My Lesson From Macau: Why Creativity Starts With Awe

“Hello China!...... there are just so many of you.” Stefani Germanotta, better known by her Queen-inspired moniker, Lady Gaga, made that appeal to 15,000 screaming teenage Chinese girls in a large concert hall in Macau in the summer of 2009. By virtue of an English teaching gig in Hong Kong, I was fortunate enough to personally witness her observation that there are, in fact, a lot of Chinese people in the world. Anyone there that night, even those who didn’t speak English – and that was most people – noticed that the New York City showgirl was a strange bird; visually, her nonsensical wardrobe made her more Dada than Gaga. A string of pop hits and eclectic dance moves was forgettable, but it was Gaga’s grandeur, evident from a 100 rows back and three sections up, that made her memorable, enough, at least, for me to share her insightful remarks on the Chinese populace three years later.

A pleasurable byproduct of creative excellence is the sense of awe. We’re drawn towards technical prowess in the arts, and when an object or performance showcases exceptional talent and virtuosity we feel effusive admiration for the creator, like a child gawking in the window of a candy store. Think about gazing at the Sistine Chapel or listening to the New York Philharmonic perform a rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth. (For me, it’s the reprise in Les Misérables.) The late Denis Dutton said it best: “skills exercised by writers, carvers, dancers, potters, composers, painters, pianists, singers, etc. can cause jaws to drop, hair to stand up on the back of the neck, and eyes to flood with tears. The demonstration of skill is one of the most deeply moving and pleasurable aspects of art.” This was the case in Macau, where all those Chinese teenyboppers and me left Gaga’s performance awestruck.  

Creativity is impossible without awe. The history of creative output is a history of one creator reconciling a gushy esteem he has for another creator. Examples are scattered throughout history. Dylan is famous for emulating Woody Guthrie for years before breaking through with original music. Shakespeare spent considering time imitating Marlow plays. Even entire movements are born out of the awe-inspiring: A Sex Pistols gig in June of 1976 in Manchester is said to have jump-started a generation of punk music, which, some might argue, changed music forever; Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 was a catalyst for folk music in the United States; the most famous example (contemporary at least) might be The Beatles performance at Shea Stadium in the same year.

A Darwinian might argue that the motivation to imitate eminent creators is an attempt to distinguish oneself, with either an object or performance, within a community. Perhaps. But most artists pursue their craft not for status – or to get the girls – but because doing so is intrinsically fulfilling. It would be difficult to imagine a high school band director or a private French horn teacher in it for universal praise and glory. It’s more likely that they do it to fulfill an inherent desire to improve their craft. Awe-inspiring objects and performances are important because they propel the passion of a creative. Creativity would die a quick death if we didn’t possess the natural tendency to admire eminent creators.

Little research on when and how art and human creation elicit awe exists. A 2003 paper by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt defines awe as perceived vastness (an event or object that overwhelms us) and a need for accommodation (an event or object that forces us to rethink our worldview) and argues that physical and metaphoric size (e.g., Michaelangelo’s David or a Greek Myth), magical and impossible events - as opposed to what’s ordinary - and novelty contribute to a sense of awe. Its ability to generate a sense of communalism also defines awe. This was true in Macau, but it’s more prominent at raves, where a good DJ suppresses “I” and encourages “we.” Haidt mentions a few more characteristics in his recent book, The Righteous Mind: “Awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked… to collective love and collective joy.”

If we understand awe as the feeling of wonder and excitement mixed with disbelief, Nature is probably its most reliable source. The ocean and the Grand Canyon are sobering and inspiring, so are things like the Hubble Deep Field, a tropical island, waterfalls, rainbows and sunsets. Dutton argues that our appreciation of these vistas is part of a natural evolved appreciation for beauty in nature. The positive psychologist Martin Seligman believes that appreciating beauty in nature, the arts or athletics is an important aspect of human flourishing. There is at least a degree of truth to these assertions. But there’s no doubt that a willingness to be awestruck is a central ingredient for creative expression, whether it comes from the Sistine Chapel or Gaga.

Image via Shuttershock/Matt Gibson

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type ''?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes in 28th place, and in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of,,, and — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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