Why Should the First Person to Do Something Matter? How New Media Influence Our Idea of Celebrity and the Things We Want to Do

Contrary to what many people believe, it is not true that all people, in all times and places, have wanted to be famous. The desire to be famous, which means being known, admired, and applauded by many people, including by those one doesn’t know personally, is merely the desire to imitate a particular multi-person model. In the past, before the invention of mediums of mass communication, such as printing, books, newspapers, photography, radio, movies, television, and the Internet, all people only wanted to imitate the models which they observed being performed by those around them. Until a few thousand years ago, more specifically before the development of agriculture, it was extremely rare for our ancestors to live in societies that contained more than a few hundred members, and many human societies were probably smaller than this. In addition, the physical confines of the environment in which they lived were strictly limited to the areas they could cover with their own legs and see with their own eyes, supplemented perhaps by tales told by elders of distant, sometimes legendary, places. That this was the case is shown by the fact that, unlike other social animals like bees, ants, and termites, which have been living in colonies that contain many thousands or millions of members for a very long time, measured in tens of millions of years, and therefore are highly adept at social organization, ensuring that all the members contribute to feeding, maintaining, and defending the society of which they form a part, while each member receives an adequate share of the food that is collected or grown by the colony’s members, we humans have great difficulty in organizing societies that contain more than a few hundred members, or beyond the point where each member can know personally, and hence, care about, all the other members.

The model of celebrity is only one of the many models that have resulted from the methods of mass communication that have been invented in recent decades and centuries. Prior to their invention, these models of behaviour, which determine the nature of a person’s idea of celebrity, either didn’t exist or were not as common as they are today. To give an example, here is Henry Fielding’s idea of celebrity, which was entirely literary, since he lived in England from 1707 to 1754, a time when the only means of mass communication was the printed word; and, because he was a writer, he had read many fictional works written by other writers, many of whom were dead:

Come, bright Love of Fame, inspire my glowing Breast:[…]fill my ravished Fancy with the Hopes of charming Ages yet to come. Foretel me that some tender Maid, whose Grandmo­ther is yet unborn, hereafter, when, under the fictitious Name of Sophia, she reads the real Worth which once existed in my Charlotte, shall, from her sympathetic Breast, send forth the heaving Sigh. Do thou teach me not only to foresee, but to enjoy, nay, even to feed on future Praise. Comfort me by a solemn Assurance, that when the little Parlour in which I sit at this Instant, shall be reduced to a worse furnished Box, I shall be read, with Honour, by those who never knew nor saw me, and whom I shall neither know nor see.[1]

Further back in history, those who heard the Homeric epics, Icelandic sagas, or other heroic tales recounted by wandering bards, which tales primarily recounted brave feats performed during fights, battles, or wars, would probably have dreamed of performing similar actions that would later be recounted by other bards, in other times and places, and to other audiences. Today, many people dream of winning an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel Prize, two things that no one dreamed of doing a mere 130 years ago.[2]

In answer to the question contained in the essay’s title, the first person to do something matters because of our imitative nature. If the desire to imitate wasn’t so strongly and innately established in us, then we would not pay the slightest attention to the first person to do this or that. Other animals do not care or keep a record of, for example, which bear was the first to find a source of honey or catch salmon, which chimpanzee was the first to use a twig to extract ants, which monkey was the first to crack nuts using a rock, which wolves were the first to hunt in packs, which whale was the first to perform a backflip, or which bird was the first to sing a certain song. But because we do care, this has considerable importance, since it means that others can follow in that person’s footsteps, thus providing a sort of cultural ladder or scaffold on which those who come later can climb and progress to newer and more complex accomplishments. Hence, by one’s actions and example, one has extended the realm of the possible. Another way of stating this is that the invisible, but nevertheless very real, boundaries that are due to inhibition – the fact that people don’t do things, and, moreover, they don’t desire to do things, which they have never observed or heard of others doing before – have been overcome or pushed back by the audacity and ingenuity of the first person to do something.

Of course, this applies to harmful actions just as much as it does to beneficial actions. The example of the first person to commit a criminal or taboo action, such as murder, rape, theft, torture, incest, or cannibalism, may also incite others to imitate one’s example, in which case the action may become widespread, at least for a period of time.

In the economic sphere, the model of constant change and innovation has led to considerable waste and unnecessary production and consumption. This is most evident in fashion; but in recent times, manufacturers of other products such as cars, furniture, and electronics have realized that a reliable way to maintain or increase sales is by constantly changing the design of their products, so that what once seemed new and innovative quickly becomes old and passé. As I have remarked elsewhere, the thirst for the new is itself a model of behaviour that is of very recent origin.

In Western societies, much ado is made about the first person to do this or that – the first person to walk on the Moon, the first person to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, the first person to run a mile under four minutes, the first person to sail or fly around the world, the first person to swim across a body of water such as the English Channel, the first (European) person to visit this or that land, the first person to reach the North or South Pole, the first woman to be elected president or prime minister in a particular country, and so on. Those who live in societies where this model of behaviour is prevalent will probably find it difficult to understand that this is a completely artificial model that, in the past, didn’t exist in the great majority of human societies. In some professions, such as professional sports, this mania for designating firsts has reached the point that relatively trivial and arcane firsts are duly noted, as if they were significant accomplishments.

Closely related to the model of recording or celebrating the first person to do this or that is the model of honouring the individual who is able to do something better, faster, for a longer period of time, or in some other way is able to outdo all others. These achievements, which are given the honorific appellation of “world records,” inspire others who have grown up observing and admiring these models of behaviour to want to surpass them.

I suspect the absence of this model is the reason for the puzzling fact that, in spite of its many accomplishments and considerable advance over European civilizations at the time, ancient Chinese civilization was not able to achieve the many things, make the many discoveries, and develop the sort of constantly changing modern technological civilization that is being copied all around the world, including in China: it was because, unlike in Europe, the first person to do something, whether this was to invent something new, make an important discovery, voyage to an unfamiliar land, and so on, was not celebrated, honoured, and remembered in Chinese, as one was in European, culture. Hence, the Chinese were not motivated, as some Europeans were, to strive constantly to innovate, to make new discoveries, to do something that no one had done before, or to seek to outdo those who had lived before them.

There is another important recent effect of modern methods of communication. In the past, all people were able to imitate, with a high degree of success, the models they observed, such as standing, learning to walk, speaking the language spoken by the people in one’s tribe, clan, family, or community, hunting, growing plants and raising animals for food, gathering and foraging, while being able to distinguish edible and useful from inedible or poisonous plants, fruits, and seeds, marrying and raising children, or making clothes, tools, weapons, containers, dwellings, and other useful things. But now, many millions and, in some cases, billions of people watch the same models of behaviour on television, in movies, and on the internet. Hence, this has begotten the wholly novel situation, when considered in evolutionary terms, where many people are not able to imitate the models that they observe regularly. The common result of these very frequent modern failures of imitation are futile daydreaming, frustration, discontentment, disappointment, depression, dissatisfaction with one’s life, and, in extreme cases, suicide.

Other writers have argued that these failures are due to the fact that most people tend to overestimate their own abilities and attributes, such as how attractive, intelligent, or capable they are. Although this is probably true, regarded from the perspective of the Theory of Imitation, a different explanation emerges for this common and primarily modern phenomenon. If we tend to overestimate our chances of successfully imitating certain kinds of models, where success is limited to a tiny portion of all those who try to succeed, even though we know that only a small number of the many who strive in various fields of endeavour are able to succeed in becoming, for example, famous professional actors, musicians, athletes, wealthy entrepreneurs or businesspeople, or win lotteries, beauty pageants, and other contests, it is because such high rates of failures of imitation simply didn’t exist in the past, when, for the most part, most people were able to accomplish the things they set out to do. In those times, failure was more often due to the limits, difficulties, and challenges posed by the physical environment in which people lived, such as finding sufficient water and food and evading predators, rather than to the existence of a very large number of human competitors who attempt to accomplish the same thing.

There is a very simple solution to the unhappiness and discontentment that is engendered by the desire to imitate models of behaviour that only a miniscule percentage of all those who seek to achieve them are able to achieve: stop watching these models regularly, for by watching them, you are filling your brain with what, in most cases, are unachievable models of behaviour. And then you will no longer be plagued by the prickly desire to be famous, rich, celebrated, beautiful, the best in your field, or a world champion. In other words, there will be less dissonance between your hopes and expectations and the limits and reality of your particular situation in life. For those who are happy are those in whom these two things accord perfectly, while those who are most unhappy are those in whom this dissonance is greatest.

[1] The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, book 13, chapter 1.

[2] Although the Olympic Games, or something similar, did exist in some parts of ancient Greece and a few other places where the inhabitants were influenced by these practices, these sporting events gradually fell into desuetude for almost two millennia, until their modern renaissance by Pierre de Coubertin at the end of the nineteenth century.