Sunday, February 03, 2013

Super Spotlights

I write this post on Super Sunday, the day of "The Big Game" (as the Super Bowl is known when referenced by advertisers who do not pay a rights fee).  The Super Bowl has existed for longer than I've been alive, but relatively speaking, not much longer.  It started to become a cultural phenomenon that transcends sports about the time that I was born, and by the time I started paying attention to what was going on in the world, the Super Bowl was a full-on spectacle. 

For Christmas one year in the late 1980s, I got this VHS tape--an NFL Films history of the Super Bowl.  Naturally, I watched it enough that I practically memorized the narration.  I fancied myself a Super Bowl historian, and I recorded the results of every Super Bowl in a notebook (kids who grow up with Wikipedia have it so easy).

On one occasion I overheard a couple of "grown-ups" discussing a Super Bowl memory--they were recalling a particular Super Bowl Sunday several years prior in which they had consumed a copious amount of alcohol.  I was immediately intrigued--not by the alcohol consumption, but by the concept of a Super Bowl memory.  I interjected myself into the conversation (kind of hilarious in hindsight) by asking what Super Bowl and who was playing.  The adults got a confused look, and one of them said he couldn't recall (which is also kind of hilarious in hindsight).  I started to blurt out that I had a notebook with all of the Super Bowls recorded and that I would be glad to share it with them so they could figure out which Super Bowl they were talking about, but I never got the chance to, as the conversation continued and I was not afforded a word in edgewise (which is also kind of hilarious in hindsight).

Perhaps this incident was noteworthy because it was the start of my realization that many people watch the Super Bowl without paying attention to it.  I guess I knew even before that moment that other people didn't meticulously write down the result of every play in a notebook (not the same notebook that I used to record historic results).  But I kind of thought that people at least made a mental note of the result of other plays.  Since then, I've come to the realization that not only do most people's brains out all but the most indelible happenings, but that this is the case in almost all aspects of life.

I've come to the realization that the Super Bowl is an extreme illustration of what psychologists call The Spotlight Effect.  Quoting from the linked article:

We all are the center of our own universes. This is not to say we are arrogant, or value ourselves more than others, but rather, that our entire existence is from our own experiences and perspective. And we use those experiences to evaluate the world around us, including other people. But other people not only lack the knowledge of, for instance, the stain that you have, but they are the center of their own universes too, and in turn, are focused on other things!
Television viewing audiences for the Super Bowl now exceed 100 million people annually.  And yet, if you were to survey America tomorrow, how many could accurately name the two broadcasters?  Certainly some could, but I would be shocked if the majority of the audience would be able to.  At times during the game, over 100 million people will have their eyes focused on the referee.  How many would be able to pick him out of a lineup tomorrow?  Thinking back to a classic historical Super Bowl moment--how many people can name the player for the St. Louis Rams who made a championship saving tackle at the 1-yard line at the last second?  (For the record, I can, but I used to write down facts in notebooks, so I don't count).  For all the hype about Super Bowl commercials, how many will be remembered six months from now? 

There are certainly occasions when the spotlight really is on.  Bizarre or outlandish occurrences will stand out (so the Janet Jackson Wardrobe Malfunction will live on in infamy).  But for the most part, most of what will happen in the game today will be mostly forgotten by tomorrow, and a year from now even less will be remembered.  And we can take comfort that if the spectacle that is the Super Bowl weighs little in the thoughts and considerations of its viewers, the supposed spectacle that is our life weighs little in the thoughts and considerations of our "viewers." 

EDIT: This was written before the power outage in the 3rd quarter of the Super Bowl.  This incident likely will be one that stands the test of memory.  How ironic that one of the things that focuses our attention is not the result of the spotlight's glare, but of the spotlight's extinguishing.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Call in the Dogs

Five facts:

1. Americans love dogs
2. It is possible to train dogs to do remarkable things
3. Americans are growing accustomed to always carrying around a "personal assistant" in the form of digital devices
4. For as much as we love electronic digital devices, there is a sentiment that our embrace of artifical devices is sapping us of our ability to interact with and appreciate the natural world
5. In the Middle Ages, rich people used dogs as napkins.

Everybody knows that at one time it was impossible for humans to live without animals.  Virtually everyone owned animals and forced them to do specific labors.  But then we invented artificial devices that were more efficient than four-legged friends, which allowed most people to live without directly enforcing animal labor.  And this was seen as a sign of progress.  Civilized people didn't bring animals in public.  It was okay to own animals, but for most, they were relegated (or promoted, depending on how you look at it) to household totems, objects to be lavished with (often undeserved) affection for the sake of lavishing a biological entity affection in order to promote emotional fulfillment. 

So because practical use of animals came to be unconsciuosly associated with barbarism at the same time that animals were utilized to fill an emerging set of psychological needs, the demand for animals as labor receded dramtically.  And subsequently, we have all been born into a world where household animals are referred to as "pets."  Because this is the way it has always been, we lose sight of how bizarre this is.  Furry, four-legged creatures are referred to with words that connotate a tacticle verb.  Perhaps we take a subconscious pride in our ability to tame and domesticate the wild.

But really, do we still need to have such pride?  What more do we have to prove?  We've got smart phones and tablets.

And precisely because we've got smart phones and tablets, I think there is a remote possibility that in the generations to come, animals will cease to be known as "pets".  We know that service animals have provided an invaluable contribution to those who are disabled.  But is it only disabled people who are in need of a service animal?

What would it take if every man, woman, and child in the nation were given their own service dog?  How much would crime be decreased if every person had a placid but well-trained guard dog?  What if said dogs were trained to peacefully execute simple but time-consuming everyday tasks that would ultimately increase every person's comfort and efficiency?  And that doesn't even begin to measure the psychic benefits of restoring a deeply ingrained ancient relationship between human and animal.

Obviously, such a workforce of trained animals would require a gargantuan investment in infastructure, and in human capital in order to train up such a canine workforce.  But then again, just such an investment is probably a perfect bipartisan economic stimulus for these times.  Everybody knows that we are moving to a service economy.  Machines have taken over for not just animal labor, but increasingly, for human labor.  But machines still don't know how to train dogs. 

I see no downside to my proposal.  It's time to let the dogs out.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Commemoration of a Hidden Passage

Our society, and probably most societies that have ever existed, have assiduously marked "rites of passages."  Ceremonies follow accomplishments, certifications are issued, "milestone" birthdays are observed with much fanfare.  At the same time, we privilege youth and resist the commemoration of milestones that legitimately mark a passage of time.

For example, over the last several years, I've looked at opening day rosters of my favorite professional sports teams with keen interest, examining how many players are younger than me and how many are older.  The number of those older is dwindling dramatically, and it will not be too long before I am older than all of the players on my favorite teams.  And I will find such a moment significant, since for the first decade-plus of my fandom every single player was older than me.  I wasn't paying attention when it first happened that I was rooting for someone younger than me (in hindsight I would kind of like to know when that was; I suppose I could research it.  I'll put it on my bucket list to do that).

Because there is some continuity from childhood to adulthood, everyone can relate to some extent to this kind of phenomenon.  We used to observe others who were older than us, then we began to observe our contemporaries, and at some point we observe only those who are younger than us.  And this is particularly strange when all the while we have been observing the same essential activity.  But because the implications of the phenomenon can be terrifying (ultimately confronting us with our mortality), we steadfastly refuse to commemorate the transitions in any way.  Moments of realization are stifled.  We simply proceed in the new reality as if it has always been the case.

The impetus for me to make these observations this week was this article by a guy named Steven Hyden.  I first became of Hyden awhile back when he wrote a series of essays on 90s rock for the Onion AV Club.    This was far from the first I've read about 90s rock.  But the difference is that prior articles were written by people who had a frame of reference that predated mine.  Hyden is only a few months older than me, and he is a fellow Wisconsinite.  Reading his work has resulted in a jarring shock of recognition.  After a lifetime of consuming rock criticism, for the first time, I'm reading rock criticism written by a legitimate contemporary of mine.  And only since this has transpired have I become aware of the prior status quo even being a status quo.

I've come to recognize that from the time anyone starts to read and for a period of approximately two decades, everything that is read is from the perspective of a prior generation.  Everything is from the perspective of a prior generation's lived experience.  That is certainly not to say that some experiences don't transcend time and speak directly to realities that level chronological perspectives.  But it is worth noting that the reader is always forced to assimilate their experience to the specific generational experience of another.  Even if one is reading a new publication, it is informed by the author's having lived through a period of time that the reader did not experience.  This is the normative experience of reading.  Because the reader knows no other way of reading, the unconscious assumption is that this will always be the normative experience.  And then after a period of years, members of the reader's own generation attain enough cultural capital to contribute published works.  And the result, again, is jarring.  Or at least it was in my experience.  Of course, reading is a bit different than watching sports in that it is more asynchronous.  My contemporaries have arrived, but I can always go back and read my elders.

Yet if I live long enough, I will encounter something even more jarring them reading my contemporaries.  I will be reading the work of one whose life experiences begin after my life experiences.  This hasn't happened to me yet (at least to a noticeable degree), but I've already got an ingrained prejudice against the concept.  I don't even want to hear what these hypothetical whippersnappers have to say (but they probably won't use the term "whippersnapper" unironically).

But perhaps my prejudice will never actually manifest itself as resistance.  Perhaps I will assimilate to the new reality as unconsciously as I was interpolated into the prior realities.  After all, there will be no ceremony to mark the passage of time.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

What Makes You So Special?

After several years of posting exactly once per week, I decided I was entitled to a two-week holiday break.  But now it's back to the weekly grind...

My last post dealt with the normalization of celebrity in our culture.  My assertion is that to become a celebrity is necessarily bizarre, akin to winning the lottery or getting a rare disease.  The odds are incredibly stacked against any one person achieving notoriety, so when it does happen, how does the individual reconcile this?  To my mind, there are four possibilities (though not necessarily distinct categories):

1. They don't think about it.  This is probably the most common reaction.  There is a reason the phrase "It is what it is" has become a part of our culture.  Once a path of reality has been blazed, we are reluctant to go back and consider if it hadn't been blazed (and overall, there is something to be said for not getting entangled by past hypotheticals when there is a present reality to consider).  But even though the celebrity may not consciously cogitate their celebrity status, there is always going to be an unconscious set of assumptions that affects their lives, which brings us to...

2. They assume, consciously or not, that they have attained celebrity by chance.  And in many cases I think this is largely true--without denying the talent of any given "star," there are many who have equal or superior talent who do not become "stars", and there is no way the "star" doesn't know this.  And to some extent, I think this can explain the behavior and the public meltdowns of a certain class of celebrity (Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, etc) can be explained by this assumption.  If you've attained something largely by chance, it can be taken away just as easily through the fickleness of chance.  This must be a heavy burden to bear, which would naturally manifest itself in dysfunction.

3. They assume that they are reaping the just deserts of their effort.  These would be the most stable celebrities.  A person such as Bill Gates comes to mind.  He spent the formative years of his life in anonymity, but he was spending those same years locked away for 10,000 hours writing code.  When he ascended to prominence as a cultural icon, he must have found it strange, but not wholly out of line with the narrative arc of his life.  Most sports stars would also fit into this category.  They've practiced for big-time stardom by being high school celebrities.

4. They believe that they are inherently different from the masses, perhaps since birth.  Few would articulate such a thing directly, since our American society in general is anti-elitist, and certainly has a built-in prejudice to the concept of a birthright.  Most of our society's formative narratives are built on the concept of individual achievement only through hard work (and in a weird way, we may award specific individuals "celebrityhood" so that we might validate this core value).  But one celebrity who has never been afraid to assert a narrative that goes against the cultural grain is Bob Dylan.  In an interview he gave to Rolling Stone magazine a few months back, he declared a kind of mystical philosophy that involved his being a type of predestined "chosen one":
I went to a library in Rome and I found a book about transfiguration, because it's nothing you really hear about every day, and it's in that mystical realm, and I found out only enough to know that, uh, OK, I'm not an authority on it, but it kind of sets you straight on what sets you apart. I'd always been different than other people, but this book told me why. Like certain people are set apart. You know, it's just like the phrase, "peers" – I mean, I see this, "Well, your peers this, your peers that." And I've always wondered, who are my peers? When I received the Medal of Freedom I started thinking more about it. Like, who are they? But then it became clear. My peers are Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, John Glenn, Madeleine Albright, Pat Summitt, Toni Morrison, Jasper Johns, Martha Graham, Sidney Poitier. People like that, and they are set apart, too. And I'm proud to be counted among them.
This idea has potentially unsettling implications, and it is definitely a weird one, but I would argue that it is an appropriate one given the weirdness of celebrity to begin with.  If it makes anyone uncomfortable, perhaps the solution would be not to dismiss Bob Dylan, but to find a way to dismiss a culture that would seek to hear what a celebrity named Bob Dylan has to say.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why Them?

Last week I wrote a post that explored the inherent strangeness of fame,celebrity, and notoriety.  We don't think it's strange that there is such a thing as famous people only because we are used to living in a world where individuals achieve fame.  If all of us made a list of the people that we know, we could then subdivide the list into two further lists--people we know and people that we don't know.  Our way of life would be dramatically altered if the latter list was stricken from our minds.  Our national conversation revolves around the premise that the lives, or at the very least the personas, of certain individuals are shared in common.  But I'm still hung up on the fact that the odds of becoming a name on that list are mind-bogglingly small, and then to sustain fame over a protracted length of time is even more challenging.  I'm interested in the psychology of those who find themselves in such rarified circumstances.

Of course, everything becomes normalized over time.  Mick Jagger has been a celebrity for such a ridiculously long stretch of time that I'm sure he's grown quite accustomed to the role. And for those who have achieved his stature, the genie can't be put back into the bottle.  For better or worse, he'll always be on the list of people who other people know but don't actually know.  And this reality shapes every aspect of his existence.  I'm sure it's the same for lottery jackpot winners.  Assuming they don't squander their winnings (which I grant is a big assumption), after a certain passage of time the lotto winner will get used to the new reality, they will no longer think it strange they have a sudden windfall in their bank account, but again, this new status quo will shape every aspect of their existence for the rest of their life.

So what I've always wondered--just as victims of misfortune might be tempted to pose the question, "Why me?", do those who see such a radical alteration of reality pose the same question.  To not pose such a question would seem to imply that they have been especially favored by mysterious forces, that their destiny was inevitable.  But could it be that in posing the question, the implication becomes explicit?

Next week I'll explore whether this is the case.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

All-Time Individuals

Most nations on this globe have been around for hundreds of years, and exactly 157 nations currently have populations of more than one million people.  But despite the millions and millions of people who have lived within any given nation's borders, history books are comprised by and large of the names of select individuals.  The "Great Man Theory" has been long discredited, but it's still the shorthand default for how we think about important events in history.  Artistic movements are usually summarized by recitation of names of people who exemplify the movement, and every single artistic endeavor has inspired innumerable lists and arguments about who is the all-time best individual in a particular field.  Sports franchises are synonymous with the hall of famers who have played for them.  Time Magazine is famous for designating a "person of the year" who supposedly has influenced the world the most in the previous twelve months.

But despite all this, I know of no effort to compose a list of all-time most influential or emblematic individuals for specific nation-states.  I would think that in our list-obsessed society, we'd love to argue about "Top Icelandic citizen of all-time," but apparently not.  So to fulfill a gap that may or may not need to be filled, I've decided to name the "all-time person" for the top 10 most populous countries in the world, from an American perspective.  My criteria is simple--when a country is mentioned, who is the first person that most Americans will think of?  Without further ado:

1. China: Nobody would argue that it's Mao.  Kind of ironic given that a supposed champion of collectivism, in a nation that is more populous than any on Earth, is the one guy that stands out.  Yao Ming would probably be second.

2. India: Again, this one isn't close.  Ghandi is the only Indian that most Americans could name.

3. USA: In 1984 Michael Jackson probably would have taken the prize, but in the Internet era fame is too diffused for one mega-star to embody America.  So it's got to be a Mt. Rushmore figure.  Washington is the father of our country, but nobody has made any movies about him lately.  America loves martyrs, too.  So Abraham Lincoln joins the list.

4. Indonesia: I've got to cheat.  There are 237 million Indonesians living today, and I don't know any of them (though I have visited a few of their Facebook pages).  But Wikipedia tells me that Eddie Van Halen is part Indonesia (Alex is, too, of course, but Eddie is obviously the choice here). 

5. Brazil:  It's got to be Pele.  Ayrton Senna has has fanbase, and is probably more iconic in most parts of the world, and David Beckham has more cache with the youngsters, but to many Americans, Pele is still the Babe Ruth of soccer.

6. Pakistan:  The first guy that pops into my head is Pervez Musharraf.  And it's hard to think of anybody else.  I think of the Carmen Sandiego theme song before I think of anyone else.  So by default, Pervez Musharraf embodies Pakistan.

7. Nigeria: Tell me that most Americans who lived in the late 1980s wouldn't immediately think of "The Nigerian Nightmare," Christian Okoye.  Most American academics would name Chinua Achebe.  But he's didn't have a nickname with the word "Nigerian" in the title.

8. Bangladesh: Does George Harrison count?  He'll have to do, since I don't recognize any names on the Wikipedia list.

9. Russia: Certainly lots of possibilities.  I'm partial to Dostoevsky.  But in the end, Stalin is still the face of Russia.

10. Japan: There have been some great Japanese artists.  Japanese technological products are a part of American life.  But when it comes to specific Japanese people, most Americans think of baseball players.  And the Japanese baseball player who stands above all others is Ichiro.

Conclusion: I can now see why no one has done this before.  And if you got Mao, Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Pele, Eddie Van Halen, Pervez Musharraf, Christian Okoye, George Harrison, Stalin, and Ichiro in a room together, they might not agree on much.  But they probably would agree on one thing: individuals are a lot less influential than we give them credit for.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Satisfaction Guaranteed?

Coming up this Thursday, the Phoenix Suns are going to finally do something that I have been thinking about for a couple of decades.  They are offering to refund the price of admission for any of their fans who are "unsatisfied."  They are officially leaving it up to the individual customers to determine what that means, but I think the obvious implication is that if the team doesn't win, or doesn't make the game interesting, fans are entitled to demand their money back.

The reason I have been thinking about this for decades is because that's how long I've been going to live sporting events (albeit much less frequently in recent years).  And in my early years of going to games, I saw my favorite teams lose with a great deal more regularity than the opposite.  And it always struck me as kind of weird that the team got paid the same regardless of the outcome.  Fans are quick to complain about individual athletes making money when they are underperforming, but I haven't heard the same kind of criticism leveled against teams.  Once in a while there is a minor rumbling when a losing team raises ticket prices the next year, but most often there is a resignation that pro and major college sports is a caveat emptor proposition.

But a sporting event is also one of the few areas of life in which a customer is expected to pay for an objective failure.  If a manufactured good does not produce as it is intended to, the manufacturer is expected to make good.  Performance arts or entertainment productions have no objective standard for success or failure.  Food falls somewhere in between, but in most cases, if a customer can make a case that a chef failed, the customer doesn't pay.  Granted, this argument assumes that the desirability of a fan experience is predicated exclusively on a the final score of the game, and all teams (even the Phoenix Suns) would argue that it is possible for a fan to enjoy the experience of attending an event even if the final outcome of the game isn't optimal.  And of course this is how teams get away with charging fans the same amount for wins and losses.  But it doesn't change the fact that they are charging fans the same amount regardless of the outcome of what is purportedly the most important thing about the competition.

But how desirable would it be to live in a world where home teams give back gate receipts when they don't win?  As with any economic exchange, the unintended consequences would need to be considered.  It has already been theorized that much, if not all, of the home field advantage that exists in sports is due to officiating bias.  According to the theory, it's not that referees are intentionally biased for the home team, it's just that the influence of thousands of people has a psychological effect on how the officials view reality (I'm convinced that this was a factor in the infamous Packers/Seahawks Monday night game this year).

But in a world where the home team refunds for losses, fans actually have an economic incentive for the home team to lose.  This would probably result in a demolition of home field advantage, which arguably creates a fairer reality, but probably a less satisfying one.  As it is, if fans believe that the only way they can realize a full value for their purchase is if the home team wins, they will, consciously or not, exert all the influence they have in order to derive such a realization.  If the ticket represents a win-win proposition for the fan, the stakes are lowered, and the end result may just be a loss for everyone--dissatisfaction guaranteed.