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Hollywood's (un)conscious biases: a closer look at the gatekeepers of culture
While the internet is disempowering a centralized, top-down culture, the future is still a mixed-influence world. Let's explore some of the biases of legacy gatekeepers...
In the simultaneously growing and decaying landscape of media/entertainment, it is important to shed light on the hidden biases that shape narratives presented. None of this is conspiratorial, and much of it I believe is unconscious, but of course there is acutely aware work done too. Hollywood and the media industry, still for now the most powerful cultural influencers, play a significant and material role in shaping our perceptions of reality even in the internet age. Perhaps moreso through memes, remixing and analysis of works (where they’re not dumb enough to DMCA their own fans who are really just marketing them). Anyway certain patterns emerge when we examine films, music, and portrayals that emanate from this influential sector that are worth understanding. As when you know to look for them, they’re everywhere.
As purveyors of content and for many decades holding a virtual lock on the media market, Hollywood perceives the rapid advancement of technology and culture as an existential threat. The internet has been drinking their milkshake for years, and they slept on the first chapter, but the dragon has awakened for the next. Because of this, it’s fair to say the internet, tech and the work of the crowd are often viewed or portrayed as a “second class citizens” by many within traditional media circles. Their bias against these things can be illustrated with several examples.
Coastal managerial class clutching power levers in a distributed world
I don’t think it’s unfair to say, broadly speaking, traditional media (still) does not take middle America (or the global equivalents) seriously. A trope that, in the internet age, with location not really being a factor in culture any longer, makes no sense. The most popular YouTuber is in North Carolina and commands orders of magnitude more attention than the top players in an entire industry — single-handedly. This is an exception that proves the rule. The internet flattened the world, but lots of people are still walking around like that’s not the case. Status and influence may now arise from anywhere, without the requirement of a big media company logo next to something or blessing from a HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) to be deemed worthy of our attention or admiration. To believe not is objectively elitist, bit of a clichéd perspective at this point but one that exists for a reason (some are continually proven true). So, Middle America is often still depicted in a crass or irrelevant manner (flyover country) as we cannot have other locations questioning the perceived mecca and importance of the coasts (their commercial real estate markets are mortally wounded through tech, a very visible example of lost grip here).
The cultural divide between the coastal elites and the heartland of America is well-documented, and Hollywood's portrayal of middle America can be seen as an extension of this discontent. By framing certain regions as less refined or sophisticated, Hollywood inadvertently perpetuates a bias that reinforces the existing power dynamics. Buried in this Taylor Sheridan expose is this insane quote from an HBO executive who thinks Middle America should be turned into a park for coastal residents to hike through. Every so often, something slips through where we get to see how they really feel…
Another observation is how individuals are often erased when their tweets, blog posts or internet comments are included in news stories. Instead of attributing the statements to the person who wrote them, with links and specific reference (how the rest of the internet functions) vague phrases like "a Twitter user, or an employee at a company said" are used. But doing the ‘area man’ TV thing in the age of the internet where our identity and community are right there to link to for context makes little sense, except to not lend any credibility in that direction (but they may take our ideas in the other). This speaks volumes of how the power dynamic is viewed. The erasure of individuals allows media to retain control over attention and narrative, obscuring the influence and power of individual voices, making them hard, or in some cases impossible to find. This has happened to me personally on more than one occasion, where, as an example my Tweets were used on TV news, but my name stripped out and it just attributed the quote to “a marketing executive” or similar. I am far from alone here. This approach seems so at odds with the internet, where indie creators would never do this if quoting someone in a story. Why some individuals are (arbitrarily) not worthy of attribution when their work is being referenced by traditional media editors is a question to ask. If nothing else, this is disrespectful.
Disdain for open culture and art
You’ll note DJs and electronic musicians are often cast as losers or relegated to low-status roles within mainstream media. A good example of this is in the show The Good Place where Jason Mendoza is cast as a loser DJ from Florida who also engages in criminal acts and drug abuse. But really what’s going on here, is these artists belong to a culture that exists outside the traditional hierarchy of big music (which I strongly believe is dead, people just haven’t realized it yet) challenging the industry's norms and practices. Real DJ and electronic music culture, before it was industrialized was an actual meritocracy: anyone with talent was invited to play a show, and before Spotify the crowd selected winning creators on Napster (quickly shut down). Punk artists were part of a similar culture previously, and had some of the most subversive lyrics and vibes of any genre we’ve seen. A sanitized version of both punk and electronic music is of course welcomed. But, by subtly diminishing status and influence, Hollywood keeps rebels at the fringe, ensuring its ongoing dominance in broader culture, not letting any one movement get too much momentum (and in some cases using their battle-tested playbook to coopt it).
Intellectual stagnation as a function of progress
In numerous Hollywood productions, particularly in the realm of science fiction, technology is often depicted as a catalyst for intellectual stagnation or even regression. The portrayal of advanced tech as a force that dulls human intellect or breeds dependency implies a fear of losing control over the very essence of what it means to be human. Only big media’s cultural dependency is okay. By presenting technology as a hindrance rather than an enabler, Hollywood subtly perpetuates a bias against technological progress, reinforcing the notion that humanity's future lies in avoiding these advancements. The thing is, while entertaining and serving some degree of warning, fiction like Wall-E is objectively silly: we can go to space but we can’t solve obesity? Ozempic was just FDA-approved, imagine thinking therapeutics won’t get better or we can’t solve for tasty and healthy meals. Idiocracy may have more of a point on this one, but it’s still not inevitable if we don’t allow it. And even if that reality did become true, ironically big media would be very culpable here and it would be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fear (broadly of Artificial Intelligence, but also tech in general)
Hollywood frequently portrays artificial intelligence (AI) as a menacing force, hell-bent on overthrowing humanity or causing catastrophic events. Movies like The Terminator franchise or Ex Machina depict AI entities as malevolent beings seeking to dominate or destroy the world. Black Mirror assumes social media is net negative (I still think untrue). Such portrayals tap into a deep-seated fear of technology and the potential loss of control it represents. By perpetuating the narrative of AI as an existential threat, Hollywood subtly instills skepticism and apprehension towards technological advancements, arguably slowing society's ability to fully embrace and harness the potential benefits of AI. I think it’s fine for entertainment purposes and rather enjoy these flicks, but I wonder if they didn’t exist to what extent there would even be AI doomers.
Final thoughts on why we should care…
Above are just a few examples that immediately came to mind, there are more that I’m sure you see as well. We must recognize that these portrayals are not without consequence. They shape public perception and influence societal attitudes towards culture and tech. By repeatedly portraying technology in a negative light or diminishing individuals using new tools, the industry perpetuates a bias that in theory could hamper the rate of innovation. If there were more utopian futures like Star Trek to balance the above and inspire us to greatness, I think this one would actually be fine and we’d have equal parts warning and encouragement. Right now it does appear unbalanced.
My goal with today’s post is not to dismiss or condemn the entire industry, but rather foster a critical awareness of the biases that exist within it, as they’re definitely widespread here. By engaging in meaningful conversations and encouraging a more balanced portrayal of humans, technology, and culture, we can challenge these biases and open up avenues for more nuanced understanding of what’s happening around us. There are benefits to there being centralized players in media (sets, production value, etc) but not at the expense of the broader culture to please the egos and agendas of small, narcissistic groups attempting to subvert reality — consciously or otherwise.
As I stated at the start, this is not a conspiracy, mostly just incentives, but they don’t need to be this way. Perhaps the current strikes happening can do some good to align the industry better to not be at odds with other aspects of the world. Anyway, this might be one of those things that takes care of itself, as the younger generation has a different relationship to technology in the world. The future here certainly won’t be boring.
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