A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
I love Urban Legends. The first time the stupid gringo couple bought that rat in Tijuana and tried to import it as a Chihuahua, I laughed myself stupid. I always look for the dead mouse in the soda pop. And even though I’ve never seen the Ghost Hitchhiker, I know a woman whose cousin worked with her neighbour. The neat thing about urban legends is, like Rembrandts, it’s so easy to spot a fake. Street gangs do not have the patience nor the elaborate forethought to drive around town with their headlights off, looking for victims. Petty little sneak thieves don’t take the time and trouble to do unmentionable things with your toothbrush. And regardless of how many people have declared they are Jedi on the census form, the federal government does not recognize it as an official religion. (I checked.) That’s why it’s so cool that the latest urban legend has surfaced as a legitimate news story.
If you missed it, too bad, but here’s the Peanut Gallery version. Apparently, this six-figure American computer programmer, who conveniently works out of his house, decided that rather than working for a living he would pull a General Motors and outsource his job to China. Basically, he hired a Chinese national to do his work for him — at a fifth the price. The Chinese technician is living large in some place called Shenyang, and our boy is fat, smart and happy, getting 80% of his salary for doing nothing. According to all reports, he spends his days watching cat videos on YouTube. Pretty sweet, huh?
Of course, when you think about it, a bunch of WTF questions come to mind. Like how did our American programmer find this Chinese guy in the first place? A want ad in Wired? Or how come the company didn’t notice when there was a daily log-on from China? These are little things, but they raise some serious red flags (no pun intended.) But the telling moment in the whole “news’ story is there’s no who, when or where! The programmer, the company, the timeframe and the city are not named. The only hard “fact,” in any of it, is Shenyang, China, and go ahead and try finding a particular programmer in that town. There’s absolutely no way, from the information given, to check just how true this “news” story really is.
That’s the thing about Urban Legends; they seem plausible. They could be true. A maniacal killer could, on occasion, lurk in the back seat of a car. Dead people could wander rainy midnight roads. And American workers could outsource their jobs. These things are all entirely possible; they’re just not probable.
Yet urban legends are more than simply the lies the Internet tells us. (BTW, Dream Whip™ and ping pong balls do not have the same molecular structure, and Coca-Cola™ was never laced with cocaine.) They are contemporary fables; teaching stories and cautionary tales. They remind us that, as Hamlet once said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and tell us to be wary of our world. For example, there’s an urban legend that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name to KFC because the USDA discovered that the company had genetically modified their product to such an extent that it could no longer legally be called chicken. Apparently, Kentucky Fried Mutant would have been a marketing disaster, so they went with KFC. This is 100% false (again, I checked.). However, it does demonstrate that there is widespread concern about GMOs and just exactly what is happening to the food we eat. Similarly, our enterprising computer programmer shows us that people are worried that North American jobs are, like the elves of Middle Earth, leaving these shores.
Urban legends are genuine folk tales. Like Aesop’s fables, they give us an allegorical insight into our world and reflect contemporary concerns and attitudes. As sophisticated as we may believe ourselves to be, we still fear the unknown. This is why so many urban legends have a supernatural or demonic element to them.
Unfortunately, as our society gets more complex, so do our urban legends. Real stories get mixed in with the fakes. We might laugh at our computer programmer outsourcing his own job, but what about my sister’s gardener’s brother, who had his identity stolen when terrorists used Face-recognition software on his Facebook profile picture? Then, when he went to collect his lottery jackpot, he was arrested for terrorism…. You can never be too careful in this world.