Science & Technology

Outside the Box: Wiener the People and Independence Day

In “Outside the Box,” I interrogate ChatGPT to better understand how AI “reasons.” It’s like a conversation with an intelligent friend, sharing ideas and challenging some of the explanations. On Independence Day, I queried ChatGPT about a particular annual “only in America” event that rivals the ubiquitous fireworks and barbecues.
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A hot dog on American flag © PixHunters / shutterstock.com

July 08, 2024 04:31 EDT
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What should foreigners think of the July 4th Nathan’s hotdog-eating contest, especially this year? Joey Chestnut, the undisputed champion of past competitions, has been banned because he signed an endorsement deal with a meatless hotdog manufacturer. He has organized a competing event, promising to outperform whoever wins the Nathan’s contest.

This highlights features of US culture that can only seem strange and out of place elsewhere in the world. The idea of eating as much as you can symbolizes the consumer society’s penchant for excess, the wastefulness and scorn of everything that’s healthy. The seeking of fame for something that has no inherent value and the exploitation of that fame to earn money is yet another feature. The instinct to monopolize reflected in Nathans’ insistence on exclusivity reflects an obvious trend in the conduct of business. Everything is a brand defended through cutthroat competition. How likely is it that foreigners may ask themselves this question on the Fourth of July: ‘America achieved its independence for this?’”

When I submitted this question, ChatGPT for once had no trouble putting itself in the shoes of foreigners.

“The Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, held annually on July 4th at Coney Island, is a spectacle that often leaves foreigners both fascinated and perplexed. The event, especially in light of recent controversies like Joey Chestnut’s ban, offers a lens into several facets of American culture that might seem unique or exaggerated to outsiders.

### What the Contest Represents:

1. **Celebration of Excess**:

  • **Exuberance and Abundance**: The idea of consuming as many hot dogs as possible in a short time can symbolize the broader American themes of abundance and overindulgence. In a country where ‘bigger is better’ often prevails, this contest can be seen as a playful yet pointed representation of American consumerism.
  • **Spectacle and Entertainment**: The contest highlights how America embraces grand, sometimes absurd, forms of entertainment. It’s not just about the food; it’s about the pageantry, the media coverage, and the personalities involved.

2. **Fame and Commercialization**:

  • **Pursuit of Fame**: Participants like Joey Chestnut are celebrated not just for their eating abilities but for their personas. Their fame, though derived from an unusual skill, is a testament to the American value of individualism and the pursuit of personal brand.
  • **Monetization**: The endorsement deals and financial opportunities that arise from such fame reflect how everything in America, even something as trivial as competitive eating, can be turned into a business venture.

3. **Monopoly and Competition**:

  • **Exclusive Rights**: Nathan’s insistence on exclusivity and Chestnut’s competing event underscore the American inclination towards monopolistic tendencies and the cutthroat nature of business. The contest is not just about eating but about brand dominance and market control.
  • **Challenges to Authority**: Chestnut’s actions also highlight the spirit of rebellion and competition. His decision to break away and challenge Nathan’s reflects a broader American ethos of questioning authority and creating new opportunities.

### Reflections on American Culture:

1. **Paradox of Independence and Conformity**:

  • The contest is a paradoxical celebration of both freedom (the independence to pursue quirky, individualistic endeavors) and conformity (succumbing to a spectacle that epitomizes excess and commercialism). This duality can be baffling to foreigners who see America’s independence as a quest for freedom, not just in a political sense but also from societal excesses.

2. **Health and Wastefulness**:

  • The image of stuffing oneself with hot dogs can starkly contrast with global concerns about health and sustainability. For many, this display might seem wasteful and unhealthy, clashing with growing global movements towards mindful consumption and well-being.

3. **Cultural Export and Perception**:

  •  Events like this contribute to the global image of America as a land of extremes and consumer excess. While some may view it with amusement, others might see it as emblematic of deeper societal issues related to waste and excess in the US.

### Likely Reactions from Foreigners:

1. **Curiosity and Amusement**:

  •  Many may watch the contest out of sheer curiosity and amusement. It’s a window into a unique cultural tradition that blends sports, entertainment, and food in a way that’s distinctively American.

2. **Critique and Reflection**:

  • Others might critique the event as symbolic of deeper societal issues, pondering whether the pursuit of excess and fame is a worthy representation of American independence and values.

3. **Cultural Observation**:

  • Foreigners might use the contest to reflect on their own cultures. They may consider what values and traditions define their nations and how these compare to the American penchant for turning everything into a grand, monetized spectacle.”

I then proceeded to push the questioning a little further.

“At this particular moment of history, when the presidential election has been ‘managed’ to leave voters with a choice between two very unpopular candidates, one of which is perceived as a conman and the other as in serious cognitive decline, doesn’t this kind of spectacle risk convincing the rest of the world that the US has lost its position of leadership?”

Once again, ChatGPT offered a lengthy reflection in the guise of an answer to this question. I’ll reproduce the more salient points here.

### US Cultural and Political Perceptions

1. **Spectacle and Seriousness**:

  •  **From Fun to Farce**: Events like the hot dog eating contest, which are seen as light-hearted and entertaining, can appear trivial or even farcical when compared against the backdrop of serious political and social challenges. This contrast might amplify perceptions of the US being out of touch with pressing global issues.
  •  **Symbolism of Excess**: The contest’s emphasis on consumption and competition can be interpreted as a metaphor for broader societal issues, including political dynamics. It underscores a focus on spectacle and superficial triumphs rather than substantive problem-solving and governance.

2. **Leadership Crisis**:

  • **Unpopular Choices**: With a political scenario dominated by two unpopular candidates, the contest may indeed seem to reflect a broader crisis in leadership and representation. The perception of one candidate as a conman and the other as cognitively unfit might suggest to the global audience that American democracy is struggling to provide competent leadership.
  • **Global Skepticism**: These political dynamics, combined with events that celebrate excess and competition, could fuel skepticism about the US’s role as a serious and stable global leader. It suggests a nation grappling with internal discord and capable of only superficial leadership.

**Cultural Critique**:

  • **Consumer Culture**: The hot dog eating contest highlights aspects of American consumer culture and how these may be at odds with the country’s image as a global leader. The focus on excessive consumption and entertainment can be seen as detracting from more critical discussions and responsibilities.
  • **Leadership Image**: The spectacle of competitive eating might reinforce stereotypes about American culture being overly focused on entertainment and consumption, undermining the country’s image as a thoughtful and deliberate leader in international affairs.

**Decline in Influence**:

  • **Leadership Erosion**: Many around the world might interpret these cultural and political spectacles as indicative of a broader decline in American influence and seriousness. The impression of the US as a superpower could be undermined by what appears to be an internal focus on trivial pursuits.
  • **Loss of Moral Authority**: The combination of political turmoil and a celebration of excess may suggest a loss of the moral authority that has historically been associated with US leadership. This can erode the trust and respect that other nations and their citizens have for American governance and policy.

The response included some other reflections concerning a possible “shift in global dynamics.”

  • **Emerging Leaders**: As the US grapples with these internal issues, other nations may step up to fill the leadership void. This could lead to a multipolar world where the US is no longer seen as the primary arbiter of global issues.
  • **Changing Alliances**: Countries might seek to align themselves with other stable and predictable partners, questioning the reliability of American leadership in navigating global challenges.
  • **Cultural Export and Impact**: America’s cultural exports, from fast food to entertainment spectacles, shape global perceptions. These exports, when juxtaposed with political instability, might lead to a more critical view of American society and its values.

In other words, ChatGPT endorses the idea that it may be time to look at more than the waning influence of the US on geopolitics, built up through its massively extended military presence abroad accompanied by the slow erosion of the dollar as the world’s privileged reserve currency. We should look at what has long been the most effective tool of US influence across the globe: its soft power.

NB Nathan’s paid Chestnut $200,000 to participate in the previous contest.

Your thoughts

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these points by writing to us at dialogue@fairobserver.com. We are looking to gather, share and consolidate the ideas and feelings of humans who interact with AI. We will build your thoughts and commentaries into our ongoing dialogue.

*[Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a feature of everyone’s daily life. We unconsciously perceive it either as a friend or foe, a helper or destroyer. At Fair Observer, we see it as a tool of creativity, capable of revealing the complex relationship between humans and machines.]

[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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