by Marius S. Ostrowski
In May 2021, the British broadcaster ITV launched a new advertising campaign to showcase the range of content available on its streaming platform ITV Hub. In a series of shorts, stars from the worlds of drama and reality TV go head-to-head in a number of outlandish confrontations, with one or the other (or neither) ultimately coming out on top. One short sees Jason Watkins (Des, McDonald & Dodds) try to slip Kem Cetinay (Love Island) a glass of poison, only for Kem to outwit him by switching glasses when Jason’s back is turned. Another has Katherine Kelly (Innocent, Liar) making herself a gin and tonic, opening a cupboard in her kitchen to shush a bound and gagged Pete Wicks (The Only Way is Essex). A third features Ferne McCann (I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, The Only Way is Essex) rudely interrupting Richie Campbell (Grace, Liar) in the middle of a crucial phonecall by raining bullets down on him from a helicopter gunship. And the last, most recent advert shows Olivia Attwood (Love Island) and Bradley Dack (Blackburn Rovers) distracted mid-walk by an adorable dog, only to have a hefty skip dropped on them by Anna Friel (Butterfly, Marcella).
The message of all these unlikely pairings is clear. In this age of binge-watching, lockdowns, and working from home, ITV is stepping up to the plate to give us, the viewers, the very best in premium, popular, top-rated televisual content to satisfy every conceivable taste. Against the decades-long rise of subscription video-on-demand streaming, one of the old guard of terrestrial television is going on the offensive. Netflix? Prime? Disney+? Doesn’t have the range. Get you a platform that can do both. (BAFTA-winning drama and Ofcom-baiting reality, that is.) More a half-baked fighting retreat than an all-out assault? Think again; ITV is “stopping at nothing in the fight for your attention”. Can ITV really keep pace with the bottomless pockets of the new media behemoths? Of course it can. Even without a wealth of resources you can still have a wealth of choice. The eye-catching tagline for all this: “More drama and reality than ever before.”
In this titanic struggle between drama and reality, the central irony—or, perhaps, its guilty secret—is how often the two sides of this dichotomy fundamentally converge. The drama in question only very rarely crosses the threshold into true fantasy, whether imagined more as lurid science-fiction or mind-bending Lovecraftian horror; meanwhile, reality is several stages removed from anything as deadening or banal as actual raw footage from live CCTV. Instead, the dramas that ITV touts as its most successful examples of the genre pride themselves on their “grittiness”, “believability”, and even “realism”. At the same time, the “biggest” reality shows are transparently “scripted” and reliant on “set-ups” and other manipulations by interventionist producers, and the highest accolade their participants can bestow on one another is how “unreal” they look. Both converge from different sides on an equilibrium point of simulated, real-world-dramatising “hyperreality”; and as we watch, we are unconsciously invited to ask where drama ends and where reality begins.
In our consumption of drama and reality, we are likewise invited to “pick our own” hyperreality from the plethora of options on offer. The sheer quantity of content available across all these platforms is little short of overwhelming, and staying up-to-date with all of it is a more-than-full-time occupation. Small wonder, then, that we commonly experience this “wealth of choice” as decision “fatigue” or “paralysis”, and spend almost as much if not often more time scrolling through the seemingly infinite menus on different streaming services than we do actually watching what they show us. But the choices we make are more significant than they might at first appear. The hyperrealities we choose determine how we frame and understand both the world “out there” within and beyond our everyday experiences and the stories we invent to describe its horizons of alternative possibility. They decide what we think is (or is not) actually the case, what should (or should not) be the case, what does (and does not) matter. Through our choice of hyperreality, we determine how we wish both reality and drama to be (and not to be).
Given the quantity of content available, the choice we make is also close to zero-sum. As the “fight for our attention” trumpeted by ITV implies, our attention (our viewing time and energy, our emotional and cognitive engagement) is a scarce resource. Even for the most dedicated bingers, picking one or even a few of these hyperrealities to immerse ourselves in sooner or later comes at the cost of being able to choose (at least most of) the others. We have to choose whether our preferred hyperreality is dominated by “glamorous singles” acting out all the toxic and benign microdynamics of heterosexual attraction, or the murky world of “bent coppers” and the rugged band of flawed-but-honourable detectives out to expose them; whether it smothers us in parasols and petticoats, and all the mannered paraphernalia of period nostalgia, or draws us into the hidden intricacies of a desperately-endangered natural world. In short, we have to choose what it is about the world that we want to see.
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We face the same overload of reality and drama, and the same forced choice, when we engage with the more direct mediatised processes that provide us with information about the world around us. Through physical, online, and social media, we are met with a ceaseless barrage of new, drip-fed, self-contained events and phenomena, delivered to us as bitesize nuggets of “content”. Before, we had the screaming capitalised headlines and one-sentence paragraphs of the tabloid press. Now, we also have Tweets (and briefly Fleets), Instagram stories and reels, and TikTok videos generated by “new media” organisations, “influencers” and “blue ticks”, and a vast swarm of anonymous or pseudonymous “content providers”. All in all, the number of sources—and the quantity of output from each of these sources—has risen well beyond our capacity to retain an even remotely synoptic view of “everything that is going on”.
Of course, it is by now a well-rehearsed trope that these bits of “news” and “novelty” content leave no room for nuance, granularity, and subtlety in capturing the complexities of these events and phenomena. But what is less-noticed are the challenges they create for our capacity to make meaningful sense of them at all from our own (individual or shared) ideological stances. Normally, we gather up all the relevant informational cues we can, then—as John Zaller puts it—“marry” them to our pre-existing ideological values and attitudes, and form what Walter Lippmann calls a “picture inside our heads” about the world, which acts as the basis for all our subsequent thought and action. But the more bits of information we are forced to make sense of, and the faster we have to make sense of them “in live time” as we receive them—before we can be sure about what information is available instead or overall—the more our task becomes one of information-management. We are preoccupied with finding ways to get a handle on information and compressing it so that our resulting mental pictures of the world are still tolerably coherent—and so that our chosen hyperreality still “works” without too many glitches in the Matrix.
These processes of information-management are far from ideologically neutral. As consumers of information, our attention is not just passive, there to be “fought over” and “grabbed”; rather, we actively direct it on the basis of our own internalised norms and assumptions. We are hardly indiscriminately all-seeing eyes; we are omnivorous, certainly, but like the Eye of Sauron our voracious absorption of information depends heavily on where exactly our gaze is turned. In this context, what is it that ideology does to enable us to deal with information overload? What tools does it offer us to form a viable representation of the world, to help us choose our hyperreality?
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One such tool is the iterative process of curating the “recommended-for-you” information that appears as the topmost entries in our search results, home pages, and timelines. The cues we receive are blisteringly “hot”, to use Marshall McLuhan’s term; they are rhetorically and aesthetically marked or tagged—“high-spotted” in Edward Bernays’ phrase—to elicit certain emotional and cognitive reactions, and steer us towards particular “pro–con” attitudes and value-judgments. They “fight for our attention”, clamouring loudly to be the first to be fed through our ideological lenses; and they soon exhaust our capacity (our time, energy, engagement) to scroll ever on and absorb new information. To stave off paralysis, we pick—we have to pick—which bits of information we will inflate, and which we want to downplay. In so doing, we implicitly inflate and downplay the ideological frames and understandings attached to them in “high-spotted” form. Then, of course, the media platform or search engine algorithm remembers and learns our choice, and over time gradually takes the need to make it off our hands, quietly presenting us with only the information (and ideological representations) we “would” (or “should”) have picked out. “Siri, show me what I want to see.” “Alexa, play what I want to hear.” No surprise, then, that the difference in user experience between searching something in our usual browser or a different one can feel like paring away layers of saturation and selective distortion.
The fragmentary nature of how we receive information also changes how we express our reaction to it. The ideologically-exaggerated construction of informational cues is designed to provoke instant, “tit-for-tat” responses. At the same time, the promise of “going viral” creates an algorithmic incentive to move first and “move mad” by immediately hitting back in the same medium with a response that is at least as ideologically exaggerated and provocative as the original cue if not more. Gone are the usual cognitive buffers designed to optimise “low-information” reasoning and decision-making. Instead, we are pushed towards the shortest of heuristic shortcuts, the paths of least intellectual resistance, into an upward—and outward (polarising)—spiral of “snap” judgments. The “hot take” becomes the predominant way for us to incorporate the latest information into our ideological pictures of the world; any longer and more detailed engagement with this information is created by literally attaching “takes” to each other in sequence (most obviously via Twitter “threads”). As this practice of instantaneous reaction becomes increasingly prominent and entrenched, our pre-existing mental pictures are steadily overwritten by a worldview wholly constituted as a mosaic of takes: disjointed, simplistic, foundationless, and subjective.
As our ideological outlook becomes ever more piecemeal, we turn with growing urgency to the tools and structures of narrative to bring it some semblance of overarching unity. Every day, we consult our curated timelines and the cues it presents to us to discover “the discourse” du jour—the primary topic of interest on which our and others’ collective attention is to focus, and on which we are to have a take. Everything about “the discourse” is thoroughly narrativised: it has protagonists (“the OG Islanders”) and a supporting cast (“new arrivals”, “the Casa Amor girls”), who are slotted neatly into the roles of heroes (Abi, Kaz, Liberty) or villains (Faye, Jake, Lillie); it undergoes plot development (the Islanders’ “journeys”), with story and character arcs (Toby’s exponential emotional growth), twists (the departure of “Jiberty”) and resolutions (the pre-Final affirmations of “Chloby”, “Feddy”, “Kyler”, and “Milliam”). We overcome both the sheer randomness of events as they appear to us, and the pro–con simplicity of our judgments about them, by reimagining each one as a scene in a contemporary (im)morality play—a play, moreover, in which we are partisan participants as much as observers (e.g., by voting contestants off or adding to their online representations). How far this process relies on hermetically self-contained, self-referential certainty becomes clear from the discomfort we feel when objects of “the discourse” break out of this narrative mould. The howls of outrage that the mysterious figure of “H” in Line of Duty turned out not to be a “Big Bad” in the style of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but instead a floating signifier for institutional corruption, shows how conditioned we have become to crave not only decontestation but substantial closure.
The final element in our ideological arsenal that helps us cope with the white heat of the cues we receive is our ability to look past them and focus on the contextual and metatextual penumbra that surrounds them. To make sure we are reading our fragmentary information about the world “correctly”, we search for additional clues that take (some or all of) the onus of curating it, coming up with a take about it, and shaping it into a narrative off our hands. This explains, for instance, the phenomenon where audiences experience Love Island episodes on two levels simultaneously, first as viewers and second as readers of the metacommentary in their respective messenger group chats, and on “Love Island Twitter”, “Love Island TikTok”, and “Love Island Instagram”. In extreme cases, we outsource our ideological labour almost entirely to these clues, at the expense of engaging with the information itself, as it were, on its own terms. “Decoding” the messages the information contains then becomes less about knowing the right “code” and more about being sufficiently familiar with who is responsible for “encoding” it, as well as when, where, and how they are doing so. Rosie Holt has aptly parodied this tendency, with her character vacillating between describing a tweet as nice or nasty (“nicety”) and serious (“delete this”) or a joke (“lol”), incapable of making up her mind until she has read what other people have said about it.
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Together, these elements create a kind of modus vivendi strategy, which we can use to cobble together something approaching a consistent ideological representation of what is going on in the world. But its highly in-the-moment, “choose-your-own-adventure” approach threatens to give us a very emaciated, flattened understanding of what ideology is and does for us. Specifically, it is a dangerously reductionist conception of what ideology has to offer for our inevitable project of choosing a hyperreal mental picture that navigates usefully between (overwhelming, nonsensical) reality and (fanciful, abstruse) drama. If a modus vivendi is all that ideology becomes, we end up condemned to seeing the world solely in terms of competing “mid-range” narratives, without any overarching “metanarratives” to weave them together. These mid-range narratives telescope down the full potential extent of comparisons across space and trajectories over time into the limits of what we can comprehend within the horizons of our immediate neighbourhood and our recent memory. What we see of the world becomes limited to a litany of Game of Thrones-style fragmentary perspectives, more-or-less “(un)reliable” narrations from myriad different people’s angles—which may coincide or contradict each other, but which come no closer to offering a complete or comprehensive account of “what is going on”.
The tragic irony is that the apotheosis of this information-management style of ideological modus vivendi is taking place against a backdrop of a reality that is itself taking on ever more dramatic dimensions on an ever-grander scale. Literal catastrophes such as climate change, pandemics, or countries’ political and humanitarian collapse raise the spectral prospect of wholesale societal disintegration, and show glimpses of a world that is simultaneously more fantastical and more raw than what we encounter as reality day-to-day. Individual-level, “bit-by-bit” interpretation is wholly unequipped to handle that degree of overwhelmingness in the reality around us. Curating the information we receive, giving our takes on it, crafting it into moralistic narratives, and interpreting its supporting cues is a viable way to offer an escape (or escapism) from the stochastic confusion of the “petty” reality of our everyday experience—to “leaven the mundanity of your day”, as Bill Bailey puts it in Tinselworm. But it falls woefully short when what we have to face is a reality that operates at a level well beyond our immediate personal experience, which is “sublimely” irreducible to anything as parochial as individual perspective. How unprepared the ideological modus vivendi calibrated to the mediatisation of information today leaves us is shown starkly by the comment of an anonymous Twitter user, who wondered whether we will experience climate change “as a series of short, apocalyptic videos until eventually it’s your phone that’s recording”.
If it proves unable to handle such “grand” reality, ideology threatens to become what the Marxist tradition has accused it of being all along: namely, an analgesic to numb us out of the need to take reality on its own ineluctable terms. That, ultimately, is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were trying to provide through their accounts of historical materialism and scientific socialism: an articulation of a narrative capable of addressing, and as far as possible capturing, the sheer scale and complexity of reality beyond the everyday. We do not have to take all our cues from Marxism—even if, as often as not, “every little helps”. But we do have to inject a healthy dose of grand narrative and metanarrative back into the ideologies we use to represent the world around us, even if only to know where we stand among the tides of social change from which the “newsworthy” events and phenomena we encounter ultimately stem. The trends driving the reality we want to narrate are simultaneously global and local, homogenised and atomised, universal and individuated. We cannot focus on one at the expense of the other. By itself, neither the “Olympian” view of sweeping undifferentiated monological macronarratives (Hegelian Spirit, Whig progress, or Spenglerian decline) nor the “ant’s-eye” view of disconnected micronarratives (of the kind that contemporary mediatisation is encouraging us to focus on) will do. The only ideologies worth their salt will be those that bridge the two.
How, then, should ideology respond to the late-modern pressures that are generating “more drama and reality than ever before”? Certainly, it needs to recognise the extent to which these are opposite pulls it has to satisfy simultaneously: no ideological narrative can afford to lose the contact with “gritty” reality that makes it empirically plausible, nor the “production values” of drama that make it affectively compelling. At the same time, it has to acknowledge that the hyperreality it creates and chooses for us is never fully immune to risk. Dramatic “scripting” imposes on reality a meaningfulness and direction that the sheer chaotic randomness of “pure” reality may always eventually belie. Meanwhile, the slavish drive to “accurately” simulate reality may ultimately sap our orientation and motivation in engaging with the world around us of any dramatic momentum. The only way to minimise these risks is to “think big”, and restore to ideology the ambition of “grand” and “meta” perspective, to reflect the maximum scale at which we can interpret both what (plausibly) is and what (potentially) is to be done.
 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, Inc., 2010 ), 21–2; John R. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 51.
 Edward Bernays, Propaganda (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 2005 ), 38; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York, NY: McGraw–Hill, 1964), 22ff.