by Ken Sanes
In the past few decades, we have begun to perfect the art and science of creating what are often referred to as virtual worlds. Most notably, we have enhanced the special effects in movies and television, invented realistic computer games, and created new kinds of immersive media with movie-rides, virtual realities and elaborate theme parks. As a result, we can now take the realm of imagination and make it seem to come to life.
But many people are beginning to recognize that, along with these developments, another change is taking place, as many of the nonfiction elements of our media and culture also begin to look like invented worlds. In place of the routine and mundane events of everyday life, they are drawing us into a simplified realm of exaggeration and spectacle, full of characters and situations that bear more than a passing resemblance to what we find in fiction.
We can see this change in the fabrications of TV news, which now mass produces extreme stories about danger, conflict, power, and suffering that have very little in common with the events they are supposed to depict. We can see it in the scripted publicity events of the politician-performers and the efforts by advertisers to create 20-second fake paradises in which life seems to be an endless celebration. And we can see it in the global theatricalization of suffering, in which cameras in the courtroom have turned personal tragedies into made-for-TV specials.
In essence, these changes are giving us a culture in which fiction can now be made to look like fact, and facts are converted into believable fictions. It is a culture that tries to immerse us in a world of imagination that masquerades as something objective. As the historian Daniel Boorstin described it at the beginning of the 1960s, using a word that has since become a cliché, it is surrounding us with a realm of "unreality" that is replacing the more traditional culture that was here before.
Where does this culture of "unreality" come from. Part of the answer is that it is created and controlled by a governing class made up of the media, corporations and political groups. The members of this class exercise much of their power by inventing news, advertising, and entertainment that is sold to us and used to sell us other things, from products and candidates to ideas. All compete with each other to determine who will craft the stories and images that shape our perceptions.
It is the purpose of this web site to make this invented realm of popular culture transparent to our view and understanding. Toward that end, the site looks not only at the evolving culture described above, but also at the way movies and television express our desire to be free from the mystifying effects of this culture. It examines the growing number of science fiction works, for example, that show us characters who have to escape from high-tech societies full of illusion, that turn out to be prisons disguised as paradises. These stories are about our own society, as it is and could become. And they are about a kind of journey this site would like to take you on, in which we move "outside" the bubble of our cultural containment, and see ourselves and society in a new way.
The site also looks at the way the stories of popular culture express what is best in us, including our deepest desires to lead a full life and create a good society. Here, it examines the liberating power of situation comedies and other movies and television programs that temporarily put us in touch with an essential and inherently ethical part of ourselves. These much underrated works are part of the alternative to the reign of falsehood now offered by TV news, politics and advertising.
Collectively, the essays on the site seek to reveal both the inner meanings that are expressed and disguised in the media, and the way these meanings are shaped to influence us as audiences, voters and consumers. The ultimate goal of these works is to move us from experiencing the creations of the media to interpreting them and then to re-creating the world of fact so it lives up to the ideals expressed in our better stories. If we are able to do that, we will find that we have new stories to tell about how life has become more interesting and more like the happy endings of popular culture.
Image attribution: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530–1569)