2012-077: Cinematic Preconception

According to a report I heard on NPR, we are currently in the middle of a 60 day moratorium for any research on the bird flu virus. Apparently, there was public outcry and concern that genetic researches might accidentally (or otherwise) produce a variation of the virus that could cause a pandemic, and whatever agencies and institutions that control this sort of thing responded by halting research. You know: calm the masses. Let everybody take a breath and maybe extinguish the torches, lay down the pitchforks, and sit down outside the castle and talk this thing over.

It is not unwise to be concerned with the avian flu. Mutated bird flu virus was the source of the Asian flu pandemic 1918 that killed (by conservative estimates) 50 million human beings, mostly  healthy young adults. 3% of the world’s population died in that one year’s outbreak.  So we definitely need to worry about the virus, in whatever milieu one finds the little bugger, be it in the hen houses of some Southeast Asian farmer, or percolating in the test tubes of the CDC labs in Atlanta. Or in some filthy terrorist back room in Damascus, dark figures hunched over dirty glass bottles, concocting genetic strains according to some recipe they found on the Internet. Or perhaps being worked upon in pristine conditions, a kidnapped Nobel Laureate slaving away for a megalomaniac billionaire intent on remaking the world into a Utopia only he understands, by first destroying most sentient beings.

Or so Hollywood has conditioned us to expect. Those last two scenarios most of us would likely pooh-pooh as wild fantasies. Oh sure, we’ve seen the plot lines laid out dozens, hundreds of times. Each time, from Sean Connery’s Bond to the most recent cinematic examples, the plots and the characters become more bizarre and further removed from any kind of reality we experience on a daily basis. But I think there is a concomitant effect due to the inundation of movies depicting plots and schemes (and accidents, even). As the special effects become more engrossing and the movie-making more sophisticated, I wonder if our willing suspension of disbelief might not have begun to extend a little into “ordinary” reality.

This moratorium, for instance. How much real risk exists in this kind of research, and how much of the concern was the result of perceptions due to Hollywood? In one sense, I wonder whether our movie-making has become so overwhelmingly complex, ever-expanding in epic scale, that some parts of minds are operating on a “this could all be happening, somewhere, somehow”. Not in our critical, reasoning minds. Rather a sort of gnawing away in the background, eroding our confidence in what we take for the normal state of affairs. Sort of like (to use a movie example) the way a suggestion was “incepted” into the dreaming subconscious of the target individual in the movie Inception.

Perhaps megalomaniacs plotting world domination might seem too excessive for anybody. But I’ll wager the idea of terrorists cooking up genetic strains seems feasible to a decent percentage of the public. And here’s another way movies have “conditioned” us over the years: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have probably single-handedly done more than any other single individuals to convince wide swaths of humanity that We Are Not Alone, that contact from Out There is inevitable. Heck, that it’s practically commonplace already. Government cover-ups are just part of the package, the details of the mythology. Which leads right into the widely accepted idea that the government is watching each of us, continuously, monitoring, fixing, tweaking. Giant computers tracking every move. Occasionally it may be benign, but generally with nefarious intent. After all, one rarely spies for good and decent reasons.

Hollywood has been providing the visuals for our myths for decades. Movie (and television) screens are the modern equivalent of heiroglyphics carved in the ancient Egyptian pyramids and the stone pictograms in the Mayan jungles. They repeatedly show us the stories that we inevitably weave into our world view. It starts when we are most impressionable and undiscerning, as infants. And what we absorb eventually changes how we absorb, how we interpret the world. I do not think that this is necessarily a manipulated complex; storytellers love to tell a story. And they don’t mind getting rich for doing it. But in a world as complex (and even self-aware) as ours has become, it is certainly possible that the use of well-known (and evermore refined) principles of psychology could be used to, well, enhance that story telling. Maybe for no other reason than to sell more McDonald’s tie-in merchandise.

Or perhaps, in an artificially hollowed fortress in the Himalayas, a group of billionaires has assembled the finest minds, the key neuroscientists and psyche manipulators in the world. And there, they prepare the next phase in their subtle plan to gain world domination!

For its own good, of course.

© 2012 Chuck Puckett