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558. Limitation (X)



Conspiracy theories have a recognisable logic, and their logic is storytelling logic. Reality also has a logic to it, but it is not storytelling logic. Example: Will Smith slapped Chris Rock while he was on stage at the Oscars. Conspiracy theory: this happened because Oscar ratings were down 57% last year and so the entire slap was staged to boost ratings again. After all, Hollywood and the media lie all the time—these are professional fabulists, so why not stage an event to help themselves?


The thought-mode feels familiar because it is a typical way humans attempt to explain anomalous events; although at a certain superficial level it is acceptable, it feels like grey cardboard in my mind—just as when I watch a badly written film. The reason it feels this way is that it has some plausibility but at another level your mind protests: “This isn’t how reality actually works, people aren’t really like that.”


As with many conspiracy theories, the premise is pseudo-Machiavellian: people are evil and are motivated by quantitative goods—money or ratings—and will undertake convoluted plots to achieve these goals. The reasoning is designed to flatter the speaker and the listener, a bit like a con man: “Hey, you look like a sharp guy. You know a deal when you see one, bud. Look at these watches, now you have to watch out…”


Reality: I used to work as a journalist on trade journals. These journals—associated with professional associations—sponsor annual award shows for their industries. The Oscars are exactly the same as the OEM Airline Awards or the Association of American Dental Hygiene Industry Excellence Show—it just so happens that the Oscars are unique in that they have a public interest and so are televised.


All these award shows are rigged; and I know because I have seen how the winners are decided—the Nobel Prize is probably the same. However, the awards are not rigged as a conspiracy theorist imagines—with brown paper envelopes stuffed with cash. They are “rigged” in a way that everyone is satisfied with; and this is because the real point behind these trade shows is to let the industry Eskimo kiss and build relationships, the awards are a pretext—so they say this year Arab Air can be “Best Cabin Provider” and Deutsche Flug can be “Best Captain”. This provides some useful PR copy, but the real point is to build inter-organisation relations; and this is achieved in part because everyone understand “it’s your turn this year”—graciously accepts it; in practice, everyone gets an award. More importantly, everyone goes to the event hotel, gets drunk, and touches noses—sometimes more than noses.


“It’s a small world”. It is a small world: you might think Hollywood is a big place, but this is not so—even people who have never met “know” each other by a few degrees of separation, same for dentistry or academia. Each industry is only about as big as a town with 120,000 people in it; and if you have ever lived in a place that big you find that your social world intersects all the time with the whole town; and there are recognisable “characters” everyone knows—along with surprisingly intimate details. So these events constitute that rare moment when the entire network—its senior nodes, from make-up artists to actors—is in one room; and this is important for human social organisation. Point: the people who run the Oscars do not really care about the ratings; they would run a similar event untelevised, just like every industry award show in the world. They want it kept as classy as possible: “the industry flagship event that represents us all”. They are not interested in a new Jerry Springer; and to be so would defeat the point. So no, the whole fight was not staged for ratings—that is the clever-silly pseudo-Machiavellian explanation for a villain’s behaviour on Saturday morning TV, not how real life works.


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