The swashbuckling Buccaneers of Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl last night, behind their dreamy quarterback Tom Brady, who continues to lead a charmed life. General Motors also took the opportunity to alert the viewing public to their excellence in electric cars and CBS to their rebrand as Paramount+. The Weeknd was excellent.
But you may find yourself asking the question: why is the Super Bowl such a big deal? Didn’t the NFL peak in 2012 and enter a slow collapse due to an inability to manage social change and traumatic brain injuries? Why does anyone make commercials anymore? Shouldn’t the raw scope of our streaming services and technologies and surveillance make all this obsolete?
The Super Bowl is really important, perhaps more than ever. To understand why, and what this can tell us about the future of democracy, we need to start with post-modernism today.
Post-modern approaches to communication argued that society was broken into many small pieces, that there wasn’t a unified experience that tied people together or a singular flow of history moving toward some inexorable point, be that capitalism or communism. At first this might seem like an esoteric concern, after all, how often in daily life do you encounter a meta-narrative?
The answer is often, even if you don’t realize it. Consider a classroom teacher, searching for an example from popular culture that would resonate with their students, finding one is difficult, more than half the class may not even recognize the songs in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. The stories we tell about the Great Recession are meta-narratives. Subprime borrowers are unfairly blamed because the idea of the poor not deserving things is part of the cultural fabric, house-flipping appears blameless. American politics are particularly melodramatic, which is itself a meta-narrative. Many stories are full of references to other stories, aside from bigger touchstone references, the references might not make sense.
Some fragments may be so different that the groups who communicate in those ways may not be able to talk to other groups, this is Lyotard described as commensurability. It was easy to deny this particularly challenging part of the post-modern argument in the past, after all how often did you actually encounter someone with fully alien views? In the time of Qanon, incommensurability seems quite reasonable. There are people who have beliefs that can’t share a discursive universe with my beliefs. Neither markets, the new international nor a common faith will glue the public sphere back together. Our only hope is that a combination of focusing mechanisms and voting can keep things going in the right direction.
Larger shards of mass culture made it much easier for folks to hold onto the illusion of competence and control in their for longer in their lives, they didn’t need to think carefully and critically about what was on the television news because it was well-edited. Even in a passive sense, big bland events smooth out the functions of the communication system. Youtube is clearly problematic in this sense because of their fun-house mirror algorithm, but I want to be clear about the benefits of mass culture. Big, clear signals are useful for people in everyday life, which is why the weather is such a great topic of conversation.
What does this have to do with sports? While this fragment is losing some slivers along the edges, it is still largely intact, which is much more than we can say for basically anything else. To be very specific: A. the broadcast nets lost over 10% in the key demo, B. 57 cable channels averaged 50k viewers and only two of those saw increases year over year, C. the pandemic damaged the production pipeline. D. the NFL is largely, steady. This is the last game in town.
A Shattered Lens
Attention is scarce. Without getting into the weeds, it should be easy to accept that you can’t absorb all of the popular music of Finland while learning Haskell on any given day. Herb Simon argued the the cost in attention, not in production is the true cost of information. But what does that really mean?
The value of information is highly dependent on the kind of attention available to the receiver. Getting the right kinds of information to the right people is extremely important, just as keeping the wrong kinds of information from dangerous people is vital. Alignment is key. You could easily fill your brain with hagiographic accounts of executives and their attention management practices or of the victims of disinformation.
More interesting for me are the everyday uses of attention that are not intrinsically false or incredibly important, things like wow, that guy is fast, or that Will Ferrell, Kennan Thompson, and Awkwafina made a great car commercial.
The point of a commercial like this is not to directly drive a purchase, but to focus attention on a handful of key points, especially that: A. GM has excellent EV technology at a reasonable price, B. adoption of this technology is easily possible, and C. that the archetypal actor of the NASCAR dad generation can pivot into an EV-centric role. In his shipping container journey from his garage/conspiracy-center to quaint coastal town in Sweden, we join in a new feeling for General Motors with a kind of car advertisement that truly stands out not just in the segment during this broadcast, but against flow of overly dour COVID advertising. When the later-day Ricky Bobby is an EV fan, we can be too, we identify with his energy and his drive, with the Brechtian slippage of Ferrell and his characters, a special kind of emotional labor. It was a good commercial.
Contrary to the view of advertising and persuasion put forward by Google and Facebook, where the last person to offer you a glimpse of an advertisement should get credit for converting you (making the sale), researchers like Byron Sharp argue that it is the construction of the brand that matters more. Getting attention focused for a moment like General Motors advertisement allows them to introduce a new point of information for half the country (or more) with little or no need to cultivate the occasion to distribute that information. Super Bowl ads are pro-social in the sense that they allow the loading of new cultural content to read with and against.
It also helps that hyper-targeting is not particularly effective at increasing revenue, is not allowed in the EU, probably can’t function at all in the new world promised by iOS, and as Natasha Lomas argued in TechCrunch is simply unimportant compared to effective branding. At the end of the day we really don’t know what is happening in the world of what appears to be a market shaped fundamentally by a anti-competitive conspiracy.
Don’t we want the lens broken?
It is important for a society to know about itself and for meanings to circulate across groups. Only someone who is profoundly naive would simply smash the mechanisms by which meaning moves through a plural society. Destroying the resins that keep the shards together tends to mean that the sharpest, the most dangerous, rise in importance.
Societies are already headed in a new, complex direction with decreases in collectively focused attention. Beyond the threat of the booming yells of authoritarians overwhelming the whispers of the publics of the fragments, there are a host of broader issues in collective action and politics that come from disconnection. An important part of making societies work will be those fleeting common moments.
This is not to say that we should always prefer the old media. In $GME and now Dodgecoin we are seeing sparks when new focusing mechanisms for attention replace the old. After all, it is not a problem when Jim Cramer takes on his role as “the guy who truly believes in the stock market,” and thus moves the market with his antics. To give some context here, r/wallstreetbets membership is greater than the viewership of the top cable news channels. Unfortunately, ratings data is harder to get these days, but it seems reasonable that engagement in these online forums could be ten times the ratings for Mad Money.
Sometimes a new Fresnel lens is installed, the lighthouse in the information storm is clear and sharp. $GME and Dodgecoin are the Super Bowl of this round of focused financial news. Wallstreetbets will oscillate, collective action and editorial problems will pervade, just as they do other channels. Mass culture peaks in spring and fades away as the sun returns, just after the end of the annual college basketball tournament. Between the Super Bowl and Selection Sunday the light is hard and true.
When we get lucky, new mechanisms for focusing attention appear, and if we focus them well, we can produce meaningful plural life. Even then, the lenses we have must be attended to, even if they are antiques. This is why the Super Bowl is a big deal for democracy.