Stranger still, commercials may appear anywhere in a news story—before, after, or in the middle. This reduces all events to trivialities, sources of public entertainment and little more. After all, how serious can a bombing in Lebanon be if it is shown to us prefaced by a happy United Airlines commercial and summarized by a Calvin Klein jeans commercial? Indeed, television newscasters have added to our grammar a new part of speech—what may be called the “Now…this” conjunction, a conjunction that does not connect two things but disconnects them. When newscasters say, “Now…this,” they mean to indicate that what you have just heard or seen has no relevance to what you are about to hear or see. There is no murder so brutal, no political blunder so costly, no bombing so devastating that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, Now…this.” He means that you have thought long enough on the matter (let us say for forty seconds) and you must now give your attention to a commercial. Such a situation is not “the news.” It is merely a daily version of Springtime for Hitler, and in my opinion accounts for the fact that Americans are among the most ill-informed people in the world. To be sure, we know of many things; but we know about very little.
…In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice; we watch him, by ours. When a culture becomes distracted by trivia; when political and social life are redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments; when public conversation becomes a form of baby talk; when a people become, in short, an audience and their public business a vaudeville act; then—Huxley argued—a nation finds itself at risk and culture death is a clear possibility. I agree.
In the online age, it seems almost quaint to be worried about the corrupting influence of commercials, when most people use ad-blockers on their browsers and only watch TV news in an à la carte format of individual clips selected for virality. That strange “flattening” phenomenon still exists, though, where news, entertainment and commentary are all mashed together into digital gruel. It reminds me of English class in high school, where we would read plays out loud in class, with different kids assigned to various characters — there would always be at least one dull kid who read hizzorher parts in a flat, monotone voice, failing to add any dramatic inflection where needed, making even Shakespearean poetry sound insipid and boring. Social media has only intensified this leveling effect, and Twitter, the motherland of journalists, “creatives” and other cultural tastemakers, is the most surreal of all. The lingua franca of the realm consists mostly of memes (formerly known as “inside jokes,” now in picture form), slang catchphrases, and other forms of baby talk. Histrionic emotings about the latest school shooting or political outrage are quickly replaced in the “trending” column by Baby Yoda gifs or jokes about the Peloton commercial, sometimes all in the same individual’s timeline. Adult infants, transfixed by their glowing screens, alternate between squalling in anger and cooing in pleasure. No one needs to interrupt to say, “Now…this,” because it’s intuitively understood that flux is the norm, and there is no significant distinction between one novelty and the next. Deeply serious, utterly frivolous; all are presented in exactly the same deracinated sentence fragments, with the same tiny displays of metrics attached beneath, like tin cans tied to newlyweds’ bumpers, letting us quantify how many people responded with sentence fragments of their own, versus how many responded by pushing a button to signal affirmation. The overall effect is to increase one’s sense of being a spectator, distant and detached, as all this flotsam and jetsam passes by.
And yet, if I’m being fair, how many of us strictly segregate our thoughts through the course of the day? Don’t we mix the frivolous and serious in varying amounts? Don’t we pause to play with the cat while working on something important, or crack jokes in the middle of otherwise serious conversations? Don’t our conversations veer wildly between the silly and profound? I’m pretty sure a detailed log of the contents of my thoughts on any given day would be embarrassingly unimpressive, especially if presented in the form of a list, sans context. Maybe our real gripe with social media is that it makes public that which should be kept private. Maybe, rather than distracting us with with illusions and fantasies, it acts as a pitiless mirror, revealing just how many of our everyday thoughts and actions fail to measure up to our ideals. Maybe we just can’t stand that much honesty, so we console ourselves by witnessing proof that our friends and acquaintances are just as foolish and petty as we are.