netflix defines each rating in a straightforward manner: 1 = Hated it, 2 = Didn’t like it, 3 = Liked it, 4 = Really liked it, 5 = Loved it. Very early on in my experience, I found myself rebelling against the constraints of this simple system. If, in the everyday sense of the word, one "likes" a movie, only three rating options are available. And so, after granting a rating of 5 to movies as diverse as North by Northwest, Out of Africa, and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, simply because they are among my favorite movies, I began to wonder how to fit a whole host of others into two remaining slots. Is Rebecca better than Dial M for Murder? Is Master and Commander better than Blade Runner? Is the one so much better that it deserves a rating of 4, while the other merits only a 3? In the end, I decided that the 3-rating would serve as a catch-all for movies that I liked – some a little, some a lot – and that the 4- and 5-ratings would be more carefully differentiated for my perceptions of their quality. But this solution did not erase my unhappiness about the process and its gross reductionism.