Star phenomena? People aren’t looking up at the sky – they’re tracking celebrities

There’s a great jpeg from Abstruse Goose that shows the star systems within range of Earth’s radio and television broadcasts. Aldebaran, a red giant, located about 65 light years away, is in the range of President Roosevelt’s first televised speech. Mu Arae, a main sequence G-type star like our Sun, is about 50 light years away and would now be getting The Twilight Zone, Bonanza and Leave it to Beaver.

Beta Aquilae is within broadcast distance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. The fab four are already old news to Zeta Reticuli, which recently got the Apollo moon landing. Chi Draconis would be getting The Dukes of Hazzard. Altair would have Entertainment Tonight, Cops and – unfortunately for any intelligent life – The Arsenio Hall Show. Wolf 359 just picked up Janet Jackson’s 2004 Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction.” Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, would have the full media menu, starting backwards with the sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

If there is any intelligent life around this binary star system, the ETs may soon come to the conclusion that a slinky creature called “Kim Kardashian” rules our planet along with her sisters. Because right now, it sure seems that way.

On Earth, we have full-spectrum saturation by the Kardashians. It seems you cannot surf the web or turn on the tube without encountering something about the talent-free socialite and her equally unremarkable siblings. I’ve set my homepage to because that’s where my email account resides, and bodacious Kim is always there in some lifestyle update. I channel-surf and there she is with a sister, on their own reality TV show. I go to the supermarket and there she is again at the checkout stand magazine rack. I go to the local recreation centre for a workout and citrus-tanned Kim is there too, on the cover of one of the magazines left for gym patrons. And now here she is in Common Ground magazine – and I’m responsible. The horror.

The daughter of celebrity lawyer Robert Kardashian, big-breasted Kim first hit public consciousness in 2007 through a sex video co-starring her friend-with-benefits, the rapper Ray J. She leveraged this Internet notoriety into tabloid sovereignty, dragging her sisters behind her like Louis Vuitton bags to the top of the Twitterverse. The pneumatic 31-year-old is like a William Gibson science fiction short story gone viral, although she undoubtedly prefers the Wikipedia entry, “American socialite, television personality, model, actress and businesswoman.”

Kim’s career-lite arc was foreshadowed in the rise of Paris Hilton, who also leapt from sex video amateur to international celebrity without ever bumping into a script, teleprompter or catwalk along the way. Wikipedia informs me it was Paris herself who introduced Kim to the global socialite scene. If the Hilton daughter was H1N1, a pandemic that was more likely to make people giggle than sniffle, then the daughter of O.J. Simpson’s defence lawyer is weaponized Ebola: a level 4 biohazard that has zombified great swaths of media, both online and off.

The 24/7 “Kimformation” feeds on itself, in a perpetual motion machine of glossy pics, jpegs and witless gossip. No one, online or off, can seem to get a fix on how real or fake Kim is, beyond her admission of Botox use. Bloggers parse recent and past photos to determine how much reconstruction has been done. The question of fake/real can get a bit Byzantine. How much is a genetic factor and how much is Max Factor? Or even the surgeon’s scalpel? At some point, the gossip about Kim’s face and body shades into straight-on epistemology.

In June 2010, The Guardian noted Kim’s ability to attract payments of up to US$10,000 from sponsors for each tweet that she broadcasts. What I want to know is this: if Kim tweets and no one reads it, has she still communicated nothing of substance?

There is no need for me to describe further this woman’s victories across media platforms, including the current reality television show, Kourtney & Kim Take New York. Until science succeeds in squeezing the “God Particle” from a complete vacuum, the Kardashians are the best example of creating headlines out of absolutely nothing. Kim herself could be any old celeb and some other vapid beauty will take her place in time. But for now she reigns supreme on the Earth’s electromagnetic spectrum.

That ringlet-haired interpreter of pop culture, “Weird Al” Yankovic, has given us a new word with the “Kardash:” a period of 72 days, the length of time Kim was married to some Transformer-sized athlete whose name I can’t be bothered to Google (she reportedly got a $2 million-dollar ring out of this quickie arrangement, which she intends to keep). It occurred to me that Kardashian could serve as a perfectly good adjective, as well. I define it this way:

Kardashian | Kardashiy’n | adjective
1 Cosmetically beautified, but without the substance to back up the mass attention. 2. A state of slickly produced artifice, masquerading as the real thing.

There are many other aspects of our hi-tech, high-bandwidth culture that can be described with this adjective. Even popular music is going increasingly Kardashian, with off-key singers cutting their android albums with the aid of the pitch-correcting software program, AutoTune. Here are some other signs of our sim-culture in full swing.

Kardashian politics

Four years ago, weary US voters chose Barack Obama as President, in a benchmark moment for American race relations. Yet the campaign itself was a victory of warm and fuzzy over hard and specific, with voters sold on the abstract nouns of “hope” and “change.” Tellingly, the trade magazine Advertising Age named Obama’s campaign as marketer of the year for 2008, beating out runners-up Apple and

The Financial Times reported on the public relations industry’s enthusiasm for “brand Obama.” Among those cheering were PR execs that pioneered the packaging of candidates as consumer brands 30 years ago, when they helped California governor Ronald Reagan win the White House. “Take it from the professionals, Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream,” wrote author Chris Hedges in an essay at “President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they can make you feel.”

Upon election, America’s most Kardashian politician immediately parachuted Wall Street insiders into his administration. The University of Chicago’s former lecturer on constitutional law not only failed to reverse many of the policies of the Bush administration, he also deepened and widened them, from wireless wiretapping to extraordinary renditions to bank bailouts to extending the Bush era tax cuts, to the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows any acting president to imprison any American citizen indefinitely without due process.

Closer to home, Republican-style dirty tricks seem to have accompanied the last federal election. Ottawa’s pale cipher with the helmet hair and cold, grey eyes is not visually appealing – but he is Kardashian, and the “robocall” scandal only raises further questions about deceit within the Tory social circle.

Kardashian defence policy

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was nothing if not Kardashian, with a phony WMD threat cooked up by a circle of White House neocons around Dick Cheney. The story was built on the testimony of a single alcoholic Iraqi source known by the code name “Curveball.” The neocons reanimated this pig of a tale, while the CIA and State Department reluctantly applied the lipstick. Media shills like Judith Miller of the New York Times did their part by attaching wings to the beast and training it to fly – not very well, but enough to convince the American public that it was some rough beast soaring towards Brooklyn.

The other bookend to this saga also seems Kardashian: the story of Osama bin Laden’s murder in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by Navy Seal Team Six, the disposal of his unphotographed corpse at sea and the rumoured death of some of the team in a subsequent helicopter crash. News consumers were expected to take the storyline on faith, in spite of its ongoing tweaking by official sources.

Kardashian finance and economics

Kardashian finance kicked into high gear with Wall Street’s post-2000 explosion in securitized mortgages, sliced and diced and sold to unsuspecting buyers in ticking time-bomb packages, after being signed off by complicit rating agencies. As the crash of 2008 and the current crisis in the eurozone have demonstrated, there is no moral hazard for robber barons who are rewarded with bailouts for crashing the system – just as there is no disincentive for captured politicians to tell the people the truth about a reckoning to come. Political leaders kick the can down the road so the inevitable consequences of bad behaviour – ecological, economic and social – are left to the next administration or generation (or, at least, the next Kardash, in 72 days).

When I say Kardashian, I’m talking about the triumph of surface over substance, of artifice over reality, of public relations over common sense, across many spheres of endeavour. It goes without saying the outlines have been around for decades. Back in the fifties, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the social construction of reality and the American penchant for turning performance into a social mask. In the nineties, Neal Gabler argued in his book, Life: The Movie, that American consumers have incorporated the values of film and television into their daily lives, becoming performers in their own private worlds.

No matter which way we try to get an academic fix on late capitalism’s production of junk-diet infotainment, there is no longer any line separating news and advertising, justice and entertainment, war and public relations, politics and pretty much everything else. And that’s been the case for some time. Just after the Gulf War victory in 1990, I was relaxing in a Seattle hotel room, watching TV. Henry Kissinger was doing the weather on Good Morning America – something he had always wanted to do, he told the hosts. I switched over to another channel and there was General Schwarzkopf marching in a victory parade with Mickey Mouse. The general and Mickey were singing together.

A real general celebrating a made-for-TV war with a fake rat. A former Nixon advisor and accused war criminal pretending he was a weatherman. It was a Kardashian moment, back when Kim herself was still playing with Barbie.

Fictitious wars, fake leaders, phony celebrities, simulated worlds online and off. So what else is new? Fakery and deception has been going gangbusters on this planet ever since the first orchids evolved organs that resembled the female versions of certain insects, thereby tricking males into pollination duties. Human beings didn’t invent deception, though language allowed us to lie about where the good berries were. The true evolutionary novelty humans brought to the game was gossip: the idle parsing of the behaviour of others. In fact, some anthropologists theorize that gossip was the prime mover in the evolution of language. A hominid’s survival hinged on the ability to assess and properly predict the behaviour of its own kind – and sometimes getting a leg up on a competitor with a tall tale. So today’s trash-talking checkout rags and celebrity television may not be so much a cultural maladaptation as a Darwinian overshoot. After all, it’s only a few million years from the savanna to the supermarket, a mere eyeblink in geological time.

Today, the rise of digital media has taken gossip to previously unimaginable heights, as traditional media retreats from old-school who-what-when-where-why journalism. As newsrooms’ budgets are slashed and advertising revenue dries up for media outlets, the cultivation of gossip becomes more seductive. The glossy celebrity magazines “Pimple” and “Pus” – sorry, I mean People and Us – outsell all other Time Warner publications put together, while the celeb-stalking TMZ has sprung from an obscure online tabloid to a massively popular cable show.

I don’t want to give the impression I’m somehow above celebrity culture myself. If you stick me in a plane with a drink in one hand and copy of Pimple or Pus in the other, I’m a happy camper. Some disreputable part of my brain hungers for this gossipy mind-candy, which is why I usually try to avoid it. It’s like info-crack for me, as it is for millions of others. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the End Times are upon us simply because millions of shoppers are tossing remedial reading into their grocery carts, or turning to Perez Hilton for celebrity updates. That fate may have to wait until an entire generation has visions of The Matrix dancing in their heads, mediated either through Google goggles or megastar-endorsed implants.

In any case, there are already harbingers of generational revolt to celeb-heavy digital overkill. According to a recent essay in the New York Times by Pico Iyer, marketers are trying to pre-empt what they see as the next big thing among the young: retreat from their gadgets into prolonged periods of electronic silence.

Not everything around us is Kardashian, thank God or Gaia. We are still capable of having unmediated experiences with nature and other human beings. In fact, these experiences become all the more precious as the world and people around us are increasingly digitized, mashed-up, hacked and sold back to us the real thing. At this stage, you cannot spurn the electronic gadgets that rule your schedule; but you are still capable of using them critically and unplugging once in a while to reconnect with the average-looking, non-famous human beings nearby.

Meanwhile, back in outer space… Alpha Centauri appears to the naked eye as the brightest star in the southern constellation Centaurus. It is actually a double star, like the twin suns that hung in the skies of Tatooine in Star Wars. If there are any radio-friendly intelligent beings near these interstellar tango partners, they should be getting the first electromagnetic ripples about Kim and her sisters anytime now. We probably shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for a response. Scientists have been puzzled by the century-long absence of discernible radio signals from other civilizations in the Milky Way. Perhaps this static doesn’t argue so much against extraterrestrial intelligence as for it. Considering what Earth has beamed out already over the past 60 years, the ETs may have chosen to kill the cable, or at least point their dishes away from Earth – sparing them from thinking our planet is ruled by megastar Kim and her orbiting siblings.

Common Ground, May


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