Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Big Brother 13 (episode 2) - Abstract Analysis

My last post was written in rather a hurry. I had a plane to catch that evening and only enough time to explain one of the reasons for my deep loathing of Big Brother... the name. But on the subject of Reality TV my hatred runs deep and has many facets. And now that I am returned from my weekend in God's Own Country, I shall expound further (you should also expect an episode 3) upon just why it is that Reality TV represents all that is wrong in modern popular culture. Why it's so much worse than anything that preceded it... tabloid newspapers, soap operas, even pro/celebrity golf tournaments... all were but omens of the Great Crassness to come. Mere prophets.

I'll also take the opportunity to respond to the comments made on the last post and explain why it is that those who agreed with me are - on this subject at least - individuals of rare and valuable insight.

Anyone who expressed a dissenting opinion can expect a visit from The Bastid Squad.

The decision to call the programme "Big Brother" is - as I mentioned previously - offensive and morally reprehensible. It insults those of us who really care about Orwell's work and consider it important, and it insults the memory of George Orwell. Most importantly and insidiously however; it neutralises the power Orwell invested in those two words.

There is a curious fact which I assume most of my readers have noticed (you're smart folks, even if you're sometimes wrong) but which I'd still like to comment upon. And that is the disconnect between the power of words within our culture, and our cultural acknowledgement of that power. Historically (and here I am speaking of pre-mass media) there has been an acknowledgement of the power of words within culture, even in those pre-mass media times when words had - arguably - far less power.

There is a line in one of the Carlos Castaneda books attributed to Yaqui shaman, don Juan Matus, "Words are tremendously powerful and bestow great power on those who control them" (quoted from memory). And you only have to look to Norse Runes or magickal glyphs or sacred texts ("I am The Word made flesh") to grasp the full power that human beings have invested in words down through the ages. And don't imagine for a second that this was some weird superstitious belief that has been dispelled by the cleansing light of rationalism. Words are still causing wars and breaking hearts. They have lost none of their potency, but now this power is no longer acknowledged. If it were, we would never tolerate our environment being saturated with a mass of commercial advertisements... Words of Power, fifty feet high, crafted by experts in the art, and designed to manipulate us into performing some function (buy our product, fly to our country, call our number, give us your money). As the power of words increased; thanks to more effective communications technology; so this power was downplayed by those who controlled it. And those who control it are institutions, not individuals. I shall explain the significance of this presently.

[Aside: I hope at least one of you grasps the full cultural context of the Castaneda quote...?]

The excellently named Oscar Wildebeest points out that:
The people who planned and who make [Big Brother] (I've worked for them in the past, but not any more) didn't think about Orwell beyond pinching the title - which is part of the problem.
The thing is Oscar, although I completely accept the literal truth of what you say, I don't think that's anything like the whole story. I don't for a moment envision the producers of Big Brother as intellectual heavyweights sat around in deep chairs drinking brandy, smoking Cuban cigars, debating semiotics and contrasting the shifts of perception induced by Finnegans Wake and The Ticket That Exploded. I suspect that we might live in a more enlightened culture were that the case, as you pointed out with your acknowledgement: "which is part of the problem" (though I could also see it getting a bit sinister quite frankly).

Now though, I'm going to get a little bit more abstract than I normally do on this blog, and explain why I think it is that our culture has actively ensured that the crass morons who shat on Orwell's memory were propelled into a position to do so.

in-tel-li-gence (n.) 1. The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge, especially toward a purposeful goal.

One of the books that really influenced me when I was a philosophy undergraduate was The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, composed and arranged by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. It's a collection of short pieces (some current, some historical) on the mind, intelligence and cognition. The book overall takes no single position and I don't think there's a single piece within it that doesn't provoke thought (even if that thought is "that can't possibly be right... and I'm going to work out why").

Hofstadter's own piece "Prelude... Ant Fugue" discusses, among other things, the idea of "emergent intelligence"; i.e. that intelligence (of one kind or another) can spontaneously emerge within an extremely complex system. I remind people that I'm using the specific definition of "intelligence" cited above, and not to make the mistake of applying to this idea that fuzzily indefineable, personality-based notion of intelligence prevalent in common thought. Hofstadter, as might be assumed from the title of his piece, uses the example of an ant colony to illustrate the phenomenon.

I think it's probably fairly uncontroversial to suggest that ant colonies exhibit emergent intelligence, and that my readers understand what is - broadly speaking - meant by that. The behaviour of the whole is clearly co-ordinated, yet it's apparent that no individual ant "understands" what is going on. The intelligence does not reside within the ant; but within the colony. In this way, the ants are analogous to the neurons in our brains, and the chemical signals used to communicate on an ant-to-ant basis analogous to the electrical signals between neurons. Of course, the overall needs of an ant colony are relatively few and so well-defined that no greater level of intelligence emerges than that required to fulfill a few basic functions. Certainly there's no reason (or as the more aggressive evolutionary biologists might say, "no historical opportunity") for anything other than the most basic intelligence to emerge from the colony.

I'm probably becoming a little more controversial when I suggest that individual human beings, when working on a project, can themselves be analogous to neurons, or individual ants, within a larger system. And if that system is large enough and complex enough, intelligence can emerge which is entirely separate to, and out of the control of, those individual human neurons. What makes us different to the ants and neurons is that our own individual intelligence has become so complex that limited self-awareness may allow us to grasp a rough idea of what's going on "one level up".

I see this kind of emergent intelligence in numerous human institutions (armies and large corporations being the two most obvious). However, individual corporations and armies are themselves merely part of a larger culture. And the complexity of that culture is on a scale far larger than any ant colony. Not because of the numbers involved, but because of the unpredictable nature of the individual neurons and their mode of interaction (a set of mutable, yet constantly evolving, languages).

For some of my readers I'm probably slipping from "controversial" to "downright objectionable" or even "clinically paranoid" when I suggest that the intelligence emerging in modern human culture is struggling to assert greater control over it's individual human constituents. If our individual neurons began to develop (sometimes incredibly destructive) agenda of their own, we'd have medical science working at full tilt trying to get them back to servicing us.

So human culture, having become so complex, is evolving mechanisms to make individual human beings more predictable. I don't consider this a Bad Thing in principle, though I suspect many of the people I know would do. However in practice... it's a complete mess.

There's an intermediate level of complexity involved in human culture; one I mentioned earlier; and one which does indeed seem to have an analogue within other forms of intelligence. The primary drivers of modern culture are institutions, not individuals. Massive global corporations control the production and dissemination of information, entertainment, art and - to a large degree - everything else that can be considered "human culture". I recall attending the Tate Gallery's wonderful William Blake exhibition (several times) a few years back. Glaxo Wellcome were the corporate sponsors. I hate the fact that I still know that.

I'm not entirely sure how well the analogy is going to hold up, but I wonder if our various corporate-military institutions can't be viewed as personality traits? I'm not suggesting that our culture has developed "human-like" intelligence. Far from it. But there are broad traits; aggression / passivity, suspicion / trust, conservativism / willingness to change (plus many others - not all of which are simple dualities); which can be seen even within "less complex" intelligences. I'm fairly certain, for instance, that one could safely categorise an army as "aggressive" without falling into the trap of anthropomorphism. There is a non-controversial sense in which the behaviour of an army as a whole can be viewed as aggression.

Even in the most genuine and justifiable of humanitarian peace-keeping missions, the actions of an army will be aggressive rather than passive. In those situations, that may be precisely what is required (I am by no means suggesting that aggression is somehow "negative by default"... I favour an extremely aggressive social response to the peak oil situation for instance).

[Aside: I dislike the word "proactive" as I usually hear it being employed as Newspeak for "aggressive". A way of neutralising the negative connotations of the word "aggression" often in situations where those connotations should be highlighted. And even when those connotations aren't entirely relevant, they should remain present as a cautionary influence.]

I would argue that by arriving at a complex system with such enormous and unpredictable levels of internal competition and aggression, the intelligence which has emerged is inherently unstable. What must be an overwhelming impetus to establish control over it's constituent parts is strenuously resisted by the very design of the system (though I use the word "design" in a very loose sense there).

However, in certain instances, such as when the needs of the culture to instill greater predictablity into individual human neurons happens to coincide with the needs of each corporate-military intelligence to do the same, then a positive-feedback loop is initiated and you get dangerous cultural memes (like "Big Brother") extinguished or neutralised.

The conclusion is more than the fact that globalised culture is impossible to exert reliable control over. It is the realisation that our culture is actively trying to exert control over us in ways that (a) may be against what we believe to be our best interests; (b) may actually be against our best interests as individuals; (c) are likely to be largely unknown to the majority - or even all - of us; and (d) are almost certainly the product of an "unstable" intelligence.

So while it may be true that not a single one of the producers of Big Brother ever thought to themselves "I shall help neutralise the potency of Orwell's words in order to ease along the advancement of corporate-military social control systems", it doesn't actually mean that wasn't a deliberate intention all the same.

Coming soon...
Big Brother 13 (episode 3) - The Television Always On


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear you talk about a consensus reality based on television in such impassioned terms I feel rather like the High Court judge who didn't know who Gazza was. From my point of view, this is good, as it confirms for me the degree to which I have remained pure through the decision to chuck my television away, many years ago now. I have never seen Big Brother. I don't believe I have ever watched what is termed "reality TV". The nature of a "reality television show" is entirely a product of my imagination and hearing what people have said. I must be rare in this, and there is a certain irony that for me "reality TV" has no reality at all, since it came after my decision to get rid of TV. I remember "Z Cars" and "Panorama". I am stuck in a TV timewarp, apart from the odd bit of Dr Who round your place. I think what killed 1984's potency for me was 1984 coming and going. Hard to blame 1984 for that though. Oh, and there's no apostrophe in "Finnegans Wake".


2/6/05 03:00  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

The thing is Joel, I myself have very little direct experience of Reality TV. In fact I watch almost no television at all (a smattering of news and current affairs programmes plus the occasional well-written series... I long ago abandoned "channel-surfing the night away" as the waste of life that it truly is), and have watched Reality TV for research purposes only.

As television I found it as offensive in practice as it is in theory... vacuous, nasty and tawdry; it made me feel that little bit worse about being human. Merrick's defence of it, in the comments to the last piece (about how it shows / showed people acting together and treating one another with respect) is something I intend to take issue with in the next episode. So I'll leave it for now.

[Aside: The one single exception to this was the show where they placed a bunch of students in a room and told them the last one to fall asleep would get 50 grand. I hated myself for watching it, but sleep deprivation will do crazy shit to people... I have made a personal promise never to allow myself to be sucked back into that gaping maw again... however interesting the premise may sound].

So my problem with Reality TV is not based upon what comes pouring out of a box in the corner of my own home; but upon what I believe this phenomenon is doing to our culture.

But this - once again - returns to our essential difference Joel; engagement Vs. disengagement. I still retain a slim hope that the actions of enlightened individuals can have a positive influence upon culture in general (thereby making the future a tiny bit more bearable for us all).

I fear I may be proven wrong on that... but as you'll accept; the decision to disengage must come from within, and I have yet to reach that point.

I fixed the apostrophe in "Finnegans Wake". I need a goddamn editor! (on so many levels)

Incidentally, the last couple of episodes of Dr. Who are probably the best yet (and I point-blank refuse to believe that you - of all people - could be so literalist as to find the potency of "1984" diminished by the changing of the calendar).

2/6/05 11:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"watched Reality TV for research purposes only." -- wonderful, but tell that to the judge.

It's not so much disengagement vs engagement, but rather that I believe the conglomerate that forms "culture" is made up of individuals and their personal decisions, and that the best way to affect "culture" is to take an individual stance to what you don't like about it. Then you find that half if not most of what you regard as culture in the first place was fed by your own impressions while exposed, that it is not actually a legitimate external reality at all, that you have been fighting ghosts. Consensus reality without your own consensus doesn't exist, it's just a figment bandied around. Orwell, y'know, wrote about that... So revolution is the dustbin outside and the will to place a big box of electronics in it and say "fuck it".

Some things you can't affect unless others do as you do. But I can't help noticing that in the long term my view of the world has changed because of the decisions I took, and getting rid of TV from my life was one of the best decisions I ever took. I could have kept it for "Newsnight" and the nature programmes, but no, they're tarred by the same brush, there is no such thing as judicious TV watching, it all stinks, the medium is no good save as a thing to wile away the time for those who are old and lonely and no longer have the will to do anything else. "News" and "current affairs" are the worst form of "reality TV", but that you find acceptable, even pleasurable, I suppose because you have the illusion you are being informed about something important. I think I have learnt one useful thing from the news in the past year: if the ocean suddenly recedes from the beach a great long way, run like fuck in the other direction and get to high ground. All the rest, it's meaningless, it may as well have happened to ants.

I had 1984 sitting on my shelf unread since 1978. I naturally thought I would have read it by the time 1984 came, but unfortunately I never got round to it till 1986. No, it didn't seriously affect my reading pleasure, but the build-up to 1984 for those who had fully developed brains before the actual year was a tangible thing, so it did feel a bit like a missed opportunity to me to not read it before.

Oh, one last thing. If by "engagement" you mean parting the Red Sea and leading a bunch of Essex girls and hoodies to the Promised Land, I'd say "C'mon Moses, have another glass and think about it again in the morning."

Dr Who and The Prisoner and one or two other televisual gems are the Sirens a strong man must resist, or at least until they come out on DVD and are freed from incarceration in Hell's own medium. Chuck your TV away during your favourite programme! It's the only way to prove to yourself that you have any will left.


2/6/05 15:44  
Anonymous Jez said...

You might enjoy Charlie Borrker's take on BB in The Guardian.

6/6/05 11:38  

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