Monday, 3 December 2007

Be very afraid

Will Self on reality television (The Independent, 15 September 2000)

We're living through a period when the face-to-face bonds that made even mass societies bearable are being transmogrified into the anonymous encounters of virtual space. Big Brother stands as the acme of this culture of depersonalised anonymity... I've watched a fair bit of the show over the summer, and... I've absolutely no doubt that the way the contestants were selected, together with the editing of the 24/7 footage from umpteen concealed video cameras, has provided us with a perfect biopsy of the cancer which, as I write, is hypostasising throughout our culture.
It's a culture of equality, all right, for the contestants are equally unquestioning, equally directionless, equally lacking in anything that passes for a social conscience or a spiritual value. Self-selecting for narcissism, exhibitionism and a sorrowful dependency on the good opinion of others, the Big Brother contestants are the first cohort among the equals...
It's no accident that the "tasks" the contestants are asked to perform are so redolent of other TV shows. Whether doing a turn fron The Krypton Factor, The Generation Game or Countdown, these poor saps are only pirouetting in a hall of video monitors. This is our "family", and like the twenty-to-thirtysomething moieties depicted in Friends and Ally Mcbeal, it's made up of "kidults", those adult children of juvenescence, the surf on the collapsing wave of the Baby Boom, who are intent on stretching the elastic of their promiscuous, intoxicated adolescence, until senility snaps it back in their faces.
Watching Big Brother is best done by mixed groups of parents and prepubescent children. All can revel in this enactment of a 70-day sleepover, where no one bothers to get out of their pyjamas except to sunbathe or dress up. Oh, yes, it is heartening to see that... a black contestant and a gay contestant have made it into the last three, but what that suggests to me is that tolerence in our society has been won only at the cost of diversity. The extent to which the viewers haven't been prejudiced against these minorities is exactly the same as the extent to which they no longer offer any alternative lifestyle choice. With everyone middle-class, childless and a restful shade of beige, we're not so much living in a melting-pot as a Cup-a-Soup...
Yes, we should be worried. The atrophy of the empathetic muscles necessary for the appreciation of traditional narrative is happening in step with the development of entertainment media -the internet chat room, the interactive television show- that subtitle anonymous equivalence for personalised identification. Why bother labouring to translate your being across space, time, gender, ethnicity or religion when you can watch some limbo exactly like the one next door plucking her bikini line on live television?