Can We Come Back from Covideodrome?

Months of isolation and boredom are slowly poisoning us via our social media feeds. If we don’t take deliberate measures to reintegrate our scattered workforce, the return-to-work free-for-all is going to expose just how fractured and incompatible we’ve all become during the months of algorithm-dictated media consumption.

Something sinister is happening to us all as the pandemic drags on in America. It seems like the alchemical combination of prolonged isolation, yearning for connection, reduced entertainment production, and increased content consumption is exacerbating whatever ideological and emotional fault lines we hid from the world before the novel coronavirus dominated the zeitgeist. Put another way, we’re running out of the sort of schlocky mainstream television that usually brings us together in a common understanding of our place in global and domestic events. The lack of unifying cultural messaging and the oppressive boredom of quarantine is driving us to seek out new content. Our social media platforms – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, QQ, TikTok, et al – are pushing increasingly divisive content to our personalized feeds, eroding our sense of community in favour of stronger connections to fringe elements and bizarre philosophies.  

Honestly, it feels like we’re living in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and I don’t like what this portends. I’m concerned about what we’re going to be when this mess is finally over. For context, if you’re not up on forty-year-old cult-classic movies, let’s let Wikipedia try to explain it: “Videodrome is a 1983 Canadian science fiction body horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, and Debbie Harry. Set in Toronto during the early 1980s, it follows the CEO of a small UHF television station who stumbles upon a broadcast signal featuring violence and torture. The layers of deception and mind-control conspiracy unfold as he uncovers the signal’s source, and loses touch with reality in a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations.”

If you’ve ever had that weird friend that told you about a surreal 80s movie where “a guy puts a videocassette into his stomach” or tried to make a joke out of the bizarre phrase “Long Live the New Flesh!” this is the movie your mate was referring to. It’s a disturbing film on a lot of levels, and not just in the gross-out sense. It’s important to cinema studies for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was its core conceit: “Videodrome is a socio-political battleground in which a war is being fought for control of the minds of the people of North America.”

Boy howdy, doesn’t that sound familiar? The COVID-19 pandemic and its haphazardly implemented countermeasures have exacerbated out already hyper-partisan political environment, possibly past the point of reconciliation. Social media’s compulsion to boost the reach and volume of the most virulent and outspoken ideas and people have drowned out most attempts at rational discourse. American politics are no longer based on believing anything; they’re strictly about being against someone or something else. Makes it damned hard to compromise.  

Similarly, countering disinformation in our current climate is extraordinarily difficult because we’re not debating facts; many of the issues we’re fighting over can’t even be argued coherently because of the Semmelweis effect: the reflexive rejection of new evidence that might contradict one’s mental model of how the world works. People can’t grapple with complicated issues like how to reform controversial institutions that arose from and perpetuate systemic racism if they don’t believe that “systemic racism” exists. There can be no meaningful debate about reforming America’s police if one cannot conceive of “police brutality” being a real thing. Every attempt to propose a change falls flat because the person you’re trying to negotiate with believes you’re talking nonsense. Might as well ask your cat to vote for single-payer healthcare. 

Inevitably, instinctual and irrational resistance like this to what should be wall-understood and clear-cut issues calls into question the other person’s motives. Are they lying to us when they claim “there are no secret police abducting protesters in Portland”? We have proof in the form of video evidence, news reports, corroboration by the agency head responsible … That the problem exists cannot rationally be denied unless the person refusing to accept our evidence is either staggering ignorant or else wilfully duplicitous, right? They refuse to engage us in good faith, even though they know we speak the truth. 

Except … there is a third option … one that most people might not consider: the other person’s frame of reference may be so different from our own that they can’t conceive of a world in which the evidence we’re presenting for consideration could exist. Their understanding of the topic has been shaped over time by targeted, distorted media that paints a completely different vision, such that your “evidence” simply doesn’t register. 

As an example: in the Portland example, the Acting Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of “Homeland Security” brazenly misrepresented the Portland protests (and law enforcement’s reaction to them) to the point you’d think he was describing a Mad Max movie: “The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city. Each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property, including the federal courthouse, and attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it.”

Imagine if that was all you’d heard about the protests for weeks: smiling newsreaders swore that brave, innocent, heroes were under vicious, feral attack by blood-hungry mobs. Criminals with no agenda other than destruction and chaos were solely responsible for all the kerfuffle. In such a light, the suggestion of “secret police” or “police overreach” might seem preposterous. Why, those poor folks are simply protecting themselves at the request of the innocent citizens who want all those violent strangers to leave their bucolic little town! It’s a clear and comfortable perspective. Once that’s based entirely on doublespeak and propaganda … but if that’s all that your debate partner has been told, how can you convince them otherwise?

A quick shufti ‘round the news sites easily reveals that DHS’s apocalyptic description of the Portland protests is comically exaggerated and unethically self-serving. Yes, there are clashes in the streets every night between police and protesters. Is this really – as the DHS claims – an innocent city “under siege” by violent criminals? For no reason? No; not at all. These are mass protests against the police’s extensive history of brutality against the people they’re supposed to protect. What are the police doing about it? Increasing the brutality! How does doubling down on a self-destructive policy help resolve the fundamental problem? It doesn’t. It can’t. It’s an ouroboros of self-delusion to think that it could. Meanwhile, the federal “secret police” are only confusing the situation, making everything even more dangerous for everyone by further alienating the local police and citizenry from one another.

How could anyone look at what’s happening and not see the truth? Easy. They think they’re looking at what’s happening with an open mind. Instead, they’re seeing a cultured impression of what’s happening, twisted to fit a narrative that serves an extreme agenda. It’s pornographic news; misinformation about current events that ignores the truth in favour of the spectacle. 

This situation is worse than it’s ever been, and it seems to be getting worse week after week as the pandemic progresses. No, I don’t know how to solve it; that’s not what this column’s about. This is, still, a business column focused on workplace topics. My journalistic beats cover leadership, office culture, human behaviour, and security. All four of those domains are relevant to this problem. Strange as it might seem, I believe strongly that the post-pandemic recovery is going to manifest a new and crippling problem that most organisations aren’t prepared for.

Consider: eventually this pandemic is going to end. Someone will develop a working coronavirus vaccine. The survivors will take it, making it safe to return to public life again. Everyone will clamber back to work or school in the hopes that everything can return to “normal.” It’s a beautiful dream, except … we might be too far gone down our individual indoctrination paths by the time we’re allowed to return to the office.

Think about it: we’ll each have been sequestered in our own little isolated echo chamber for months (if not years!) by the time we head back. Mass-market entertainment will have slowed to a trickle. We’ll have exhausted all our old favourite binge-able movies, TV shows, comics, and books. Slowly, insidiously, inexorably, we’ll all have turned to social media to distract us during the long, lonely hours. One by one, the social media algorithms will have drip-fed us increasingly distorted views of the world outside, and of the issues that most concern us. It will have happened so slowly that we didn’t realize we were getting addicted and poisoned in equal measure by extreme takes on complicated subjects. Nuanced, rational analysis didn’t satisfy us anymore; we needed to keep chasing the shocking. The titillating. The emboldening. The voices that whispered you are right! You are smart. You don’t need mainstream media to stay informed!One op-ed, one video at a time, our worldviews will have warped under the constant pressure to believe whatever perverted interpretation of the status quo appealed … and to purge ourselves of any pesky “facts” that might challenge our beliefs. 

Just like in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the novelty of the new media feed will have infected us, making it impossible to go back. Then, one happy day, we’ll be told “it’s over!” We’ll finally shave, find where we stashed the car keys in February, dust off the briefcase, and pretend like it’s 2019 again. The feeling will be great … right up until that first in-person meeting. Where everyone in the room has operated without the usual social pressures to behave … to keep one’s edgy comments to oneself. To get along rather than get by. Someone will make a joke and someone else will take offense. Hours later HR and Legal will agonize about what must be done because employees aren’t allowed to come to blows over personal politics …

How far apart will we drift by the time we try to reconcile? This question keeps me up at night. I’m starting to dread the prospect of bringing people back into the office after so much time apart with only the vampiric media feeds for intellectual sustenance. New rivalries will spawn over non-work-related value conflicts. The political dynamics and webs of interdependency that we relied on to keep processes running will collapse thanks to ideological clashes between key stakeholders. Company cultures are going to rupture. It’s going to get ugly and a lot of people won’t survive it.

I suspect we’re going to need to perform some serious cultural re-engineering. Possibly some surgical pruning, too, if we’re going to rebuild our organisations effectively. Some people are going to be too far gone to ever come “home” again. It’s going to be rough … and there doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid it. We need to start planning now how to carefully reintegrate our prodigal sons and daughters before anyone re-opens the dusty old office and turns lights on.

Pop Culture Allusion: David Cronenberg, Videodrome (1983 film)