Looking to the Future via Reality Television

Looking to the Future via Reality Television

Dave Pollard at How to Save the World posts a very intriguing set of theories about the sucess of reality television in the last few years. Is it conservative propaganda, schadenfreude, the hero myth, attention deficit, or self-preservation? Dave thinks its the latter.

The theory that answers this question, and does make some sense to me, is the Self-Preservation Theory, and it holds that we are intuitively so pessimistic about our future that we need to insulate and inure ourselves against the sadness and suffering that we are likely to face. A recent study suggests that people who are prepared for pain report it as less intense, when it occurs, than people who are surprised by it. While the average person continues to think his/her life is, and will continue to be, better than average, we are overwhelmed with evidence that this ‘average’ is getting worse and will continue to worsen. Subconsciously, perhaps, we are preparing for the worst, numbing ourselves to anguish by witnessing it happening to others and preparing for it ourselves. It is our nature to lower our expectations when things get bad: During Great Depressions, wars, and in the face of personal tragedy, it takes less to make us happy and more to really make us miserable. We adapt.

I think he’s mostly correct about this. My optimism about the future has declined in the past few years for reasons that I’m still trying to explain to myself. Pollard continues

Generations X and Y clearly have lower expectations of the future than our boomer generation had at the same age. They are the ones whose behaviours increasingly exhibit signs of anomie, fatalism, thrill-seeking and other tendencies (psychopathies?) illustrated in the lower right corner of the above chart. They are the ones who go to see movies with graphic violence and horror that we fund repulsive. And they are the ones (disproportionately) watching Reality TV. Maybe they’re just steeling for a future that will see even more horrific abuses of power, greater disparity between rich and poor, more suffering and misery for all.

Most of this resonates with me. A lot of problems I see around me have been at the center or edges of my awareness for at least the last two decades.

  • Global Warming and climate change. I first read about this in the late 1980s. I can’t remember the title of the book but it persuaded me early on that humans were causing changes to the climate. Worst of all we have no idea what the results of all these changes will be. Given what we’ve learned about chaotic and complex systems in the last twenty years one would think that an attitude of caution would be the rational response. Instead politicians have spent two decades demanding more studies.
  • The growth of fundamentalism. The 911 attacks were just the icing on the cake of a problem that intelligent people have been writing about since the early 1990s. The Moral Majority was a bogeyman of the 1980s for goodness sake. Worst of all has been the growing connections between politics and religion in the United States. Kevin Phillips offers the most recent glossing of this problem in American Theocracy.
  • Economics, globalization, and employment. This is probably the most recent area where pessimism has begun to overtake optimism. As one of the knowledge workers in the economy it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that everything we do will be outsourced to the lowest bidder. And the hope that we can educate ourselves for new jobs is turning out to be a false hope. Of all the knowledge professions education is just as likely to be outsourced as any other. Homework Help, From a World Away shows this trend in action.