Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Procedural Voyeurism

I’m a huge fan of Walter Kirn, who wrote “Up In The Air” and “Mission To America,” to name just two of his novels. I wanted to call attention to his piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about what he dubs “procedural voyeurism”. I hope everyone gives it a read.

“Procedural voyeurism” is Kirn’s term for our modern culture’s obsession with procedure over outcomes, the backstory over the story, the “art of the deal [rather] than the art,” as the headline reads. I think this is a very important observation about our culture and speaks to a shift in how we Americans view our world that is vastly different from 20 or 30 years ago.

Kirn cites such examples as the LeBron James uproar, the fact that weekend box office receipts are reported on the nightly news and discussed by consumers, and the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno war. On the political front, I think it’s pretty much unprecedented that our national debate centers on procedural issues like the filibuster, and the fact that we’ve been discussing the 2012 presidential election since the 2008 election wrapped. Be it entertainment, politics or anything else, we’re all insiders now. Everyone has the “inside scoop,” a window into the boardroom.

I agree with Kirn that we’ve reached this state of affairs because the internet and cable news have left a gaping void in the information flow. That is the mechanism of procedural voyeurism; as for the why’s, he writes:
Procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over — sometimes correctly, as with the BP oil spill, whose coverage has been rich in process and until recently short on meaningful developments. The Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote about mesmerizing narratives that he called origin myths. He said they helped people feel a sense of authority over an otherwise chaotic world. Today our origin myths are more mundane, but we still see the deal as a primordial act. We might do well to call these decadent versions “LeBron Announcements” or “Conan-Leno Matches”: rituals of symbolic participation in games-within-games that are way above our heads and occur within heavily guarded inner circles that we can peek into but never truly penetrate.

I think that’s very, very astute. The internet has opened up an entire world of information to the masses: everyone can be an expert when anything you want to know is just a mouse-click (or tap on the iPhone or Blackberry) away. What hasn’t changed is that our institutions are still an insider’s game. This is true from Wall Street to Washington D.C. to Hollywood, and everything in between.

Even as we get more educated about how our world works, we are ever more excluded from influencing that world. The internet has been a great democratizer but we’re still in the early stages of the process, and the established institutions aren’t giving up the keys to the kingdom any time soon. Just as the internet enables us plebes to raise money for the causes and candidates of our choosing, no longer relying on established organizations like political parties, along comes the Supreme Court to say let's give corporations unlimited spending power.

Here’s another example: Today I voted. I pushed the squares on the touch screen, reviewed my selections, and hit “vote,” wherein everything went into a void. I have no way of knowing whether my vote will be counted, or counted accurately. As far as I know it’s all been so much Kabuki Theater to keep the illusion of Democracy intact. Who knows.

But I’m not rioting in the streets about it ... yet. Because I have a flood of information at my fingertips which has basically opened the doors of the smoke-filled room. I have symbolically penetrated the halls of power, even as I'm ever further excluded from it.

I dunno, I'm kind of thinking out loud here. I do think Kirn is onto something. I wonder if we'll ever reach a point where we're satiated with the procedural conversation and demand more actual influence over our world?