by Polar Levine 8/15/01 for popCULTmedia

In the early days of photography, any attempt to aim a camera at people of indigenous cultures would result in a horrified "thanks" to the photo op. They believed that the camera copying their image was stealing their soul. Of course, they were correct.

Since the Industrial Revolution reached full bloom the vast majority of humans, worldwide, have spent most of their waking hours performing labor that is meaningless to them -- meaningless in the sense that at the end of a year cranking out identical wingnuts or managing their distribution, a person could point to nothing with pride saying, "I brought that forth. It's one of a kind. That's me.

As most of us know, the antidote to a day's worth of soul-grinding tedium requires not an evening of contemplation, political analysis or Schoenberg. It requires beer, headbanging and easy laughs with a laugh track to help us know when the funny stuff happens in case we're nodding off. And as the years of wingnuttery drone on, our need for stimulation grows more acute. We need more amperage to achieve the adrenaline level that James Bond or Godzilla once provided. We now need to watch something hot -- watch people hitting each other on the head with furniture or watch folks fucking their brains out. The main thing is: we watch. Kids watch thousands of shootings by the time puberty kicks in. Sometimes they try it out in real life. They discover that the experience differs somewhat from the projected version. Oops.

The stimulation we lack in real life is achieved in projected life, i.e.-- life projected on a screen or a sheet of paper. We lose our souls when we have more of our chi (our life force) invested in the projected world than in the natural world. We seem to have more interest in what celebs are wearing than in what we're wearing, in getting round the clock news about sex lives that we're not having, in other people's heroics, tragedies and weight loss. Plastic panels made to look like wood and digital people answering the phone.

Now don't get me wrong -- I spend most of my waking hours in an air conditioned studio in front of two computer monitors. My stationary bike clocks far more mileage than my real bike. My consolation is that I make fun stuff that makes noise, pictured and thoughts -- not wingnuts. I'm a very lucky guy. But I'm also aware of my isolation from the organic world. And sometimes something seems very missing in a big way.

The greatest problem we face as humans is our dissociation from real life. We warehouse live chickens in chicken factories as though they were already shrinkwrapped. We petition a penniless Lord with prayers for wealth. Upgrade our spouses like they were RAM chips. No big deal. It's easy. We've become our projected selves looking for a thrill. I videotape my kid. But since my eyeballs are stuck to the viewfinder I don't actually see Boy kick the soccer ball till I plug the damn machine into the Mac. Meanwhile, I missed the actual experience of watching his game.

When I was in high school studying the Roman Empire and watching the news at night it occurred to me that at some point in the future America, in its latter days, would bring back the Circus Maximus. Americans, like the late Romans, would require murder as entertainment. I believe we're already there. In the past decade we've fed our less well-off and less-educated citizens to the media lions. We entertain ourselves watching them emotionally bludgeoning each other on afternoon talk shows. Skinning alive the dignity of Richard Jewell and Monica Lewinsky. Real people. Real humiliation. And now real "reality" programming.

The great danger of "reality" TV is not that it's stupid and degrading. It's that the media officially gets to designate an edited and packaged form of projected reality as "Real." We legitimize the fantasy that media is presenting our culture, subcultures, ethnic groups, political issues, other countries and cultures as the way they "really" are -- in sound bites and necessary theatrical enhancements. And, of course, products products products. "As seen on TV. . ."

Is there a cure for our continuing withdrawal from "real" life? I wish I weren't so busy with Photoshop and Pro Tools to ponder one. I guess it starts with the kids. Media literacy should be up there with reading, writing and math, particularly since kids will be reading off a monitor of some kind before they read a book. I received an email from Jack Armstrong, a teacher who requested use of my song NEWS GOO for his class, Ethics: the Social Impact of Mass Media. He's been teaching it for 19 years at Lansing Community College where the course, in the last five years, has been required for all Media Technology majors. "We are still one of the few colleges that have ethics as a required part of media technology. The students respond very well. If you give the human spirit the chance it does take flight." Jack does not make or manage wingnuts.

Watching my thoughts project themselves on my computer monitor (the one on the left) as I key in this draft, I pause to think of those folks in the loincloths whose great-grandparents declined to say "cheese." The Land Of Projection now employs them to cut down what's left of our rainforests. Did they say, "cheese" when National Geographic last came around?


Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia