Ten Minutes of Fame

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Apr 17, 2008

Editor's Note: The recent 10-minute "made for YouTube" beating of a girl by a group of teenagers in Florida exemplifies a new trend in which the electronic world dictates our reality, writes NAM editor Andrew Lam. Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams:Relections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books 2005).

Future historians may very well look back at the beginning of the 21st century as an era in which the human mind developed into a split screen, with one eye on real space and the other ogling the electronic mirror.

This morning on a crowded bus I counted six people within my immediate view, texting, talking on the cell phone, checking e-mail, listening to iPods. In other words, they were trying to keep the bus from being their only space, their only reality. And what was I doing? I recorded what I observed in my laptop, of course.

If modern technology has been created to enhance our daily lives, something has dramatically shifted: More and more, our daily lives are subjugated by the electronic world.

This can sometimes be very troubling. On March 30, 2008, a group of teenagers in Florida lured one of their own peers to one of the girl’s homes and videotaped her beating. With one girl behind the camera to record the episode, and two boys guarding the door, the rest mercilessly beat the young woman into a concussion. It was for a dual purpose: to “punish” the victim for allegedly “trash talking” about them on MySpace, and to post the footage on YouTube. The most telling line during the beating was when the young woman behind the camera yelled out: “There's only 17 seconds left. Make it good."

Seventeen seconds left, that is, in a 10-minute slot – the maximum time one can post a video segment on YouTube. The time frame and the incident prompted a colleague of mine to quip, “Well, Warhol was only off by five minutes.”

Otherwise, Andy Warhol was frighteningly prophetic. A future in which everyone can be famous for about 10 minutes has indeed arrived. We have all become actors. We begin to believe that we are not fully ourselves, that we are not viable in the new system, unless we make some sort of electronic imprint, some sort of projection of ourselves, in the virtual world. Diaries, once locked away and hidden, have now gone electronic in the form of blogs and vlogs.

On CNN a few days ago splashed a typical story that spoke volumes of our modern impulses: “Wife Brings Drama of Divorce to YouTube.” Private lives are increasingly translated into a public space, oftentimes turning intensely personal dramas into perplexing global phenomena.

What makes the incident in Florida unusual, however, is not the violent acts themselves – girl fights have been well reported, after all – but that the girls' actions were dictated not by a pure act of revenge but by a kind of exhibitionism rarely seen before. Stranger still is that increasingly the electronic world dictates exactly how an action should be carried out. The gang beating of the young woman, for instance, increased as the 10-minute segment neared its end. Did their beating lose steam, I wonder, when the camera stopped rolling?

This modern mindset has given psychologists and anthropologists enough material to study what they call the “disinhibitive effect” on the Internet. Road rage is quickly giving into Net wrath. A generation raised on video games can become invincible when their actions are meant to be broadcast. Like actors who are trained to lose their reservations on stage, many now take daring risks for the virtual world – nevermind that they might have repercussions in the real one. They show all, or do something enormously bizarre or violent to garner lots of hits, lots of eyeballs. Our sense of existence is interrelated with that of the electronic ether a la Matrix: I broadcast, therefore I am.

Last year, Hollywood celebrated the 40th anniversary of the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” It’s the story of a couple who became the first celebrity criminals of modern times, whose deeds of derring-do – robberies during the Depression era and violent death – rendered them into mythological figures. During their saga, Bonnie wrote poetry that she sent to the media, while Clyde wrote letters of praise for the Ford Motor Company’s “dandy” car, which turned into instant advertisements.

There’s a pivotal scene in the movie that seems to foretell something about our modern day obsession with myth-making, and its incestuous relationship to the media. The couple steals a newspaper to read about their exploits. As they are being chased by the police, they argue over the fairness of the article’s reporting, more concerned with their image in the media than with their reality.

Of course, these days you don’t have to be a cross-country robber to be a celebrity. We are living in what Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine has called the “age of microcelebrity.” Thompson asserts that “people are developing interesting social skills to adapt to microfame. We're learning how to live in front of a crowd.”

As a result Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, barely making inroads in the West, could very well be on the retreat. After all, how can we be fully “here and now,” how do we keep our ego in check, when we keep ogling the electronic mirror and watching ourselves gavotte?

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Articles by Andrew Lam

Andrew Lam's Documentary "My Journey Home"

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User Comments

early user on Apr 24, 2008 at 10:07:58 said:

Current rating: Not yet rated [1 = poor; 5 = excellent]
I was an early fan of the internet -- back when there wasn\'t much of a visual interface, actually, and www was practically non-existant. That is to say I\'m no luddite and have a good understanding of the inner workings of a computer (binary code anyone? how about Assembler or Fortran?)

That said, only people with narrow minds and even narrower perception, cannot see that all the electronic gizmos (supposedly keeping us \"in touch\") actually prevent being \"in touch\" and strips away any capacity for human contact and ACTUAL conversation.

Is it any wonder that the Iraq fiasco has gone on for so long?

Sim on Apr 24, 2008 at 10:07:03 said:

Guilty! But not for the reasons you might think...

Yes, I confess to being one of Those - annoying youtube posers ... but not because I'm obsessed with my self-image - I hope - but to keep my sanity as here in this frozen wasteland of a small town (pop 700).

Maybe I'm just one of those hyper people who are not happy without an engrossing project (on top of family, career and recreational sports)
... back in 99 I had my own dot com (stellabloo.com actually) built with kiddie software, but I was just having fun learning how to do graphics and insert links.

After taking technical courses on the side for a few years to vent that extra energy, I went unplugged and took up acoustic guitar. But how to hone my performance skills out here in the hinterlands? Enter youtube.
... long story short, there are thousands of people like me trying to learn guitar (or fly tying or some other socially acceptable skill) off the internet. We're not all fixated on sex or violence.

And if a hack like myself can, through the miracle of the internet, can somehow teach or inspire a kid on the other side of the world, then maybe there is a positive side after all (plus now I don't freeze up playing in front of other people, which is always good!).

Anything is what you make of it, including modern technology - a hundred years ago I would have certainly died a nasty death during childbirth, which is supposed to be the most 'natural' thing a woman can do.

Sean on Apr 23, 2008 at 11:12:42 said:

Interesting observations regarding YouTube. I love the Andy Warhol reference to the 15...er...10 minutes of fame. I don\'t agree with the general negative characterization of technology, however.

Of course there are bad sides to any technology, but electric guitars and television didn\'t destroy humanity and neither will the Internet. The Youtube beating video is a tragic and extreme example of bad people using indifferent technology for bad actions. It is evil, but it was not created by technology. The technology simply provided the medium and the method of distribution. It\'s too convenient (and avoids the more complicated root causes) to say that video games and Youtube ... all by themselves... make people more violent, more exhibitionist, and more likely to disassociate themselves from reality. I will say that children need more guidance. There are children who try to act out what they see on TV, video games, or wherever they get their information. They need parents who monitor their use of technology. Don\'t blame technology on bad parenting. Likewise technology should not be used as a replacement for parenting. Just like the TV, a child\'s Internet use needs to be moderated.

I could just as easily find examples of how the electronic world has helped bring people together, and how it helps them stay in touch. I could find examples of how the Web facilitates learning, and how e-mail has resurrected written forms of communication for the masses. Like any tool, technology can be used for good or bad. It can be used to make a process more democratic, or it can be used to oppress. It can be used by a whstleblower to shine a global spotlight on a situation of injustice, or it can be used to steal your credit card information.

I don\'t doubt that the dawn of the information age has changed the way we think and communicate. Of course it has. Many of us now have access to more information, more often, than we have ever had before. Some people don\'t filter this information well. More than ever our young people need to be taught critical thinking skills that will help them analyze conflicting information from a variety of sources. And they need to be taught how to communicate effectively with written and spoken words.

Keep in mind that the information age is still in its infancy, and many of us are still working out how to best integrate technology into our lives so that it enriches us without being too intrusive. I\'ve been in the technology industry since the dawn of the Web. I\'ve used computers, handhelds, cell phones, blackberries, mp3 players, etc. It is possible to find a balance where these devices help you stay organized without being overly intrusive, and that balance can free your mind to focus on the more important things in life. If you can\'t find that balance with a particular device or technology, get rid of it.

Alternet comments on Apr 23, 2008 at 08:20:51 said:

Editor's note: the following comments were posted on alternet when it ran Andrew's article.

Our very psyches and 'inner lives' are now seen as co-incident with 'technology' and along lines of electro-magnetism in functional terms. Today, we are 'wired', hard- or soft-, to 'do things'; that is: to act. We inter-act with our computer, our iPod, our Game-Boy. We're in it and of it. Psychologists and Psychiatrists and Therapists of all sorts complete in us a 'bio-feedback loop' to enable us to adapt better and adjust to our new conditions. We now have physiological 'networks' and not 'systems', neural, digestive, endocrine, etc. Machines define us as we define machines (check Deleuze-Guattari works). We no longer stand before an Object described as a Loop, a Circuit, a System, a Network. We are an integral and thoroughly immersed part of it. As has been a usual trajectory in some forms of theorizing, Analogy and Metaphor soon collapse into Identity; we don't have or use Technology, we ARE Technology. The As If has become the Is.

To closely observe a young (or older) person inter-acting with a game on a screen is a fearsome spectacle. It certainly problematizes that concept of "Lost" or "Go With the Flow".

And I've experienced this in myself and in everyday relations with others. It brings no "Happiness", it brings no "Peace", it brings far, far less "Communication". Whither Man? Whither men and women? One must ask the Technocrats, faithful servants of The Man.

At a playoffs game the other night, the three people to the right of us constantly pulled out cell phones or other devices and checked email and text-messaged. If a person can pay that much for a ticket, a beer, and a hot dog and still not be able to resist the constant checking, that person must truly be addicted.

There were two almost visible attitudes among these folks: anxiety, and an attempt to look both important and blase ("Others can allow themselves the luxury of total focus on this event. My business is too important.") I think these devices, along with bottled water, are really serving as the kinds of props that cigarettes used to be: something sophisticated-looking to do with one's hands, that gives a person an instant persona.

It takes a lot of oil to manufacture these bullshitty gadgets. When people can shut up and respect the frugals and realize "Hey, why should I upgrade my silly IPOD? What's so good about the new one and what's wrong with the old one?" then we'll be winners and not losers.


One aspect of technology which is very fearsome to me is that of the electronic tether. I have furiously resisted getting a company-supplied Blackberry, and still don't have one. Every person I see that gets one ends up with their face buried in it *most* of the time. It becomes a tool of fear - NOT being completely connected becomes an anxiety, one that can only be resolved by constantly having the device on and at-the-ready.

Society has done a great job of cultivating a culture of fear, and job security fear is near the top of the list. People fear that not constantly being connected and "in the know" regarding company business will somehow jeapordize their jobs. And, in many cases, they are right. There is an unwritten and unspoken pressure from companies for people with Blackberrys to be plugged in at all times, to be completely accessible. That's why they provided them in the first place!

It is starting to resemble slavery - only this type of slavery is mental, not only physical, albeit with an electronic chain as opposed to metal. With the advent of microchipping, this problem can only get worse. Fear will drive the masses to get chipped for "security" and "terrorism" control, and as a result will not be able to escape the technological grip anymore at all. Ever. A person can and will be tracked (possible now even without chipping). Activities that are determined by the powers that be as wrong or unproductive may well be met with (possibly serious) consequences.

The checkmate of the individual may very well be in the last stages. In the future if you are not properly equipped (chipped or tethered electronically) and with your information, credentials, and credit in order, you may find it impossible to be able to live "normally" in this world. We will start to see hidden communities of people who have refused this tether, and who reject the system (most likely with the threat of punishment and/or forced tethering looming). These groups will live like nomads, sharing and bartering as best they can, and avoiding detection so as not to be enslaved. Living "Off the grid" will become an illegal and probably dangerous activity, and those that choose to do so will be considered "terrorists".

If anyone doesn't already see this coming, you'd better wake up - although I don't believe there is any way to stop this plan from occuring now. It's just a matter of how long before it happens, and how long humankind will tolerate it before a global rejection (with the accompanying wars) will occur.

Sad state of affairs for humanity at this point.

Technology serves us in some respects, but so many of have developed such an addiction
So many people are plugged into something so much of the time. It's very disturbing to watch the changes taking place in people as a result of all this technology.
Our lives are revolving around television shows. We're developing psuedo relationships with characters on a screen.
We have so much audio and visual stimulus pumped into our heads that it's difficult for us to access our own thoughts or feelings. And even more so with things out side of us telling us what to think, feel or be
We are becoming less and less present in our bodies and our surroundings.
We're not learning to engage and that leaves us with these huge interpersonal deficits
And many are so frightened to just say hello and have a conveersation that we have to rely on internet personals to hook up.
Many people are so clueless that they don't even see what they're doing

Kevin M. on Apr 20, 2008 at 03:17:38 said:

Written like a true exhibitionist. And only six on Muni? - the 1 California is like the whole bus seems like on the phone, ipod, etc. The stupidist thing is uber-important professionals with their crackberries playing Pong! Ohmygawd. And they like totally panicked when the system went down for a day. Good thing it didn’t happen on the same day as Starbucks’ reboot of all its stores.
There was a documentary on kids and the internet. This high school girl was apparently pretty famous online as a dominatrix but a kind of goth nerd in real life. Then her parents found out. It was a definite eye opener for any parent, or me for that matter.

H. Pham on Apr 19, 2008 at 08:24:19 said:

How true. And sad. I don't know what to call it, but this globalized movement along with the convenience of the online communities (email and texting and youtube, etc.) have made people even more lonely and alienated. It feeds on to their desire to "be known" and become online celebrities!

As always you have sharp observations and so gifted in writing!

Xisco on Apr 19, 2008 at 08:23:20 said:

What a great read. Of course!

True in what you say.
Don't you also think in a way that even in our electronic bubble's we still cry for human attention and affection, albeit through a lens, and hollywood has fueled this flame abou the fame to be filmed and be recognized?

Jj on Apr 19, 2008 at 08:22:43 said:

So true...

A big deal of late in Manila and with overseas Filipinos is this blog by an Aussie, regarding a Filipino that duped him out of his $70k savings- which he has yet to collect- but all the buzz generated by his postings had the guy fired from the newspaper that he worked for, and surely had ruined any chance of him rectifying his name...cyber rage ( did you call it?) in action.

Angel Aviles-McClinton on Apr 17, 2008 at 07:45:14 said:

New media is just the current form of self expression. Inevitably we are going to see things that make us uncomfortable and challenge us to look deeper. I want to go on with the rest of my life and say, THOSE kids have problems BUT I hope to at least take on the rest of this day trying to be part of a solution to help heal a hurting world, if only in the smallest way.




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