Yellowknife and the crude instrument

How pointing a lens at something changes it

When you measure something, you change it. The cruder the instrument you use to measure, the more you change the thing you’re measuring.

Think of a tire pressure gauge. When you stick the gauge on the valve, it hisses and lets some air out. By trying to figure out your tire pressure, you change it.

In physics it’s called the “observer effect.”

Take Yellowknife – it’s being measured. The instrument? The camera. Reality TV: Ice Pilots NWT, Ice Road Truckers, Ice House-Boaters (my unofficial working title).

So what’s the “observer effect” on Yellowknife, as more and more cruder instruments are pointed at it? We’ll see. But I think I can hear the tire hissing down in the bay.

Who am I to talk reality TV? I spent 24 hours a day for two months with reality TV star, Alex Debogorski. Scarily, the observer effect on Alex seems to be minimal. That’s because he was already…how do I put this…perfect for reality TV. He says so himself. “I was always a celebrity, it just took the world 50 years to realize it.” When an LA producer wandered out to Kam Lake and up to the Debogorski compound, Alex was already zany as hell, just waiting to happen.

The hottest reality commodity in Yellowknife these days has to be Mikey McBryan. Clearly he’s been changed by the experience. And it seems for the positive. Mikey is now one of the most savvy TV-producer-marketing-types in the North.

For crying out loud, there’s a Lego Mikey, @TM!

Mikey has harnessed the observer effect.

I’m at the other end of the spectrum. Not too many people know this, but I was a bit-part character in a reality TV series about a family of Greek restaurateurs. They fought and loved and cooked and partied with an intensity fit for television. My role? Idiot friend at a stag party in Las Vegas.

The observer effect swept me off my feet. The (verbal, unofficial) contractual obligations for my involvement: I had to be the proverbial straw that stirred the drink. The bar for that kind of (mis)behaviour is pretty high in Vegas. And so, intoxicated by the lens, hopped up on a director’s provocations, I played the role of the wild fool. I ate five breakfasts in a sitting and won an eating contest, later did something similar in a beer drinking contest, and then I fully committed to my role for the scene at the strip club. Fully.

What happens in Vegas, stays in….nope. My misadventure was the fodder for an episode. No Lego figures were inspired, just a good old-fashioned shame spiral.

It feels good to get this off my chest. But that’s not why I’m writing about it. Rather, it’s a reflection on what I learned. Point a lens at something, and it changes. (Vegas isn’t supposed to teach you about taking responsibility for your actions, right?)

So what of all the interest in pointing a lens at Yellowknife and her wild and woolly characters? Clearly, the rest of the world is keen to spend 22 minutes at a time visiting this frontier. But of Yellowknife as a place on the edge of livability, we know better.

Once you’ve seen ice road truckers drive, or ice house-boaters deal with a honey bucket, you need something to hold the audience’s attention. You need conflict. Tire-chaining contests, rookie driving mistakes, a competing winter festival in the bay. And where there isn’t conflict, reality TV directors are paid to create it. That’s the hissing valve of this kind of measurement.

Should we be worried? No, we should be flattered and entertained. The latter is the point of reality TV. But I guess we should also be paying attention.

Let’s think of ourselves as a herd of wildlife for a minute. There’s a reason it’s preferable to put a collar camera on a member of the herd rather than have a videographer hang out the side of a helicopter. An inside job is usually the realest, because the observer is one of us. Oh and “reality TV” is an oxymoron.

Loren McGinnis is one of Yellowknife’s earliest risers. He’s the host of the CBC North morning radio show, The Trailbreaker. Shall we call it, “Reality Radio”?

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