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Preliminary Thoughts on Technology, the Family, and SUPER 8

SUPER 8 is the only movie I've seen this year that's worth thinking about.  I haven't, of course, seen that many.  Posts on movies now in theatres on blogs by rank amateurs have their limitations.  Here's one:  I only saw the film once, a couple of weeks ago.  I have talked about it some, including with the guys on the blog POSTMODERN CONSERVATIVE. 

The movie contains parts of lots of movies about home, coming-of-age, family, friendship, ETs, technology, and, maybe most of all, being homesick and at home.

It might be considered as a kind of suck up by Abrams to Spielberg.  But it's a more than that.  Abrams (see Lost) is more philosophical than Spielberg.

The first thing that struck me is how realistic the town is.  At first glance, there's little more depressing than a Midwestern milltown (in Ohio--but it was actually filmed in Weirton, WV).  But the town is  actually quite beautiful.  There are the surrounding hills, of course.  But there are also all sorts of modest, quirky, charming houses from various decades--and the rundown but still functioning, pre-Walmart downtown.  There is, of course, nothing gentrified about it, but it's a safe, decent, interesting place.

We have nostalgia for the town--and the year of 1979--because at that time families were clearly functional and caring enough.  The movie has a lot of STAND BY ME in it--friends marginalized at school being transformed by an improbable, dangerous adventure.  But in this case the kids aren't alone.  Two of them have sad, screwed-up single dads who don't pay their only children much real attention.  But those two dads stand up for their kds in an heroic way before the film's end.

Not only that:  We get the impression that a typical family in the town is a big, screaming mess crammed into a small house.  The parents in the house we see are smart, loving, and as attentive as they can be.  Their kids are admirably self-reliant despite living on top of each other. They're happy.  A kid stuck alone in a big house with a single parent is lonely and pitiful. 

The movie has generally been viewed as anti-technology.  But that's not so:  It evaluates technological change according to the standards of child development and family life.

So the film is pro-train, fairly pro-mill (meaning steel mill), and, of course, pro-SUPER 8.  The SUPER 8 camera is technology that sparks the kids' creativity without keeping them stuck in their rooms.  The kids are out and about in their filmaking adventures--relatively but not completely unsupervised in the safe streets (until the air force vs. the ET thing breaks out) of town. 

Soon enough after 1979, kids would be stuck in their rooms with the internet and their virtual friends--wasting their creativity on their Facebook pages and all kind of computer-based games. And digital cameras too easily seem to make artists of us all. The year of the small-town SUPER 8 was a privileged moment in the history of technology--perhaps better for children and families than what came before and what came after. 

Even though the techno-highpoint of the film is the spectacular destruction of a huge train--with metal spewing in all directions (but, more than miraculously, not even injuring the kids or killing the guy driving the truck the train collided with).  The point is carefully made that such train accidents are exceedingly rare.  Not only that, the sensitive-kid protagonist especially enjoys building trains,.  And it's a sign of the manipulative ruthlessness of the fat-kid filmmaker that he asks his loyal and sensitive friend to blow up one of his model trains to improve the film.  I could go on.  But let's just say that the film embraces the oft-articulated conclusion that trains are technology on an appropriately human scale, machines worthy of men.

The mill looms large and stark in the film.  It, on one level, ruins the town aesthetically.  And the action of the film is initiated by the sensitive kid's mom being struck dead by a big piece of metal while working at the mill. Still, the film actually opens with a sign that brags about how safe the mill is--no accidents in over two years.  Mills are no more routinely destructive than trains.

The mill allows both men and women to work close to home.  It seems like a decent place to work, work worthy of men (in the gender-unspecific sense).  In 1979 the mill is open, and we're nostalgic for it.  Once it closes, what do people do to earn a decent living?

In such a town, the only other professions worthy of men, it would seem, are high-school teaching (and coaching) and law enforcement.  The mill surely pays better, for one thing.  And there's no need to go to college or leave home to find work as long as it's flourishing.

Another good thing about the film:  The sheriff and his deputy are portrayed as men of courage and integrity who know what they're doing--real leaders.  The high-school biology teacher is a rather heroic misunderstood genius who communicates telepathically with an ET--and so a tireless and courageous spokesperson for ET rights.

There's a lot more to say, but this post is too long.  More to come...

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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 'cnn.com'?"
  • "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 cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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