J. Craig Venter seriously overreached when he claimed last week http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/21/science/21cell.html?scp=1&sq=craig%20venters&st=cse that his lab was the first to create synthetic life. Television has been creating synthetic life on a massive scale for decades and video games have been doing it for years.
What could possibly be more synthetic than family life in The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, or The Waltons? That's easy – the longest running sitcom in television history is also the most synthetic (it doesn't even use live actors, it's animated) and the most injurious to the image of fatherhood – The Simpsons.
Because television has always been in the advertising-delivery business and interested only peripherally in its effect on culture and society, it pitches the appeal of the majority of its entertainment content to the largest segment of mass consumers, lower- and middle-income women 18-49.
Is it no wonder that the heroes of this entertainment eye candy are savvy, long-suffering, loving, and sometimes funny women who show up their clueless, often childish, self-centered husbands? And as the years go by, it seems like the men get dumber and more helpless until we finally get to the ultimate stupid loser, Homer Simpson.
Network television entertainment programming doesn't attempt to mirror or even define real life; it tries to embody in a video format the dreams of its primary target audience in order to sell this audience soap. Dreams are not reality, they are synthetic, fuzzy, exaggerated replays of real-life problems in which our minds attempt a subconscious workout of our daily challenges.
And are television reality programs not synthetic? Survivor, Bridezilla, and their clones are as synthetic as the sitcoms mentioned above. The ultimate of being synthetic, or, more appropriately, of lying (the two words have essentially the same meaning at their core) is television claiming that their programs are "reality" programs – it is the same newspeak (words the opposite of truth, as in Orwell's 1984) as Fox News constantly claiming it is "fair and balanced."
So J. Craig Venter and his brilliant colleagues in his lab might have created synthetic life, which brings up a few ethical issues, but it isn't even close to being as synthetic or unethical as most television entertainment programming.
Until he retired in 2002, Charlie Warner was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School where he taught media management and sales, and he created and ran the annual Management Seminar for News Executives. Charlie can be contacted at email@example.com.
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