There you are at the checkout aisle in your grocery store. You are killing time looking at your smartphone when you see it in the corner of your eye: your two favorite celebrities are cheating on each other. I can't believe it, you think to yourself, they were the perfect couple. In an instant, you are reading what you know may not even be true, but is too tempting to resist.
There are good reasons why tabloids are placed in the checkout aisle. They appeal to our boredom, voyeurism, and short attention spans. Even when we only hastily flip through them, ads still resonate in our brains. Digital technology and 24-hour news cycles only amplify our exposure to advertisements. We are perpetually hunted for our time, money, and ultimately our minds.
But what we often forget, is that with every decision we make about how we spend our time and money, we are casting a vote that shapes popular culture. Pop culture is a reflection of our shared values; it determines the quality of our media content, and the kind of companies and ideas we support. It is a compass that reveals our direction as a nation.
So when we tally our votes, what does it tell us about our shared values and our future? I see hit shows marketed as "reality" rewarding adults for being insulting and manipulative by giving them platforms for wealth and fame. I see a digital minefield of tantalizing click bait, appealing to our gullible and compulsive nature. "This miracle drug will make you lose 20 lbs in a week!", "25 celebrities who look insane at 50!" I see gossip and entertainment being marketed as "news." I see acts of terror shamelessly exploited on endless loops for ratings. I see kids who associate self-worth with the popularity of their selfies.
It's easy to place blame on the "media" or "Hollywood," but to do so would be irrational. We cannot blame content factories for making profitable content. They give us - the consumers - what we want. We can only blame ourselves for creating the demand. But what is produced for entertainment is now bleeding into our democracy. It is no coincidence that the man very likely to become the Republican Party nominee tweeted a photo implying his wife is more attractive than his opponent's. As consumers, this is the election that we demanded. This is the election that we deserve.
Our passive, escapist popular culture is designed to distract us from our own lives. In moderation, this may have benefits of stress relief. But dependency upon this makes us weak. Our attention spans are shrinking, making it harder for us to think critically. We are now conditioned to put off our problems by indulging in someone else's, and we are becoming more anxious and procrastinating more often because of it.
The time has come to wake up from our commercial slumber and ask ourselves: Does our popular culture reflect our potential? It is our obligation to be conscious of the relationship between our consumer behavior and our future. The impact of our popular culture is not confined within our national borders; it is also our greatest export. We must treat our daily decisions as votes for the values we want our society to espouse. We must vote for the content that encourages critical thinking, civility, and empathy; content that challenges us intellectually and emotionally; content that we want to represent our civilization to future generations.
As a nation and as a species, we are threatened with a variety of complex problems and are guaranteed to face problems that we don't yet know exist. Culture, the reflection of our values, can be our greatest ally or enemy during these struggles. We can vote for a culture that helps us forget about our problems, or a culture that inspires us to rise above them.
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