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An Interview with Will Brooker (And Book Giveaway!)

“The geeks aren’t just inheriting the earth, they’re creating the future,” Will writes. After discussing the impact entertainment is having on the world around us, the educator and undeniably talented writer Will Brooker — who has made a living by studying and evaluating cultural icons like Batman — starts to talk about the changing landscape of technology as influenced by Hollywood. Keep in mind that Will is not your average geek or nerd or whatever classification you would try to file him under. He’s a slim, well-groomed, and (I imagine) tall author of several books that look intensely at entertainment icons — like those of Star Wars and Batman — and the way they cause huge tidal waves in culture. In essence, Will has built an entire career and reputation, a life, around the heroes and villains that people like you and I only imagined as we grew up. When I asked Will if he would be willing to do a brief interview about TV and how it has influenced the world, he jumped at the opportunity. But this is more than just an interview. It’s your chance to win TWO of Will’s top-selling books: Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, and Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans. To see how you can win a copy of both books, read through the interview and get details at the end of this article. Of course, being half-way across the world meant that we couldn’t sit down to chat face-to-face, but Will was kind enough to respond to a few questions over email. What follows is the juicy parts of our discussion, exploring the way entertainment is shifting right beneath our feet and how the shows and movies we watch or read about are playing out in real life. CableTV.com What does the changing shape of TV mean for those who don’t watch television, if anything? Will: I think rather than being cut off, necessarily, from the world — current events, news, the national and global narrative of real life — people who don’t watch TV are likely to be cut off from shared fictional stories. Twitter and online journalism, not to mention radio and newspapers, could keep a person fully in-tune and up-to-date with news stories and factual information if he or she ignored television [completely]. What I think you’d be more likely to feel left out of is the fiction that makes up a lot of our conversation, and provides a lot of common ground between both friends and strangers. Yes, the part of a text we see on television is not the be all and end all — not the whole text or, even arguably, the main event. The text of a TV show now spreads across blogs, discussion boards, dedicated websites, twitter, magazines, book spin-offs and newspaper write-ups. If you missed an episode of Doctor Who, you could no doubt bluff it from reading forum discussions, online summaries and print reviews. But even as the focus shifts and the television show itself is no longer the sole vehicle — as a text expands across other platforms — you’re unlikely to visit the Heroes website if you’ve never seen the show, or take part in internet discussions about Battlestar Galactica if you’ve never tuned in, or take much interest in reviews of Spooks if you don’t watch it. As such, I’d suggest that non-TV viewers are going to feel excluded from the network of stories that tends to link us and make for easy conversation filler. If I meet a friend of a friend and discover we both like the show Mad Men, I have an hour’s guaranteed discussion right there. If I’m at the barber and the guy cutting my hair watches The Apprentice, the chat will be easy. I’ve talked about Big Brother with supermarket cashiers packing my groceries and an anesthetist before she put me under; one of my friendships at work is based mainly on our liking for Apprentice and X-Factor. I don’t follow sports, so TV narratives are the shared cultural pool I can dip into most easily: unlike the minefields of politics, religion or even musical taste, it’s a low-risk territory, good for quick connection. CableTV.com: The shows make it easy to quickly connect with others — especially strangers — then, right? Will: But it also stands up to deeper, longer-term, shared immersion and examination: half the texts and emails I receive from my brother are about what Don Draper is up to on Mad Men, and I’ve spent hours of quality time with my wife watching The Wire. Those shows have become part of a framework of reference between us, a familiar parallel history and in-joke. Now, the points above all depend on whether we take “don’t watch TV’” to mean “don’t watch a conventional TV set” (whether in the family room or elsewhere), or genuinely, fundamentally, “don’t watch any television shows on any medium.” “Television” is no longer confined to the TV set — perhaps it never was, entirely — but in the past, while it overflowed into journalism and other media like the TV guide, and overlapped with cinema, the distinctions were more clear cut. Today, someone could not own a TV set but watch more television than I do, through downloads, streaming or DVD box sets. CableTV.com: Do you feel like the ability to be in-tune without actually owning a TV is part of why so many forms of entertainment are reflecting real-world events and culture? Have you found any evidence that the opposite has taken affect? Have there been any situations where a TV show impacted real world culture, even if people weren’t “tuned in”? Will: To answer this, again I’ll broaden the question beyond just TV. The obvious example, to me, is 9/11 — that shorthand for a complex and terrible series of events in America. Many commentators observed that one of the shocking aspects of September, 11th 2001 was the sense of fiction intruding on real life — the spectacle of special effect disaster movies becoming suddenly and horribly real. The destruction of New York architecture is (and was), of course, a familiar trope in science fiction and action cinema. But the motifs of US architectural icons in ruins, panic in the streets and nationwide airspace on alert are (and have been) also prevalent in TV, in comics, print fiction and magazine covers — you could even find a precedent in Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. It would be crude to try to construct some kind of direct cause-and-effect pattern from this, but I think the attacks of 9/11 operated within, again — in a horrible way — a shared cultural framework. They spoke a familiar cultural language of shock, terror, impact, urban nightmare. They made their meaning so powerfully by tapping into a shared bank of images — images, ironically, that were shared by America and Al Qaeda. The event spoke the language of disaster movies, comic books and TV shows. It spoke in capital letters on capital cities: an iconic, science fiction, superhero language. And the fact that America speaks the same language was confirmed not only by the ghastly ‘success’ of the attacks — as terror, they communicated an immediate and clear message — but by the Bush administration’s response as well. Al Qaeda struck through the visual grammar of popular movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon. The US government replied through shock and awe; and then through surveillance, rendition, torture and ‘counter-terror’, the unleashed, desperate-measures-for-desperate-times attitude of TV’s 24. Again, however, I would always be reluctant to draw a cause-effect pattern between TV and ‘real life’. Television, comics, radio, journalism, cinema, celebrity, politics and other discourses constitute a network of narratives that surround us in a matrix, most of them mediated rather than touching us directly. They intersect and overlap. The relationship is never simple. In the case of 9/11 and the “war on terror”, it seems even more insensitive and inappropriate to compare real loss, grief and suffering — all of which obviously continue, almost ten years after the original event — to the play-acting and pretend of fictional narratives. However, I think the form of both the attack and the counter-attacks were shaped by a common vocabulary — built around the cultural meanings and images of ideas like disaster, terror, defiance and triumph — that both sides shared and had absorbed from fiction, from comics, TV and, most of all, the movies. It’s a sad and ugly shadow-side of the cultural pool. We understood 9/11 immediately because the attackers were using a vocabulary, on a massive, grotesque and iconic scale, that we, and they, had all learned from Hollywood. It was a message written across the US, across the world, in the common cultural currency of television and cinema. CableTV.com: It’s clear that entertainment has played a major part in countless lives, as we all seem to recognize it’s language. With the recent advancements in technology it seems that entertainment is moving to play an even more prominent role in our lives. Do you agree? How do you think this will affect the greater culture of society moving forward? Will: I wrote an article around this exact topic, which was published last year in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, called ‘Now You’re Thinking With Portals’. In the article, I engage similar questions and issues, and it was based in part on interviews with Cisco Systems, whose technology has product placement within shows like 24 and Heroes. In fact, the software and props they integrate within those narratives are (in their words) “state of the art, plus” — near-future, science fiction versions of what they’re making now; fictionalized, slightly idealized imaginings of their current technology. There have been several advertising campaigns that essentially offer a science fiction of, again, near-futuristic phones, communication devices and networks, suggesting how these devices fit into our lives: ads from the 1980s and 1990s sometimes present surprisingly accurate predictions of today’s and tomorrow’s technology. There’s a definite relationship between fictional tech and its real-world counterpart, though again, as I mentioned previously in this interview, it’s not a simple cause-effect. Project Natal, which became Kinect for the Xbox 360, was immediately recognized as a real-life version of the motion-control interface from the film Minority Report. Clamshell mobile phones were, I believe, originally made in the style of Star Trek “communicators”. Many of Cisco’s programmers and designers grew up seeing cool devices on TV and in films, and essentially, wanted to make them real. I’m sure the same is true of other companies. The geeks aren’t just inheriting the earth, they’re creating the future. The overlap between fictional and real technology is increasingly blurring: I’ve seen an iPad the size of a table on-screen three times now. Once was watching science fiction movie The Island on DVD, once was another island, the contemporary cop show Hawaii 5-0, on DV-R, and once was a documentary about Apple’s next wave of products. I think I watched that as a Vimeo link from Reddit.com. CableTV.com: Looking even more to the future, what do you foresee in terms of TV affecting our cultures? With the internet growing and TV ownership declining in the US, does it all mean anything? Will: TV ownership in the US is predicted to decline in 2012 from 98.9% to 96.7%. That’s significant, but it’s hardly a big drop, and my understanding is that it’s a predicted decline rather than a reported trend. The interesting thing about all of this, in my opinion, is the challenge it poses to our definition of ‘television’. Viewing of television on a conventional TV set is certain to decline. But television viewing on tablets, phones, netbooks, laptops and desktops is increasing. Factor in DVD box sets and the different ways of viewing ‘television’ are incredibly diverse — not to mention the fact that even digital television is not the same analogue technology that was originally launched under that name: so, is it still, strictly speaking, ‘television’ in the 1920s sense, at all? I think we have to discuss what the word ‘television’ actually stands for and signifies right now. What does it refer to and connote? Is The Wire television when I only watched it on DVD? Is Lost television when I watched half of it on download? Is a Doctor Who website ‘television’? Is the discussion forum Television Without Pity ‘television’? If I watch a clip from Glee on YouTube, is that music video, internet or television? Is television a style, a source, a cross-media medium? What distinguishes it from other forms? What do we want “television” to mean? Cut. At this point we had to let Will get back to his regular schedule. He’s currently off on a sabbatical writing his next book “Hunting the Dark Knight” and other projects, so we didn’t want to keep him pre-occupied for too long.

Interested in getting two of Will Brooker’s books for free?

UPDATE: This contest has now ended. Thank you for your interest. Post a question in the comments for Will to answer about TV, culture, whatever, and you’ll be entered to win both Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, and Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans! A random winner will be picked on July 12th, 2011 and contacted by email. No purchase necessary, books will be ordered from Amazon.com and shipped directly to you. Only one winner will be picked at random. This contest is not directly affiliated with Will Brooker. Odds of winning are dependent entirely on the number of comments received.  CableTV.com reserves the right to use discretion when picking a winner. Questions and comments may be sent directly to CableTV.com by visiting our contact page. Or, if you want to discover more about Hollywood, entertainment icons, and the affects they have on us — or if you just want to explore Batman, Star Wars, or other cultural icons in beautiful detail — please take the time to pick up a copy of one of Will’s books listed below. Postmodern After-Images Teach Yourself Cultural Studies Batman Unmasked Using the Force Alice’s Adventures The Audience Studies Reader The Blade Runner Experience BFI Film Classics: Star Wars

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  • http://www.noahlocke.com Noah Locke

    Another great article from CableTV. Great work Tanner. Hooray for geeks.

  • Edwin

    Great interview, I’m particularly interested in your insights on blurring of what television really means. We already see the ever increasing prominence of watching shows on Netflix and Hulu along with value-added features that networks like HBO are providing with their subscriptions. How do you think distribution models will change for this type of content in the future? Also, what kind of strategies can companies use to combat the ease of downloading shows online for free?

  • Chris

    Makes me think of what Hayden White wrote: “through irony, […] entities can be characterized by way of negation on the figurative level what is positively affirmed on the literal level.” If media are extensions of our senses (Marshall McLuhan), and TV is what Will Brooker says it is, then I think there is a growing narrowness to the way we see the world – it is a worldview that tells us that everything can be commodified.

  • Heather

    Mines a batman question! What do you think about the imminent ‘reboot’ of DC comics, and especially the decision to ‘fix’ Barbara Gordon’s spine and switch her from Oracle to Batgirl again?

  • Will

    The experience of services like Netflix and Hulu is surprisingly culturally-specific. They are not yet part of the UK experience. BBC iPlayer and Channel 4′s 4OD, and television on YouTube, are now part of regular ‘TV’ culture in the UK. I would guess that successful models will roll out internationally, but at the moment there seems a distinction between the US and UK that’s actually quite interesting and unexpected — when I was growing up in the 1970s, the US seemed like a glimpse of the future as movies and other popular culture (like food and toys) were always slightly different and usually about six months ahead, but I would say the two cultures have converged a great deal over the past few decades. Television viewing in the US and UK, though, is still significantly different. It’s still possible to be a bit baffled and overwhelmed by American television, as Raymond Williams was in his famous account of ‘flow’, or Bono was with his observations that ‘I can’t tell the difference between ABC News, Hill Street Blues, and a preacher on the old time gospel hour’, and, later, that ‘the Cartoon Network turns into the News’. And that’s true of conventional, ‘on-set’ TV viewing, and ‘off-set’ viewing on other devices. I don’t know if on-set and off-set are accepted terminology, but if I’ve just invented them, and if anyone likes them, you read them here first. (Brooker, 2011) As for downloading, speaking personally: I think the reason for using legal downloads is mostly ease and speed, coupled with quality and safety. Illegal downloads are quite a hassle to locate and sift through — you don’t know exactly what you’re getting or how long it will take, or whether it’s a good copy or some hand-held pirate shot from the cinema screen. I’d pay couple of dollars on iTunes just to get something immediately, with a guarantee that it’s what I actually wanted. Basically, I don’t think people have much inherent sense of copyright ethics to appeal to: I think people are lazy. People will go for the legal option if that’s the easiest option.

  • Will

    Thanks for a Batgirl question, Heather. My feelings about the reboot (which I think DC are not calling a reboot) are mostly cautious-to-negative. I think we’ve just seen something of a new golden age in Batman comics, since Grant Morrison took over in 2006. Batman, Batman and Robin and Batman Incorporated are some of the best (most playful, most intelligent) mainstream superhero comics I’ve ever read. I can’t remember any straight run of absolutely mainstream, in-continuity superhero comics, of such consistent quality and interest, that has lasted 5 years. Maybe O’Neil and Adams in the 1970s is comparable to Morrison’s triumphant run, which is inventive and radical while also paying homage to Batman’s diverse history. So, if the reboot marks the end of that period, I’m sorry about it. More fundamentally, I am very wary of the frequency of cross-continuity Crises these days. Crisis on Infinite Earths was 1986… since then we’ve had Zero Hour, The Kingdom, Infinite Crisis, Identity Crisis and Final Crisis. Most of those massive events spend much of their time trying to correct the changes the last one wrought. The Kingdom introduced a new model of time and space that was then junked. Final Crisis, to even remotely live up to its name, should have been the last event for a decade or more. The traditionalist and historian in me hates the fact that Detective Comics and Batman are being relaunched with issue #1. As for Batgirl… don’t get me started. I very much dislike the idea of throwing out 23 years of continuity and changing an established character for no good reason. I dislike even more the idea of taking one of the very few interesting and resonant female characters with a disability and making her able-bodied again. I can’t help thinking it’s a slap in the face to anyone with a disability, to magic her out of a wheelchair. I am prepared to withhold judgement and see if it’s done well, and I very much like Babs as a character, as Batgirl, but I would be happy to read great Batgirl stories set in the past, pre-Killing Joke. I think it’s deeply problematic to mend her spine. That said, I think we shouldn’t delude ourselves that Oracle/Barbara is a great representation of women at the moment: I’ve read an appalling story where we dwell on badly-drawn images of her undressing for the shower, from her wheelchair, for a whole horrendous page.

  • James

    Lovin the interview. Nerds Rule!

  • David

    At this rate Will, you’re going to win your own books…