Monday, July 16, 2007

Wonderful thing to waste

Last week VH1 started airing the second World Series of Pop Culture, another tournament of teams competing to answer questions about music, movies, TV, and on occasion, celebrities outside of the context of those field, since the advent of contemporary popular culture (which, judging from the questions, started in the 1970s—I'm sure it is no coincidence that this period is what VH1 has chronicled with its I Love the '70s, I Love the '80s, I Love the '90s, and Best Week Ever series). Ostensibly the self-proclaimed geeks are vying for a trophy and $250,000, but the real appeal is showcasing the information their obsessive natures have caused their brains to retain.

We all have those bits that data that we can recall off the top of our heads. Most of it probably serves some purpose in our daily life. This competition gives justification for the rest of it.

I watch the episodes with a combination of excitement and dread. Because pop culture does not serve a pragmatic purpose—by definition, it cannot (that is its primary appeal)—the only way to know the answers to the questions is to have devoted significant portions of one's time engaged in activities that weren't going to have benefit in the "real" world. I feel conditioned to be dismissive of this knowledge. I'm not entirely sure where I got that; I don't recall ever be admonished about it. I've never had to demonstrate knowing John Lennon's middle name (Winston) or Jim Morrison's middle name (Douglas) during a job interview, so perhaps it was tacitly reinforced as less important by virtue of not being required for something I pursued.

Maybe it's that the topics on WSOPC don't tend to be categories on Jeopardy. The long-running Trebek-hosted game show has (in my perception) a greater association with legitimacy, because it focuses more on literature and science than on the Brady Bunch. I think it comes down to this: Jeopardy tests all those things you were supposed to learn in college; WSOPC tests how much you remember of what you learned in college, most likely while having the munchies. It's what your tuition really paid for, but there was no accreditation for it.

(I will admit that both shows are not as difficult as they probably should be. Such is the concession of making them appeal to a broad audience: The non-obsessive viewer needs to get some of the questions right.)

I don't think any of the teams in the WSOPC pool sought the prize money to repay their parents; the contestants all appear to be gainfully employed, and presumably their folks have come to grips with whether or not the money spent on their "education" was worth it. However, I wouldn't be surprised if the winning team feels a bit of redemption in their parents' eyes. All of those hours in front of the TV finally paid off.

When I watch Jeopardy I find myself often having a vague recollection of once knowing the answer but only able to muster something like, "Oh, you know—the guy who did the thing." I get slightly depressed over how I squandered my many years at university (most of which I paid for myself, working close to full time while taking classes), but when I can answer a question (or, rather, question an answer) I get quite a sense of elation.

However, when I watch WSOPC, if I can answer a question that neither of the contestants gets right, I feel momentary joy but it's followed by that conditioned sense of shame stemming from the proof of where my brainpower is strongest. It's a given that I should know most of the answers, and when I don't know one, I get a sensation that I interpret as this-must-be-what-people-who-actually-have-a-life feel like; the reason I don't know whatever bit of trivia was asked must indicate I was actually using my brain for something else.

I know that's not the case, of course. Intellectually, I know there's nothing wrong with having the trivial knowledge. The URL for the site is uselessdoug, after all; I must be something of a supporter of what serves no purpose. I'm not being critical of it when I think about it, but in the way I feel about it, outside of cognition, I cannot help but react as I have noted.

But I keep watching, so I'm not that ashamed.

1 comment:

  1. ...then again, having useless knowledge about, and thus able to give an impromtu speech about The 4400, I Love Lucy and Project Runway could lead to a job in television research. Rare, but it happens.


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