Thursday, April 16, 2009

Digital Sinclair

In 1906 Upton Sinclair penned his famous work "The Jungle," in hopes of highlighting the working conditions of laborers and immigrants in the meat packing plants of Chicago. Sinclair's vision was to inform and move the public to action on the behalf of the laborers suffering through unspeakable work conditions. His vision was to move the proletariat to action. In the end, what most people remember of "The Jungle" was it's graphic depictions of the meat industry and the conditions of our national food supply. Pools of blood, diseases carcasses, and all manner of contamination of our very sustenance came to light thanks to his undercover work. His work and subsequent correspondence even moved President Theodore Roosevelt to reform the industry and address at least some of labor's issues, although not to the extent Sinclair would have preferred.

Several years ago Eric Schlosser wrote a modern equivalent of "The Jungle" when he penned "Fast Food Nation." That work was later transformed into a feature film, perhaps as a reflection of our modern media evironmental sensibilities demand. Who reads anymore, right? Schlosser, like Sinclair, spent a great deal of time in his book dedicated to the plight of the immigrant worker and the terrible injuries and servitude that they are subjected to in the meat packing plants that serve our international fast food jones. Also, reflecting our expanded sensibilities, Schlosser described the terrible ecological impact of these factory farms and meat processing plants, both on the natural ecology and the man made ecology of local communities.

The message that Schlosser ended up communicating to his audience, however, was that our food is filthy and polluted. The worker and the immigrant and the ecology of our nation fell to the bottom rung of the ladder as footnotes to the most titilating theme of the book, our foodstuffs.

In a sign of the times, in recent days, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and all manner of other major and minor news outlets have featured the story of two Domino's Pizza employees who tampered with their product in some truly unsavory ways and then posted their shenanigans to YouTube. The video and it's subsequent fallout have cost the Domino's Pizza company both the money and the faith of their customers. After having witnessed the hideous display of kitchen hijinks and its mucus membrane detour, it appears as though people are thinking twice about eating Domino's. The company has done everything in its power to apologize and assure its customers that this is an isolated incident. It's used the same viral means to reach the consumer that initially highlighted the damaging behavior of the two food-handlers.

From the perspective of a media ecologist, the actual food-handling and inexcusable "tampering" are secondary to the communication of the story itself. Upon reading and watching the story on-line, it occurred to me that I was witnessing a kind of Digital Sinclair. The workers, themselves, had exposed the horrific treatment of our food albeit without fully considering the consequences. (They have been arrested on felony charges.) The exploitation of labor was lost on Sinclair's audience, and perhaps again with respect to Schlosser. Perhaps it was the very exploitation that each man sought to describe that drove the two Domino's employees to perform their raunchy acts, and also to show them to the world at large. Perhaps the unspoken, psychological impact of thankless and robotic work in the fast food factory environment pushed them to abuse our food supply and then pushed them to cathartically demonstrate it to us. I'm only an amateur psychologist, but in terms of the medium, it appears as though the Internet and it's many communication environments has taken the printed word, distilled it into the instinctive reactionary elements that touch us at some fundamental level, and eliminated the rest.

We still are given access to the horror, to revel in its raw power, but we are left without the depth of analysis and the contextual treatment that the literate-minded Sinclair, and his modern counterpart Schlosser, provided. The outcome is potentially the same. The sensational aspects of each story are what remain. The YouTube version of the story simply cuts out the wordiness of print and hits us where we react most instinctively. In the gut. If the outcome is oversight and reform, each of these examples spoke to the communication sensibilites of its public. If it's understanding of the issue in a more complex and interconnected sense, with respect to its impact on labor and the human condition, it most certainly will fail. The critic will shout from the rooftops that this new medium is failing in a very specific sense, but I wonder if that critic might be forgetting the lessons of Sinclair's experience.

In the end, as we might relate this to Meyrowitz' "No Sense of Place," the new YouTube medium allows us not only access to corners of the world previously mysterious and unknown, but also allows us the ability to show them to the global audience. Where we once cringed at the stories our high school buddies told us about the practices in the Burger King kitchen, we can now access them for ourselves in a truly visceral and impactful way. As a literate-minded person, I choose to seek out the level of information that only the printed word has given us until today. I want the context and the background and the details that help to inform me and guide me in an ecological sense. I want the message about labor. As a consumer of edible products of various kinds, I want the YouTube clip that makes me sick to my stomach. As a visually-oriented creature, the sight of food and muscus intermingling in an unholy way is more likely to get me on the phone with my Congressman or to start me on a path to an organic diet. No one is going to consider the reasons for these employees misbehavior in the end. No one is going to connect the dots to the psychological impact of fast food work environments and food abuse. That's something for books to deal with. The YouTube clip will move some to action (at least temporarily, until the next outrage comes along) and a few uncomfortable news cycles will pass for the executives at America's fast food giants. Some token reforms will be made. Still, until we understand the roots and context of this bad behavior, no one is going to convince me that the next wave of disposable fast food employees won't be messing with the special sauce. How will they stop it?

At least there's YouTube, our Digital Sinclair.

No comments: