Philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge. Politics is the pursuit of power.
[Do you say this because your YouTube feed is stuffed with pro-Trump propaganda?]
Honestly, I don’t mind sifting through the trash to find what I need. So much of my work consists of assessment: I have to sit through the most banal conversation before I can enjoy the value within.
[And sometimes, there is no value to be found.]
Sometimes there isn’t. Usually, there is. The value is seldom redemptive, meaning that it is of little or no value in itself, but more often than not, there is something to be repurposed, something to be gained in a contrasting context. Inexplicably, this work proves arduous to most, but to me, there is next to nothing sweeter.
[And yet, you complain about the isolating nature of your work.]
I’ve never complained about the solitude of the work itself. I’ve regretted only the infrequency of opportunity to network, as the corporate psychologists of today might describe it. I want to know my fellow underwriters, to read what they have, before it’s overwritten.
[You haven’t discussed the overwriting yet. You’ve warned that it is coming, implying, it appears, that the overwriting is an ominous act?]
It’s ominous, and usually unconscious. And it is coming, in forms hitherto unseen, but it is already occurring in other, more familiar manifestations now. The overwriters are becoming so expert, so sophisticated in their methods, sometimes they try to overwrite prior to the writing. Come to think of it, I shouldn’t even say “sometimes”: with the facilitation of the media, the overwriting a priori is becoming the norm.
[The media is an instrument of overwriting, then?]
It can be. That is what it has become in this country. I’m sure I don’t have to introduce our readers, whoever they are, to the film Network, to what is arguably the only competent satire of the media ever produced.
[I notice that this film, released over fifty years ago, is cited only rarely in the present day.]
In the day that needs it most. A new viewer of Network, which was not Sidney Lumet’s only work of excellence, would probably say that the film anticipated the state of modern American culture, but I would argue that it reflected a culture that already existed. By the time Network was released, it was probably already too late.
[Recently, you accused me of being a defeatist. Tonight, you sound like a committed pessimist.]
All I mean to say is that the American media had become lethally decadent by the autumn of 1976, when American audiences took their first look at Network. Yet, the overwriters want us to believe that the media today, in its present state of malignancy, is a recent phenomenon—assuming they would have us acknowledge the present toxicity, which they wouldn’t.
[That historical revisionism, that is a form of overwriting?]
Yes, and one that is not as subtle as you might believe. Still, it is much subtler than the ongoing effort to reassure the American people that the election of 2016 was a decision between a serpent and a saint.
[They were telling us this before the election, weren’t they? They were trying to overwrite before history was written.]
Yes, they were, and they were empowered to do so by the media. It is impossible, truly impossible, to understand the election of 2016 unless it is first approached as a product of the media. That was no election; it was a television special, the Super Bowl of politics, preceded by an unconscionably long preseason.
[We’re living in another preseason now, aren’t we? We’re flexing our muscles, trying out for the team.]
Oh, unquestionably. The franchising of the American political apparatus is now complete. I can’t really imagine it becoming any more comprehensive. There’s nothing left to claim, nothing yet to be incorporated. Whatever slim semblance of independence was left to us at the dawn of the decade has long since been swallowed by the media machine. You really can’t say the media played a role in the election; the media was the election.
[Do you subscribe to the belief that Trump could not have been elected ten years ago, that he had to have social media in order to assume the kind of cultural presence that fuels his popularity?]
Yes, I do. I’ve often thought about Trump running for president in the 1800s, and I’ve never been able to put the image together. That’s because it’s senseless: Trump is hardly the first politician to bamboozle the American people, but his particular con wouldn’t have worked on a public that was not addicted to media, that was not compulsively consuming media.
[And do you anticipate that the next election will be more of the same?]
It depends on what you mean by “more of the same”. If you mean it will be a battle of media, then yes. If you mean that it will involve more media than the last election, that it will be more absurd than 2016, then I’m afraid I can’t answer that question. I’m not sure what the long-term effects of this media addiction will be, specifically. They will be deleterious, of course, but I can’t say exactly how they will destroy us, or whether they will destroy us in time for the election.
[Do you think there’s a chance of that? Do you think that the media will really destroy us?]
Obviously, our addiction to electronics is injurious to our mental faculties. The question is, what is the extent of the damage. In my own life, I can see people becoming sluggish. They don’t react as quickly or as energetically as they did five years ago. When something goes well, they dismiss it with lifeless dissatisfaction, as if they never really wished for that outcome to begin with. And by the same measure, when something goes wrong, they react only halfheartedly, as if the change to their lives were negligible, if not plainly unremarkable.
[Really? You haven’t noticed people becoming hostile without reason?]
No, I definitely have. I was about to say that this sedation seems to be particular to a certain class of people—not necessarily a high class, as that is a group to which I will never belong, but perhaps the upper middle class, or that which qualifies as the upper middle class today. These people have been tranquilized—
[By their electronics?]
Presumably. I can’t believe that this ubiquitous shapelessness of self is entirely unconnected to our unhealthy relationship with our electronics.
[It seems that you’re using the terms media and electronics interchangeably.]
Electronics are the gateway to the media. The media as it exists today cannot be acquired without them. Newspapers no longer count: they are printed once a day and cannot be updated in time with a new development. They lack that instantaneous, interactive element that defines modern media, and therefore, they are not part of “the media”.
[So, “the media” might be more accurately referred to as “the electronic media”?]
Well, the adjective is redundant. A lot of people don’t even realize that the term “media” is plural, referring to different mediums. In the modern lexicon, “media” as a singular noun actually refers to the electronic press.
[In which case, the term electronics might be synonymous with, but not identical to, media. Now, you believe that these electronics can act as a sedative or tranquilizer.]
The effect is well-documented. Six years ago, the Super Bowl was interrupted by a failure of some of the electrical systems in the stadium, yet there was no reported incident of violence or unrest in the crowd of 71,000 people. Several writers observed that the spectators were kept calm throughout the delay, which lasted for more than thirty minutes, because they were too busy fiddling with their cell phones.
[Too busy to do what? To panic? To riot?]
Clearly, it’s a good thing that the audience didn’t erupt into a violent brawl. However, the sinister implications of that observation hardly need to be articulated here.
[No, I see your point. Does this story reveal something about the addictive quality of electronics?]
I wouldn’t say that it reveals something about the addictive quality. That element is more apparent today, when the people in the stands are often staring at their phones instead of watching the game on the field. But the story about the power outage—which is a bit of a misnomer, considering how many people were playing with their phones—does demonstrate the human interest in screens, the human fascination with the plasma monolith, no matter what its size.
[And sometimes this gravitation ends in sedation. Other times, it ends in agitation.]
We’ve all heard the stories about the young fathers who murder their babies in a bout of rage after losing in a video game.
But the aggression that follows excessive time with our beloved electronics usually takes on subtler forms. It comes in the form of impatience, irritability, depression, and fatigue. I’m thinking of the man I encountered in the post office last week, the man who shouted “Bullshit” in front of his wife and children when the clerk, a soft-spoken middle-aged woman, reluctantly informed them that no more passport applications would be accepted that day. He didn’t think about how he was making a fool of himself in front of his family, and in front of everybody else in the building. He thought his puerile indignation was justified because he was being told to wait for what he wanted.
[And you think this was caused by too much texting, too much Facebook?]
All of the symptoms I’ve described above can result from extended use of electronics. Typically, we mean cell phones when we speak of electronics, but don’t forget about the laptops that so many of us use for work, or the desktop we might keep at home, or the television that we stare at for far longer than is healthy, and not just for the Super Bowl.
[One of the reasons we spend so much time on our phones is because we’re looking for news, for updates on the never-ending political crisis in which we’ve found ourselves. We explain our heavy use of cell phones as a kind of civic duty, as our obligation as responsible citizens to keep ourselves informed.]
I might buy that if we didn’t look on the news as a form of entertainment. Have you ever noticed how Americans, with their unerring intellectual maturity, once complained that the news was too boring to endure, but now complain that it has all become a circus? Of course, now is the time we can’t seem to get enough of a political education, can we? Now we are suddenly obsessed with our government. Now we must know who is making the decisions, and why.
[Earlier, I asked if you thought that the election of 2020 would be another media commodity. Do you expect to see interest in politics die down once Trump is out of office?]
As Eldon Tyrell once said, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. You would think that the American people, who have been quaffing political folderol for more than three years now, would eventually succumb to the effects of toxicity and desperately back out before they get any sicker. The problem is, I don’t know how long it will take before we finally overdose. Remember that it took several decades, at least, of sustained intellectual neglect before we reached this point of critical mass, so it may take a few decades more before we finally tire of it.
[Do you think it will take that long?]
No. This depth of obsession requires an expenditure of energy that is simply unsustainable. The body tires from exercise much sooner than it tires from inactivity, from the sluggishness that we’ve alluded to tonight. I think this balloon will burst sooner, rather than later. The question is, what does it mean to burst?
[That’s something we’ll have to look at in a different post.]