1. Paul recommended “Idiocracy” to me a while back, and I regret not seeing it immediately then. I saw a good portion of the film on Comedy Central yesterday – I picked up at the part where Luke Wilson was in line to go to prison.
If you haven’t seen the film, all you need to know is that in the future, the President is a professional wrestler, there’s trash and dust clouds everywhere, we try to feed crops a Gatorade knock-off instead of water, there’s a whole channel entitled “the masturbation channel” which has a 300 year lifespan, food and sex are merged in the most stomach-churning way, and oh yeah: everyone is as dumb as a post.
We can go a step farther and say all of this seems to be happening because of one critical factor: the rise of the corporation as culture. Why do we feed plants Gatorade, even though Gatorade is bad for them? Because their slogan, which is scientific-sounding, is all we can recite. (Also, the company that manufactures the stuff bought the FDA and replaced them as an authority.)
I think one can explain having a President who was a professional wrestler the same way. Cicero and Lincoln don’t sell in terms of rhetoric when we want culture dictated to us by corporations. A wrestler’s microphone skills are consistently tested by focus groups of sorts around the country.
The food/sex convergence also makes sense within this framework. Gratification is an immediate benefit and sells well. If companies can reduce what we take pleasure in to one concept – if they can get rid of that pesky notion of “the beautiful,” which in Plato drives no less than Socratic eros – it is much easier to provide for consumers and maximize profitability. They can give us a sham diversity (i.e. Maxim is “reading” and Debbie Does Dallas is a classic) and not have to think themselves at all. One corporation’s computer, in the movie, has an “auto-layoffs” function when profits decrease. It is notable that people work in the dystopia: in fact, quite a lot of people seem employed.
2. You’ve probably noticed I don’t rant too much about people being dumb. When I link to something like Bauerlein’s discussion of the subject, I’m more interested in what’s wrong with modern education. How can you have kids in an American history class, 40 minutes a day, 180 days a year, and they don’t know who the Vice President is? I don’t even get how this is possible.
I’m much more interested in factionalization/polarization, and not the way most political scientists are (i.e. the parties are much more partisan than they’ve ever been). The real issue to me is whether we’re respecting each other as Americans, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I say that.
If we use the framework I’m suggesting we get from Idiocracy, we can see an enormous problem looming. You’ve got two cable networks, at least, with profit-seeking agendas that play an explicitly partisan game for both Left and Right. I say “game” because if you think Bill O’Reilly and Olbermann care in the least if you’re an educated, thoughtful voter you’re an idiot. It isn’t that money motivates them solely, but it motivates them enough that they’re willing to dumb us all down for a few tenths of a ratings point.
It’s bad enough the one time people are interested in issues and seeking information on candidates occurs every four years, in the guise of a campaign. That’s already frighteningly close to Presidential elections being a pay-per-view of sorts: inasmuch as campaigns fulfill an educative function – and the way things work now, they have to fulfill this function, we don’t care about self-governance at any other moment – they work like WWE’s “Smackdown” and “Raw:” regular advertisements for the sake of getting you to do one thing. Perhaps we can charge people $39.99 to vote and throw in a complimentary t-shirt for the candidate’s brand.
3. Notice I’m not ranting at corporations explicitly. I’m more fascinated by the logic we’re using as individuals and private associations. Corporations make money. Money is good (or, in Idiocracy: “I like money,” said in the slowest slack-jawed drawl possible). Therefore, the more we emulate corporate behavior or think like they think, the better we are. Heck, maybe we should think like they want us to think – they spend all this time researching what we want, maybe they know something about ourselves we don’t.
Which brings us to the Internet. What if there was a faction dedicated to stupidity (bad question, I know: what faction isn’t dedicated to such a thing)? But you know what I mean – people who are proud of being dumb, and finding smart-sounding ways of tearing others down? We note that one thing being online does to nearly all of us is make us very, very rude, no matter how educated we are. (I grant I am not exempt from this critique).
I suspect one reason why people feel free to be so much more vicious here is that the bandwagon tendencies are pronounced, so much so it is hard to feel heard. If you’re chiming in agreement and feeling part of a community, you can definitely feel drowned out by the 29384792749 other people chiming in. If you disagree, obviously, you’re going to feel like singular subatomic particle responsible in large part for the Big Bang that scientists will never find because you’re doomed to disappear upon sight. You must carry your message of truth loudly and obnoxiously and make sure that everyone who disagrees with you is revealed to be a child molester.
All of this is to say that the bandwagon tendencies one sees online are just one step away from becoming formally corporate culture, if they aren’t products of that culture already. Those of you on Digg or Reddit know how much pride some users take in their “community,” and I put that word in scare quotes because given some things said, it isn’t clear those people are housebroken yet.
Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind – I think online culture carries the real danger of making us a bunch of drones who only respond to slogans and immediate gratification. The key isn’t the dumbing-down, but the nature of the dumbing-down: group identity is established by a streamlining of pleasure (let’s all agree and hate anyone who disagrees!), and it doesn’t matter that one can get a bunch of newspapers, the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia, poems, classics, Frankfurt School philosophers on Twitter, etc. All that “smart” junk isn’t needed when we have the masturbation channel in place already.