question of the day: What aspects of widespread pop culture can help save the world?

I was Googling around for some information on the U.K.’s equivalent of the Miranda warning, the caution, for my Life on Mars blogging, and I came across a most interesting tidbit from Neal Stephenson’s essay “In the Beginning… Was the Command Line” (via Metafilter):

[P]olice in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it’s explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence.

(You can download the essay in its entirety at Stephenson’s site Cryptonomicon.)
I had never heard this before, but it sound eminently plausible. And it got me wondering:

What aspects of widespread pop culture can help save the world?

As another example, research is showing that soap opera characters have been influencing — in a positive way — attitudes about the role of women and how many children women have in places as diverse as Turkey and Brazil (and it’s not just imported American soap operas having that impact but local productions, too). Soaps appear to be having a similar impact as education: Just as more education influences women to have fewer children, so can wanting to emulate wealthy female soap characters, who typically have few or no children.

What do you think? Can TV and movies save the world?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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Tue, Aug 03, 2010 10:21am

Simple answer is no. TV and movies can change ideas but they show no sign of “saving the world.” I guess another question would be, “Save the world from what or for what?

Actually another thought is perhaps TV and movies area no more than a reflection of our ideas. Taken this way, the answer is still no. After seeing many movies and watching tons of TV, the outlook for world salvation from those mediums very, very bleak.

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 3:14pm

Arguing this point is like arguing the existence of God. There’s no way anyone can prove pop culture’s impact on humanity’s survival. I think that the wise course is one of agnosticism.

*IF* if, the case is in agreement that “pop culture can save the world”, I’d like to put out my small list of TV shows (if nothing else) that could partially back that argument:

“The West Wing”
“Star Trek” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
“The Twilight Zone” (original b & w version)
“Batman: The Animated Series”
“The Simpsons”

Whether history can prove these programs had significant impact, I think most would agree that they have many, may socially redeeming qualities. Isn’t that enough?

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 3:15pm

It may seem counter-intuitive, but a lot of pop culture is actually getting smarter.

Despite evidence offered by the profusion of reality shows and vapid dramas like ABC’s Pretty Little Liars, I’ve generally begun to believe that at least genre television (à la Lost, BSG, Warehouse 13, etc.) has become much more sophisticated.

Do a simple experiment. Watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, considered at its time to be one of the best science fiction shows on TV). Then watch an episode of the new Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or even Warehouse 13. Tell me that Sci-Fi hasn’t come a long way in the last 20 years. These shows deal with gender, sexuality, politics, religion, war – all manner of heady stuff, in a way that is both entertaining and insightful. (For an even starker contrast, take a look at an episode from the original Star Trek.)

This kind of development doesn’t happen in a vacuum; genre TV has attracted more intelligent writers and producers and its audiences have become more intelligent in turn. To wit: check out the very populated Skeptic Track at Dragon*Con, or the anti-Westerboro Baptist protest that took place at ComicCon this year.

So, as Bill points out above, save the world? Maybe not; these are human products and just as deeply flawed as we are. But help make it a better place? Hell yes.

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 3:51pm

Follow the Dr?

I think people become more sophisticated in their viewing habits and the shows therefore become more sophisticated. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

My grandparents used to watch hour long black and white shows on potato farming because that was all there was to watch on their one channel no remote tv set.

I think original Trek is important because it tried to create a supposedly equal society black, white, asian, vulcan, women and men working together and no big deal about it. No sexism, no racism (to a point, I mean, all sci-fi is a reflection on the times it’s filmed in, but the good intentions are there). Forget about saving the world, you looking at the basis for every ensemble cast since!

I remember reading something about Barack Obama being elected President and someone sarcastically said it was the end of racism. But y’know, whatever you think of Obama, he did an amazing thing. I believe in the trickle down positive effect of stuff like this. It shows us the way. It makes it easier for the next black guy to run for president just as Hilary running makes it easier for the next woman. So maybe we’ll save ourselves. (Ok so I’ll credit west wing for that one!)

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 5:20pm

It’s an acknowledged fact that pop science fiction has influenced the design of technology for a long time. A device featured in a fictional TV show or movie may inspire a technician or designer to create the real thing long before it may have appeared on its own, if ever.

Star Trek may be the most famous driver of technology — lots of folks have noted the design influence of the “TNG” interactive datapads on the iPad, for one thing. More recently, the tech in Minority Report seems to have driven or accelerated a few innovations. I don’t know quite how I feel about customized billboards squawking at me as I pass, but here they come anyway.

Some of that tech may not necessarily be saving the world, but it sure has changed it.

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 5:24pm

I don’t know about “saving the world,” but television and film can certainly influence the world by introducing (or at least popularizing) ideas that lead to change — or at least sparking widespread conversations and debates that could potentially lead to change. The more Star Trek dealt with themes of multicultural harmony, as mentioned above — and let’s not forget Sesame Street with its multiracial cast and multicolored puppets — the more the audiences of these shows accepted such ideas. I remember The Cosby Show being talked about as a show whose positive depiction of the Huxtables broadened and deepened our cultural conversation about race. And remember Murphy Brown, Dan Quayle, and the whole national conversation about single mothers and family values? For a more recent example, Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin on SNL was, arguably, key to tarnishing Palin’s reputation and turning public opinion against the Republican ticket.

And how about all those scientists who say that they were inspired by science documentaries like Cosmos and by the sci-fi books, shows, and films they encountered in childhood, and wanted to turn those technological fantasies into reality?

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 7:02pm

Bluejay – welcome back!

I agree with your analysis. I also think mainstream American culture was also “introduced” to homosexuality through TV. In the 70’s most people (thought they) didn’t know any gay people. Then gay characters started showing up on TV: on Soap, for example. Eventually we got to Ellen and Will & Grace – hugely popular shows that let most people “know” at least one gay person, and hopefully to be more accepting of the people they met in real life.

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 7:45pm

My father learned English (native Spanish speaker) by watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street throughout the seventies as a man in his twenties.

I speak Spanish and English and I’m learning Japanese through watching, uh, somewhat similar children’s entertainment. Also in my twenties.

Tue, Aug 03, 2010 9:07pm

Oh, and the fact that climate change has such a prominent place in everyone’s awareness can be attributed, I think, to the impact of An Inconvenient Truth.

Too early to tell if we’ll heed its warnings and successfully mitigate global warming — signs aren’t good in Congress now, I’m afraid — but if we somehow do manage to steer away from the brink, I think this film can justly claim some of the credit.

Bluejay – welcome back!