Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Disposable Blog Post

According to, the first recorded use of the word "disposable" (in the sense we now use the word) was in 1943.  I find this fascinating, given that our economy today is largely built around the consumption of disposable products (and consumers' "disposable income," a term that first appeared in 1948).  Even products that aren't designed for immediate discard after use are often designed with planned obsolescence.  Prior to World War II, people certainly understood the concept of discarding waste, but the lack of a word for products that were designed for dumping signals to me that we've undergone a rather large paradigm shift (and most of us don't even realize it).

While I'm sure someone could (and has) written a book about what it means psychologically, environmentally, economically, and politically that we no longer expect manufactured products to last, I'm particularly interested in how the mentality of disposability extends beyond manufactured products.  For instance, I'd be curious to see a study of how the length of human relationships have mirrored or not mirrored our consumption patterns.  Were people of the late 20th century more likely than people of past generations to discard friendships after they had reached a utility threshold?  Are rising divorce rates in any way connected to the appearance of the word "disposable"?  Also, in a culture of "disposability," do we undervalue our use of time?  Are we more likely to waste time, viewing it (wrongly) as just another disposable commodity?

And what of the entertainment industry?  With the proliferation of mass media, and now with the diminishment of actual physical product, most entertainment that is produced is nothing if not planned obsolescence.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how made-for-TV movies are indicative of this phenomenon.  The TV networks would be in big trouble if everyone recorded a particular television movie and chose to watch it every week instead of tuning in for new offerings.  Likewise, big time Hollywood studios would go bankrupt in a hurry if everyone decided that enough movies have already been made to last us for the rest of our lives (though this is technically true).  No film, book, TV show, magazine article, blog post, or music recording can ever fully satisfy us.  The system won't let it.

And yet--at the same time that entertainment networks and productions discourage us from too much personal involvement with them, they are also by nature designed to engage us on such a level as to transport us from our lives into their worlds.  We are supposed to identify with characters, we are supposed to emotionally invest, we are supposed to spend money, and then we are supposed to leave it behind.  From this tension then, it is apparent that the consumption patterns of entertainment would eventually morph beyond the neat, linear model that the producers intend.  I remember reading an interview given by a Marvel comics editor upon the release a few years back of a collected edition of 1970s Spider-Man comics.  He noted that the original creators of those tales would have been dumbfounded that they would exist in any format decades later.  They were churning out monthly stories with the assumption that they would be read once and thrown away.  But an entirely fan-driven comic book marketplace has emerged, wherein the stories are deemed by those who consume them to have more long-term value than the producers ever intended.

And I think this is instructive for our consumption of narratives or popular art produced in any medium.  The assignation of value and of dispensability is not a top-down, one-way street.  We have now internalized the concept of disposability, but that doesn't mean we need to apply it indiscriminately.  We may feel social pressure to discard, but ultimately, we always have the ability to choose whether to dispose of something-- or not.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

How to Penetrate a Bubble

As part of the fallout from the tragic mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a few weeks ago, the media spotlight has been turned on the white supremacist subculture.  It's been fascinating reading some of the coverage in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, such as a feature on a former white supremacist, and an article about and chat with an academic who spent time several years ago with the shooter.

I've always had a hard time comprehending how anyone could become an active white supremacist.  It's certainly not surprising that anyone would develop racist attitudes (of varying degrees), given the prevalent human practice of "othering."  But I've got to think that an even stronger influence on behavior would be peer pressure.  Racism may not be illegal per se, but expression of overtly racist ideas is likely to call down a level of disapprobation that few other positions invite.

This is where the article on Arno Michaelis, the former skinhead, is instructive.  He describes a subculture that seals itself into a bubble. Everything outside of that bubble is regarded with not only suspicion, but without outright fear: 
"I was terrified of the world around me every day," Michaelis said. "Everywhere I looked I saw the work of the enemy. Everyone who wasn't white was the enemy. Everything that was on television was my enemy. They were all out to wipe out my people."
Given a worldview that presupposes persecution, the threat of public disapproval is not the potentially powerful force that it is for most of us. Quite the opposite, it actually (to them) substantiates the paranoia that they feel.  But Michaelis gives an inspiring testimonial about how he was able to escape this vicious cycle:
A friend of his mother's, a Jewish man, hired him to work at his factory making T-shirts. The man insisted Michaelis basically was a good kid despite the swastika-adorned clothing he wore to work. There were the Latino co-workers who were kind to him. There was the black co-worker who once called to him when he was broke and hungry: Hey skinhead, you want a sandwich? "It got harder and harder to deny this truth that was all around me, that anyone could be kind, anyone had that capacity," he said.
No reasonable person would blame a Jewish man for firing an employee wearing a swastika.  No reasonable person would blame a black man for letting a skinhead co-worker go hungry.  But it just might be that the only way to combat unreasoning hatred is with unreasoning kindness.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Psychic Costs of #NBCfail

Yesterday I did something that I do very sparingly.  I sent out a tweet on my usually dormant Twitter account.  What motivated me to break my Twitter silence? Here is the content of the tweet:

"Showing a Paige McPherson taekwondo preliminary match on tape delay at the exact same time she was fighting live in the quarters? "

I couldn't resist piling on with the "nbcfail" hashtag.  My frustration with NBC is much less than it was four years ago, when they embargoed live streams of any events they wanted to show on tape delay later.  But this year, everything is available live online (except for opening and closing ceremonies).  I didn't mind a couple of days ago when they showed taped equestrian (with no American contenders) rather than a women's volleyball semi-final (involving the American team).  I just watched the volleyball game online and ignored the TV coverage.  I've watched lots of swimming and track live online.  The only thing I've been genuinely annoyed by is having to watch boxing, taekwondo, and wrestling online, since the stream usually doesn't have announcers--and I actually could use announcers to help me understand what is going on (hence the aforementioned tweet).  (While I'm in rant mode, I should also point out my frustration with having to toggle around three different wrestling streams to find the matches I wanted this morning).

But while the online coverage this year has been baby steps forward, the prevalence of the "nbcfail" hashtag on Twitter and the relentless denunciations from media critics illustrate that NBC has a ways to go in appeasing a population that has grown accustomed to the on-demand, "real time" accessibility of information.  Dick Ebersol, the architect of NBC's philosophy, has long been vocal in defending his network's approach.  He's given frequent interviews during the last several Olympic cycles, pointing out that what matters is the bottom line, that it would be irresponsible for NBC to leave money on the table by showing events outside of prime time, and that the ratings back up his approach.  His most recent interview was given to Joe Posnanski a couple days ago, and he showed no signs of backing down.  Posnaski paraphrases Ebersol's defense thusly:
Ebersol says you can explain that clash of philosophy in two concise sentences:
1. The critics believe that the Olympics are a great sporting event.
2. Dick Ebersol and NBC believe that the Olympics are a great television event.
I'm automatically suspicious when I see someone boil an argument down into an either/or approach.  False dichotomy much?  John Koblin of Deadspin already wrote a great article showing how NBC could serve both audiences (people who want to see great sports and people who want to see great television), so I won't delve further into that issue.

But what I would like to further explore is the cost of NBC's willingness to alienate a segment of viewership.  They are fully aware that they have an American monopoly on coverage, that if you are going to alienate an audience, you want to alienate the ones who are going to tune in anyway.  A few stubborn sports fans will boycott, but most will tune in regardless of how mad they are.  So adding up the assets and liabilities, it would seem that the clear cut decision for NBC (assuming the false dichotomy is not false) would be to stay the course and ignore the critics.

But consider CBS executive Rick Gentile.  During the 1998 Winter Olympics, CBS followed the NBC model of coverage and showed skier Picabo Street winning a gold medal about 24 hours after she had actually won it.  Twitter wasn't around in 1998, but CBS caught flak.  This is what Gentile told the New York Times last year, 13 years after the fact: “The Picabo Street thing haunts me.”

Was it worth it for Gentile to sacrifice peace of mind for the bottom line?  A few years ago I wrote a blog post detailing how it would be in Alex Rodriguez's personal best interest to give all of his salary away.  Obviously, he didn't do this, but I still stand by the advice.  Because we can't definitively measure them, psychic costs and benefits are consistently undervalued.  Not only do we lack a good way to measure them, but most people aren't honest with themselves about how much they are worth.  How much would you pay to avoid having to listen to someone say mean things about you for the rest of your life?  Most people would respond that they wouldn't pay anything, sticks and stones and whatnot.  But in truth, there probably would be a psychological benefit that would warrant a fiduciary loss.  Dick Ebersol would most likely never admit that the cacophony of criticism bothers him, but if he's a human being, it does.

Obviously, NBC is not a human being, and therefore derives no psychic cost from being subject to criticism.  But to put things in corporate terms, NBC is a brand, and a brand identity can be impacted by criticism.  No, it's not likely that many people would refuse to watch Law & Order because they disagree with the decision to tape delay Olympic events.  But can an NBC executive avow with 100% confidence that the prevalence of a meme called "NBC Fail" will have absolutely no impact on the relationship between the network and potential sponsors?  Certainly, no talented NBC account executive will jump to another entity solely because they are embarrassed about tweets about taekwondo.  But I'm sure that overall corporate morale does play a role in getting and retaining talented workers, and I'm equally sure that constant public mockery is not good for overall corporate morale.

So, in short, ratings and the immediate bottom line aren't the only things that ultimately have the power to influence.  I wrote recently about the power of peer pressure.  Social media is a way that a disillusioned populace (perhaps even a vocal minority) may work upon a power structure.  The only drawback--there might be a bit of a delay before the results are seen.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

A Made for TV Blog Post

Last year, 1.29 billion movie tickets were sold in America.  That is an incomprehensibly high number, but I'm pretty sure an even higher and more incomprehensible number would be the final tally of how many movies were watched on television last year.  Google can tell us a lot, but I gave up in my efforts to find that statistic.  When you can't find something on Google, that means that nobody really cares.  Certainly, there are people with vested interests in how any individual television movie might fare in the Nielson ratings, but nobody talks about the "television movie industry" like they do the "Hollywood motion picture" industry.  Even when Nielson ratings are released, nobody pays attention to movie returns the way that some pay attention to weekly box office grosses.  And yet--measured by time spent viewing, one can make the case that television movies are more popular than theatrical releases.

The obvious counterargument is that such a measure is ridiculous, that a person's willingness to part with their money should be the means by which we determine popularity.  And there are other metrics in play as well--what trends on Twitter, what the media covers, what launches more tie-in products and what contributes the most to the economy.

But my counterargument to that counterargument is that we constantly undervalue time spent.  Time is something that nobody can make more of, that can only be spent and never created, and that cannot be retrieved after having been invested.  Likewise, all hours are equal.  There is no such thing as a premium hour.  The two hours that somebody chooses to invest in watching an Lifetime original movie is the same as the two hours that somebody chooses to invest in watching a major summer blockbuster or an Academy Award best picture nominee.

Of course, the television movie market is more diluted.  There is more product and less of a marketing emphasis on any one movie.  I'm not suggesting that it would be possible for the culture to acknowledge original television films the way that it does theatrical films (interviewing TV movie stars at press junkets, reviewing them on Rotten Tomatoes, etc...)  What I am suggesting is that we quit having it both ways.  We either acknowledge that television movies are inferior and quit investing our entertainment time budget in them.  Or we acknowledge that they have merit and quit acting as if they are mere placeholders in our life.

We can start by keeping better stats on how we, as a society, are investing our hours-- not just our dollars.