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Beyond Celebrity Obsession

Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 09:40 AM EDT

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people. — Eleanor Roosevelt

I wish to discuss an idea here. It’s an idea about celebrity, and it follows an event that has become a black hole in nearly all media: the death of Michael Jackson.

According to Don Norman, a black hole topic is one that is essentially undiscussable: “Drop the subject into the middle of a room and it sucks everybody into a useless place from which no light can escape.”

Michael Jackson was more than a celebrity. He was a first-rank contributor to pop music and pop culture. He was also far more weird than anybody else at the same rank, changing his face so radically that he no longer appeared to belong to his original race and gender. This fact alone made his death at 50 unsurprising yet very interesting.

Most of us can’t help falling into conversational black holes. But we can help getting sucked into celebrity obsession.

Unless, of course, we’re making money at it. This is the path down which People Magazine went when it morphed from a spun-off section of Time Magazine into a tabloid. More recently Huffington Post has done the same thing. But that’s the supply side. What about demand?

I submit that obsessing about celebrity is unhealthy for the single reason that it is also unproductive. Celebrity is to mentality as smoking is to food. (I originally wrote “chewing gum” there, but I think smoking is the better analogy.) It is an unhealthy waste of time. And time is a measure of life. We are born with an unknown sum of time, and have to spend all of it. “Saving” time is a rhetorical trick. So is “losing” it. Our lives are spent, one end to the other. What matters most is how we choose to spend it.

The Net maximizes the endlessness of choice about how we spend our time. It also maximizes many kinds of productiveness. Nearly all the code we are using, right now, to do stuff on the Net, was written by many collaborators across many distances. Some were obsessing about what they were producing. Others were just working away. Either way, they chose to be productive. To contribute. To work on what works.

The Net itself is an idea so protean and varied that there is little agreement about what it actually is. Yet it is endlessly improvable, as are the goods and services it supports.

This improvable millieu presents us with choices that become more stark as the millieu itself grows. We can make useful contributions — preferably in ways nobody else can. Or we can coast.

Obsessing about celebrity is a form of coasting. And I suggest that we’ll see a growing distance between coasting and producing.