Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Turning it up to 11

Cast your eyes back to the golden age of television -- anytime before the last couple of years. Think of a sitcom.

Every sitcom is written by a team of genius writers -- the best writers in the world, who, individually, could lay waste to 99% of their peers. Deeply weird people who went to harvard.

The actors in the sitcom are the most attractive people in the world. Millions of people go to L.A. to get discovered. Have you ever seen someone who seemed too beautiful to live -- just unbelievably, amazingly attractive? If you walk around socal you'll see one of those people every few minutes.

Every single second of the sitcom -- the color, the framing, the facial expressions and movements -- is laid out on the screen purposefully, by professional cinematographers, people who have devoted their lives to understanding how this stuff works.

That's why it's so hard to look at something else in the room when the TV's on. That's why I spent two straight hours staring face forward on the bed the day my mom got cable.

Television has a peculiar intensity of experience. It has to, because the goal of any particular second of television is to keep you watching one more second, then one more, until the commercials come on (and to make sure you stay til they finish). This is the singular difference between television and movies (if you're in a movie, you've already paid) and the type of thing McLuhan was talking about when he said "the medium is the message".

It's also the reason your parents told you tv rots your brain, and go outside! Your parents had to learn this from experience. Television was new in the 1950s, and nobody was saying it rotted your brain -- they viewed it as harmless theater-at-home and only realized you had to steel yourself against its magnetic pull after watching someone they knew follow the inexorable road toward homesteading on the faux-leather hide-a-bed with a 5-gallon bag of cheetos and a bedpan.

Growing up with television also explains the peculiar intensity of american culture. The Guardian:

The Americans have long been aware of the impact of heavy metal music on foreign miscreants. They blared Van Halen (among other artists) at the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega when he took refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, and blasted similarly high-decibel music at Afghan caves where al-Qaida fighters were thought to be hiding.

If you grow up constantly exposed to the intensity of TV, the next logical step when you're an adult creating art is to push things up to eleven. Sometimes it becomes an end in itself -- see bikini kill.

This is a bit of a problem. The natural ebb and swell of life provides periods of calm, not just stimulation -- times when you're alone in your room, and your brain has to create order from chaos in order to entertain itself.

I'm starting to think the internet provides this same unnatural intensity of experience. I was a mefi regular, but social filtration is something new. The sheer compelling volume of digg and reddit, where you only see the 0.1% of content that pushes people's awesome button hard enough to reach the front page...

Like TV, it's the strange hyperfiltered essence, the panned gold at the upper edge of the parabolic curve. Like distilled liquor, I'm not sure you should drink too much of it.

Like so many things, this essay is much more convincing when read by a robot:

Link, if you're reading in a feed.


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting post. We need more critical examinations of the Internet - too many people are Internet apologists or popularizers - indeed, it has become generational warfare - it's the "old people" who are the voices of caution and they in turn get blamed for fighting turf wars over old media (ie. journalists who criticize the Internet are blamed for being worried about their old media gatekeeper jobs). This polarizes the discussion and there is not much real critical discussion within the Internet community itself. It's difficult because its still all so new, but for those of us who have been online the longest (1980s), clearly there are some social problems similar to TV.

Meach said...

Sweet post! I had been kinda thinking something like that in reference to digg but you completely put words where I hardly had a half-formed thought!

Good job!

Adam Rice said...

I don't know if you've used Leopard, but it's interesting that the speech synth that comes with it is good enough that it doesn't stand out as much (is not as trustworthy?) as the one you used.

Ben Yates said...

Yeah, I need to get my hands on that. Robot-read speeches are the future.