I sometimes think that my generation got the wrong end of the stick when it came to the question of conformity. My first encounter with conformity as a theoretical concept came in my early teens when some pre-cursor to GCSE psychology mentioned Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in which a subject was confronted with a room full of people giving the wrong answer to a simple perception test. Supposedly overwhelmed by peer pressure, over a third of Asch’s subjects chose to follow the group and give the wrong answer.
I say “supposedly” as while a lot has since been written about Asch’s experiments, most of it has been reductive, simplistic and wrong. The problem lies not in the work itself but rather in the tendency to package it up with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as part of a broad cultural narrative about the hazards of conformity.
By the time I was first encountering experimental psychology in the early 1990s, conformity was being presented as a Bad, Bad Thing that caused you to speak untruths, torture people to death and generally behave like a German prison camp guard. Indeed, a lot of the research into obedience and conformity that took place in the middle decades of the 20th Century is best understood as trying to understand the rise of Nazi Germany and thereby prevent it from ever happening again. The work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo may have been lousy and misunderstood science but it was great propaganda as it sold us a vision of humanity as a species wired for obedience and moral cowardice.
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The World’s End may be a shit film but at least it is full of bitterness and self-recrimination. The roots of that bitterness reach all the way back to the late 1990s when the writers of The World’s End first found success with a sitcom named Spaced.
This may be hard to believe but geek culture really wasn’t really that much of a thing before the late 90s. Sure… people enjoyed the films, books, comics and games that continue to provide geeks with a sense of common ground but mainstream culture rarely acknowledged that people (other than sports fans) were beginning to define themselves through their love of popular culture. Postmodernism was popularised throughout the 1990s but what drove that popularisation was not so much the death of cultural meta-narratives as the frisson of parental approval that came with every suggestion that a creator loved the same shitty pop culture as the rest of us. We often speak of constructing identities in terms of self-expression and self-acceptance but what really drives the adoption of a particular label is the recognition of others, particularly people in positions of authority. Simply stated, geek culture was not much of a thing until the late 1990s because advertisers and cultural creators rarely pandered directly to geeks and so rarely legitimised their identities.
Things began to change is the late 1990s when marketers noticed how devotion to a particular cultural product acted very much like devotion to a particular set of cultural values. Way back in ye olde black and whitey times, advertisers realised that if you associated a particular brand of pipe tobacco with values of manliness and respectability then people who valued manliness and respectability were more likely to buy the pipe tobacco. The success of films like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction demonstrated that this transferral of affection also worked with popular culture; if a film makes a reference to some aspect of popular culture then the people emotionally invested in that aspect of popular culture are more likely to seek out and enjoy that film even if the subject of the film is entirely unrelated to the subject of the obsession. First broadcast in 1999, Spaced ruthlessly exploited these quirks in human psychology by dignifying geeks with their own slice of comedic social realism.
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