The Chilean miners who have emerged this week went into the mine as ordinary workers, and came out of it as global celebrities. The 33 survivors’ love lives, career histories and personal habits have been picked over as thoroughly as Paris Hilton’s. As Mario Sepulveda leaped out of the shuttle, hugging, waving, cracking jokes, the scene was oddly reminiscent of the end of Big Brother, when the winner comes out of the house to be greeted by adoring crowds, with Davina overseeing it all (although in this case it was a circling flock of 24-hour news reporters). The miners’ dark glasses – provided to shield eyes accustomed to underground conditions – perfected the resemblance to a celebrity greeting the paparazzi.
The sunglasses were in fact provided by Oakley, who have not missed the opportunity to discreetly stamp their brand on this momentous occasion. Other brands have attempted to associate themselves with the global goodwill that the miners have generated: Sony, for example, provided Playstations to while away the hours. In retrospect, this was a high-risk strategy: what if the worst had happened, and the miners had died or gone mad down there in their shelter? But the brands were lucky, or prescient: the miners survived intact. In fact, the team of rescuers helped them create an ordinary routine of work and leisure time, aided by the technological paraphernalia of computer games and TV that the professional class enjoy as a matter of course. Glued to a screen for hours every day, many of us could be transferred into a mine without a huge adjustment to our daily routine.
Below ground, their every activity scrutinised, the miners began to resemble celebrities famous for doing nothing. Like a more extreme version of Jade Goody or Coleen Rooney, the miners gave us a heightened representation of the ordinary drudgery of living. Psychologists insisted on the men keeping up a normal work schedule for their own good, so that they didn’t lapse into the apathy and paranoia of doing nothing. The miners had to be protected from perhaps the biggest fear of the networked western professional class: the anxiety that, with nothing to do, in a moment of rest, we might discover that we have no inner resources to fall back on. The fear that the world will go on just fine without us.
The Rooney/Goody comparison holds in another way: in these ever more unequal times, the only way that social mobility is effected is by insane happenstance. You fall in love with a boy who grows up to be the best footballer of his generation, or you go on a reality TV show, or you get trapped in a mine.
Like the D-list celebrities they have somehow become, the miners have been lavished with potential sponsorship and film deals. Their lives have irrevocably changed, whether they like it or not. Embedding product placement in reality itself has been happening for a while, with brands clamouring to dress especially beautiful or well-connected civilians, or paying bleeding-edge boutique owners to put a particular item in their shop window. But most of these early adopters already live in a world of swirling commercialism, already on a constant IV drip of Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour news. Somehow it’s more disquieting when the same logic is applied to Chilean workers who have survived disaster. It tarnishes the miracle, somehow. It is as if, were the Messiah to come – or come again – or be suddenly invented (we cater for all faiths here), he would be offered corporate tie-ins as he attempted to sweep the moneylenders from the temple.
This disquiet has a whiff of ‘noble savage’ about it – when we are happy to indulge in the benefits of consumerism, why shouldn’t the miners, who have worked hard all their lives and can now make the best of extraordinary circumstances? Yet there is something lamentable about how the rolling news media and the power of commerce transforms every moving or striking incident, from cancer to natural disaster, into an opportunity to be milked for every last shred of poignancy and leveraged for brand value. Chile has apparently benefited enormously as a “country brand” from the miraculous survival of its miners.
But the hyper-scrutiny of the incident as a heart-warming media event obscures the troubling question of the working conditions that allowed the disaster in the first place. Long before the mine came to the world’s attention, miners had complained of unsafe conditions. From the point of view of governments as well as the corporate brands, there is some immoral risk involved here: if the story goes well, Chile's star rises; but the film might turn to tragedy, in which case the image of the country as one of poor people working in unsafe conditions will be reinforced. Will the happy miracle do anything to improve conditions of miners in Chile?
The particular character of this particular event has been altered by the media circus that has sprung up around it. As the rescue built to its finale, BBC and Sky reporters questioned relatives and workers on “the most moving moment”, in an attempt to wring still more emotion from the story. In reality, our emotional response has been dulled. The first glimpse of a face at the end of the rescue probe, with its haunting air of miracle and tragedy, has been turned into yet another image in a torrent of images.