We Have Lost the Plot
Megan Garber, the Atlantic:
In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the critic Neil Postman described a nation that was losing itself to entertainment. What Newton Minow had called “a vast wasteland” in 1961 had, by the Reagan era, led to what Postman diagnosed as a “vast descent into triviality.” Postman saw a public that confused authority with celebrity, assessing politicians, religious leaders, and educators according not to their wisdom, but to their ability to entertain. He feared that the confusion would continue. He worried that the distinction that informed all others — fact or fiction — would be obliterated in the haze.
These are Postman’s fears in action. They are also Hannah Arendt’s. Studying societies held in the sway of totalitarian dictators — the very real dystopias of the mid-20th century — Arendt concluded that the ideal subjects of such rule are not the committed believers in the cause. They are instead the people who come to believe in everything and nothing at all: people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction no longer exists.
This is an unquestionably thoughtful piece that explores the seemingly agreed-upon phenomenon of citizens of the United States — in Garber’s terms, but I do not think it is limited to the one country — viewing society from an increasingly detached perspective. Instead of people and ongoing events, we see only characters in a storyline. I think it is very well worth your time and consideration.
But I think it is telling that Garber repeatedly references decades-old books and essays which say, more or less, the same thing. These are issues which society has grappled with for decades. Granted, public trust in government and institutional figureheads has been declining and, so, perhaps some people are filling in the mistrust with their imagination. It also feels forced, to me, to drag these well-trodden arguments into a more contemporary framing by using the word “metaverse”, which I am not sure entirely makes sense here despite Garber’s justifications.
That aside, I appreciate Garber’s updated exploration of the confused zone between what we consider the real world and what we treat as entertainment. The rapid pace at which studios option current events seems, to me, to be both a cause of this phenomenon as well as a product of it — all of those streaming services demand exclusive shows, and it is more exciting to watch a simplified and enhanced version of real life. I am surprised Garber did not cite the Social Network as an accelerant; I have noticed fictional events from the film being casually used when describing Facebook’s origins. People describe others as “real-life NPCs” and it can be hard to know when they are doing so earnestly or ironically.
One other thing; Garber:
The efforts to hold the instigators of the insurrection to account have likewise unfolded as entertainment. “Opinion: January 6 Hearings Could Be a Real-Life Summer Blockbuster,” read a CNN headline in May — the unstated corollary being that if the hearings failed at the box office, they would fail at their purpose. (“Lol no one is watching this,” the account of the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee tweeted as the hearings were airing, attempting to suggest such a failure.)
As Garber writes, the reasons the hearings actually drew large audiences. She does not mention one reason for that: the Committee hired former ABC News producers to make it more compelling for television viewers, and they leveraged connections to put it in prime time slots. It is fair to portray this as a way to turn dry scraps of testimony and a confusing series of events into an understandable storyline. A more cynical read is that these producers treated real life as entertainment fodder. As this essay suggests, the line has fully blurred.