Time now for an important interruption in your interweb/TV viewing day.
by Drew Reed
Dear reader: This article ended up being longer than I set out to make it, and you, the average Medium reader, are notorious for not finishing articles. So I’ll make a deal with you, based on a tactic I stole from John Oliver. Finish this article, and at the end I’ll give you that which you most crave in your online existence: a GIF of a cute little hamster eating a miniature burrito! Mmmkay? As Oliver says, the GIF is “as magical and as uncomplicated as you think.”
They’re telling us that we’re living in a “golden age” of television. Game of Thrones! House of Cards! Army of Darkness! OK, so that last one wasn’t a TV show, but you get the idea. TV is now a place for serious people to talk about serious things and be taken seriously. Right?
These days, the answer everyone gives seems to be yes. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; now there’s more room for serious, cinematic serialized dramas on TV. But a big picture look at the melding of TV, internet, and other media may also have darker implications for society at large. A recent article by Alexander Zaitchik at Salon has pointed this out. In my opinion, Zaitchik completely nails it, while also touching on a theme that deserves to be expounded on in greater detail, perhaps on a website with less constraints for article length and less?—?zero?—?pay for its authors (hello Medium!). Ipso facto, the rationale for this article. Here we go.
At the dawn of human history, humans were hairy, smelly creatures that couldn’t run particularly fast and were generally easy prey for cool looking animals like lions, and even less-cool-looking animals like hippopotamuses (hippopotami?). They did have two obvious advantages: uncannily large brains and hands that would allow them to easily build and manipulate tools. But these attributes could only allow humans to obtain important things like food and fend of predators if they worked together with other humans. How?
Communication. Sure, some other animals had basic forms of communication, but we humans took it to a whole new level, using our powers of communication to enhance our inherent tool-building skills and eventually go beyond mere hunter-gatherer clans to form advanced societies.
Now then, what do those societies need in order to continue to be societally effective and do other society-ish things? Obviously, they need to keep communicating, but about what? Perhaps they can have important discussions about the course that society should take (politics, economics, and all that good stuff). Or maybe they just want some entertainment. But there are many kinds of entertainment. Loosely categorized, these include “serious” entertainment, which is much more likely to feature implications that bleed into the political sphere, as well as a wide array of attention-grabbing activities that are just good clean fun, if sometimes a bit shallow.
These two main types of entertainment were present from pretty early on. The Greeks came up with drama, as we all know, as well as epics (as in poems, not fails). The Romans came up with the Coliseum and the nifty idea of staging blood sports in front of thousands of people. This wasn’t just a Eurocentric thing; for instance, Mesoamerican civilizations came up with a game called “tlachtli” that was a lot like basketball except that if you lost you were executed.
But the Roman example is particularly pertinent since they were the ones who on record as coming up with the idea of “bread and circuses” (circi?), the idea that the masses could be kept under wraps by bare bones supplies and plenty of mindless activities to gossip about. Seemingly non-political entertainment like gladiator matches had implications for society after all, but they ended up having the inverse effect of “serious” drama and literature that tacked issues of government and politics. While art and literature could potentially drum up support for widespread political participation, gladiator fights helped to ensure that the unwashed masses didn’t try to meddle with the activities best left to the ruling class.