Binging Alone

George Monbiot notes the individualization of entertainment (Out of the Wreckage): “Television, while it tended to shut down conversation, at least was something that we watched, in the early days, together. Now we often watch is alone. We spend hours every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing – dancing, singing, playing sport, even cooking” (62).

In short, “television tells us . . . that life is somewhere other than where we are” (62).

Celebrity culture reinforces the corrosive effects of TV. Celebrity is a deliberate effort on the part of faceless corporations to give themselves a human face: “The rise in celebrity culture is not an accident or emergent feature of our age. It is the means by which distant and impersonal corporations connect with their customers and construct desire. It is hard for people to attach themselves to a homogenised franchise owned by a hedge fund whose corporate identity consists of a filing cabinet in Panama City. So the machine needs a mask. It must wear the face of someone we see as often as we see our next door neighbor” (62).

It works. Many have deeper attachments to celebrities than they do to members of their family or neighborhood. Monbiot cites a study showing that “those who follow celebrity gossip most closely are three times less likely than people interested in other forms of news to be involved in local organisations, and half as likely to volunteer.” It happens as “virtual neighbours replace real ones” (62).

Social media can’t overcome this isolation. It is, Monbiot admits, “an excellent tool for creating connections,” but it is also “a powerful weapon for breaking them.” It places us in mimetic rivalries with friends and contacts, intensifying “social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey on ourselves.” It gives us tools to “quantify social standing, and to see what other people have more friends and followers than we do” (63).

Social media has anti-social effects: “the more [people] engaged in social media, the less socially oriented their values become, shifting . . . away from helping other people and being connected to family life, and towards fame, image, money and status” (64).

The political consequences are significant: “People with few attachments to the tangible world are easily deceived,” easily caught up in mob contagions (64).

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