So I spent a long time in an airport last week, listening to CNN’s drone loop about how the world is going to hell in the next fifteen minutes: “GANG RAPE! TOXIC FOOD! UNTREATABLE STAPH INFECTIONS! CHILDREN ABDUCTED FOR FARMVILLE-RELATED SATANIC DEATH RITUALS! REPEAT!” How do people working at airports stand this? They probably deliberately delay flights just so people will lose their shit and give them something to listen to other than Nancy Grace’s annoying nasal tone. I would have crammed in the earbuds and listened to something loud and less annoying (I have a playlist mostly made up of old Flipper and Captain Beefheart that works), but I had to listen attentively to the gate announcers because they were changing my departure time every five minutes as the rain started and stopped a few thousand miles away.
After spending a few hours listening to this Abu Ghraib torture soundtrack, I wandered to a more quiet area of the concourse and called my friend Doug, who works in Atlanta as a video archivist for one of the big three-letter cable channels. He used to be my lab partner in the physics 201 class I took many lifetimes ago, when I wanted to be a computer science major and he wanted to be a meteorologist. Now he splices together neck-down footage of obese people in public places to drop into news reports on diabetes epidemics. I’d give him much more shit about the job, but he scares up the occasional baseball tickets, and got me a digitally remastered version of the Zapruder film on blu-ray one Christmas.
“Hey J, how’s the bay area treating you?” he said. “I was just scrubbing through some clips of the Oakland riots earlier today and thought about you.”
“I’m actually in Phoenix today, waiting on a plane,” I said. “What the shit is going on with CNN’s nonstop dead baby countdown?”
“Yeah, child abduction is awesome,” he said. “I mean, it’s awesome if you run a 24-hour news channel. Any time you drift into a slow news cycle, you can spin a story about a divorced dad that kept a kid too long on his weekend to make it sound like a group of angel dust-shooting skinheads shoplifted the kid out of a McDonalds and will be feeding him into a rusted leaf mulcher as some form of satanic offering to our dark lord lucifer. Probably once a month, some helmet-hairdo anchorwoman droid comes in here looking for some stock footage of Marilyn Manson drenched in blood and sucking off a microphone stand in front of twenty thousand screaming Hot Top consumers, so her producer can smash-cut it with pictures of a playground wrapped in yellow police tape.”
“Blame Julia Roberts,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “And if you say anything that might disagree with the mommy-blogging child worship addicts, you are Hitler. I mean, stop eating meat, cut off a ball, and start marching to Poland.”
I explained the Julia Roberts thing before in a comment I left elsewhere, and of course nobody acknowledged it because they were busy throwing dung at either one side or another, so I will explain it again. You can blame the entire political climate in this country on Julia Roberts. Pretty Woman was one of the first, and the best example of a movie that was synthesized by and for focus groups. Before that, movies had to hit the widest swath of viewers possible, because most places didn’t have the 300-plex theaters; there were two screens. And when people went out to the duplex for a movie on a Friday night, Hollywood didn’t have products targeted at specific demographics; If you didn’t like Brewster’s Millions, you watched Rocky 4; if you didn’t like either one, you went bowling.
But then someone had this wise idea that instead of guessing what people liked, they would get some locals at a mall in Nebraska or Kansas, or grab a bunch of tourists just off the bus in Hollywood, and put them in a screening room with a workprint of a movie. With some multiple-choice surveys and carefully formed questions, they could learn exactly what buttons got pushed by different parts of the film. Then executives with no film knowledge could tune a movie so it would light up a certain audience. Based on that knowledge, Hollywood started writing movies or green-lighting scripts that would hit these exact pressure points. If you were an aspiring writer or director, you strived to produce a product that tested well; if you were a Suit, you put the hammer down on any artistic folks and told them to get their shit together and “give the people what they want”. By the end of the century, guys like Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t find work anymore, and the Bring it On franchise tested well enough to release five films.
And since this worked so well with films, all corporate-generated entertainment and news became quantitatively engineered to score higher with larger demographics, which has resulted in news that is specifically designed to push buttons and TV that is aimed at the lowest common denominator. Slow-pitching to focus groups is responsible for New Coke, Windows Vista, the McDLT, and the entire film career of Kate Hudson. It’s why people who are dirt poor can get behind a corporate tax loophole, and the reason why anyone cares about a half-wit, half-term former Alaska governor. It’s going to turn society into the equivalent of those stupid automatically generated search pages that contain your search spelled 50 ways that say “you may have been looking for this” but provide absolutely no content.
It’s the same MO as the sugar and salt issue with food. Long ago, someone found that if you took a bland legume that was traditionally boiled and instead roasted it and drenched it in salt, people would eat peanuts incessantly. Then the food industrialists frankensteined things even more: add some saturated fats to shelf-stabilize the things; mix some sweet flavors with the salty to make them more irresistible to the palate; use a high-fructose corn syrup instead of a sugar to make them even more sweet for a lower price. Pretty soon, every American is eating 20,000 calories a week of peanut-based candies, snacks, butters, additives, and junk, and what was once a direct one-two attack to the taste buds of sodium and artificial sweetener is now the norm.
The only way to break that cycle is to declare food bankruptcy, quit eating everything that’s processed or refined, and spend the next week shitting your guts out and shaking from food preservative withdrawal. I remember when I would eat at McDonald’s three times a day, and traded those sweet, sweet Quarter-Pounders for a life where I wrote down every carrot stick and subway sandwich minus the bread I ate during the day, trying my damndest to stay under 26 weight watchers points per 24 hours. A few months after reaching my goal weight, I stepped in a gas station McDonald’s for the first time, on a long night trip from SF to LA, and bought a McNugget meal, since the next-healthiest item for dinner on that I-5 exit would have been a dinner of beef jerky and reeses’ pieces. And those six pieces of engineered chicken tasted like eating a handful of rock salt that you’d use to de-ice a sidewalk in December.
So how do you do escape the 24-hour news cycle in today’s plugged in world? You’re in luck, because the unabomber’s ranch just went on sale. For $69,500 you can move to rural Montana, grow a cool beard, and learn how to hunt, fish, and come to possibly incorrect conclusions over various Joseph Conrad novels. The shack isn’t there anymore, so you’ll need to bring a tent or prepare to build a nice little lean-to. But after suffering through a cold winter with nothing but a single-speed bike (the unabomber was a hipster – he rode a fixie!), the memories of Nancy Grace’s shrieking about a martial law amber alert wet dream will be long gone, and you’ll finally have peace. I mean, until you start sending pipe bombs to computer manufacturers.