One question I am consistently asked with the release of my first novel is, "Where did you get the idea for it from?" The "it" being referred to here is the book's central plot; specifically, the protagonist's solution to solve his money woes by tattooing a condemned prisoner with corporate logos and putting said prisoner's execution on pay-per-view television. Are you still reading this, or are you instead checking my bio, to see if I live in an institution? I don't, at least not yet, so before they bring me to my padded room and funny-armed suit let me say that the book's plot, while satirical, does hold, for me, some actual merit.
The idea was born at the outset of the U.S.'s Great Recession, in 2008; I was, at the time, living in California. Acres of office parks were being vacated, the people who had worked in them all pink-slipped. The university that I was teaching at, at the time, went--in back-to-back years--from having its largest incoming freshmen class to its smallest. There was panic and dismay and a general sense--one I might argue that still pervades today--that no one knew how to solve any of these problems. That is, there was a stunning if not crippling dearth of innovation.
When innovation materialises in a society, it never fails to be accompanied by a bevy of cynics. I am sure there are those who asked, why would anyone want to watch a movie at home? I am sure there were those who scoffed at the idea that someone would want to be able to get the exact same cheeseburger anywhere. But that's what makes innovation so great--it provides something that the majority of people never even realised they wanted. And like video rentals and fast food, reality television has captivated to the point of evolving into a societal staple. I can remember being at a friend's house for the final episode of the first season of Survivor. Two-dozen people sat staring, transfixed; they'd watched the show from the season's beginning, and were utterly invested in how it would conclude. Five months prior, most of them had never heard the term reality television. (While I owned a TV, the one station it picked up was PBS and, knowing nothing of the show, I was less invested.)
And if innovation's monuments, whatever form they may take, are built from precious metals and with startling speed, they begin, in many cases, to patina just as quickly. Blockbuster Video, founded in 1985, has filed for bankruptcy less than 20 years later. Fast food remains under perpetual fire for bringing us exactly what it is that we crave. Even with idolatry, age starts to show; I can recall being in Paris, at Notre Dame, and a child pointing at the oxidised statue of Charlemagne, and saying, "it's covered in bird poop, Mommy!" Heroes age and time marches on and our shrines to their grandeur grow inevitably shellacked with an organic indifference. Reality television's luster may be dulling, too; ratings are down, audiences less invested. It's a medium in need of a bit of elbow grease and spit-shining. And while I hope that society never sets aside its moral convictions to the point of actually putting someone's execution on TV, doing so would certainly harbor the potential to solve many problems. Let's say, for instance, that my home state of California received half the revenue from such a venture--how many teachers' paycheques could be paid? Or policemen's? Or firemen's? How many state parks could be kept from shutting down? How many roads could be tarred and new jobs created?
Embedded in these questions is Innovation's dark side--its potential for misery. History is filled with these morbid creations, items of beguiling advancement that bring only death: mustard gas and the atomic bomb, hunter-killer drone planes and Agent Orange. Abstracted, and with humanism set aside, each of these items is an achievement. And how much society allows itself to abstract is weighed, in part, by that society's level of desperation. With media the sociopolitical juggernaut that it is today, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see some private-sector exec try to push this idea on a failing municipality.
And if this pay-per-view execution were to be real, could you honestly say that you wouldn't watch it?