What is Futurama? Well, if you have never seen it, I suggest piracy. Or at the very least reading the synopsis on Wikipedia.
N. Before we get into the thick of it, a note on what interpretation means. It is not the goal of interpretation to search for what the author intended. It is not the goal of interpretation to “find meaning”. Meaning is not to be found, it is to be made, to be produced. So, none of what you are about to read might be intended by the writers of Futurama.
I: Wait, why are they still watching TV?
Science Fiction has always been – besides, of course, escapism – a tool to comment on the present, often in the disguise of invoking human nature i.e. “some things will always remain the same”. The first clue, then, is the fact that in the year 3000, people still mostly watch television, whereas the internet is an afterthought: It is mentioned in a few episodes (and, as an aside, it is presented differently; Futurama is a quite inconsistent show in these matters, allowing for interpretations to run in every direction – which is exactly what we’ll be doing here.), but always shown as slow and impractical. Why did the writers decide this to be the case? Because Futurama was written in 1999 and the Internet was not the standard mode of cultural transmission that it is today, duh.
But, perhaps, the television will, indirectly at least, always be the defining piece of current human culture: it oozes passivity, it is a one-directional tool of communication, i.e. it could, depending on the definition of communication even be defined as a tool of non-communication. (In fact, it does not merely subvert communication between the viewer and the viewed (who has no chance to respond), it also often thoroughly deminishes communication between the family who sit in front of the tv – see Enzenberger: Baukasten zu einer Theorie der Medien and Baudrillard: Requiem pour les media) The difference between Television and other media is the amount of indeterminate content it provides. You buy and read a specific book, but you don’t watch a television programme, you just watch television. Media criticism too often boils down to the naive assertion that someone at the top is “manufacturing consent” (fyi: Chomsky’s contributions to linguistics aren’t all that great either). Such assertions carry the implication of evil, of conspiracy, of overlords and masterminds, of a great big other. And if only we could do something against them… But television does not need to manufacture consent, or even dissent. All there is to do is to send, something, anything. Television emits this:
The internet, by contrast, allows for more of, well, this. But when the internet became the standard of cultural transmission, the large majority of consumers indeed carried over the mode of consumption as it was previously taught by television: The vast majority of people dont upload videos to YouTube, they just watch. And among those that do upload, there are many who upload nothing but other people’s content, i.e. other people’s music with other people’s pictures as background. And whether you receive all your news through television or reddit (“MSNBC/FOX is too biased!”) doesn’t make any difference either, sorry, you’re still using the same sources and you’re still satiating the same useless desire. Reddit, the “community-run” website, encourages passivity more efficiently than television* could ever hope to achieve; it, too, runs on indeterminate content, on a quick fix of “wha’ever”; “Within the spectacle, the endgoal is nothing, the process everything.” (Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle)
For the majority of consumers, the internet is but a continuation of television.**
Same story with video games: The greatest video games – Deus Ex, Baldurs Gate 2, Doom, etc. – come from before the time of the subsumation through the masses. When did videogames become the standard of entertainment? Only with the advent of Call of Duty 4 through 9; games which went big on “cinematic” and heavily scripted events, games with little regard for player choice and freedom, i.e. interactivity – that which makes a video game a video game and not a movie. Games which, in other words, force the play to accept whatever is happening on the screen. Even more depressing the case of Angry Birds, a game that, due to heavy randomization, requires just about no skillful input at all – randomization being the key word here, a game that is won by “wha’ever”. To put it another way, games became big when they regressed to television, to passivity. ***
* And, as an aside, newspapers before that. Journalism in general has always lived on indeterminate content, on the vague notion that “to inform oneself” (about anything) is of importance – what television changed is that it brought the concept of indeterminate content to include fiction/art by rapidly switching between news and shows, blurring the lines, which culminated in the bastard child of reality and fiction, reality tv. Reality tv lives inbetween the two by not even trying to carry the perceived importance of journalism/news, while simultaneously lacking the good writing, three-dimensional characters and careful directing that is required to make fictional shows enjoyable.
** “And is there really any possibility of discovering something in cyberspace? The Internet merely simulates a free mental space, […] it merely offers a multiple but conventional space, in which the operator interacts with known elements, pre-existent sites, established codes. Nothing exists beyond its search parameters. Every question has an anticipated response assigned to it. You are the questioner and, at the same time, the automatic answering device of the machine. Both coder and decoder — you are, in fact, your own terminal. That is the ecstasy of communication. There is no “Other” out there and no final destination. It’s any old destination — and any old interactor will do. And so the system goes on, without end and without finality, and its only possibility is that of infinite involution. Hence the comfortable vertige of this electronic, computer interaction, which acts like a drug. You can spend your whole life at this, without a break. Drugs themselves are only ever the perfect example of a crazed, closed-circuit interactivity.” – Jean Baudrillard on what sounds exactly like reddit.
II: Why not Zoidberg?
Observe that one, Zoidberg self-confidently declares himself to now be popular; that two, everyone simply accepts this; and that three, Zoidberg knows (i.e. already knew beforehand) how to play the role of being popular – “Ooooh, you know…”.
From this we learn that:
1. Despite everyone in Futurama being assigned a role/trope – Zoidberg usually being the center of hatred by all the others, especially Hermes – these roles are, in all reality, perfectly exchangeable.
2. People do not only know their own role, but, in fact, every role there is to be played. Zoidberg has no problems adopting his new role. Furthermore, he feels the need to fill the void caused by the three – as such, his declaration “Now Zoidberg is the popular one now” should not be read as arrogant or self-loving, but rather as an admittance of his inability to cope with a different social order of any kind. He cannot imagine the workplace without a popular/unpopular duality (or gradient). He supports it even though he was the crapsack of the company for years. Whenever someone tells you “X ain’t so bad”, remember these words: The most devious system survives not by turning complicit its’ beneficiaries, but rather those that it oppresses.
III. Sorry, I’m just not ready for such a commitment yet. (And I never will be.)
There are many alien races within the universe of Futurama. Most of them are ostensibly friendly. But Morbo is precisely not one of them; he specifically says multiple times that he is a scout for an impending alien invasion. Only he is also a newscaster, and appears to have no problem living both of these lives: He makes no secret of his contempt for humans, but he does not seem to mind being a newscaster until the invasion commences. He continually switches between the two (often shouting “I WILL DESTROY YOU” or similar things before or after calmly announcing a certain piece of news) without any hesitation. This is part of the post-modern condition; the only strongly held belief is that strongly held beliefs are suspicious.
Read an academic paper in the field of literary studies and observe that it liberally quotes from Adorno (chance of 30%), Baudrillard (10%; Foucault is all the rage right now), Aristotle (20%), The Beatles, Adolf Hitler, Hayek, Angela Merkel, and Nietzsche (100%). I won’t mind, if you can work all of these diverse sources into a unified, synthesized whole, I applaud you, and anyway I am guilty of the same charges – I merely want to point out the extent of our condition. Vegetarian, except sometimes; patriotic, though only on weekdays; Atheist, but still following the live feed of the papal election (although there might be other reasons for that – see I.); and Broadbent, Wickens and Kahneman all make good points on split attention, so we’ll just teach all three of them. Lambasting the irrelevance of the media but still visiting guardian.co.uk three times a day. I am not sure if this is good or bad, evolution or regression. I would argue that synthesis is good, is indeed the nature of progress. But what Morbo – and what we – are doing is often far from synthesis. Rather, we simply live with the contradictions, ignore them, downplay them. Until one day – hey, does anyone have a DSM-IV handy?
IV. Instant mashed potatoes and and instant mashed history
One of the regular jokes of Futurama is the misconceptions the people of the thirty-first century hold about the twentieth. Sadly, the writing in this respect is even more wildly inconsistent than in others. Often, their knowledge of history is incredibly sketchy or downright wrong, while at other times they know a lot more than Fry.
But anyway, in the episode S02E02, Amy says, during the introduction of a twentieth century history class: “Boooring. Let’s hear about Walter Mondale already!” I see two potential interpretations here. Either Amy is a history erudite and knows minute details such as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of the United States in 1984. This is certainly not impossible; Hey, everyone has his hidden interests. But even then, she couldn’t expect Walter Mondale to come up in what appears to be an introductory class to twentieth century history. So the most well-founded interpretation is that in the thirty-first century, for some reason, Walter Mondale is somehow seen as a pivotal person in the history of the world.
From that perspective, there are again two potential interpretations. Either the thirty-first century writers of history are lacking sources from our time as much as we are from e.g. the tenth, due to giant nuclear catastrophes or whatever (according to Farnsworth, most videotapes were destroyed during the second coming of Jesus in 2443, so there is that). Taking Futurama as a basis for evaluating the present, then, we should take away from this is that most of our reconstructions of the past are probably flimsy at best – maybe Caesar was really the Walter Mondale of his time?
But such ideas are nothing new. As Egon Friedell notes in his Cultural History of the Modern Age, “[..] None of the men who made world history have been spared of being called adventurers, charlatans or even criminals at certain points in time: one must only think of Mohammed, Luther, Cromwell, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Frederick the Great and hundreds of others.” (1927)
It has always been the case that, due to erosion in every possible sense, only fragments of a time survived, so that we had to fill in the gaps inductively. History is always idealized, and always simplified – cut up into more or less well-defined epochs and eras. We were concerned with providing a story, and since we had to fill the gaps, nothing was easier. It was always about adding, rarely about subtracting (though it happened as well).
But the historians of the future will not have such a luxury; for not too little of our time will survive, but rather too much, and as such, it will not be a matter of adding, but one of prescinding. The historians of the thirty-first century have the exact same problem we have today in regards to contemporary history (i.e. news), that is, an abundance of information, but too little meaning. Baudrillard postulates an inverse relationship between information and meaning.* What if thirty-firstcentury historians will have access to, lets say, every reddit post ever, every single headline from every single newspaper, the entire data collected by smartphones and google glass, […]? Would they be able to paint an accurate picture of our society? Perhaps. But perhaps the data would also be entirely meaningless. Again, consider the uproar that is regularly caused by events which a week later everyone will have forgotten about. What will the historians of the future have to say about 9/11? Anything?
And perhaps Volkswagens will be alternatively known as Led Zeppelins, and Jefferson Starships, and […] – going back to point III, the lack of commitment, of a unified, monoperspectivistic view of the world. With an amount of data at their disposal that, like in Borges’ fable**, covers the entirety of our culture – or perhaps even covers it multifold –, a thousand different historians will come to ten-thousand different results. History has always been continually rewritten; having to fill in the gaps will inevitably lead to different versions of history.; but with the increasingly overflowing amounts of data, flooding the gates of the real, reality exists in thousands of different states all at once, and, due to the advent of mass-journalism, reality is becoming history instantaneously. A thousand different historians will come to a ten-thousand different results. And they’ll just teach all of them – so that our time will be more voluminous in history than in reality.
* Simulacra and Simulation, “The implosion of meaning in the media”.
** “. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartograhy attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” –Used as a starting point for Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard would probably posit that our excess of data does not simply cover the entirety of our culture, but is our entire culture – that there is nothing within the data but itself. The Titanic voyage reenactment on twitter is still just representation, is still just (hi)story – i.e. a translation process, a process that involves loss of data. But when our entire culture is nothing but data, nothing but binary, then a thousand years from now our culture can not simply be re-enacted, it can be re-played. In fact, even the word replay does not do it justice, the correct word will have to be invented first… For it is in the nature of history, and that of all art, to be a simulation, a story, a fictional, created world; and for it is in the nature of data that it is the copy without an original, and therefore a culture made up out of data will not have to be written – translated – into the format of history; it will simply stay forever.
*** Bonus Baudrillard for the day: “The end of history is, alas, also the end of the dustbins of history. There are no longer any dustbins for disposing of old ideologies, old regimes, old values. Where are we going to throw Marxism, which actually invented the dustbins of history? (Yet there is some justice here since the very people who invented them have fallen in.) Conclusion: if there are no more dustbins of history, this is because History itself has become a dustbin. It has become its own dustbin, just as the planet itself is becoming its own dustbin.”
V. Epilogue: Meaning is to be produced / Gott ist ein Existentialist
Bender: Y’know, I was God once.
God: Yes, I saw. You were doing well until everyone died.
Bender: It was awful. I tried helping them, I tried not helping them… but in the end I couldn’t do them any good. Do you think what I did was wrong?
God: Right and wrong are just words. What matters is what you do.
Bender: Yeah, I know, that’s why I asked if what I did – Oh, forget it.