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Monday, May 10, 2004

The Allure of Survivor

As an academic I am pretty much a loner when it comes to my work. I do not team-teach and very rarely do I have a research project with more than one coauthor. Part of the allure of the life of the academic is the promise that you can work alone and think alone as much as you want; there is no "forced teamwork" as in many other job environments.

This is why I think that the "reality" shows like Survivor, Big Brother, Bachelor, etc., have absolutely no appeal to me. Watching people sit around and back bite, set up false allegiances, and ultimately screw over one or more "teammates" might be entertaining in a game-theoretic sense, but I suffer from attention deficit syndrome and have to move on to watch poker or pool on a sports channel.

My hypothesis is that the "reality" shows hold appeal to many because the free-rider, the glory-hog, or the whiner, is actually voted off the team. In actual job environments, in which team-work is emphasized, I am sure that these very attributes are commonly on display. However, in most cases members of the team are not allowed or not able to "vote" the free-riders off the team; that's a job for the manager and he or she may not see the reasons for removing an individual. Therefore, Survivor, et al., owe their success to the vicarious enjoyment that the audience gets in taking it out on the slacker.

However, while re-reading C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters the introduction provided his definition of "hell" as:
...my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern...an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one's superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one's equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course "Dog eat dog" is the prinicple of the whole organization. Everyone wishes everyone else's discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended allegiance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their "tributes" to one another's invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

Upon reading this I was stunned, because I immediately thought of Survivor, Big Brother, and the other "reality shows" - not of academia or even the business world. Lewis's definition of Hell comes scarily close to the majority of new programming on television. Perhaps this is why it holds no allure to me.

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