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Moscow Times
November 28, 2001
Are We Becoming Dozy Electrical Appliances?
By Irina Glushchenko

The fall television season has provided the nation with a new and important topic for discussion: six young people living in a glass menagerie in the Rossiya Hotel under constant observation by television cameras, deprived of all privacy. The program is called "Za Steklom," or "Behind the Glass," and I do not intend to offer up an in-depth analysis of it (as many already have and many more surely will).

I would like to focus on just one aspect of the program. The few times that I have seen snippets of the show, I have simply been unable to watch it for more than five minutes at a time. Most of all it was the presenter, Kirill Nabutov, who irritated me and I think I have realized why. His manner is very slow, deliberate and serious and reminds me (in fact, is a carbon copy) of the famous television anchorman, Yevgeny Kiselyov.

This irritating gravity is intended to assure us viewers that we are watching something extremely important; that it is virtually a matter of life and death, which of the participants is booted off the program each week; and that the whole nation is really on tenterhooks about who did or did not sleep with whom.

Experts, psychologists, et al., are invited to hold forth, and in grave tones they discuss the reasons for the young people's behavior. Pundits are called upon to comment on their conversations.

I don't want to say that all that we see is totally wretched and inconsequential. That's not the point. The point is that we are made to believe that we are witnessing something of significance, of import -- something gripping. And that we are involved in a spectacle which is watched by millions of people all over the world.

It's a great shame that the world seems to be populated by more and more morons, but I am starting to believe that this is no accident. I think "Za Steklom" more than any other program has exposed that there is a concerted effort to turn us into morons.

There are more than enough real problems in the world, but it's better that we don't think about them, otherwise we might start having thoughts of our own. We might start thinking about who is to blame for the world's problems or -- even worse -- what is to be done about them. People who accept a fabricated version of life for the real thing, who feel sympathy for puppets rather than real people and get emotional over some fabricated reversals of fortunes are much easier to control. Such people are less likely to fight for their own interests.

The authors of a number of utopian and science fiction novels have written about attempts to manipulate mass consciousness. Maybe, we have lived to see the day when this is finally becoming reality.

One could well argue that "Za Steklom" is not more ridiculous than a lot of other rubbish which is shown on television.

There is another program called "Bolshaya Stirka," or "The Big Laundry," in which people voluntarily discuss all aspects of their lives before the television cameras. The main theme for men seems to be their sexual prowess, while women happily discuss a somewhat broader range of topics.

The show, however, raises certain suspicions regarding the authenticity or sincerity of those participating. For the most part, participants either bang on about how great everything is or, on the contrary, moan about how terrible their lives are.

The whole thing is strangely depersonalized. The episodes and experiences they recount do not bear the mark of authenticity as they are very superficial and lacking in life's little contradictions. The impression given is that the participants are trying to act out Mexican soap operas in real life.

"Za Steklom" is in many ways more democratic than the staple diet on which we have been fed up to now. Previously, it was mainly well-known people that were putting themselves on display to the viewing public. Show business is built on the public's thirst for the intimate details of singers', actors' and composers' private lives.

We read about the private lives of Filipp Kirkorov and Alla Pugachyova, Lolita Milyavskaya and Alexander Tsekalo; stars -- through the pages of glossy magazines -- invite us to their homes, into their bedrooms and show off their interior decor; once well-known actresses, apparently in order to attract attention to themselves, freely discuss their romantic liaisons with famous directors (some of the "victims" are alive, some are dead but their wives are still living). So, why shouldn't we discuss the relationship between Maxim and Margo, who until "Za Steklom" came on air were complete unknowns?

Things that are completely lacking in content and have little or no bearing on our lives are passed off as news. What difference does it really make to us whether a famous pop singer just dumped his girlfriend or another just bought his wife a fur coat? Nonetheless, we read them, reflect on them and allow them to fill our consciousness. And the result is that the line between pseudo news and real news about real events affecting the lives of millions of people becomes blurred to the point of being indistinguishable.

Society's obsessive voyeurism flows smoothly into consumerism. First we watch and swallow nonsensical images and then we start making all kinds of unnecessary purchases. And in fact, one of those purchases is the very pseudo news that we can no longer live without.

The U.S. economist Kevin Danacher made the observation that we are profoundly mistaken in thinking that we buy newspapers and magazines. In reality, publishers are selling the general public to advertisers.

This applies much more to television, of course. The mass audiences of nonsensical shows become the justification for the shows' existence; and these shows start dictating to us how we view the world and our lives.

"Are we not turning into a resourceful electrical appliance, two-legged and melancholy, dozing on the sofa before the attentive eye of the television set?" wrote the contemporary Spanish playwright Juan Casas.

"The ironic, controllable, iridescent device encourages in us a haughty delusion that we continue to be at the center of the world. News are broadcast in order that we be informed about them; products are produced in order that we can consume them; the whole universal mechanism functions with one single aim. That aim being us, the drowsy electrical appliances on the couch."

Irina Glushchenko is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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