Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

June 13, 2006

Hello SLA Members

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 20:11
I‘d like to thank the organizers and attendees at the annual Special Libraries Association conference in Baltimore for giving me such a warmwelcome today. You can find the Harvesting Knowledge reading list here, and (until it is put up on the SLA’s site) you can get the PowerPoint deck by e-mailing me here.

Reality TV: Insulating Ourselves Against Sadness

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 20:02
[Posted from Baltimore]  

Recently, I glimpsed a few scenes from so-called Reality TV shows while visiting the homes of family and friends. I found them so ghastly, so offensive, so warped, that I had to ask Why anyone would watch such crap. There seems to be no limit to the depths to which producers of this cheap, sleazy, exploitative junk will sink.

On the amateur talent ‘Idol’ shows, many of the programs appear 100% devoted to people who deliberately abase and humiliate themselves just to get on TV. Those who survive are subjected to humiliation and torture by self-proclaimed, egomaniacal ‘judges’, and then again by no-talent, preening, smarmy, blathering ‘hosts’ who torture the ‘contestants’ (and the audience) for much of the show by teasing them about whether they have been ‘eliminated’, ‘fired’, ‘kicked off the island’ or whatever loser-humiliation the program wallows in. This isn’t clever people playing the court jester to the clued-out king. This is those with power rubbing it in the face of the powerless, throwing the Christians to the lions stuff.

On a do-it-yourself ‘reality’ show, a celebrity repeatedly berates her ‘apprentice’ candidates, accusing them of being lazy, incompetent, valueless. She says there is no work ethic, no pride in achievement anymore. On another, the celebrity literally screams at the ‘apprentices’ that he is the boss, that they are workers, that anything he says, or his wife says, is to be done immediately without question, and that any “worthless” candidate who doesn’t like it will be unceremoniously kicked out because “there are thousands of others who are dying for the opportunity” to face this obnoxious piece of crap’s abuse.

What is going on here? Why do people watch this garbage?

I considered several theories about this before I decided on one that made sense. Here are four theories that didn’t:

  • The Conservative Propaganda Theory: Conservatives rail about the fact that people don’t respect authority anymore, that they don’t appreciate the need and importance of hard work anymore. They will tell you that people are morally debased and inherently sinful: lazy, stupid, uncaring, spoiled, unfocused — and need to be constantly whipped into shape “for their own good”. These programs, by elevating the rich and famous to Godlike status and having them abuse their obsequious underlings, seem to be reinforcing this worldview. But the viewers I spoke to don’t see this moral/class war at all. In fact, they seem to delight in the foolishness, foppishness and excess of the power celebrities as much as that of the ‘contestants’. 
  • The Schadenfreude Theory: These programs, like most current comedy series that feature people behaving badly and being punished for it, could be seen to be a means to make people feel better about their own situation by depicting people in a much worse situation. This same grim tendency is also apparent in current horror films, which eschew suspense in favour of gruesome, prolonged and pointless torture of innocent people. The idea is that we vent our anger and frustration by relating to the physical and psychological violence inflicted on others. The fact that the victims are not ‘bad’ people, just innocent people ‘like us’ is precisely the point: They are the sufferers, we are fortunate by contrast, and therefore feel better about our personal situation, horrific as it may be. But the viewers I spoke to actually seem to feel sorry for the losers on these programs, and even relate to them and feel a little outraged at the blatantly unfair treatment they are receiving.
  • The Hero Myth Theory: One of civilization’s most enduring myths is that of the ‘average Joe’ who rises to become a hero by overcoming astonishing adversity. Most Disney movies, fables and business biographies are re-tellings of this myth. In reality, success, fame and fortune almost never come to those who overcome great adversity — they are mostly inherited or acquired by extraordinary good luck. But the few exceptions keep the myth alive, which is fortunate because it’s doubtful whether our current economy would survive if people stopped believing in it. The problem with this theory is that the heroes don’t win. The guys who win are the ones who are the most popular, not the most talented, or the ones that overcame the most adversity. The most popular are the cutest or most charming or folksiest. The lesson of the hero myth is not “nice guys finish second”, which seems to be the message of Reality TV. 
  • The Attention Deficit Theory: We are so exhausted, distracted and numbed after addressing the needs of the moment and the requirements of our jobs that at the end of the day we don’t want to work hard watching TV. We just want to ‘veg out’. I love mysteries, clever programs and films that require a lot of attention and energy, but I can’t take them every day. I just don’t have the bandwidth left. For the attention-deprived, special effects, graphic violence, and programs that we can follow without watching, or while multi-tasking, are all most people have the attention and energy to handle. The problem with this theory is that if you have a scarcity of something (time, energy and attention) the last thing you want to do is squander it on something stupid and meaningless. You want to spend it doing something that makes you happy (e.g. listening to good music, puttering with your favourite hobby, doing something with people you love, or making love), not something that leaves you worked-up and angry. 

The other day I heard an interview with an award-winning (and very funny) Canadian stand-up comedian who is moving to Europe because he is disgusted with the thinness and cheap vulgarity of his fellow North American stand-ups, and the indifference of our crowds to the quality of comedy. He suggested that this generation has been ‘dumbed down’ and now expects less quality, so those ‘selling it’ need not and do not bother to demand quality. That got me thinking — is this all about lowered expectations, and if so, why?

The theory that answers this question, and does make some sense to me, is the Self-Preservation Theory, and it holds that we are intuitively so pessimistic about our future that we need to insulate and inure ourselves against the sadness and suffering that we are likely to face. A recent study suggests that people who are prepared for pain report it as less intense, when it occurs, than people who are surprised by it. While the average person continues to think his/her life is, and will continue to be, better than average, we are overwhelmed with evidence that this ‘average’ is getting worse and will continue to worsen. Subconsciously, perhaps, we are preparing for the worst, numbing ourselves to anguish by witnessing it happening to others and preparing for it ourselves. It is our nature to lower our expectations when things get bad: During Great Depressions, wars, and in the face of personal tragedy, it takes less to make us happy and more to really make us miserable. We adapt.

Generations X and Y clearly have lower expectations of the future than our boomer generation had at the same age. They are the ones whose behaviours increasingly exhibit signs of anomie, fatalism, thrill-seeking and other tendencies (psychopathies?) illustrated in the lower right corner of the above chart. They are the ones who go to see movies with graphic violence and horror that we fund repulsive. And they are the ones (disproportionately) watching Reality TV. Maybe they’re just steeling for a future that will see even more horrific abuses of power, greater disparity between rich and poor, more suffering and misery for all. 

Or am I just getting old, and just don’t ‘get it’? What do you think? If the amateur talent ‘Idol’ programs only showed the ultimate winners, in glorious concert, and if the ‘apprentice’ competitions only showed hard-working fast-learning novices accomplishing remarkable things by working together, would anyone watch?

Whimsical postscript: Is it just a coincidence that we learned this week that one of Canada’s highest-paid ‘celebrities’ is the teeth-grindingly glib and talentless moron who ‘hosts’ Canadian Idol, who also happens to be the son of a former prime minister who so abused his power that his hundred-year-old political party waswiped out and taken over by a regional fringe party? What better evidence that wealth and power does not come from talent, hard work and integrity? — Oh, I forgot about the POTUS. Never mind.

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