The Millenial Vote and the Politics of Distraction (Part II: Conspiracy, no. Theory, yes.)

In Part I of this article, I offered the idea that The Game of Thrones (TGoT) and Pokémon Go contributed to the disengagement of millenials from the political process by luring them into alternate worlds that are more satisfying than the one where we struggle with the complexity of real politics.

Perhaps this is overthinking and overreach. And I have to confess (as I have done previously) that I have never watched The Game of Thrones. If I want Eurofantasy, there’s Wagner. If I want to see nudity and sex, there’s the rest of HBO and Showtime. If I want unremitting violence, I can watch foreign media coverage of the carnage that occurs throughout the world on a daily basis.

On the other hand, I am a little more familiar with Pokémon, having grandchildren who collect the cards and play the game, and occasionally watching the charming animé TV series with them.

I read many of the same online news sources that millenials follow: Salon, Vice, Slate, Huffington Post, and even occasionally Buzzfeed. I frequently look at Redeye, a free local newspaper targeted toward the millennial demographic. In all of these media, the mix of news and entertainment is organized within clear boundaries. “Straight” news stories might appear on the same page with entertainment news and food and drink news, but there is little if any likelihood of a reader being confused about the category to which the content of each story belongs.

Except for The Game of Thrones. Reporting on TGoT is treated pretty much like straight news. Not just as entertainment news (we’re way past coverage of ratings and behind the scenes stories), but as “real news.” (For Redeye articles on TGoT, look here and here. For other media entries look here and here and here.) Once you get into the article, you have to wonder whether they’re writing about the plot of a TV show or a capsule of events in the real world.

So, who watches The Game of Thrones? Obviously everyone. But, in fact, the viewing demographic is heavily weighted toward the younger demographic. However, the ratings services define the demographic group as 18-49, which makes it difficult to separate the millenials from the “GenXers.”

Pokémon Go is based on the pursuit and capture of otherwise invisible characters that appear on a person’s smartphone screen. Thousands of people worldwide are at any moment looking at the world as configured on their screens, searching for an incongruent image. Add to these the thousands who walk their cities’ streets focused on text messages, only peripherally in touch with the world beyond their screens, and you have legions of humans navigating the world with their heads bent, eyes fixed on smartphone screens. The difference between the two groups is that in the case of text reading, the outer world is intentionally blocked out by the smartphone. In the case of Pokémon Go, the world is not blocked out as much as redesigned – smaller, rectangularized with sharp edges, and, if the player is fortunate, inhabited by a Pokémon.

So, who is playing Pokémon Go? Would we be wrong to predict that it is people who enjoy technology, who regularly play digital games, and who formed an attachment to Pokémon as children?  And data confirm that the majority of players are millenials.

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Beginning in 1999, the Matrix series of films presented the world as a Gnostic myth. The films dramatized the neoplatonic concept of the world as illusion, where only the truly enlightened are able to see beyond the façade of appearances into reality.

Is the world in which Pokémons become visible when seen through a special lens less real than one that we see without (we believe) the aid of technology? Is the world in which people engage in the cyclical rituals of electoral politics more real than the politics of Westeros? Imaginary worlds present formidable competition to the real one. The strength of that competition is open to question. We accept the value of fiction as a source of distraction, but also a source of insight and inspiration. And the mature mind is willing to accept the words “The End” and exit the fictional world and re-enter the drudgery of everyday life.

I am not given to conspiracy theories. I don’t accept them and I don’t pass them along. I don’t believe that the “corporations” have decided to sell people distractions in order to keep them away from political engagement.  The goal of business is to sell us the products that make us feel better. By definition these products distract us from the many things over which we have no control. By buying the product we gain some control or at least the semblance of control, over some area of life, for some period of time.

None of us can completely ignore the placebos offered us by the corporations. We are consumers. The issue is how much we surrender to the culture of consumption. The challenge is to know when we’re being seduced by illusions presented to us by corporate advertising. We can enjoy the products the corporations sell us without buying into the belief that these products will give us access to a world that is better than the one we’re stuck with.

I am not blaming a TV show or an online game for the disconnection of young adults from politics. They are just the currently dominant and most publicized distractions. Their uniqueness is their capacity to present alternative versions of reality that are capable of drawing in large numbers of people.

I am also not condemning those in the current generation of young adults who have chosen to opt out of politics. After all, I came of age in the 1960s, when a large number of young people followed the path of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” and the admonition to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” Unfortunately, it took eight years of Richard Nixon to call some of them back into the world. And I fear that even one year of Donald Trump will create a dystopian world from which escape will be very difficult indeed.

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