The April 6, 1873, issue of The New York Times had an anonymous story that’s well worth reflecting on for its take on modern times. There are implications for politics, and those who conduct public policy with all these new social media tools.
I found this article, “The Drama of the Future,” from the book “Buffalo Bill’s America.” The book tells part of the long story of how both the truth and fiction of the Old West got baked into U.S. culture.
What the article seems to be about is the fad of famous figures playing themselves on stage. For example, Wild Bill Hickok, before his death, briefly starred on Broadway in exploits supposedly based on real-life adventures. Buffalo Bill built a whole long career on doing this. That’s the two of them, pictured before one of their shows together, at right with Texas Jack Omohundro in the middle.
As the article states,
“The gist of the movement, as thus portended, consists in going beyond the old idea to “paint matters living as they rise,” and to illustrate current history through the painting of actual events, by the real actors in them.
“By this means, the theatre may be made a kind of pictorial disseminator of the news of the day, and public curiosity as regards noted individuals may be gratified by having them appear on the boards in dramas depicting their own exploits.”
Now, the article goes on to give one example of this trend that could be completely serious, namely, an Arctic explorer who uses his real tools, pots, pans, etc.., to illustrate the adventures he was just on. The article then seems to make fun of its own idea by suggesting Brigham Young could also illustrate his life on stage accompanied by “a score or so of real wives.”
If you are like me, you’re already thinking of reality television and how much of this has come to pass. Some very popular and very real programs feature the supposed girlfriends or boyfriends or even spouses of both famous and ‘everyday’ people. We can imagine a long-dead writer from the New York Times smiling knowingly in his grave.
So what’s this got to do with politics?
What I wonder is if the person smart enough to pick out this trend in 1873 is smart enough to predict how it might be abused. Hear this, toward the article’s conclusion:
“By and by, a still further step forward may be taken, and we may find people deliberately seeing strange adventures, or even courting deadly perils, with the idea of thus acquiring attractive material for a success on the boards.”
Of course, “balloon boy” comes to mind. But what of the politician? Right now, any of us in politics can perform on the public stage by Tweeting or posting on Facebook or a photo site or may other forums exactly what we are doing. At what point can we be sure the politician is not now doing what she or he should be doing, but instead what looks good on Facebook or Flickr? Can we trust ourselves to know? Are we going to consciously or unconsciously subordinate wondrous communications tools to create the dramas we enjoy chronicling? And will the voter reward this behavior by saying “Thank you for communicating with us!”
The article concludes:
“Some such thought may have been in the mind of Shakespeare when he made Jacques tell us that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;” for the lives of most people are already more histrionic than they think, or own, and consciously or unconsciously to themselves, there are infinitely more actors and actresses in real life than there can possibly be on the stage.”
Just something to think about.