By Hayden Cagle, Columnist
Has human interaction and contact become a luxury? Can we trust ourselves to discern the “real” from the not-quite-real? Do we even care about the distinction anymore, or are artificial intelligence, virtual reality, metaverses and avatars so embedded in our lives that we are numb to what is happening to us?
Some days, it seems that everything on social media or television is staged, curated and produced, and that much of it is attempting to manipulate or persuade us. I have learned that this creates what researchers call “Spectacle,” or images and shadows media create to grab and hold my attention.
With smartphones, big-screen TVs, tablets, laptops, and Zoom screens, it is not difficult to get lost in Spectacle, to rely on what is presented rather than figuring things out for ourselves. From narrative frames to news cycles, from misinformation to disinformation, it seems that every mediated thing I encounter is made to grab my attention and suck me in.
And the stories and spectacles keep coming. Inevitably, I am fully engaged with whatever big media has presented to me. The character Christof in The Truman Show prophetically said, “We accept the reality we are presented.”
It’s been a revelation this semester to learn the extent to which I am affected by media, even in my sports viewing. Broadcasters and content providers break headlines, present their opinions and ideas, and I readily accept them. Whatever they report, I tend to just believe it, and this repeats to such an extent that I end up trapped in a cave of someone else’s creation.
This cave I entered, that big media built seemingly just for me, has proved difficult to escape. I’ve realized that by so routinely depending on the narratives and stories presented to me, I had become lazy in my thinking. I stopped putting forth effort to form my own opinions. Because I got in the habit of accepting what the media pushed instead of thinking and finding my own opinions, I became comfortable in that cave.
By being so entertaining, so dazzling, so persuasive, I neglected to notice the entrapment, that I was no longer free, that I was chained. Plato describes this in his Allegory of the Cave, which we read this semester in Sports Communication. I had no idea why we were reading Plato until we started talking about how it could apply to the Super Bowl.
The thing about this cave that I re-discovered this semester is that there is a way out, a source of light to follow to freedom, or to what could become freedom if I’m willing to put in the work. This light outside of the cave represents to me being able to think freely. It has dawned on me how much on other people’s opinions I have been relying.
And it might be worse than I thought, because the hardest part isn’t pursuing the light, but resisting the urge to walk back into the cave.
Every day I must make a choice not to be tempted to fall back in my old ways of lazy thinking. It is difficult to critically think about what is being presented, produced and staged, often with such polish and production value that to even think about thinking critically about it is discouraged.
Fortunately, by being made aware of commercial goals of most message-makers, the more I have begun noticing Spectacle and its narratives. I have seen the flaws in how I used to think and in how much stock I had put into Spectacle. I was entranced.
I know I will still fall victim to Spectacle and in the frenzy it produces. March Madness is a recent example. Even after these periods of being enchanted by Spectacle, though, I can stop to realize the laziness, get back off of the sofa, and do something about it.
I have learned that instead of relying on other people and on what I see in media, I must take it upon myself to learn, explore, and form my own thoughts and opinions. This takes time. But in taking this time and making the effort, I can recover control over my own thoughts.
Judging by the ratings for NFL games, the attention given to one slap at an awards show, and whether Russell Westbrook is a victim or a villain, I can see that many are still in the cave I once inhabited. But I was able to escape, so I know it can be done.
The cave can be cozy, easy, entertaining and, with the right snack foods and bingeable content, even preferrable to the pandemic-weary, war-torn, politically divisive reality “out there.” But growth and good habits of thinking can’t happen in the cave. Seek the light. Break the shackles of the screens and of the commodifying media-sport complex. Your freedom just might depend on it.