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