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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…