Media Gray Goo

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Every now and then (OK, weekly), something Very Dumb happens involving a piece of mass culture media. People meltdown because of some casting. Someone gets fired because of saying something controversial like “hey, don’t be a douche.” Some new thing comes out that really just builds on something else, and we vaguely care.

How much of our minds get occupied by stuff like Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and the like? How much of our culture involves these works? How many people hang on every new book, idea, episode, etc. Geek that I am, I’m starting to wonder if this has gone very, very bad.

Let’s imagine how a healthy body works. Yes, it’s a unified whole, but also it’s got specific parts and is filled with checks, from antibodies to the ability to vomit bad food to neurons holding back other neurons from doing something terrible. A body is a single thing composed of parts that are both linked and independent in some ways (but not separate from the body).

A body that was one giant unified mass is basically an amoeba or The Blob.

Now let’s ask about a healthy culture. Shouldn’t it be the same way? There are dominant cultural elements, and many subcultures, specialized knowledge, and generalized knowledge. There will be conflict, but often in service of a larger whole – subcultures generating widespread ideas, widespread ideas passing their time and going to memory, etc.

A culture that is one giant unified mass is a gray goo of nothing, large but nothing to hold on to, nothing relevant to the individual.

I’m thinking our mass culture is becoming a mass of gray goo. Sure some of it may be great gray goo, but overall it seems to be samey even when good. I’m glad we can re-invent things (Like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, who I loved), but why do we have to keep doing the same thing?

Worse, doing the same thing keeps giving power to the same group of people and companies (usually Disney these days). We’re letting people own vast chunks of our culture, and the inevitable battles between “do it good and interesting” and “give me the gray goo I expect” are exhausting. Besides, we know in the end that the big companies are going to play it safe – and safe isn’t always the best thing for the culture.

(Think of it as being like your brain overruling your body’s warning signals to keep drinking and eating cheeseburgers.)

This is probably why some big companies like Netflix and Amazon caught on and are working on churning out different stuff. It’s perhaps why we see authentically good media as well because some people got that there needs to be more. I can critique the hell out of them for many reasons, but I can acknowledge smart plays against gray culture goo.

So now I want to imagine a different media culture.

Imagine a media culture with few to no dominant media properties. Imagine things actually ending for a change, and excellent media being rerun or reread instead of being extended. Imagine not having cultural space taken up by gray goo, but more, smaller things.

Imagine if you do get into something that is a long-term media commitment, that it’s a more intimate experience. That TV series going on for a decade and its spinoffs don’t have to be forced into our consciousness. Imagine fandom as more interlinked preferences than A Big Thing.

Imagine more originality or at least new versions of the same old thing.

This is going to sit with me awhile. It makes me think about my own tastes, about what matters, and about what I’m writing.

Steven Savage