This piece I wrote about my battles with American consumer media was published in The Morning News. Click here to read the whole thing.
It’s probably clear to anyone over the age of 18 or so that content has undergone a sort of Incredible Hulk de-evolution that makes it both dumber and somehow also much more powerful. A good example of this (brought to my attention by a random post on Facebook) is TLC, founded as The Learning Channel by the former Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, together with NASA, to enrich American minds, but which now grips American eyeballs with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Ratings, no doubt, are up.
The media of my childhood, mostly weekly television shows and overused VHS tapes, was like a good pet. Sure, it was a little costly to keep around, but it was lovable, and I could always shut it out in the yard for a while. Now, though, media is always with me, always trying to snag my attention and siphon away as much as possible to sell to advertisers. It feels like it’s evolved from a cute little pet into a frighteningly efficient parasite.
Media has all the basic necessaries of an evolutionary form. Take television. It reproduces episode by episode and season by season, with variation, under the weight of the selective pressure of ratings. And unlike genes, which can only reproduce vertically from generation to generation, the elements of television can propagate laterally, as networks copy each other, spreading beneficial traits more rapidly across the medium. Shows that succeed in the ratings game survive and reproduce for another season and are copied, while shows that fail are killed. It seems newish series like Honey Boo Boo and Hoarders and Storage Wars have evolved some sort of primordial cocktail of novelty and faux voyeurism that, when delivered with quick edits and dramatic Muzak, is nearly irresistible to a large subset of American eyeballs.
In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a film (also called Infinite Jest) so entertaining that anyone who starts watching it will die watching it, smiling vacantly at the screen in a pool of their own soiling. It’s the ultimate gripper of eyeballs.
Read the rest in The Morning News.