Wednesday, July 21, 2010

LeBron, Reality TV, and What It Means To You

I still remember the first time I watched the show. It was the second season, and after the furor of its first year I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I was with Jim, already an avid fan, who explained the rules to me as we sat on my living room couch.

"Every week someone gets voted off the island. They form two teams, and they're given tasks, and they have a competition every three days. The winning team gets immunity, and someone from the losing team goes home, unless they win the individual challenge."

"That's it?" I said. "THAT'S the show?"

He nodded eagerly.

"Oh yeah, but it's SO much more. People trick one another, they form alliances and break them, they betray one another, lie to one another. And the winner gets a million bucks."

We watched the show in relative silence, although from time to time Jim would make a comment. He'd already picked his favourite. The show was well produced, and though I hated to admit it, well conceived. The competitions each week were the spine of the show, but its heart was the side interviews and the inevitable human drama. It was like watching war or politics, but on a micro level. It was absorbing and disturbing. The show – or competition – seemed to bring out the worst in people and hold it up like a shiny light. More than honour or humility or compassion, what people loved the most, was a winner. However it happened. Easier to rewrite tales of philanthropy once you'd achieved that status, than try to do things the "right" way.

The show, of course, was Survivor, and the year was 2001. Despite the backlash from the writing community, and those who considered it a passing phenomenon, Survivor would serve as the leaping point to something we hadn't seen before. Reality television exploded, with some copycats more successful (The Amazing Race) than others (Temptation Island). Along with the sweeping changes in technology, the millennium would usher in something new to our culture, especially in how we defined ourselves. It was a new narrative. It wasn't the words that had changed so much, but the book itself. The ramifications would be enormous.

I sat in the library staring silently at the screen before glancing over at the girl next to me. She was Indian, and with an MCAT study guide in front of her, looked to be about twenty four.

"How's the studying going?" I asked, needing a break.

"It's tiring." She said, smiling.

"My wife wrote it in her second year. I can't imagine." I said.

"What are you working on?" She asked, leaning past her cubicle.

"I'm working on a piece about LeBron James. His decision. The whole one hour special he did." She looked at me as if I was speaking Greek.

"You know, last week. Le Bron James, the NBA's biggest star, decided to leave his hometown and move to another city…" I let my voice trail at the sight of her face. She looked apologetic.

"No, I'm sorry. I don't know what you're talking about."

It was amazing how easily you could become enraptured by your own world, I thought. Of course she hadn't heard of LeBron. She was studying to go to medical school. What did she care about basketball? What difference did LeBron's decision, mean to her?

We chatted for a while longer and I turned back to my screen. Did the whole LeBron scenario really warrant any attention from people outside the sports world? What, in fact, did it mean at all?


Most of us don't see or feel the pull of culture. It flows in first one direction, and then another, like a winding stream. Some people try to fight it, and decide that they will swim upstream their entire lives. These are the traditionalists, the ones who believe everything was better thirty years ago, that all change is terrible, and that we should fight the stream to the bitter end while denouncing others who don't along the way. There are some who would prefer to leave the stream. To them, culture is nothing more than the winding waterway to destruction. More cities. More forests cut down. More corporations. More starving people. Like Rousseau, they view civilized culture as a construct against the purity of wholeness and organic life. They view indigenous tribes as living one with nature, and modern culture as living against nature. And they do everything they can to leave the current.

But culture is inescapable. You can't jam or contradict or walk against the stream, because eventually it catches up to you. Most of those traditionalists wading against the stream use a cell phone or a blackberry. The new ecotypes for whom the earth is to be gently shared use twitter and Facebook to organize their rallies for more organic food. It isn't hypocrisy, because the sincerity in both groups is welcome over the apathy in most. And what else is there? If we don't fight for something, why do we live?

The importance of an event like the LeBron "Decision" is that it signals a change in the narrative of our culture. Today, stars and celebrities still bemoan their lack of privacy, but they do so from their twitter accounts while they're at lunch somewhere. Technology and this new idea of "reality television" have extended far beyond the one hour shows ten years ago. It is the king not only reaching to the masses, but to each individual in those masses. It is new, it is powerful, and what it will mean for us as a culture is yet to be determined.

What's important is that it is noted. We need to recognize the changing of the stream and move with it, because it will change everything. It some ways, it already has. For parents, it certainly changes our kids' view of the world, doesn't it? They can get ideas directly from the twitter accounts of their favourite celebrities. Information floods our world. Anyone (in many countries, excepting China) can know anything at any time. Think about that. All I need is a computer and I can find out whatever I want to know… about anything. Who would have believed that fifty or even thirty years ago. This cultural shift changes everything from the way we relate to one another to the way our brain processes new information. And it certainly changes our narrative.

Years ago, my dad told me stories about his favourite players growing up. Now, he doesn't need to. I can logon and find out for myself. These days we have the ability to choose our narrative, as LeBron did. As we do, with blogs like this one. More and more, the emphasis is on the individual to choose their story and the stories they will follow. So the question remains. What story do you follow? And what story do you wish to create? More than ever before, we craft our own tales. My only prayer is that the story we choose to write, will be one that remembers why we're here in the first place. And that story, so far as I'm aware, is not about us.