Sunday, April 23, 2006

Population Culture

We humans are in the business of ideas.

Professor Richard Dawkins argues that ideas - memes - are actually the new ‘replicators’ – perpetuating themselves into the future when ‘evolutionarily stable’.

That’s quite an exciting thought for designers, writers, politicians and anyone else out there: that you can leave a mark on the world – an idea – that will outlive you. This can not be said about genetic replicators (genes) which, three generations down the line are so mixed up your great grandchildren are genetically no closer to you than anyone else on the planet.

So ideas are – literally – the way forward.

However, there is a potentially depressing truth to much of today’s ‘ideas’. In fact, I apologise for even bringing it up.

It’s no secret that today’s generation is bored. Very, very bored. Particularly in the developed world, where there is no repression to fight against. Where life is just a bit too easy.

In a society that celebrates freedom of speech and is fuelled by a total access of content: to every idea, every person and every piece of content, it’s no wonder that pop culture has become what it has: a distraction.

The Bored Of The Beckhams T-shirts that appeared a couple of years ago sum up this lethargy with appropriate shallowness.

Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy of Boredom writes:

“Boredom is not connected with actual needs, but with desire. And this desire is a desire for sensory stimuli. Stimuli are the only interesting thing.”

He continues:

“That life to a large extent is boring is revealed by our placing such emphasis on originality and innovation. We place greater emphasis these days on whether something is ‘interesting’ than on whether it has any ‘value’.”

So far, so what?
We know we’re bored. And I don’t want to get into the philosophy of the ensuing implications for fear of my brain exploding. But, there is a very specific cultural format that interests me:

When our interest in something becomes the thing itself.

Very post-modern, I know. Allow me to elaborate:
You'll remember The Million Dollar Homepage. What is fascinating about this idea is that the act of taking interest in it became the idea. Without the companies that came forward to buy a 10x10 block of pixels, Alex Tew’s idea would have been an empty webpage.

This might seem like a fairly obvious point but it is really quite fascinating. As the pixels got snapped up, the world looked on at this ‘clever concept’. The real ‘content’ though was the living experience of the pixels being bought. The companies were getting publicity on the back of people’s interest in the site, but the interest was in the fact that it was actually working. So their participation of the concept became the concept. ‘Trees falling in woods and not making a sound’, anyone?

This is not the traditional way to experience ‘culture’. When you go to see a movie, the movie will play whether or not you turn up. The audience’s viewing has no impact on its content – excluding an atmosphere generated by excited chatter and laughter.

But what if the movie’s content was its audience? The natural end for this would be to film the audience and play it back to them live. If this ever happens, I advise you to get your money back.

That last idea might sound ridiculous, but consider this next example:

In September 2002, there was a huge anti-war protest in London.
It was estimated that 150,000 people took to the streets that day.

In the week preceding that protest I had about twelve to fifteen people tell me that they were going to go out to “see” the protest.

They wanted to “see” the protest, but to the rest of the world, they were the protest.

Now, I’m not saying for a moment that there weren’t thousands of people that took to the streets that day driven by ethical and political beliefs. But I couldn’t help but wonder: if I knew fifteen people that were there just to ‘spectate’, how many of the 150,000 strong crowd were doing the same? Was it a third? A half? More?

This isn’t a political article. What I’m fascinated by is how people’s interest in something can have the power to become the content itself.

This is a natural extension of the state of social and cultural boredom. It becomes self-contained and self-perpetuating.
I could start a flash mob tomorrow with the idea that we are gathering for no reason other than to witness the fact that we are all gathering for no reason. Its novelty and absurdity would probably get the media’s attention and the concept would gather more interest and momentum. How bizarre.

The interesting – and slightly depressing part – is that this entire discussion is a result of what Svendsen describes as a ‘social placebo’. All we want is a distraction and seeing as we are an ingredient in our own boredom, it makes sense that we should participate in that distraction.

My final example is the 2005 series of Big Brother in the UK.

Reality TV is already a pretty depressing distraction – mainly because we are distracted from our own boredom to watch other people’s boredom – but in 2005 the show did something just slightly more interesting.

I have to hand it to them, putting non-celebrity Chantelle into the house was in one way quite brilliant. The producers knew what they were doing from the outset and it played out perfectly. They wanted her to win. They wanted to make a point.

The result was that the act of an audience enjoying someone for not being a celebrity made her a celebrity. I use the word celebrity with an expression on my face not too dissimilar to if I had just received a paper cut from a copy of Heat.

So what does all this mean?
So, we’re bored. So, we need distractions. So, the business of these distractions has become so self-contained that that it has become self-sufficient. It’s all very incestuous.

Returning to Richard Dawkin’s idea that memes are the new replicators, human evolution might not be looking particularly inspiring. Purists put down pop culture, but it all depends on context. Pop culture is a distraction. Must it always have ‘value’ beyond this end?

The following exchange between Big Brother’s Chantelle and Preston feels like an appropriate way to sum up the lack of conclusion this article offers:

Chantelle: "Is it funny?"
Preston: "I dunno, is it? ... It is though. Isn't it? It is."

The world is a captive audience waiting to see what everyone else is taking an interest in. We are the content and the audience. That’s good isn’t it? I dunno. It is though? It is. Isn’t it?

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boredom is a good thing, it is precious, but people don't love it so they don't understand it. How can you understand something you try and escape from or get rid of?

I still find the million dollar homepage interesting. I've been watching variations of it. So far the one that I think has the most promise is

1:07 am  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home