Why Reality TV may be Ruining Film

Recently I rewatched the film A Woman Under the Influence in which Gena Rowlands starred and which her longtime partner and iconic filmmaker John Cassavetes directed. I had first seen the film decades ago as part of an assignment in which those of us in the college course we were taking in film were asked as part of our final assignment to select a film we thought we would enjoy and then write a review of it. As I watched the film that first time, I was struck by what an incredible portrait it was of a woman struggling to maintain her mental health amidst an impossible domestic situation in which she was rarely seen by others in her life as the person that she was.

However, it was also a film which at the time felt so iconic, raw, and new simply because it was so unstructured and spontaneous (as nearly all films by Cassavetes do). I fact, when I read later that Cassavetes had actually written a fairly well-defined script, I actually had trouble believing it. For this was the age in which raw, unstructured, spontaneous filmmaking was very much the exception, and not the rule. And when one did encounter this sort of film (for example, The Panic in Needle Park which was directed by Jerry Schatzberg, and which was about heroin addicts on the upper west side of Manhattan) one tended to marvel at its life affirming spontaneity.

Unfortunately, now it seems that when one does encounter such a film, it often appears that a certain amount of the life has been drained out of it simply because we have grown so used to the unstructured yet highly superficial nature of reality television, which of course is unstructured in a similar manner in which many great spontaneous films of the 1970s were, but at the same time possess almost none of the meaningful dramatic content which was part of these earlier films. When I rewatched A Woman Under the Influence, I could barely believe that it was the same movie about which I had been so taken years ago; growing quickly bored by watching Gena Rowlands character Mabel stumble through her life which living on the edge of a complete mental breakdown.

And I began to ask myself why it was that a film which had so previously engaged me years ago now felt very much like it was now stale and robbed of much of its previous life. And then, soon afterwards the answer came to me. It was that I had seen similar unstructured, spontaneous situations on reality TV (although the vast majority of time ones which involved boring, empty people who have little to say to me about life in the world) that I had become so inured to them that I was not able to enter as readily the spontaneous, endlessly fascinating world of films like A Woman Under the Influence or The Panic in Needle Park.

As far as all this, I have one further suggestion. If reality television is going to increasingly become a part of our culture, why not create a program such as something which shows a group of thespians who run a theater company preparing dramatic presentations which reflect situations in their own lives? Now that might be interesting, certainly more interesting than programs having to do with rich housewives endlessly screaming at one another. Bravo used to be a great arts network. What in the world has happened to it? Finally, the best reality TV is now coming to our televisions this summer: The Olympic Games.

What Barbie Doesn’t Understand About Feminism

In her iconic feminist tract A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argued that in order to write and create properly women must have an income of 500 pounds to depend on each year as well as a room of their own where they remain undisturbed by others and also by the cares of daily life. Yet she also wrote of how if women are to reach their potential they must become more androgynous. That is, they should seek to embody both the masculine and feminine parts of themself. While the same could be said for men. That is, they too should seek to embody both the masculine and the feminine.

According to Woolf, unless both men and women can embody the androgynous mind both their writing and their character will be permanently flawed, leaving women frustrated and angry while men become too obsessed with themselves. As far as Woolf is concerned, the pitting of one sex against another, with one side claiming superiority while imparting inferiority to the opposite sex belongs to what she calls the school age stage of human existence where ultimately sides are drawn.

As far as the movie Barbie is concerned, although it does indeed make some valid points concerning feminisms, men, and a certain patriarchy which unfortunately still exists in our society, it also commits the cardinal sin of which Virginia Woold speaks of in her book, that of far too often  necessarily pitting one gender against another; and in so doing not allowing the single-sexed mind to make distinctions between the sexes that the androgynous mind would never make.

This is something that has troubled modern feminism for some time now; that in being so intent on opposing the male dominance of a patriarchy, any number of feminists haven’t allowed themselves to become more androgynous. which according to Virginia Woolf is the true path toward women reaching their full potential. Barbie certainly had some interesting points to make concerning female empowerment, but still it often felt as I watched the movie that in using the Barbie doll for its vehicle it didn’t fully examine potentially all sides of the female character.

Greta Gerwig is obviously an extremely talented filmmaker, yet it seems at times as if she unnecessarily casts men in a disparaging light. With the movie Little Women (which was a great version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel) she took aim at Henry David Thoreau (Alcott’s close friend) and his iconic novel Walden, claiming that it was easy to write his sojourn in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts simply because he didn’t have a wife and children to care for. Yet when it came to her literary hero (Alcott) she never offered the same criticism concerning the feminine writer who likewise never married and never had children.

Why Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Really Intelligence

As many people who study semantics and the meaning of words already know, the term oxymoron refers to a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms appear in conjunction with each other. For those who would choose to look at the matter more closely, the term artificial intelligence might indeed be seen a genuine oxymoron in the sense that what is artificial can never really be part of a genuine intelligence. That is if one is willing to look more closely at what the word intelligence really means in its broader context; one that is simply beyond the parameters of cognition, memory, and logical thought patterns.

If one looks at intelligence as a matter of having direct insight into the details and dynamics of the world in which one lives, rather than as a capacity for accurate cognition or the use of logical thinking and memory to ferret out the truth concerning various situations, then it would seem to be rather obvious that the sort of artificial apprehension of reality that is part of A.I. and all its various uses and devices is not a part of the use of one’s emotive and sensorial life that is required for this sort of immediate direct insight to take place. Indeed, the sort of analytical thought and memory that is part of A.I. often only dilutes that sort of insight.

That is to say, artificial intelligence, for all of its amazing powers will never be able to possess the sort of emotive or sensorial apprehension that is requited for moments of direct insight into the nature of things; an intelligence which is more immediate and more direct than what can be gained through the use of logical thought and memory, even as cognitively creative as those two dynamics might be at times in apprehending reality more clearly or in solving a number of our pressing problems. In addition, when A.I. enthusiasts speak of artificial intelligence possessing consciousness, it is not the consciousness born of direct insight, one that takes place beyond the domain of thoughts and words.

What we so desperately need in our current digital age is a redefinition of what intelligence means. Is it simply a matter of how to use cognitive thought and memory in order to think creatively, or does it have more to do with having direct insight into things at a place beyond thought and memory, where we can ultimately combine emotive and sensorial reactions to different elements of our world in order to see more clearly? If it is the latter, then A.I. will never be fully a part of what the word intelligence means. It will be able to bring all kinds of technologies to the world which exponentially can enrich our lives, but it will never possess genuine insight.

Albert Einstein figured out the relationship between space and time not nearly so much due to a cognitive apprehension of these things, but instead due to an intuitive realization of their dynamics. Pablo Picasso created much of his great cubist art after his immediate realization of the need to jettison the idea of the vanishing point. Niels Bohr was able to comprehend the structure of the atom and how electrons circle the nucleus due largely to his previous intuitive struggles with the nature of rational thought. And the great trumpet player Miles Davis was able to expand the world of bebop jazz into his beautiful, lyrical playing not nearly so much due to a better understanding of music theory, but largely due to his intuitive realization of what would happen if he simply lengthened the space between musical notes.

The possibility of perceiving our ourselves and our world through an intelligence which is anchored in the sort of direct insight which the above explorers of the fabric of inner space employed has always been with us. However, for this to occur, we need to recognize that the type of intelligence currently associated with A. I. and all of its resultant technologies does not fully exist at the same level that a holistic intelligence born of direct insight does; one that necessarily begins with our emotive and sensorial reactions to the world. Certainly, A.I. can provide many important new components to our world. Yet the one thing its can’t do is to exist in the midst of this same level of holistic awareness.

What A.I. Enthusiasts Just Don’t Get

Now that Artificial Intelligence has become a significant part of our national conversation, all kinds of possibilities are being suggested on a regular basis for how A.I. might improve all our lives if we just give it a chance. From vast improvements in medicine, education, the arts, media, etc. the list of the startling new developments that artificial intelligence might bring to us has become in effect a justification of sorts for why we should drop many of our concerns about this radical new technology for which many are grappling with the possibility of the new world that it might bring to all our lives.

However, there is one relevant concern, the same one which has plagued education in our society for the better part of the past quarter century, which appears as if it might be paramount to a discussion of the danger which A.I. might be bringing to our modern world; this having to do with an emphasis of outer reality over the inner life. Similar in many ways to how education for those in their formative years has focused on the external results of learning (i.e. test scores and grades) rather than on what is taking place in children as they learn, A.I. is most likely going to cause people to focus on the miraculous things that this technology can do in the external world rather than on how it might affect people’s inner lives.

This is really the bottom-line question that we all need to be asking ourselves relative to the introduction of A.I. technology into all our lives. Despite the many incredible things that it can do to make the world a better place, will it end up dulling our inner lives simply because when we make use of A.I. whatever we are producing is not coming as fully from a place inside ourselves as when we don’t depend on it; when our inner spaces remain significantly emboldened by whatever we are creating and then using.

For example, when a piece of writing is produced by A.I. whether it be a serious newspaper article or merely copy for a particular advertisement, the focus and intensity of the writer has been removed from the equation in favor of expediency, and in some cases greater accuracy. In other words, the entire process becomes results-driven, rather than originating within the inner life of the writer. This may occasionally lead to more expeditious, even occasionally more accurate writing, but at the same time this process tends to dull the inner lives of writers simply because their writing has become less personal and less authentic. Then, over time writers with shallower inner lives will inevitably produce shallower pieces of writing.

Similarly, in the world of scientific investigation and creation, A. I. driven technologies may be able to produce faster, even more effective results to scientific research, yet at the same time, the emboldened inner lives of scientists and technology experts will become less connected to their important discoveries and inventions simply because much of the research and investigation is originating in a place outside of them. For instance, the incredible joy and passion which James Watson and Francis Crick experienced in constructing in their lab merely through the use of metal rods and clamps a model of the structure of DNA will become increasingly less a part of scientific investigation and discover.

What transpires in our inner lives is more about why we are all here on planet Earth than what we produce with the results of our creations. That is, how we engage the world and universe with what takes place inside us will always be significantly more important than the external results of those engagements. In short, we’re here primarily to expand our awareness of what it means to be alive in this world. And this is something which A.I. technologies, for all the marvelous things they might produce, and how they might make our lives more expedient and creative, will never really be able to give us.

Greta Gerwig’s Somewhat Hidden Double Standard

As everyone now knows, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie is raking in millions of dollars and a great deal of positive approbation for her imaginative take on how the doll, if it were to come to life in the real world, would confront male patriarchy in various ways, including a visit to the all-male board room of Mattel, the toy company which designed the doll. So far, even those who find fault with the premises and politics of the movie, saying it dishonestly represents a time of cultural prejudice which has already passed, applaud it for being extremely entertaining.

Although I have not seen the movie, and therefore am in no position to comment on either the merits of the film or Greta Gerwig’s talents as a filmmaker, I’m able to recall a comment of Ms. Gerwig’s from the past, one she made while her brilliant, entertaining version of Louisa May Alcott‘s Little Women was in theaters, involving the life and art of the 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, who as many people are aware, wrote his iconic account of living apart from society in the woods surrounding Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts while he was writing his enlightening account of what he might learn from nature in the book that became Walden.

Gerwig’s comment was that Thoreau of course was able to live in the woods in his hut and explore nature in the insightful way he did largely because as a solitary bachelor he didn’t have a wife and children for whom he had to care. Upon reading this, one has to wonder if Louisa May Alcott, one of Gerwig’s heroines and someone who like Thoreau never married and never had children, might be subjected to the same standard for personal success by the filmmaker. That is, would she likewise expound on the idea that Alcott was able to give herself over to writing Little Women because she was without a family?

A certain issue that tends to underlay this misunderstanding is the mistaken confluence of solitude with loneliness. That is people tend to confuse the positive qualities embodied in solitude (i.e. the spiritual space, freedom, and capacity for personal integration which it gives one) with loneliness itself. Whereas the two things are inherently and radically different in that genuine solitude is often eagerly sought for entirely positive reasons, whereas loneliness is obviously something that people run from in fear as they tend to become more closely wrapped inside the shell of a protective cocoon while they desperately search for some sort of meaningful personal connection with others.

Thoreau not only embraced but likewise reveled in the benefits of solitude, something which he wrote about so insightfully. This would seem to mean that whether or not he had a family to raise during his sojourns to Walden Pond is really very much beside the point simply because it tends to minimize the nature of his solitary experiences at the idyllic setting of the Pond. Rather, what does seem to be most important is his passionate embrace of solitude as a significant doorway to a larger consciousness; something which Greta Gerwig didn’t really seem to understand in her minimizing of his experience.

The Brilliant Labyrinths of Sidney Lumet

One might not think that the brilliant police dramas from the late director Sidney Lumet would have relevance in today’s era of cancel culture and social media, but really nothing could be further from the truth. For the fact is that everything today tends to be cloaked in a blanket of black and white. This person is a hero, and this one is a villain, with little space in between the two. If someone is judged to be a villain, that is what they are, with very little middle ground left for long-term reflective judgment, and once someone comes to inhabit this particular category, their actions, except those which continue to define them as being morally corrupt, are often rendered to be pretty much obsolete.

That is, once social media has pinned the proverbial scarlet letter on someone, that it seems is where they will tend to stay regardless of further circumstances. The recent movie Tar with Cate Blanchett appeared to be a significant example of this; with a talented conductor of classical music having her life veritably destroyed by her past indiscretions with various members of her orchestra. However, contrary to this sort of finality, the real truth tends to be that navigating such a world of ethical conundrums can be more of an adventure in navigating a precarious hall of mirrors in which there are no easy answers. In fact, two films from some forty years ago by Lumet, police dramas to be exact, depict this potential search for salvation brilliantly.

In Serpico, from 1973, New York City detective Frank Serpico, played brilliantly by Al Pacino, refuses to take pay-off money from criminals and other nefarious characters that the officers he works with take regularly. Consequently, they become deeply suspicious of him, and so his safety and even his life are put in peril. After reporting an attempted bribe to a high-ranking investigator as a young police officer, he is laughed at and simply told to keep the money. After reporting this sort of corruption to other superiors regularly, that which he soon finds is rampant within the department, the word gets out on him, and eventually he is shot in the face during a drug bust when the policemen with whom he is working fail to protect him.

In 1981’s Prince of the City, starring the late Treat Williams in another iconic role, narcotics detective Danny Ciello, played by Williams, is part of an elite New York City unit who are given wide latitude to make cases against defendants, but who at the same time are involved in various illegal practices, such as skimming money from criminals and supplying informants with drugs for their cooperation. Eventually, after being approached by a federal prosecutor who is investigating police corruption, Ciello finds that his conscience about the activities in which he and his partners are involved begins to really bother him, and so he begins to report many of the illegal activities in which he has seen while on the job, eventually crossing a line he had told federal investigators he would never cross, That is, naming his partners who are likewise his best friends.

What might be so deeply relevant in these two films relative to today’s Internet cancel culture climate is how easy answers these days seemed to have entirely disappeared from view. That is, rather than move through the labyrinth of moral complexities which Frank Serpico and Danny Ciello had to negotiate – one where friends can soon become enemies and enemies can soon become friends – we seem to be adopting a one size fits all definition of our moral quandries, rather than face the gruesome reality that we might not be able to face other people as the person we really are; and so we often, rather than allowing social media to come after us, hide from others in going along with the conformist line in various situation, one that we know will significantly protect us from the merciless nature of cancel culture.

More than anything, what makes these two movies so important is that they allow true heroism to exist within a web of moral complexities, one in which the hatred of others who used to be one’s friends might be coming down on them. Right up to the end of both movies, Frank Serpico and Danny Ciello remained highly uncertain of what they were doing. Yet at the same time, they recognized that they owed it to themselves and to those people they cared about to plunge ahead anyway.

Should Rock and Roll be Meaningful for Old People?

If one even occasionally pays attention to their Twitter feed, they have no doubt seen how aging baby boomers throughout European cities are flocking to stadiums to hear the music of 73 year-old Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band. And of course, as he always does, Bruce is giving them their money’s worth, playing his usual three or four hours with a heartfelt passion that has very likely never been duplicated in the history of rock and roll. And of course, on the surface at least, that would appear to be entirely wonderful; that Bruce’s passion, and the passion of his fans can survive any number of complicated, difficult generations.

Except there may be one trouble, that which has really nothing to do with Springsteen, his fan base, or other high profile aging rockers who should be lauded for producing great music with the sort of heart and soul which they seemingly just can’t quit. It’s simply that rock and roll was never originally intended to be the province of old people. That is, it’s the one art form in our culture which is meant to celebrate the passion and energy of youth. Jazz, due to its improvisational nature, can be played by people of any age without it starting to seem silly, and the inherent beauty of great classical music transcends various time periods. But rock music, if it is to remain meaningful, may need to be necessarily anchored in the present moment.

Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane fame has been quoted in the past as saying that people who are fifty or sixty years old playing rock and roll on stage in front of other people tend to look ridiculous. And years ago, at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony Ray Davies of the Kinks, upon receiving his statue, commented, “Rock and Roll has finally become respectable. What a drag.” What both of these great artists spoke to, obviously, was the spirit of a genre which began to die years ago with the death of AM radio, when everything new, fresh, and important could be heard, more than anywhere else, coming out of the radio on the dashboard of the family car. Since then, for many of us who came of age during that time, nothing has ever really seemed to be the same.

The sad truth is that time inevitably takes its toll on everything, even great art. When Springsteen’s landmark album Born to Run came out in 1975, two now famous tracks which appeared on it were of course Born to Run and Thunder Road; iconic songs which so brilliantly explored the angst and restlessness of young love and exploration. Now, unfortunately, nearly fifty years later, those two titles might seem to suggest to someone who is unfamiliar with the songs an escaped aging convict from a state prison who is on the run from his captors, or a group of aging moonshiners who are selling liquor from the trunk of their car somewhere in the deep South.

The period of time in which we baby boomers came of age was of course an incredibly exciting one. In point of fact, everything seemed to be happening so fast that it was hard to even keep up with it. Yet it seems we don’t want to make the mistake that Jay Gatsby made when he looked at the green light shining from a dock on the other side of the bay in hopes of rekindling his love for Daisy Buchanan, believing that it was possible to relive the past. For not only is the past gone forever, In point of fact, it may be something that doesn’t really exist in the first place, except in the illusory world of our flawed imaginations.

It is still possible for older rockers to discover other outlets in which to display their creativity and their passion. This past year, Susanna Hoffs, former lead singer of the 1980s group The Bangles, released her highly successful novel This Bird Has Flown, an engaging, hilarious novel about an aging superstar who is given a second chance to explore the possibility of stardom, a book which has been drawing rave reviews; which is most likely a good thing. For one fears that if the Bangles were still on stage singing their famous 1988 hit In Your Room, about a scintillating hook-up between a boy and girl, they might have, with the passage of time, been tagged as aging Mrs. Robinsons from Mike Nichols film The Graduate.

The New Film Oppenheimer and Technology Run Amuck

Sometimes different cultural events occur simultaneously in a way that seems almost preordained to deliver a message to us about specific dynamics involving life in the world; one in which we are being warned about a similar danger through the lens of different events that occur at the same time. Next week the new film Oppenheimer opens in theaters, that which concerns the creation of the atomic bomb under the supervision of physicist Robert Oppenheimer.  At the same time, writers, directors, actors and actresses are on strike against movie studios in Hollywood, one their strongest concerns being the use of A.I. technology to produce digital likenesses of those who appear in films.

The manner in which these two events are related has very much to do with runaway technology that should have been prevented from doing so years ago. As far as the creation of the atomic bomb, it was known years before the bomb was created by scientists working to develop it in the New Mexico desert during World War Two, and just prior to the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what its catastrophic effects would be. In point of fact, ever since Enrico Fermi and his group of scientists discovered that bombarding certain elements, such as Uranium, with neutrons from other atoms could produce artificial radioactivity, the die was cast as far as the potential development of atomic weapons. That is, if scientists were willing to take the equivalence of matter and energy to its ultimate conclusion without interruption.

In similar fashion, when the developers of social media found that they could use various algorithms to create an artificial reality which many people accepted as being real, ultimately working its way through the labyrinth of virtual communication and virtual images that took the place of real ones, the die was likewise cast there. Now of course we have reached the point where we have A.I technology that can produce real world virtual images that seem all too real, such as those found in Meta, and pieces of writing which are entirely created by A.I. machines; and so even real world actors trying to make a living can become disposable as just a single image of theirs can be copied and used over and over by A.I technology.

The point is that the place to stop this sort of runaway technology, such as that which produced the atomic bomb, and now that in which A.I is threatening to replace human interactions, is at the beginning of its development when scientists and social theorists, through their foresight, are able to see exactly where it is leading. In doing so, those who are involved with this sort of prescient analysis of new technologies might heed the words of the late great social critic Neil Postman, who advised people to ask two questions whenever any new technological development comes to call. They are: what problems does this new technology solve, and what new problems does it create?

It is probably’ no coincidental mystery why a number of the actors and actresses out on strike, protesting the potentially dangerous infusion of A.I. into how they earn their living are the very same ones that appear in Oppenheimer. Perhaps a number of them have drawn the inference between how both atomic energy and A.I. technology may have been haphazardly introduced to the world before their potential consequences could be fully examined. Whether we realize it or not, the future that we will live in is already being created right now. Yet for us to realize this, it means taking to heart Neil Postman’s prescient warning to us all, and instead of being habitually excited about what the possibilities are when some new technology comes to call, taking a hard look way down the road toward where it may be eventually headed.

Why A Clockwork Orange is Still So Relevant

Anthony Burgess controversial but brilliant dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962, over sixty years ago, with Stanley Kubrick’s thoroughly engaging adaptation of it appearing in theaters nine years later. Yet, in a way both the book and the film continue to be highly relevant, but not necessarily for many of the same reasons which some people believe they are. Of course, people in contemporary society may believe that the film is highly relevant today due to the rise of gang culture in our inner cities or a culture which is now becoming increasingly sexualized and increasingly violent, yet these particular dynamics may not be what makes A Clockwork Orange still highly relevant so many years after both the book and film appeared on the scene.

The story involves the activities of a teenage boy (young man in the film) who pursues all manner of physically and sexually violent activities against others in the streets of London with his three accomplices (“droogs” as they are referred to) simply because he has a taste for what he calls “the old ultra-violence.” Yet, at the same time it is revealed that there is a higher purpose to his soul in his love of classical music, particularly Beethoven. Incidentally, this fusion of violent activities with exalted classical music in Kubrick’s film is nothing short of sheer genius.

What tends to make the story of Alex and his three droogs still so relevant is the idea, one which has now become a permanent part of contemporary cancel culture, that art and life are so intextricably intertwined that deficiencies found in one’s life must necessarily diminish either his/her art or even their appreciation of artistic genius. That is, should Woody Allen’s, Michael Jackson’s or Kevin Spacey’s brilliance relative to their directorial, musical, or acting skills be looked at in a diminished light due to possible complications with their personal lives, as difficult to swallow a those potential transgressions might be?

In Burgess’s novel and likewise in Kubrick’s film, young Alex is saved from having to serve increased prison time by being allowed to enter a program which physically conditions him to find violent acts repulsive by administering a drug that makes him violently nauseous as he simultaneously observes certain violent acts on a movie screen directly in front of him. Unfortunately, the soundtrack of one of the violent films which he is watching while becoming nauseous contains Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as part of the background score. Therefore, at the same time he is being conditioned to feel sick at the sight of violence, he is likewise being conditioned to feel sick whenever he hears Beethoven.

Metaphorically speaking, this would appear to be the same sort of conditioning which might be in the process of being applied to all of us amidst a culture, largely as a result of the Internet and social media, which now tends to so thoroughly conflate lifestyle choices with artistic brilliance. For example, numerous people no longer want to watch the film Midnight in Paris because of certain accusations which Woody Allen’s adopted daughter has made. Likewise, certain people no longer want to listen Michael Jackson’s music or watch his videos due to similar accusations which have been made against him.

It is admittedly a difficult question; whether the enjoyment of someone’s artistic genius should necessarily be abrogated due to accusations which have been made against them in their personal life. Similar to the scene in A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex is being simultaneously conditioned to loathe both violent acts and the music of Beethoven which he once loved, we have to decide whether we can potentially separate certain accusations which have been made against a certain artistic genius from the brilliance of the art they have produced.  If not, there would appear to be the potential danger that the quality of certain art forms may at last become entirely subjective.



Why A.I. Will Never Match the New Journalism

Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion. These were the writers from the mid-twentieth century who changed the nature of journalism by brilliantly inserting themselves into the stories on which they were reporting. Norman Mailer, in reporting on the march on the Pentagon which took place in 1967, became both reporter and fully engaged participant. Tom Wolfe, in spending time with Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters during the mid-1960s, gave America a birds-eye view of the emerging counterculture. Hunter Thompson in spending time on the 1972 campaign trail in order to view both Republican and Democratic campaigns with a jaundiced yet jocular eye reduced national politics to its entirely personal dimensions. And Joan Didion, in inserting herself at the entirely personal level into the Hippie culture of the 1960s on which she was reporting was able to elucidate so clearly why at the time in American culture ” the center was not holding.”

What made their brand of journalism so important was that it entirely removed what had heretofore been a lack of personal engagement in the stories on which contemporary journalists were reporting; and while doing so, made their particular approach to the narratives which they were elucidating both clearer and exponentially more interesting, as opposed to newsworthy stories which were regularly reported at the time through the myopic lens of “responsible journalism,” which had dictated that a good reporter never became part of the story.

As many people already know, many newsrooms throughout the country now use A.I generated technology to produce their stories, using bots to write automated articles based on data which they have gathered about what might become a story in their publications, However, as Cait O’Riordan, who is a former BBC journalist, adamantly said, there is no danger that article generating systems will replace human journalists in the foreseeable future simply because, as she puts it, “human audiences want to read opinion and analysis, not just structured data produced by an algorithm.”

However, relative to the sort of new age journalists mentioned here, there is another, seemingly even more pernicious danger. This is that the journalist as active participant in the evolution of a particular story will be effectively removed in favor of A.I. generated technology which editors may tend to feel can produce a particular story quicker and with greater accuracy. Yes, of course, there are dangers in allowing writers to become a significant part of the story on which they are reporting; mainly having to do with a loss of objectivity and unbiased analysis. However, when a journalist has no opportunity to become an actual participant in the development of a story, the opportunity to bring it into sharper focus, and in doing so making it more interesting to the reader, is often lost.

Also, there is a profound difference between opinion-oriented journalism, the likes of which we see on cable television every day from both the left and the right, and a writer becoming an actual participant in the story which he or she is covering. That is, if Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and Joan Didion had covered the aforementioned stories only through the insertion of their opinions about what they were covering, we the reader would never have been allowed to become an actual vicarious participant in them, and in doing so, understood them more completely simply because they had become exponentially more interesting.

There is indeed a real danger that our essential humanness, even with all its difficulties and foibles, will be swallowed up in the potential ease and accuracy with which A.I. can produce intelligent and accurate content. As a consequence of this, what we may lose in the bargain is the highly personal response to developments in our society that allows us to look at interesting news stories at the sort of close range which can serve to reveal their essence more completely when this essence is seen through the lens which only a thoroughly engaged human observer might offer the rest of us. That is, A.I. technology would most likely never have reported on the nature of the intersubjective experience which Kesey’s pranksters shared with each other, as did Tom Wolfe, or on the general malaise which underlay the personal freedom which those who were part of the counterculture prevalent in San Francisco in the mid-1960s believed they had achieved, as did Joan Didion.