In my early twenties, I worked in a plastic factory. I worked in assembly and shipping; mainly assembling and packaging for shipment large plastic rain gauges. For a Fancy College Boy like me it was a truly educational experience.
I had never before considered where products come from or how they are made or how they arrive in stores for purchase. I think I kind of thought robots did all of that, except for maybe unloading boxes into the back storeroom at ACE hardware. It’s not like that, at all. Human beings touch everything at every stage. We pushed big bins full of parts from the injectors into the assembly area. We assembled them by hand at little work stations. We glued and stapled them together, then inspected them for damage, then wrapped them by hand, then packaged them in display boxes for hardware stores.
When I describe this to people sometimes they are surprised. I was, at the time. My only experience with the reality of manufacturing was TV. Namely Bugs Bunny cartoons set in factories. I never thought about it, but when I did I guess I figured cartoon robots put rain gauges together and shipped them to ACE Hardware. A lot of upper middle class professional people who work office jobs manipulating abstractions (spreadsheets, computer code, graphic designs, insurance reports, etc.) never experience the reality of how that rain gauge got to ACE Hardware.
It’s not just rain gauges though. It’s everything. Have you ever been inside a warehouse? Inside a shipping container? A slaughterhouse? A real working farm of tens of thousands of acres? An oil refinery?These are not glamorous places, but they are where most of what we consume or own become actual real reality.
The weird truth is, the great majority of Americans in 2018 don’t need to know even this much about actual real reality. Everything we want or need is assembled out of sight somewhere far away, wrapped in plastic, transported in darkness, loaded onto shelves while we aren’t watching. Heck we barely need to go to stores any more. Amazon brings it right to your door. It’s not necessary to know with any precision how anything works or how to make or repair anything at all. Other than the abstractions we manipulate for money (itself just another abstraction.) Even the people who do the assembling — we only assembled one little part. How the plastic got to the injector room, that was a deep mystery.
Life wasn’t always like this. Until extremely recently — say, 1850 — you or someone you knew personally made or maintained every single object in your life. You couldn’t afford to be ignorant about how food got to your table, because you grew the damn food.
(As a sidenote, I gotta say: the way we live now is a gigantic improvement. I’m not bucking to return to that world, at all.)
Living so far removed from reality has side effects.
For starters, discerning whether something is real or a fantasy is not a salient problem for daily existence. It’s OK, in the course of daily life, to believe (or more accurately: feel) something utterly unlikely. Like the Clintons are running a pedophile sex ring out of a pizza parlor in New Jersey. Or a styrofoam hat will protect your brain if you get hit by a car while riding your bicycle. Or meat is grown in industrial vats or something. Maybe we know, slightly logically, that an animal had to die for those buffalo wings, but it doesn’t quite feel true. It doesn’t have to feel true, because Real Reality is optional, and buffalo wings are tasty. The fantasy has no consequence.
More meta: a question that can be resolved with a datum, e.g. whether the world is getting hotter or colder, seems like it might be a matter of opinion. Because everything is an opinion now. What is real, after all? It feels true that the world is getting hotter, but remember all that snow last winter? That felt true, too. Global warming, that’s just your opinion, man.
I worry mostly that we have lost the ability to discern. I have a whole separate rant about that. I think knowing whether things are functionally sound is related closely to knowing whether they are ethically sound. If we aren’t concerned with knowing reality from unreality, we might also stop being concerned with knowing right from wrong, or good from bad.
With a certain smugness I could claim for years that “I never watched a single hour of Reality TV.”
This claim bends the truth, depending on your definition of Reality TV. I watched some of the first season of Real World twenty-five years ago, which seems quaint now.
I watched plenty of the Reality TV shows which are more like elaborate game shows or higher-rent versions of The Gong Show. I watched The Amazing Race pretty regularly, and for about two years I watched American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. I once saw an episode of Deadliest Catch, and something called Junkyard Wars. These were all OK as entertainment.
I never watched these other shows that bottle people together in a controlled situation, soaked them with alcohol, and then filmed them setting each other on fire. Like literally, not even a few minutes at a time. I had a roommate who watched The Bachelor and out of anthropological curiosity I tried to sit through an episode. It was excruciating. The people on display were so vapid, their neediness so grasping, I felt ashamed even to look at them. I wanted more than anything to get them away from the front of the camera, in the same way I want to get drunk people out of a bar. This is exactly the wrong place for you, honey.
I have no idea, none whatsoever, what happened on The Apprentice. The only thing I know is that Donald Trump said “you’re fired.” Presumably he was firing apprentices.
But for all that I was smug about my Reality TV chastity, I was missing out on this thing where Reality TV was swallowing up Real Reality, because Real Reality is optional now, and kind of boring. I ignored Reality TV at my — our — peril. The people concerned with Real Reality turned our noses up at Reality TV, but it turns out Reality TV didn’t need us one whit.
Meanwhile, those of us living (or trying to live) in Real Reality have no armor against this. One of the disorienting things about the current socio-political-cultural moment is that it is so relentlessly, hopelessly stupid. It is not even concerned with what is actual Real Reality. Hell, it doesn’t even care whether it is possible to determine whether it’s real. It’s fake turtles all the way down. At least the people who are well-steeped in The Bachelor and Apprentice had some sense of what was coming, and by what rules it plays. I wish I had known a little of that before [all this…]
The World Is Burning
The sky outside right now is brown, the sun is red. When the wind turns a certain way, a fine rain of ash falls like snow. The West Coast is on fire. Literally. REALLY. And our Gong Show president gibbers surreal nonsense about water. It would feel plausible, I guess, because it would make sense on TV. In Real Reality they fight forest fires with chemicals and digging and other fires. In Real Reality the trees are burning because it is so hot. In the long run, Real Reality will have no truck, none whatsoever, with the rules they play by on The Apprentice. The forests will burn up just the same, whether we feel global warming is real. And now we have no idea, none whatsoever, how to grow food or find water ro rig up a steam engine.