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Life on the Table Top April 24, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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Sometimes I’m wondering if I’m living on a table top, and just haven’t discovered it yet. The significance of that metaphor will be explained below.


I go to the store to find a favorite product, and it’s gone from the shelves. There’s not even a label where it used to be. Other stores don’t carry it, either. I am met with blank stares: “I don’t think we’ve ever carried that item” or, sometimes, “We haven’t had that item while I’ve been working here.” Occasionally a sales clerk will remember, “They just canceled a bunch of items,” or “It wasn’t selling.” (But it was! I was buying it, and had for years!) Instead there are other items, stuff I’ve never seen before; ads for new products, products we can’t live without, stuff that will make us feel better, look better, live longer, have nicer breath, and so forth. And in another 6 months they will be gone from the shelves, and we will be asked to be excited about other products. Sure, this is life in a Western consumer society, and truthfully, I prefer it to the limited number of available goods from my post-WWII childhood, or neighbors fighting over a loaf of bread in empty bakeries in other cultures. It’s just that I have this sneaking suspicion that there’s a certain scenario at play, involving a huge table top, and that’s because of one of the first science fiction stories I ever read when I was in my late teens. I haven’t read it since, so I apologize if my summary isn’t completely accurate. But it’s the metaphor that counts, not so much the actual story:


The story was called “The Tunnel Under the World,” written by Frederick Pohl. It is about a husband and wife living in a small town, ordinary lives, work, shopping, dinners, sex, and so forth, but every morning they wake up from terrible nightmares, and so does everyone else. Their world is awash with commercials—billboards, commercials on TV and on the radio, in papers and magazines, even advertising trucks driving around the neighborhood with bullhorns. And somehow, it seems like all the items advertised are products nobody has heard of. They usually go to bed fairly early, because they have busy days and get tired—but one night the husband, let’s call him Joe, changes his routine, and works in his garage. Here he discovers that the floor and walls are really fake, and underneath is solid metal. Joe sleeps in the garage overnight, and goes upstairs next morning. He notices that the date on the newspaper is yesterday’s, but his wife thinks that date is correct. Nobody else seems to notice that the date, on TV and the radio, is also the day before, and the news is old. But Joe remembers—and he also remembers the commercials from yesterday: They were different. That night he hides in his garage again, apparently shielded from whatever steals his memory by the metal walls, and sure enough, next day his wife, co-workers and neighbors all have had nightmares, and remember nothing; the fresh newspaper still reads the date from two days ago, with the same news, their clock shows the same date—but the commercials are totally different. When he recognizes a co-worker who tried to contact him the day before, the co-worker realizes that Joe can remember—and takes him underground to show him that nothing is what it seems. Underneath the town there is now a new, shiny metal tunnel. Every night the entire community has been drugged, somehow, and someone is manipulating everybody to think it is always the same date. The co-worker has managed to stay awake, and avoid the collective nightly brain wipe. But why this elaborate scheme? And what’s with the never ending commercials for products nobody has ever heard of before? Joe decides to explore the tunnel—and ends up on a large smooth surface ending abruptly, with a bottomless abyss in front of him, and across the abyss, a huge dark mountain. That moves. And has hands. Joe realizes the terrifying truth: They can never escape, because they are not real people—they are nothing but miniaturized robots, living on a table top, as part of a major experiment. What kind of experiment?  Every day these little test subjects who think they live real lives are being exposed to new forms of advertising and store items, to judge what is most attractive to consumers. Then at night their little brains are wiped, and in the morning it starts all over again: Same newspaper, same TV news, same date, different commercials and different items in the stores. And it will go on forever.

Quite a story to read when you’re 17 and starting to question the social status quo, and there were no Truman Show, Thirteenth Floor or Matrix movies yet. But of course we’ve always had Descartes and Plato. Evil demons and shadows on a wall…So the “table top” is a metaphor that has been on my list of possible scenarios of deceptions/delusions for a long time. And that’s why I’m thinking, when I shop for my favorite items and find nothing but new stuff on the shelves that maybe we’re all on that table top, reduced to guinea pigs…



1. Nina Rosenstand - April 26, 2009

After writing this little piece I went online and looked up the story. Of course it turns out to be a classic! You can even listen to it as a radio broadcast. The protagonist’s name is Guy Burkhart, otherwise my summary is fairly accurate.

2. Paul Moloney - April 27, 2009

Writing fantasy can be enjoyable. Our lives will never be what we want them to be, at least not perfectly. In writing fantasy we can remedy that, at least to a certain extent. In fantasy we can hint at things that cannot be explained, so I suppose that fantasy is similar to myth.

3. Crystal Escamilla - May 13, 2009

I’d like to say that this story isn’t true, that our lives aren’t manipulated by the media, commercials, movies, internet, etc. but to say that would unfortunately be a lie. Our society is influenced by what celebrities eat, wear, use and the so called top stories on the nightly news even is neither are truly relevant or moral. Though we may not be tiny robots in experiments having our memories wiped clean every night, we certainly are as you said guinea pigs to the companies who manufacture are soon to be favorite products. For instance, hair products constantly flash on the t.v. screen every two commercials and on radio waves which cause us to consider them for purchase simply because we’ve heard that they truly work. Or even at the movies during commercials before the previews start refreshments and snacks flash on the screen making many crave a soda and popcorn if they have not already purchased some. I myself have been a victim of have a favorite hair spray and one day returning to the grocery store (not just one) to find it’s no longer in production but because of the numerous commercials have found a new product to use. The human mind, though full of intelligent thoughts, is so prone to manipulation who’s to say we aren’t on a table top belonging to the media and corporations that fill our minds every day.

4. Dan Erez - May 13, 2009

this is a very interesting story, because i imagine that this is during the first years that the repetition of advertising was begging to be discovered. as we all know, the American consumerist society is only alive because of the concept of advertising, and that is possibly the biggest hocks we have ever encountered. surly there must be a guy up there who is collecting all the money and beginning the new investments periodically. well, no- if there was a guy like that he would not be too terrible because the middle class has only increased over the past 30 years in general trend. so, his plan to keep all the money failed, and gave us consumer products rich lives.this also sucked all the resources out of the ground and made us an inefficient machine. yes, i wish we could have only the necessary items produced, and technology grow at the same or higher rate, but realistically we have not figured out a better system to make that happen.
now to advertising which is a very interesting occupation in itself. people are paid to purely sell things. basically , in any fantasy efficient society, they would be the first to go. it is simply and completely not needed. why is it that this world economy uses such techniques. a reaction can run 10^13 times faster when utilizing catalyst. advertising and new products are merely economical catalyst that produce a quicker rate of transaction and allow the truly important things to be created on the side.
i think if people were a bit more educated on average we would be able to maintain this catalyst with out over using it, and providing a greater reserve of resources for the truly important investments. after all – the world could be fed and housed with just several percent of the population working short hours for a short number of years their lives. but , that is only true because we have implemented this catalyst for so long. so in the end its jut a question of when we want to cash out on our investment and stop using this grand illusion.

5. Winnie Kan - May 14, 2009

I completely agree. With the economy in trouble now, many companies are turning to their marketing teams to keep buyers interested. Whether it is clothing, electronics, or supermarkets, the consumers are being bombarded with new and improved advertising. Not only are adults being targeted, but the advertising that targets children is where I really see humans being treated as “guinea pigs.”
As an adult, I am constantly bombarded by colorful commercials on TV, flashing ads on internet sites, and page after page of ads in magazines or newspapers. Do I feel like a guinea pig at times? Of course. One thing I know that sets adults apart is that we are capable of making our own decisions. If I am watching TV and a commercial comes on, I see the new clothes dancing around but am able to think “do I need or want it?” Funniest thing I remember is my high school teacher telling me she couldn’t sleep one night, was watching TV, and an infomercial came on. It was advertising a face shaver, and she suddenly wanted it; problem: she has no facial hair. That was when I realized how powerful the mass media is.
In 1979, McDonald’s stands out from the rest of the fast food joints, because it debuts the Happy Meal. McDonald’s targets the children, constantly changing the toys. With catchy commercials and playgrounds, McDonald’s really showed the rest of the companies that children are a lucrative business. Suddenly, a cigarette company has an animated camel as its mascot, which really only catches the eye of younger kids. Wal-mart comes out with a bouncy smiley face. Is it really to target the adults? Probably not.
Although we may be overwhelmed by this mass amount of advertising and new products, with a little education and a little common sense, hopefully we can break free.

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