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LOOKING AHEAD
02.06.2009

May 26, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Marine Voskanyan

THE CRISIS AND TECHNOLOGIES. Part 1. THE ESCAPE

Who lives well in the crisis?

The experience of economic crises of the XX century indicates that such periods generate a high demand for entertainment. Hollywood is believed to owe its economic success to the Great Depression. Cinema takes used to soar during five of the seven economic crises, including the oil crisis of the 1970s and the collapse of dot.com sector in early 2000s. Even when things were extremely bad, people found enough money for a cheap cinema ticket in order to alienate themselves from their current problems, and the farther the plot of the movie was from reality, the more it was demanded: during the Great Depression, Americans preferred comic movies and monster thrillers.

Today, Hollywood relies upon the same tendency. Dan Glickman, president of Fiction Movies Association, confessed in his interview to Time Magazine: "When the whole economy is suffering, we are in the black. Cinema exerts therapeutic influence; at the same time, it is much cheaper than a visit to a psychiatrist".

It is true that in hard times, people seek video impressions. In Great Britain, sales of video recorders grew most rapidly during the economic decline of the 1990s.

By today, however, the cinema has acquired a strong rival – the Internet and the industry of computer games. In late 1990s, on the background of the Asiatic financial crisis, the Republic of Korea became one of the global leaders of the game market.

While the budgets of Hollywood movies are shrinking, producers of computer games are more than optimistic: they believe that the crisis will bring them a so high profit that couldn't be achieved by years of diligent marketing. "During economic downturns, people will look for the highest return on their entertainment dollar. Online games provide an immersive virtual world for people to escape the daily struggles", says Lan Hoang, CEO of Aeria Games & Entertainment, , which offers Asian games in the U.S. and European markets.

In industrial nations, unemployed persons can allow themselves to survive without a job for months. These people have now got a lot of free time. Game industry managers are convinced that in the time spans between job interviews, people will seek escape from reality mostly in the virtual space Ц at least because it is cheaper than cinema or theater.

According to Reuters, Internet clubs of Seoul are today more crowded that ever before. "These days more people stay late in the evening playing games. I think they don't have other places to go", a club owner told the agency.

This remark is confirmed with statistical data. According to the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the number of games that entered the market in the first quarter of year 2009, exceeded 350 Ц the highest quarter amount during the last three years.

Is this epidemic typical only for South Eastern Asia? US experts indicate the same tendency. Jeremy Lewis, CEO of Seattle-based Big Fish Games, is planning to expand his staff by 10%. "Unfortunately, our companies are today losing jobs and seeking new employment. Our games are becoming a good possibility to amuse oneself, to relax, and to "postpone" a new portion of real problems", he says. Visitors of this company's website vividly discuss game technologies and methods of passing game levels. It is not significant which game to play: some escape from reality chasing alien monsters, while others solve sophisticated computer puzzles.

AN END-AROUND

On the one hand, the described phenomenon could be interpreted from a mere economic viewpoint: like ice is popular in a hot season, entertainment is demanded in a psychologically difficult situation, and business reacts by extracting profit from this trend. On the other hand, there is no economic phenomenon that is not associated with socio-cultural processes. Already today, we can foresee that in case of a full-scale Global Depression-2, virtual reality is likely to score off all the traditional versions of escapism, including alcoholism, religious sectarianism, occult and mystical practices, or extreme travel.

Some authors claim that the current virtual "modus of existence" of a contemporary citizen, affected by the crisis, does not necessarily express escapist behavior: today, he spends free time for this, and yesterday he played dominoes, they say.

Ostensibly, today's method of relaxation does not differ from "pastimes" like dominoes. But old "pastimes" used to involve a group of persons, and deal with physical objects, while a computer game player in fact completely surrounds himself with "another existence", or in fact, no-existence. This fits into the well-known concept of Erich Fromm on genuine and non-genuine existence. To be genuine means to be open to the world, to be adequate to oneself, to challenge the complexity of life, and not to avoid responsibility. The anonymous entertainment activity of gamers and Internet users rather corresponds to the dream of "possessing everything but not bearing responsibility for anything". In the morning, you are a polite clerk, expecting slash of salary or even layoff on any day, but in the evening, you reign over fantastic worlds, participate in earthshaking battles, and explain to other forum members that you are the smartest person in the universe. But the main advantage of the virtual reality is that it is not affected with the crisis.

Another question is whether it is expedient to require that people try to think and act in situations when even strongest governments and top experts find themselves at a loss. And, generally, what can they do? Should they rather feel joy that they now possess an artificial shelter, or shell, to hide in? Pierre Jean de Beranger's verse about the madman that can call up a golden dream on the mankind in case it is unable to find the path to the sacred truth sounds strikingly relevant, especially regarding the low probability of the triumph of this truth.

In fact, who will condemn an ordinary person exhausted with difficulties when much more powerful authorities don't understand what is happening? J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of one of the most sophisticated "alternative realities", one argued that a person who has got into jail and realized that flight is impossible, has a right to concentrate not on the bars and warders but on some different things. By the way, persons who don't think about bars and warders while staying in jail are very convenient for the warders.

GO HOME!

In autumn, the crisis was discussed rather mostly in economic terms. Today, even respectable economic journals, superficially or profoundly, arrive to conclusions earlier shared only by conspirology-inclined scholars Ц that the crisis (for businessmen or other people) is primarily a crash of the world-outlook. However, this assumption is too exhausting Ц at least, it forces a person to think, to analyze, and to give up customary beliefs. It's much easier to dig one's head into the sand. While atomized individuals have a possibility to escape to magic worlds of entertainment, they don't focus on abstract matters like the essence of the crisis. This enables authorities to avoid public discussions (like that on bars and warders) and pretend that the difficulties are temporary and not systemic. None of the crisis-affected state leaderships is interested in facing questions put point-blank by citizens, as it implies unpleasant questions like "Who is to blame?" and, even worse, "What's to be done?"

Therefore, availability of cheap computer and media entertainment becomes an instrument for dumping and distracting the sentiment of protest. Unlike predecessors of the time of the Great Depression, the Americans of today don't need to leave home to penetrate into the fascinating world of non-reality. One just downloads a new movie or the beloved sequel from the Internet, launch a favorite virtual player on a new level, or read someone's remarks on everything and nothing.

High tech, advertising and PR companies are presently searching for ways of capitalizing from the crisis. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council foresees that in the conditions of high demand for "escapist services", the economy of cyberspace (like sale of virtual clothes for game avatars, or game music tracks) may bring high profit. Even the pandemic of swine flu may be helpful, as when people fear of being infected, they rather stay at home than travel, and therefore, communication technologies acquire higher demand. However, physical self-alienation does not guarantee privacy of personal space.

(To be continued)


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