September 2, 2009

This Onion Clip Is Hilarious; Now Let Me Tell You Why It's Scary

today now.PNG

"This is our future," wrote the linking email.  McLuhan wrote The Medium Is The Message but due to a printing error, it came out Massage.  Proving his point.

Police Still Searching For Missing Productive, Obedient Woman

I got this Onion video as a link in my email, and the subject heading was "this is our future."

Which makes it funny. But the more insightful, and scary, way of looking at the clip is to assume the clip is occurring not in the future, but in the present, now. Then the video isn't a description of the future, but a study on how to manufacture reality.


Imagine that American life is exactly as it looks right this second, but the Chinese bought one or two or nineteen news programs.  (NB: this is not a post about how the Chinese are taking over the world, I have a different point.  Follow with me.)

Say they wanted to influence American culture to become more Chinese, and also convey an impression about the Chinese as hard working, etc. So, they create a news program like this one. Initially, you'd laugh, just as you have already laughed. But over time the program would appear ordinary-- especially if all of the news programs were the same. You would watch this in your non-Chinese house, and slowly, over time, the media images would chip away at your conception of reality until it seemed completely normal that two white people are talking in Chinese-isms, judging a person by their industriousness, etc.

You probably remember the name of the program, but not the name of the missing woman.  See?  A story about Chinese culture makes you consider the merits of Chinese culture.  But a show like this, that is about something else, makes you assume that this is already known to be the way Chinese culture is.

At some point the news version of China would contrast with your own life experience of China, and one would begin to dominate. Oh, you don't have any actual life experience with China except from TV. Hmmm.

How long before you start to accept the value system promoted on the news?  In this case it's industriousness, but I hardly need to tell you it could be anything at all.


Look at the husband in the clip. He is confused by how the anchors are acting. His world is the real world, where very little Is Chinese. Now he's crossed into this other world where everyone is acting like it's perfectly ordinary to be Chinese.

That's what it would look like for the first year or so-- confusion, dissonance. After that, we'd just accept it.

Note well that the two anchors themselves also live in the real world. They are perfectly aware that what they are doing is fake, invented, or even exaggerated. But they don't think they're lying, they just think they're doing their job. They don't appreciate that what they are doing is literally altering reality, permanently, for 300M people.

"How is the world ruled, and how do wars start?" wrote the journalist Karl Kraus.  "Diplomats tell lies to journalists, and then believe what they read."

And onwards down the chain.


Let's pretend the news clip and station were real. I'm sure China itself isn't like this news portrayal of China-- they are creating an impression, a product, and packaging it for American consumption, which, because there are no serious alternatives, would become the default worldview of Americans. The Chinese could make us think whatever they wanted. They could actually not even exist-- but we'd nevertheless believe that these newscasts are representative of typical Chinese life. Even if we went to China and found it completely empty, when we'd returned we'd still doubt ourselves: maybe we saw only a little part of China, surely those reporters have much more experience and information, it's not possible that they could be wrong and no one has noticed...

The image of this China is a product to be consumed. A product doesn't find a market, a product creates a market. Or did I do some market research and learn we needed a critical psychiatry/movie review blog written by a pirate?

In my description of this video, I'm pretending this is an organized effort by "the Chinese" to influence our culture; in other words they have a set plan. Our current media doesn't have such an organized plan. Individuals might use the media to push their own agenda, but the heads of the news programs don't meet in Switzerland to map out a plan of cultural propaganda.

Which makes it worse. Lacking a direction, a goal, means that reality is subject to whim. We used to care about Renee Zellweger and Islamic terrorism. Now we don't.  Did they both disappear?  Never exist?  What?


There's a correlate to this, I'll explain by example: most people don't know anything about China. So this video clip, while funny, also seems kinda accurate-- based on what you've seen from other completely unreliable descriptions of China/Japan (e.g. The Simpsons, youtube clips, etc.) Or it might be dead on accurate, how would would you know?

Your objective baseline would come from... that same media. Ok, not the same program, but the same station, the same biases.

So the odd correlate is this: the media doesn't just tell us information, it educates us. It does what one might have ordinarily assumed a school would do. 

Question: in what grade would a student nowadays learn about, say, the Carter Administration? Asked another way: if an 11th grader today knows anything about the Carter Administration, where would he have learned it?

You're all being home schooled, by the parents of someone else.


First the sign describes reality. Then the sign replaces reality.

The media creates a shadow reality that regular reality must adapt to. When a politician cheats on his wife, then gets on TV and apologizes, no one in their right mind believes that the apology is sincere-- "it's all for TV."

The news media make it sound like the "public demands an apology." But the public doesn't, the news media does-- they need it to fill the time. The apology becomes TV segment; whether the apology was only for the benefit of TV becomes another TV segment; etc. No one believes it, yet there it is, filling up hours of TV news.

But despite the public not wanting this apology, and despite the news media needing it to kill time, this bit of fluff changes reality, it changes the way you think. Consider what would happen if the politician did not apologize on TV. The media would flip out-- "this guy doesn't even apologize!" and you, the ordinary guy, would feel some level of anger, or at least incredulity, at the lack of a fake apology you'd never believe anyway. You've come to expect a fake apology-- not even a real one-- as necessary to the way politics is conducted. So on the one hand cheating signifies we can't trust the guy, but on the other hand a fake apology means... we can?

"But the fake apology is part of the image..." My point exactly. We agree the image is neither real, accurate, nor important; but we've also agreed to limit all of our dialogue and thinking to the image and nothing else.

"But the image can stand in for the substance, it's a proxy." No, this is first grade semiotics. It doesn't represent reality, it becomes reality. If it's a proxy for substance, when do we actually talk about the substance?

The news doesn't just influence our values. It changes the way we think so that certain values become inevitable.


But what about issues that are too complicated for journacation? Then you create a proxy who says, "don't worry, I'll do the thinking for you."

Hence journalists and anchor people who break the fourth wall, become personalities and thus stand-ins for the complex analysis.

(if you don't see a video in this space, download Adobe Flash 10 or click the link below.) 

I Am CNBC: Maria Bartiromo from Broadcasting & Cable on Vimeo.

I have seen these promos hundreds of times, each CNBC reporter has one. I found them eerie, haunting, uncanny and unreal, and I didn't know why I felt this. Now I know.


The first question that any good post-postmodernist (e.g. mercantilist) might want to ask is, why, if they're sitting right there for the filming, do they use a voice over? Why not simply speak the words into the camera? After all, that's what they do all day anyway, right?

The answer is that at that moment, in that promo, that isn't their voice talking to you; it is your mind's voice running through what you "know" about them. It's the kung fu program in the Matrix. They've placed info into my head to use: "She's a smart/trustworthy person..."

So she's a substitute for my own analysis-- I can just adopt hers, because she's like me, trustworthy, etc. Hence the use of TV news lingo ("socialized medicine", "both sides of the abortion debate" etc) by regular people in ordinary conversations. Ok, nothing new there.

But the switch is that she is extending her "legitimacy" to CNBC, not the other way around. CNBC has managed to con you into thinking that they aren't the ones creating and analyzing the news, but that she is-- and you can sure trust her, she worked in a restaurant!  If there was truth in advertising, the producers of CNBC-- not to mention the GE execs who own the station-- should be doing "I Am CNBC" promos. But that would be contrary to the purpose of the videos.    They make her more real so that their existence becomes less real.


The second reason these promos were so eerie to me I only discovered months later:


Gasparino taped the ("I am CNBC") spot, and submitted to another hour or so of extended self-revelation for the Web site, on September 15, the day Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection... Erin Burnett, the luminous mid-morning anchor... taped her spot that day too. All thirty spots were taped between the fifteenth and the eighteenth of September, arguably the most turbulent four days in the history of finance, and thus one of the stranger allocations of newsroom resources in recent media history.

Of course.   But the CJR writer is wrong on one point-- this is exactly the kind of allocation of newsroom resources you'd expect when reality is about to be manufactured.