I love word association games. It’s amazing how the exercise forces you to think beyond the obvious. I did just that kind of game with the clever metaphor of the “cyber-tourist” offered by Lisa Nakamura in her article Where Do You Want To Go Today? Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet, and Transnationality. My game inspired me to think more specifically about Nakamura’s tourist encountering Others of the world on a ‘road trip‘ along the Internet highway. In my mind, it crystalized the intensity of sameness/difference that the tourist experiences. The tourist has the stability of a passport so he knows perfectly well what home is. Yet, he is mobile to tour different places. As the tour bus rolls into town, he does just that. Though he is welcomed warmly, he does not stay. This is not home. He is there for a brief sojourn to see the sights, always an observer looking on from a distance….and then (this was my smoking gun) he moves on, as the bus rolls out and on to the next stop. I felt this notion of the fleeting nature of cyber-travel offered an interesting insight that I’d like to share in this post. From a cultural perspective, cyberspace is not only mobile and borderless, it is plagued by the impermanence and evanescence of stop overs. The tourist always goes back home.
Let me first recap the context. Nakamura argues that a distorted transnational vernacular promoting global “utopia” is being created by savvy advertisers. This is particularly true of the technology sector, whose business is the borderless space of cyber-engineering. She deconstructs advertising on-the-airwaves and on-the-page to demonstrate an acute irony in the utopia mission. In the honorable interest of global togetherness, the disparities of racial and ethnic difference are, in fact, accentuated to secure Western ideals and identities to the viewer at home. “Difference, in the form of exotic places or exotic people, must be demonstrated iconographically in order to shore up the Western user’s identity as himself” (p. 20). The effect is the “global coca-colonization” of cyberspace, as illusionary homogeneity arises through express heterogeneity. To further complicate matters, constructions of diversity lack authenticity. The Other-ing of difference often turns out to be a smoke-screen of ‘camouflaging to perfection’, by manipulating stereotypical imageries and ideals that serve to distinguish the status of Western self. Effectively, this tends to marginalize the Other, and “guarantees the Western subject that his position, wherever he may choose to go, remains privileged” (p. 17). So, it seems that despite the freedoms of the transnational journey, the fragility of the “global village” dream is reinforced. Our destiny is to, eventually, secure our place at home.
This brought to mind a recent development in the television entertainment industry. Last month, X-Factor USA was cancelled by Fox TV Network after just three seasons on the air. The news likely flew under the radar for much of the civilized world, but I’m a fan so it stuck with me. Putting aside the big business of entertainment ratings for the moment, the failure of this successful global format provokes interesting questions from a cultural studies perspective. Global TV reality formats have become contagions. Shows like Big Brother, Idol, Got Talent, Survivor (and, yes, even X-Factor) are enjoying huge popularity in countries the world over. So why with this proven track record of success should one of the most profitable franchises meet with abject failure in the entertainment capital of the world?
X-Factor originated in Britain nine years ago and is now produced in 45 countries, including recent launches in Israel, Indonesia, and Portugal. Like other global formats, the show has a basic premise (a template for a singing competition) which is palatable enough to cross any border, and then is adapted and ‘localized’ with local talent. Nationalizing is reinforced with ongoing play of spiffy video segments of hometowns and family, which are designed to instill local origin and local pride. This practice of “glocalization” has been recognized as television “mcdonaldization”, and is another expression of compromise in the global management of sameness/difference tensions. My theory is that the demise of X-Factor USA is just the beginning of a trip back home. It’s not simply that the appeal of singing competitions is waning for American audiences, amid the clutter of American Idol and The Voice. I also suspect it may run deeper than pure wear-out of the genre, keeping in mind that talent competitions have endured on-air for generations. My question is, could America, as the world’s entertainment catalyst, be setting the pace and the agenda to resist the superficiality of mcdonaldization and globalizing coca-colonization? It will be interesting to see if other global formats follow suit. It makes me wonder if the trip home will be a bumpy ride.
(And, ‘so long’ Simon as you return home. You’ll be missed.)