Archive for August, 2006

Dave Pollard at How to Save the World has an interesting post that’s pretty consistent with the way I think about our culture’s response to stimulation. Dave divides experience into the “intense, short-term, euphoric, non-enduring type” — the Wow! experience — and the “enduring, mellow, less acute type” — the Mmmm experience. Dave tends to fill a lot more space in his blog posts than I do, in effect filling in a lot of blanks I would rather rely upon readers to supply. His ideas are definitely a worthwhile read.

I blogged about response to stimulation recently in The Paradox of the Sybarite and the Catatonic, basically saying that our characteristic concentration on Wow! experiences tends to make us unfeeling — either unable to feel for lack of enough stimulation (like taste buds shot from eating too many hot peppers) or unable to process the veritable deluge of environmental overstimulation (typical of those who use drugs or alcohol to escape into oblivion). Dave’s take on response to stimulation observes the same swing toward the intense side (as opposed to the mellow side), and he appears to call for a balance between the two response types. It’s not accidental, however, that his discussion takes place almost wholly within the context of entertainment. That’s what pleasure means to most people: entertainment. In contrast, I’m more interested in the broader implications for our culture and more specifically what it means to lead a satisfying and worthwhile life in all its various facets.

Being fully human means, for me at least, having the capacity to experience a comprehensive range of human activity. Three categories are frequently described as quintessentially human: cognitive, affective, and sensory-motor. Sometimes the categories are called thinking, feeling, and sensing or intellectual, emotional, and physical. What it means to function fully within each of those categories is a question for philosophy, and to a lesser degree, neuroscience. In my view, we’ve reached a point of diminished capacity to experience these human dynamics in the modern technological world.

A significant underlying symptom of that diminished capacity is our tendency to willingly and unwittingly release ourselves — to submerge our identities — into our entertainments, whether they be the suspended disbelief of the cinema, the virtual reality of the video game, or the vacuity of the TV. What’s especially notable is that these entertainments tend to be Wow! experiences (notwithstanding the general dulling effect of TV) and heavily visual, and the emotional responses they conjure are either artificial, simulated, or frankly not our own emotions but those of the characters which whom we empathize. Our other major entertainment, music, is far less literal than visual entertainment, but the dominant forms of pop music have a similar Wow! impact.

There is certainly lots more to say on this subject, which will eventually veer into my primary intellectual preoccupation. I’ll trickle it out over time without dumping it all in one long megapost.

Thousands of new products appear every year, many of them merely updates of gadgets and electronics (phones, cameras, TVs, etc.). I’ve held forth (here and here) about a couple so awful that they positively screamed for comment. I stumbled across this new product and thought it also screamed for comment, but this time something positive (yeah, I know).

hand steady

This isn’t a cure for cancer or anything, but unlike most needless technological developments (see this, for instance), the drinkSteady, as it’s called, identifies a need, albeit modest by most standards, and meets it without a lot of hoopla and fanfare. The product page states the drinkSteady’s purpose simply. The product itself may be a bit clunky, but it’s all class in my book.

Maturation of marketing and branding practices over the past 25 years or so has led to increasingly intrusive demands for our attention in order to make a brand impression. As the Communications Revolution of the 90s expanded the media available for advertising, advertising expenditures grew and a media event without advertising and/or sponsorship became unthinkable. This table shows data for the years 2002-2003 indicating the greatest increases in media that existed only modestly 25 years ago. Further, stunts such as tattoos on foreheads (here and here), printing on eggs , and ads on stairs are indications that there is no space beyond the reach of advertisers in their desperation to raise their messages above the din that the deluge of advertising has created.

It is problematical, to say the least, that we can’t escape advertising. Anyone with a whit of understanding knows that TV networks aren’t selling shows to advertisers. Instead, shows attract viewers, and it’s viewers who are being sold to advertisers. While we make modest attempts to protect children from cigarette and alcohol advertising on TV (which isn’t working), the ads themselves and the ubiquity of product placement in programming guarantee, according to this website, that children as young as two — before they can even read — recognize two-thirds of popular brand logos. Parents who plunk their kids down in front of the TV are effectively selling out their kids to advertisers.

One new practice that functions as a harbinger of doom is the placement of advertising in textbooks. Apologists offer that the upside of this practice is that students will soon be able to get textbooks for free when advertising and sponsorship replaces the revenue normally derived from sales. That rationalization is, of course, a sign that the battle is already lost. Economic utility (grooming pliant young consumers right in the schools) won out long ago (see here and here) over the broad educational ideal of instilling in young minds a love of learning. Another example of children’s education being sold out to commercial interests is the sponsored field trip — to stores. The pretense may be instruction in health, hygiene, safety, or history, but the underlying motivation of sponsors is selling.

One might hope adults are less vulnerable to advertising than the young. However, when our reality from birth is informed by the influence of advertisers, what hope is there really that we can form our ideas objectively and without the undue influence of those with a commercial agenda? Once coopted as a child, do adults really break free and operate independently? If the example of the SUV, marketed and sold to us as a desirable vehicle to own and operate, despite significant drawbacks, that answer has to be “no.”

The embrace of all manner of stimulation is a symptom of our time. The idea of “getting the most out of life” or the expectation that we should (or even can) have an ongoing series of peak experiences manifests in our culture in myriad ways, each pointing to a desire or expectation of revved-up sensation. Returning to the office every Monday, we’re almost ashamed if we haven’t capitalized upon the promise of the weekend with a story of some sort of excess.

A sybarite is one who fetishizes food and luxuriant comforts, which in a wider sense is an almost hedonistic abandonment to the experience of one’s senses. The catatonic, on the other hand, is someone for whom modern life is an excessive barrage of stimulation, a deluge, more stimulation, in fact, than can be absorbed and dealt with. This difficulty leads to a hollowing out of the qualitative aspects of experience, a sort of unfeeling, automatic, patterned response to outer reality that strips away information and affect to the point that the individual’s inner reality collapses and he becomes his functions, as opposed to a thinking, feeling, interactive participant in the world. In a bustling metropolis, the mere act of walking down the sidewalk requires excluding from attention various things pressing upon us except for footfalls, jostling amongst people (traffic), and the eventual destination. The catatonic becomes the function of travel and experiences very little of it in any meaningful sense.

The paradox of the sybarite and the catatonic is that both are examples of people who can’t feel, though they come to it from different directions. The former can’t feel anymore, having lost all sensitivity, and needs things to be amplified just to register; whereas the latter can’t feel anymore because the experience is too intense or confusing. Both become, in effect, unthinking, and in affect, unfeeling. One might object that this isn’t true of everyone, which is acknoweldged. However, even a passing examination of the culture reveals that we’re a nation of excess. We’re encouraged at every step to maximize or minimize; rarely are we encouraged to optimize. We all tend toward the extremes, and the ultimate effect, always visited upon the more adaptable young than the more fully formed adult, is the zombie or automaton.

The most obvious example is the drug culture, which many adults have successfully avoided but is now almost a rite of passage among today’s youth. I’ve actually seen posters in high schools where 25% of students (based on local data) were praised for not being drug users (including marijuana). I am by no means the only or even first person to notice these effects. Consider the following passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987):

Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors — victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits … [S]tudents who have had a serious fling with drugs — and gotten over it — find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations … They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living … [R]ock addiction … has an effect similar to that of drugs. The students will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it … in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle … [They] will study economics or the professions and … will want to get ahead and live comfortably. But this life is as empty and false as the one they left behind … [A]s long as they have the Walkman on [now smartphone], they cannot hear what the great [liberal arts] tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.

The Peril of Boredom

Posted: August 9, 2006 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy

I overheard a mother at a bus stop trying to interest her son in the video iPod she was carrying, apparently loaded with the usual kid shows. He was having none of it, though he wasn’t causing any disruption or disturbance, while she was in effect a drug pusher. The scene got me thinking about how we soothe our boredom, especially that of children.

Almost every parent insists that children’s unrelenting need for both attention and stimulation is exhausting. Given the tools at hand, it’s inevitable that parents use various means of pacification, increasingly electronic distractions. Some parents recognize that plopping the kid(s) in front of the TV means selling their children down the river of advertising (training them as rapacious consumers), and for some, there’s a sense of guilt. Lately, kids have portable electronic distractions (e.g., GameBoys and iPods) so that even the relative wholesomeness of summer camp is no longer free of electronics. And it’s bleeding into adulthood. Never mind the countless hours routinely forfeited to TV; now a gaming system, an Internet connection, a cell phone, a DVD collection, and a BlackBerry also clamor for time and attention. Workouts, rush hour commutes, plane rides, and virtually any idle time must now be complemented by an iPod or DVD. Electronics makers must be rolling their hands and twirling their mustaches, having convinced most of the population to be plugged in at all times, just as soft drink purveyors convinced previous generations that a meal isn’t complete without a soft drink.

So what’s with the cavernous emptiness of boredom that screams to be filled, even if only with the most banal of stimulation? Why is it so difficult to be content in silence, alone with our own thoughts? Like the T-Rex that can only sense movement in its field of vision, we’re evolved to notice and seek change rather than stasis, which has turned into a fetish for novelty. Many of us are also so ill-equipped to use our own creativity as a source of self-amusement, whether it be writing, singing, or even thinking, that we must instead turn our attentions outward and, in our general laziness, gather whatever stimulation is most readily available. With our current electronics options, much of that stimulation is empty of meaningful content, such as the graphics on a news program that do nothing but temporarily tantalize the eyes, or the variety of new musical styles that are all hook and beat and thump.

It used to be that when a child complained “I’m bored …” to a parent, an aphorism was delivered: “Boredom is the mark of an uncreative and impoverished mind.” The implication of that rebuke was that, by using the imagination, one could dream up things to do that would provide amusement and generate enthusiasm. Perhaps some parents still instruct children that way, but in public at least, the complaint “I’m bored” is usually interpreted as a fire alarm, sending parents scrambling to find something to quench the fire before some mischief sets in. The restless mind of youth transforms into the mind at rest, like the effects of a depressant. And the habit is easily formed: the expectation that stimulation is done to a person rather than something a person does for him- or herself. Over time, one effect is that one’s enthusiasms are dominated by outer directedness, which is to say that we cathect with celebrities, consumer goods, sports teams, alcohol, and drugs, all of which release us from the torments of being ourselves.

UPDATE: I just came across this new product. It’s a shopping cart with seating for kids and a TV screen. For the love of all things holy, don’t look away from the TV screen!!