What do the following things have in common?
Chariot racing teams.
They were all originally trivial pursuits that evolved into vehicles of social, economic, and sometimes political significance. What they illustrate is what I call the "Trivia Principle" of history, that can be stated as follows: Trivia becomes sacred, and vice-versa. This is an unusual thing to realize given the tendency of historical thought to focus on the direct political causes and effects of change rather than the otherwise neutral mediums in which they occur. Let's look at each of the items listed above in turn to see how they demonstrate the principle.
I. Homeric Poetry
Few people today understand what Homeric poetry meant to the Hellenic world. In the Greek language, The Iliad was more than clever verbiage and a compelling story: It was both a foundational myth and an inspirational narrative, combining the political/cultural significance of the Star Spangled Banner with the spiritual invocation of Bible verses and a Beethoven symphony all rolled into one. People didn't just recite it, they sang it with passion like the Ode to Joy. But that is what it became: Originally it was exactly what it is today - pretty words telling a fanciful story, no different from any clever children's fable.
And yet, while English-speaking youth today have to be forced to read its translation as literature, Greek-speaking youth of the ancient world heard it with rapt attention as a passionately-orated story or even choral song. But The Iliad in particular was especially compelling among the various epic stories, and created a mesmerizing aesthetic universe for these people in their youth - one where war was the highest and most beautiful aspirational pursuit rather than an ugly reality.
It was, in other words, the Hellenic version of gangsta rap: Achilles, though doomed, was probably who every kid thought of when they wanted to act tough. Even though the fate of the characters was dark, wandering aimlessly in the shade of death with no consolation but the recitation of their names in story, the way their exploits were told was just too powerful - it captured people who heard it. It excited centuries of youth to pursue warfare with deliberation and fascistic passion that their ancestors had only pursued because they knew no other way to survive. That was the socio-political world born in the artistic vision of The Iliad, as if Hellenic civilization itself had sprung forth from the words rather than from the actual past they mythologically represented.
The Odyssey, however, provided a very different and longer-lasting vision: It was the Hellenic version of science fiction, and likely inspired generations of Greeks to become maritime explorers, travelers, and colonists. As ironic as it seems, the exotic trials and suffering of Odysseus in his long journey home inspired adventurous spirits to seek out such journeys in the same way that the poetic tragedies of The Iliad merely excited warfare rather than deterring it. A person who feared or despised war would find confirmation in The Iliad, and one who cared only for home would hear their feelings validated by the horrors faced by Odysseus, but those with the passionate spark to pursue were activated by it - the call of martial glory on the one hand, the call of the horizon on the other.
As much as the pile of red-shirted corpses in Star Trek could be interpreted as one giant parable about why space is dangerous and humans should stay on Earth, so The Odyssey could be seen by a cowardly and unimaginative mind as a warning against turning away from hearth and home to seek far-flung objectives. But that's not how human beings respond to beautiful stories, no matter what their content: We become possessed by them, craving to live them. Ugly realities are pursued as a path to fulfilling the fantasy, and in the process are ironically made less ugly: War as an end in itself can't continue if there are no rules, because sooner or later the contenders simply exterminate each other and what's left is a degenerate empire.
So you get Warrior Codes - you get, for instance, the rules that preserved almost all of the Greek city-states through centuries of constant internal warfare that would have annihilated nearly all of them if they had been fighting for something other than their fantasy of war itself. You get those rules, and chivalry, Bushido, gentlemanly honor, and all other examples of it that have ever evolved: Codes that in no way stopped any level of atrocity against the innocent and defenseless, but balanced military forces against each other so that they could (they hoped) war forever without any danger of either peace or ultimate victory - both circumstances worse than death in the warrior ethos.
The poetic trope about Alexander weeping at having no more worlds left to conquer captures it perfectly: A warrior had to balance victory and defeat to keep the fight going in perpetuity as an analog for life itself. The Iliad reveals the same doctrine: Agamemnon was not destroyed by the Trojan War, but by the end of the Trojan War - withstanding ten years of slaughter and siege only to be killed as an afterthought by his own wife.
And Odyssey carries a similar, but much more benign and actually reciprocal principle to that of Iliad: That going off to war nearly destroyed Odysseus' home and family, but he was strengthened to reclaim it by the adventures in trying to reach it again. The cavalierly killed-off redshirts among his companions are just metaphors for the personal and psychological sacrifices he makes to come back to something worthwhile from a decade of pointless destruction. But what makes Odyssey so special, and the reason it's rightly regarded as the ancient origin of science fiction travelogue, is that it works equally well in the other direction: That home doesn't have to be where you started - just the place you seek. And even more importantly, that the act of seeking itself can be home.
That, more than anything, makes Odyssey the stronger and more significant work over time, and a story of foundational significance to both British and American history. The aristocrats and adventurers who charted the world in the Age of Exploration well into the 20th century were undoubtedly aware of the work, and very likely activated by it to varying extents. And while it's less likely that any given average American colonist or Western pioneer knew of it, they certainly lived it: The ugly, ridiculous, frustrating, alternately boring and terrifying reality of trying to pass through somewhere unfamiliar and dangerous to make a life in some yet-to-be-determined Promised Land of their own making. In the process of enduring the reality, they brought it closer to the fantasy, and made the journey easier for the next generation; and they in turn made it easier for the one after that, and so on.
Although a much uglier history, there is even an Odyssey-related analogy to be made for the collective path of African-Americans: Thrown off course into strangeness by malevolent forces, but pushing ever onward from the ship-wreck of slavery toward a sense of home, and along the way discovering (and helping all of America discover) new wonders both cultural and political - including our own true self as a nation. From a hearthside tale inflated into epic proportions based on the likely already-exaggerated stories of elderly Trojan War veterans - a conflict that, unlike Hollywood seems to think, was basically the size and scope of a mid-sized soccer riot - came the motivation that drove the exploration of this world; that brought about footprints on the Moon centuries later; that deployed robotic scouts into the rest of the solar system, and may yet be the cultural seed from which humanity ultimately cascades into rest of the universe.
II. Chariot Racing Teams
The Byzantine Empire - or what can be rightly derided as Roman Empire 2: The Shitty Christian Reboot - was actually one of the most advanced states in human history. Most people today don't know much about it because there's never been a movie about it, never had A-list actors approaching a CGI version of Constantinople showing it when it was the capital of Western civilization, and for the most part that's justified. You see, while it's true that it was highly advanced, unfortunately the areas in which it broke new ground were things like torture, political repression, elaborate corruption, and authoritarian ideology.
As good at sculpture and philosophy as the Hellenic Age Athenians were, and as good as the Romans were at militarism, that's how good the Byzantines were at petty debasement of the human spirit. What little remains of records from the period that weren't simply sycophantic rote-praise of the Emperor or deranged religious screeds describe people being castrated for succeeding at some task when someone of higher rank had failed; eyes gouged out; their children seized as hostages (and used as sex slaves by their captors) to guarantee they wouldn't seek social advantage; massacres occurring at a whim; and through it all, the amount of jewels encrusting everything the elite owned increasing to absurd lengths until it all just looked barnacled and silly. It describes people multilated and tortured in countless ways for minor breaches of obeisance. So stating an opinion at all (not even dissenting) was extremely dangerous, as was excelling at anything significant.
But as drunk as people were both literally and on the opiate of a religious ideology preaching abject servitude, sooner or later the suppressed human passions and aspirations had to go somewhere. Most were not suited for war: The Byzantine elite were soft and cowardly, and preferred to pay foreigners to fight their wars for them than subject themselves to discipline and discomfort. Meanwhile the common people were not kept healthy enough to be good soldiers, and the possibility of rising above their station through military service was both unlikely and usually deemed socially dangerous. But their masters sure did have some pretty armor that never saw much use, like these replicas depicting eras when the Roman influence was still obvious:
Even the arts were degenerate: The elite were far smaller in proportion than they'd been in the heyday of Rome, and thus there just wasn't an economy to support the promotion of advanced art as a general pursuit. Art decayed from an entire subculture with its own schools into limited craft skills for people to sell grotesque religious tchotchkes, with the absolute best being mainly self-taught geniuses who would evoke jealousy on the part of their patron's enemies. A Roman jealous of their enemy's commissioned artwork would commission their own; a Byzantine would just have the artist killed to deter others from accepting work from their enemy.
So it was always utterly critical never to make anything more beautiful than what the Court favorites had made - which was unfortunately a pretty low bar to limbo because most of the Byzantine Emperors and those around them were idiot-philistines. In a thousand years of history, all that remains that isn't ludicrous or childish is the Hagia Sophia, a handful of mosaics, fragments of the wall that surrounded the city, and some palace architecture: Primarily works commissioned by the handful of autocrats in that time who were not useless pigs.
The same if not worse applied to realms of business: The closest analogy in the modern era would have been corrupt Late Soviet bureaucracy - true enterprise was largely impossible in that environment, because you would invariably step on someone's toes with greater influence than yourself. If you went ahead anyway and tried to play the game boldly, the stakes of losing would be disappearing into some dungeon until you died or being thrown out on the street years later with limbs hacked off, blind, and crazy, your family sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire or wherever. So it was not a place for the bold and the innovative, to say the least.
Except in the Hippodrome, where the chariots raced. There you were allowed to win. There you were allowed to disagree over who would and should win, to dispute passionately the issues of the day with your neighbors, and there you could even shout political slogans at the Emperor - if enough of your team were on board with it that going after you individually after the race would be impractical. The Imperial enforcers almost always knew it was futile to shut it down, so usually they didn't try. Computer reconstructions of the Hippodrome, of which practically nothing still exists but parts of the center-island architecture:
There could be no acknowledged political factions in Constantinople: All were slaves of the Emperor, absolutely and forever, and all were believers in the authorized doctrines of the Church, absolutely and forever, and taking a position on an undecided question was risky. So, you just plain didn't unless you had serious backing. All politics was sublimated: On the borders of Empire, it was "just business" - mercenary barbarian tribes enforcing the Emperor's will; at the heart of the Empire, the State demanded perfect harmony in all other areas of life except the circus.
The Byzantines would have enjoyed the races anyway, as even free Romans and free Greeks before them had enjoyed them. But with no other outlet for passion in a pettily oppressive state, and no other independent associations tolerated but those involved in racing events, the circuses took on an entirely different level of significance. So much gambling, other business, and fan interaction occurred over these racing events that charioteers had formed teams long before in order to pool resources and handle the business and public relations side of the sport rather than only being individual stars.
For a while there were four teams with their own colors: Reds, Greens, Blues, and Whites. Thus fans could signify their support in the obvious way, and being a supporter of one of these teams created a social network of economic support, family connections, political connections, business connections, etc. If chariot racing had been just a mere sport in Byzantium as it had been in Rome and Greece before, it probably would have stayed at four teams - but because the sport was invaded by repressed politics, the passion invested in it drove consolidations that ultimately folded the Reds and Whites into the other two.
Political and religious factions thus became sublimated into the Greens and Blues, but the divisions were rarely clear enough for politically significant explosions to occur. There were elites on both teams, and common people on both teams, so often enough it really was just about chariot racing. But sometimes a Green or a Blue was the Emperor, and that's when the other team became the de facto political opposition. So when things got hot, you could have seen the surreal spectacle of people gathering ostensibly for a chariot race and then totally ignoring it in order to shout at each other over religion or Imperial policy, sometimes resulting in lethal riots.
It was a fan club, a gang, a political party, and an economic network all rolled into one. The temptation is to compare it to soccer hooligan clubs, but it ultimately went far beyond that: It was more akin to if the IRA and Ulster Unionists had been forced to stand next to each other in a stadium at regular sporting events. Only unfettered rage at the Emperor could unite them, as happened against Justinian I in the Nika revolt of 532. And only the fact that he was a Blue and the man trying to replace him a Green could sabotage the unity of the revolt.
Ultimately that revolt, sparked from the Hippodrome, would burn half of Constantinople to the ground and result in tens of thousands of deaths from the Imperial response: Equivalent in the modern day to a riot from a Formula One race burning half of New York City to the ground and resulting in a military response that kills a million people. The chariot racing teams of Constantinople were so powerful they could hurl abuse at an Emperor to his face and even nearly succeed at overthrowing him, and yet so fractious that one of the two teams would abandon the revolt simply because its leaders were paid off and reminded that the Emperor was one of them. So powerful they could burn the city at the center of the world nearly to the ground. And all of that power grew out of a sporting event - out of the mild vicarious excitement of watching a race.
All that power, and then it was just gone. We receive no traditions whatsoever from the history of the Blues and the Greens despite their long centuries of underpinning Byzantine society, driving its disputes and revolutions - they simply faded away along with Byzantium, leaving nothing but a handful of monuments in Istanbul. The incredibleness of how chariot racing could become such a powerful force, for so long, at the heart of Western civilization is matched only by the dismally amazing fact that it ultimately counted for nothing.
A thousand years of culture, passion, violence, and tribal identity have zero consequences today. Chariot racing went from triviality to sacrament, consuming the attentions and sometimes lives of countless millions over dozens of generations, and then back to triviality again as a footnote. In fact, a footnote to a footnote, as it underpinned the history of an Empire that was itself just the trivial, repugnant epilogue to a totally different and far more relevant civilization.
Science in its origins was basically born from people like us - in fact, pretty much exactly like us: People with enough food in their bellies to not have to spend all their time on practicalities, and enough brains in their head to not spend their time pursuing money, power, or status like their peers. Instead they thought about things, and talked to people about subjects that most people just didn't think about much after childhood: What is the nature of the things we see around us? What causes things to happen as they do? At first all the genres of philosophy, including the roots of science, were intermingled in the same general inquiry. Idle conversations like this occurring between ancient people on ancient topics were the humble beginnings of philosophy:
Because the other areas of philosophy were concerned with ethereal ideas rather than physical phenomena, they proliferated into a vast kaleidoscope of schools while science remained a rarefied study of "naturalism." Science at its beginnings was, in other words, not just the elevation of idle banter to an obsession, which was true of all philosophy, but the intensification of an increasingly narrow - and to most others philosophers, boring - subject to the status of a lifelong mission.
All other fields of philosophy grasped at the notion of fundamental Truth and the pursuit of an unobtainable perfect knowledge, while naturalists just wanted to catalog what things there were in the world and guess at how they relate to each other. The inherent solipsism of the former sealed its fate, degenerating into the pathetic, hot mess of theology, while the eternal open-mindedness and wonder of the latter has kept it going and remade civilization repeatedly - with no inherent endpoint likely to exist.
But for almost all of history, a scientist was just an individual who approached empirical questions from their own idiosyncratic perspective, built up a body of work practically alone, and then just faded into obscurity because of a Dark Age, or a library burning down somewhere, or politics not favoring their work. A rich patron might find their work interesting and keep some of it in a family library, or not, but society didn't really put much stock in them unless they could build something truly amazing like Archimedes of Syracuse - and even then society tended to treat their work as if it were the irreducible product of an artist rather than something that could be digested and applied.
Early scientists were odd birds who didn't have a lot to do with the rest of philosophy because they built things, conducted experiments, and tried to describe what happens rather than attempting to boil all of reality down to some perfect ideal frozen in amber. And their contemporaries didn't know enough to see the difference between them and the sorcerers and alchemists: They either believed it all or believed none of it, with the latter acting like the "proper" intellectual pursuits were ones untainted by the nastiness and corruption of the tangible - matters of being and abstract meaning were the only true insights. The only exception was mathematics, which lived in its own peculiar world, isolated from most forms of practical application by a lack of awareness about what it could accomplish.
Everyone is a scientist in childhood: Everyone experiments, and forms hypothetical ideas out of what they see, then discards and reforms those ideas at a rapid pace as new information flows in. Peekaboo, for instance, is a scientific experiment people instinctively teach their infant children: They train the infant's mind to the logic that objects still exist even when they're not seen. What distinguished the people who are known by history as scientists is that they never stopped thinking like this - their childhood naivete and curiosity never ended. They just kept going doing what children do, and pretty soon were way beyond their contemporaries. In other words, they were kind of freaks who had a screw loose that failed to stop them from wondering the way it does other people who reach a certain age.
So every once in a while, there would be someone who was especially like that, and they would make some drastic contribution. But because science had not yet reached the level of economic relevance - e.g., the engineering principles by which things like aqueducts and temples were built were received wisdom by craft trades, not based on scientific theories - its results were only supported and perpetuated to the same extent as art patronage: Rarely, and very inconsistently. As a result, it was mostly people born rich who ended up being scientists, and pretty much they alone who had the time and education to consider each other's work and read up on past achievements. So a scientist was a rarity among a rarity in a rare and fleeting circumstance: A rich man full of child-like curiosity in a political state where it was remotely possible to act on it.
What changed was the growing prosperity and sophistication of European society, particularly in Britain, due to the inflow of wealth from far-flung colonial possessions. Confluences of political and philosophical thought, especially from the Scottish Enlightenment, created a more broadly educated society than had ever existed in history. As a result, the idle discussions of lettered gentlemen became, if not common reading material, then at least material that wealthy merchants, soldiers, politicians, and professionals could understand well enough to see how they might be put to practical use.
Out of that came the Industrial Revolution, and at a date much later than was strictly necessary by scientific knowledge: The Romans could theoretically have industrialized, if it had simply occurred to them, and if they had not had an economic system (slavery) totally inimical to it. So could the Middle Age Chinese. But it wasn't until 18th century England that the factors were right.
Once the reliable practicality of science was understood, the obvious political advantages of promoting science education were realized. The ability to turn theories into technologies was not merely the domain of individual insight and talent like art, but rather a mass economic activity that could be achieved just as well - or even better - through large numbers of mediocrities rather than a small number of geniuses.
No one understood this until the Industrial Revolution proved it, and since then it's just been invading more and more areas of activity. You still need geniuses to make the leaps, but the mediocrities digest the leaps and derive practical lessons from them. We needed Newton and the thermodynamic pioneers so that 2nd-tier minds could give us efficient steam engines; we needed the Einstein generation to give us quantum mechanics so that 2nd-tier minds could create electronics out of it.
So who knows what may be created out of cutting-edge theories like holographic duality or research into the Higgs boson. And, of course, there's the ongoing NASA research into Warp drive. But the most interesting thing about science is not that it lets you do things, but that you never really know in advance what scientific progress will enable next: You never know what applications of existing theory are being neglected and may just suddenly snap into focus. The linked article about holographic duality, for instance, hints at massively more powerful and practical magnetic levitation - so there's at least a chance they mean flying cars, not merely maglev trains. That would be slightly cool.
It's a universe of surprises, where the weapons and defenses are built on the same ever-changing foundations; the tools of oppression and liberation always at war and yet both growing as the environment of scientific knowledge and engineering know-how grows; knowledge and understanding evolving to reflect new information. It's almost the opposite of the static Truth pursued by the ancient metaphysics philosophers: Science is a heaving, cascading thing that unfolds around and through us like time, transforming and creating amidst destruction. From a child's naive questions, an infinite future is born - triviality to sacrament.
Hopefully it doesn't return to triviality in the form of Dark Age, but rather by virtue of our evolving to a higher level where the epiphanies of science are just instinctive throughout our lives - universal, perpetual wonder - and thereby trivial for being constant rather than rare again.
You should have some idea of where I'm going with this one based on the chariot racing discussion, but unlike that subject, we're still in the process of fully realizing the potential of the soccer phenomenon. I don't like soccer - I'd be bored by it even if I weren't bored by almost all sports anyway, and I find its rise to international prominence a little irritating. But I get why it happened: It's dirt-cheap and easy to play, even more so than basketball, so it would inevitably end up spreading the fastest and most widely. There's no denying its rapid evolution from a simple child's game into the international team sport played and enjoyed by both men and women, boys and girls, and even robots.
The beginning of the modern soccer phenomenon was just poor kids in various places idly kicking around a ball in the same way that kids in the US have idly thrown a ball, whether to each other (as in baseball) or into a basket. But baseball and basketball have equipment other than the ball, and involve gameplay that requires certain things about the environment to be true for play to be practical - not soccer. You can kick a ball around the rubble-strewn post-apocalyptic nightmare of a war-torn city as easily as around a manicured lawn. So it has its roots in the most basic and universal kind of interactive physical activity, that can be done pretty much anywhere by anyone.
Soccer hooliganism, though, is a little more difficult to understand at first glance. Why would violent elements coalesce around a game derided for its lack of action and wimpy play? I think the answer, as with chariot racing, is that the game itself isn't important: That it achieved the level of prominence and social cachet it has because of how cheap and easy it is to play, but from that position it then becomes a medium through which other social forces interact. In other words, the violent elements don't choose soccer as if they were picking from a menu of sports - they grow up around it, it may be all they've had a chance to play if they grow up in poor countries, and it defines their social environment. Other things filter into the fan culture, just as with the Blues and Greens: Business, family, politics, religion, what have you.
Soccer has become tied into the foundational cultural identities of several nations, most obvious among them being Brazil and Britain, so the phenomenon is not going away or going to become less significant with time. And yet, while devoted fans would probably be angry to hear me say it, it is just a game. It's a bunch of people kicking a ball. It has no inherent value and no inherent meaning. And yet, there it is: A source of riots, of violence, of some modest degree even of political unrest - though you might think nothing like the Byzantine chariot races.
You might think that until you heard the recent story about the ref who stabbed a player in a Brazil match being decapitated by fans, who then put his head on a pike in the middle of the field. It's the head on the pike that elevates the story beyond mere spasmodic violence and to the level of something more going on: That's not the behavior of people who've lost all control, but an instinctive message of warning being sent from one group to another. They may not realize it themselves why they did that, but it's an escalation of tribal politics with each line that's crossed being something that can't be taken back. It builds up and redefines the culture around it.
Now, I don't think anything like that is going to become commonplace anytime soon, but I'd be curious to know how this phenomenon plays out over the next 200 years. The sport isn't played on the highest level between cities or between clubs within countries, but between countries themselves, with popular commercial clubs subsumed within the national identity along with their supporters and hooligan cultures, so what does the violent social undercurrent portend for a future where global politics and social tensions are even more intimately woven into these games?
It's impossible to imagine now, but picture 100 years from now a soccer game between two countries who've experienced some kind of tension. Imagine fans from one country are present in significant numbers at a game hosted in the other country, and now imagine something sets off a riot that leaves the Away fans disproportionately dead in large numbers. It's basically a massacre. What follows from that, in a future where both countries are as passionately focused on soccer as Brazil?
If the Away country's government is under pressure, war on some level is conceivable, both within or between the two countries, as would be acts of deliberate terrorism incited by the riot. "Soccer terrorism" could become a thing, and not just in this particular scenario: The more people pour their unrelated passions into it, the more barbaric and dishonest their tactics could become. Players could end up having to be protected to the same degree as national political figures, because that's in fact what they'd be. Even countries where soccer isn't a big deal, like ours, would probably be forced to treat it as such anyway because of the stock other countries place in it.
We're probably heading into - but not quite at - the middle period of soccer's modern history, and probably nowhere near the zenith of its social, cultural, economic, and political significance, so it's something to think about. From a kid idly kicking around a ball to a medium through which events of international significance will probably someday occur, this is one triviality that's headed toward sanctity. But it's still a wimpy-ass sport. :p
V. Comic Con
Comic books were originally trivially cheap pulp magazines of the early 20th century printed by the bushel with terrible, generic storylines and interchangeable characters. The target audience were little children (5-12), and comic books were stocked next to the candy shelves in drug stores. You could not get more trivial than that: They were afterthoughts to an afterthought - used as enticements to buy candy and convince kids to throw away the pennies they'd saved up to see Something Man once again defeat his arch-nemesis The Something Bad.
The overwhelming majority of comic books ever printed in this period were an insult to toilet paper, but the feelings they engendered in their audience stuck with a few of them, and they kept buying comic books. A few series proved to have staying power, like Superman and Batman, launching the careers of artists and writers as well as a handful of comic book companies that would be responsible for other fan favorites. Their fans supported them into adulthood, buying later issues for their own kids, but for decades it was always just a geeky underground subculture that no one would admit to being a part of in polite society. And truth be told, there wasn't enough merit in comic books to justify their devotion yet, so they were in fact just obsessed weirdos.
But because comics were such a deprecated medium, writers and artists began to realize they could experiment and no one cared enough to stop them. They started writing actual stories with actual plots and actual characters instead of the same shit over and over, and found that people were sticking with comics into a later age and at a higher intellectual level than before. From that sprang the Graphic Novel - the literary outgrowth of a rapidly maturing medium, which articulated not just semi-intelligent stories, but actual literature-quality material. It wasn't sudden, but half a century or so after they were pimping bubble gum to 2nd graders on surplus pulp paper, comic books had evolved into a genuine art form.
A little before this transformation began - and partly what helped midwife the process - the fans, writers, and artists started getting together in humble little annual conventions to trade comics, debut new work, and just interact with the few others in their community at the time. Thus San Diego Comic-Con was born in 1970. The original event drew 145 people: Not 145 exhibitors - 145 people in total. To be fair, it was intended to be a smaller affair to raise money for a larger one a few months later, which brought in 300 people in total. The back cover of a record made of some of the events at the 1975 Comic-Con:
Things have changed slightly since then. The 2012 San Diego Comic-Con brought in over 130,000 people - they simply stopped counting when they got to that much. For the past several years, every Hollywood studio that makes movies and/or TV shows in the science fiction, fantasy, horror, or comic book-adaptation genres brings its work there not to sell it, but to seek the approval of fans before even beginning a project. The studios tell themselves it's market research, but really what it is is a Fan Veto over projects that might otherwise have hundred-million-dollar budgets. And surrounding it all, vast amounts of comic books, imaginative fiction literature, action figures, props, costumes, and celebrity panels.
It's like the medieval ecumenical councils that met to decide matters of Church doctrine - but cool rather than despicable, with the participants self-selected rather than being institutional authority figures. For all the vast fictional universes existing in imaginative pop culture, Comic Con serves to bring fans together to discuss arcana in a ceremonial setting, judge the canonicity and merit of material, and guide the future progress of their own idiosyncratic cults. People who would have been experts on Biblical stories if they'd lived in the High Middle Ages, the sagas if they'd been Norse, or the Homeric epics if they'd been ancient Greeks, are today experts on Star Trek, Star Wars, and a lot of other material.
They're the reason why every video on Youtube of a celebrity panel discussing an upcoming movie or TV project in the aforementioned genres has the Comic-Con logo on it. Ditto every cast reunion panel of people who starred in such projects in the past. As the stars of material that commands devotion, these actors, directors, etc. have to make periodic pilgrimage to Comic-Con. It's something like a moral obligation, whether they like it or not, and all eventually give in to it.
As a result of the delightful fanatics who go to these things, $180 million in business occurred as a direct result of the 2013 Comic-Con, and the city of San Diego approved a half-billion-dollar expansion to its convention center for future growth of the event. That's hardly Super Bowl, Olympics, or World Cup numbers, but when you factor in all the other Comic-Cons (list here) and the business they help drum up for Hollywood, merchandising, and publishing companies, it's substantial and growing. Include related internet sites and you've got a massive engine of cultural significance on your hands, all evolved from total crap sold to little kids in the 1930s.
Are we seeing a pattern yet? The Trivia Principle of History operates by perpetuating either beneficial or neutral childhood thoughts and behavior patterns into adulthood - the thoughts, stories, and games of our youth become the context of our adult agendas and the societal environment in which our children grow up. What my grandfather may have bought as a 10-year-old for five cents as something trivial to read while eating candy, my father may have bought as a 20-year-old for $5 as underground art, and I may buy some day as a 40-year-old for $500 as an expression of secular religion.
In 2003, Mark Zuckerberg's literally sophomoric application (he was a sophomore when he wrote it) to compare and contrast the attractiveness of fellow students mostly just got him in trouble. Over the next several years, the commercialized version of the same application, Facebook, would become a place for hundreds of millions of people to keep in touch with friends, let them know about things happening in their lives, and participate in various cultural activities and games. In 2011 and beyond, it (along with Twitter) was used to great effect in the overthrow of several long-standing Arab dictatorships. As a result, a serious argument can be made of a direct analogy between Facebook and the Byzantine chariot racing teams.
The people of these countries had nowhere else to go: They were not permitted to protest or gather, they could not express themselves in other ways, but they could coordinate through the internet because their governments were still too corrupt and incompetent to be capable of controlling it. Just as the people of Constantinople's entire social and political existence had to be relocated into the Hippodrome before it could breathe and express itself, these people had to relocate their social context to a social networking site before they could breathe and express themselves. And being a result of electronic networking, the results were gestalten and unexpectedly rapid rather than percolating as would happen in a sporting-event culture.
From the internet equivalent of the adolescent "Would you do her?" game, came the social networking platform through which revolutions would be triggered. Which makes me wonder: What's the next innocuous-seeming application or website that's going to overthrow a dictatorship and/or demand justice?
I recently came across this article about a man named Isaiah "Triforce" Johnson, for whom Nintendo is a way of life. He's a 35-year-old man, college-educated, who had a shot at an entry-level job at Goldman Sachs with advancement opportunities, but chose instead to work low-paying jobs at videogame stores so that he could live the lifestyle of a gamer and promote what he loved to other people. Here's a video about him:
One of the roles he plays as a fanatic gamer is to be the first in line for new Nintendo consoles, which he has done every single time a new console has been launched since the original NES. As described in the clip, he has to take elaborate steps in order to secure his place in line more than a week in advance, and (as the linked article above describes) his being first carries very real powers and responsibilities within the subculture of waiting in line for product launches. He is given the authority by the store to rule on the legitimacy of other people's claims to the next several positions in line. For folks willing to go to such lengths to be the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. person to receive one of these consoles, that's some real power. If he were so inclined, he could very easily abuse it - though not without consequences, as with any holder of power.
When he was a kid, Johnson was part of a local gaming group led by another kid who had a Power Glove - an early 1990s precursor to the motion-sensing technology of the Wii that never really caught on, but carries talismanic significance to Nintendo devotees. He describes how when the leader of the group was moving away, he ceremonially bestowed the Power Glove on Johnson along with the status of leader. He now collects Power Gloves, and wears one to every console product launch, feeling it to be a symbol of achievement and status. No, he's not crazy - he really seems like a sane, thoughtful person. That's just the significance the object took for him in his immediate social circumstance, and he acts accordingly rather than according to the wider culture.
I don't think Nintendo will ever be as significant to culture or society as the other things on this list, despite its magical role in my own childhood, but the fact that a game system - something that is literally a toy, and only intended to be a toy - could inspire such devotion from a clearly intelligent and apparently mentally healthy person is a prime example of the Trivia Principle. Also, the rules and hierarchy that have arisen in product launch line culture are examples of some of the political consequences of the Principle.
Ask yourself, what trivia around us today will be sacred tomorrow? Your child's or grandchild's toy box might contain the basis of future religions and revolutions. The game you idly play on your phone waiting at the airport might give birth to a shining civilization, maybe on another world entirely. The frivolous pablum you hear on the radio, the muzak in the elevator, the trite poem on a coffee cup - you have no idea if some of these things might not some day be gushed over, expounded upon lovingly, dissected academically, and elaborated into multiple artistic mediums. What nonsense today becomes beloved art tomorrow? What afterthought today becomes The Point tomorrow? What ideas that you hold without question will either pass into obscurity or evolve to levels you would not recognize? Seriously, try to guess at these things. It's fun.