“You ain’t ready.”
“No one is safe.”
“You’ll never be the same after this one.”
This is now common lingo in promos and previews for a lot of television shows, at least the dramatic ones. As viewers, we’re no longer invited to come along on an adventure, or to become invested in something deep and meaningful. We’re basically warned…no it’s even more blasé than that, we’re informed, that the brown stuff will be hitting the proverbial fan. Again. This time for serious. No really, not kidding. It’s no longer a plot twist to have someone die (usually for ridiculous reasons), to see lives ruined and to generally have the world crumble into a big steaming heap. It’s just par for the course in television these days.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m by no means Little Susie Sunshine when it comes to what I watch. Syrupy sweet, cartoony endings make me throw up in my mouth a little. I despise when I’m moved/manipulated into happy tears when everything works out just right. I like conflict. I can take a little darkness in my entertainment. I am, however, worried that some producers (and maybe some viewers too) have abandoned the notion of a happy ending. It feels like one has to dig pretty far into a plot in order to find even a tiny nugget of hope, and even then, one must resign one’s self to the fact that said nugget will probably get stomped on as well.
Here’s why I think, even in the midst of ennui and malaise, television can’t be all corpses and thunderstorms:
- People watch shows, at least partially, because of the characters. We see ourselves in them, even when they’re fighting zombies, developing telekinesis, or performing the world’s first brain transplant. We like them, and we get attached. The minute an audience starts to assume that their favourite personage could have a piano dropped on them at any second, the deal is off. If I’ve got one precious hour of quiet to spend on a show, I’m going to go for one in which players I care about are likely to be there again next week.
- The whole issue of desensitizing people to violence thing-yeah, that. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even watch fight scenes or gratuitous violence anymore, and it’s not because I can’t take them. It’s because it’s been done and it’s boring. I’m an adult with a pretty decent set of critical thinking skills, and a more than acceptable level of empathy, and I’ve still gotten to the point where someone getting blown up, run through, or squashed is just background noise to me. In real life, I’m appalled by human cruelty and misery, but on television, it doesn’t even register. I know I’m not alone in this, and it’s not only an unfortunate side effect of having the worst things happen in shows, but it’s a dangerous mindset to develop.
- I’m not convinced that having everything go wrong is all that realistic. Admittedly, I’ve lived kind of a charmed life, one in which my safety and well-being isn’t up for debate on a regular basis. But even when I’ve spoken to people who’ve experienced thirty-one flavours of hell, they’ve still had stories to tell about things going right, about laughter and celebration, and hope. Perhaps life really is cruel, and we’re just wired to see rays of light because we need to get out of bed in the morning, but so what? If that’s what life is really like, if that’s how human beings function, then shouldn’t television plotlines reflect that?
In truth, the way people consume media is shifting constantly, and with things like alternative broadcasting, online viewing, and binge watching, television is becoming a meritocracy. Our behaviour as viewers is telling showrunners that we’re not willing to wait a week or sit through commercials unless there’s a really compelling story to be found. In my mind, the “everything is going to go wrong” approach to storytelling is not much more than a series of cheap parlour tricks. It’s using shock instead of creativity and careful planning. Really, it’s just sloppy and lazy, and I’m kind of done with it. My eyeballs shall be reserved for programming in which, just every so often, my favourite character isn’t used for target practice, not everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and once in a while, something interestingly nice happens.
Anyone else visit Tomorrowland at Disney as a kid? Anyone else a little disappointed that, contrary to predictions, we are not currently zooming around in flying cars, chowing down on food pills, and plugging our brains in to our computers at work? Okay, maybe I’m not so disappointed that the last one didn’t happen, but I distinctly remember being excited at the notion that technology would one day make life idyllic. I was an adolescent when I made the pilgrimage to this magical place, and menial labour was about as appealing to me as dental surgery. I couldn’t imagine any human being turning down an offer to have something else take care of all the stuff we couldn’t or didn’t want to do. I had rosy visions of Rosie from the Jetsons, squeaky-wheeling around my house, with her marvelous New York accent and her purely-decorative apron.
Decades later, I still wouldn’t complain if someone told me I didn’t have to clean, lift, manufacture, maintain, or venture into anything I didn’t want to. And yet, on a regular basis, I read things like “Robots are taking our jobs!” My fellow humans are terrified of being usurped by machines, of being unceremoniously bumped from their place on the planet by gadgets of their own creation. How deliciously Frankenstinian, and a perfect opportunity to ask why robots make us so very uncomfortable. Yes, let’s, shall we?
I have several thoughts on the presence of our future robotic overlords:
- Robots are cool, shiny and slick. Humans are sweaty and awkward. Robots aren’t whiny, argumentative, or entitled like humans are. Robots not only do all kinds of stuff that we usually do, but they look awesomely composed doing it. And herein lies the rub, or at least part of it. They make us look pretty inept. What’s more confidence-ruining than having someone shine a big ole’ spotlight on our derpiness? They do things faster, more accurately, and in the process, they make work look good. Sigh.
- Those menial things we want robots to do might mean a lot more to us than we originally thought. In our primeval, larval stage (like, when we’re kids), we revel in dirt and activity. It feels really good to do stuff. The other day, I hauled about 10 wheelbarrow loads of dirt into the back yard. And I kind of liked it. I also like getting to the bottom of a basket of laundry, and assembling sensible, Swedish-made bookshelves (please, please don’t judge me). What if physical exertion and general hard work are a bigger part of who and what we are than we originally thought? Are we giving up something essential in having machines exert themselves on our behalf? Might we actually miss doing things for ourselves?
- With robots doing the menial, dangerous stuff we don’t want to or can’t do, we’re forced to find something bigger to do with our new excess of spare time. With our hands now free from toil, we might be expected to be inventive, creative, or perish the thought, rational. We might be required to use more of our brains. Scary.
- With robots taking over physical labour, we no longer get to put a stigma on humans who do it. Okay, we can still look down our noses at machines, but in truth, they give very little in the way of a satisfying reaction to our air of superiority. In the presence of worker bots, humans who still choose to work with their hands may become recognized as artisans, craftspeople, and historians. We already praise things that are “hand-crafted” or “hand-made”, so why not admire “hand-shoveled”, “hand-driven” or “hand-scrubbed”? Maybe robots will remind us to value all kinds of effort, all kinds of work.
- Ever noticed that a lot of the robots who do our physical work aren’t built to look human? I’m not sure we could bear having them pick up after us if they actually looked like us. We’re assured over and over again that robots don’t have thoughts or feelings of their own, but what if we’re afraid they might someday evolve to have these things? Can you imagine becoming dependent on an automated workforce for just about everything, only to have it turn around and give us the finger for making it do our dirty work? How deliciously robo-marxist!
I’d like to close with something that should go without saying. As cool and shiny and pervasive as robots may be, we do still have the power to say no to them, at least in our everyday lives. Okay, maybe we can’t personally fire the ones making our cars or scanning the bottom of the ocean, but it’s not to late to eschew things like automated coffee makers and the little hubcap-shaped dudes who clean the floor. Perhaps our nail biting over robots taking human jobs is largely because their presence reminds us of what we have that they do not- free will. We make robots. We put them there. If we don’t like the idea of them taking over our jobs, we can stop being apprehensive about them and choose to not have them there. We won’t even hurt their feelings if we make them go away. In the end, robots are things we create and use to make our lives easier, better. Believe it or not, this is kind of the point of most technology. If having robots work for us just ain’t working for us, we have the power to just say no. There’s probably even find a robot who’d do that for us too.