With his book, The Age of Reason, published in 1795, Thomas Paine was looking back on The Age of Enlightenment. If Paine were to write a book today he would probably call the past 10 years The Age of Celebrity, or possibly The Age of Stupidity.
In it, he would chart the relentless rise of reality TV, and the celebrity culture as personified by the blonde American heiress-cum-It-girl, Paris Hilton, and others like her. Britney Spears, for example. The world practically stood still the day she went awol and shaved her hair off. Similarly, every time Victoria Beckham added some hair extensons the British tabloid press held the front page. So just how did celebrities become so crucial to our lives? Are we trying to replace other things that have lessened in importance, at least in the West, such as religion or the family? Is it the case that because people are now judged on criteria such as material possessions and how many column centimetres in celebrity magazines they command, someone like Paris Hilton has become akin to a goddess?
Paris Hilton shot to fame - if that is the word - when her boyfriend posted a video of them having sex on YouTube in 2003. Rather than being shocked, the world found the element of sex, money and social connections irresistible, and a modern-day icon was born. A woman who reputedly only comes alive in front of the camera, Hilton coos and smiles and flirts and most of the world seems captivated by her every move. Why?
The point now is not why you are famous (for writing a book, for example, or inventing something that could change the world) but that you are famous. Being famous for being famous is seen as an achievement. There is even a whole television industry built around it. Talent shows such as X Factor and American Idol create stars. Susan Boyle, notwithstanding her genuine but previously untapped singing prowess, is now an A-list celebrity because of her three-minute performances on Britain's Got Talent. In part we can blame the press for the relentless rise of the celebrity/TV-fuelled culture. While these programmes are on, they report developments - who has been voted off, or what the judges happen to be wearing - as if it were news. The same goes for Big Brother, for which many blame the beginning of The Age of Celebrity.
Inevitably, to keep ratings high, television companies had to stoop to increasingly lower levels, to shock, to amuse and get us hooked as each dreary series unfolded. Big Brother went from bad to worse. So instead of being shocked by someone behaving stupidly, we actually admire them for it and turn them into celebrities. The end result is that we end up with role models who cannot complete a sentence without an expletive and have probably never read a book (except perhaps a celebrity biography).
For those of you lucky enough not to know her, the UK's answer to Paris Hilton is a woman named Katie Price, aka Jordan. She is Paris without the "class" and has described herself as "Marmite; you either love me or you hate me". But she is worth millions and didn't even have to inherit it. And people love her. They crave news about her. Her recent divorce has been covered in more detail than just about any other story in the UK. Are we now so base that a woman with fake breasts and limited talent is the most interesting thing in our world? The dumbing down of culture is nothing new. In his book, The Assault On Reason, Al Gore blames television. And it's a global phenomenon that shows no signs of decreasing. I expect if you showed people a picture of Michael Jackson, 99 per cent of them would recognise it. How many would be able to tell the difference between Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King; men who changed the course of history? Google Angelina Jolie and you get 30,400,000 hits. Do the same for Socrates and you get just over nine million. And it is no surprise that the majority of people would rather grow up to be famous for no particular reason than be a great philosopher.
I overheard a conversation between two elderly gentlemen in a London club on my last visit there. "I asked my granddaughter what she wants to be," one was telling the other. "She says she wants to be a Wag." For those of you unfamiliar with this phrase it stands for footballers' wives and girlfriends. "A what?" said the other, straining to hear. "A footballer's wife," replied his friend with an air of despair. "She says she wants to be a footballer's wife."
Some might say that quite apart from television and the relentless dumbing down of our culture this kind of attitude is the result of 10 years of booming economy. We have learnt that money is all-important, that it is the key to happiness and so pursue it to the detriment of any other pursuit. After all, how many rich poets do you know? If someone has made money or is famous, they are respected, no matter how they made that money or achieved that fame. Is the lesson we have learnt over the past 10 years that with wealth comes superficiality; in other words, if you can afford to go shopping, there is little reason to do anything else?
Whatever the answer, one obvious lesson we have learnt from the rise and rise of Paris Hilton is that being successful has nothing to do with your achievements; it is all about how you look and what you wear. Whatever we think of Paris, and, actually, I find her quite amusing, she makes a reported US$7 million (Dh42 million) a year from her exploits. And of course, the more money she makes, the more of an icon of our age she becomes.
Thus, the Age of Celebrity will perpetuate itself as being brainy becomes a negative thing and your worth is measured by the amount of money you can make or the size of your breast implants as opposed to the difference you make to the world.