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A Call For Mental Environmentalism
BY BILL MCKIBBEN from Adbusters >> Nov/Dec 2001 >> #38
For the natural world, it took a silent spring.
What will launch a movement for the mental environment?
Your mind is a clear mountain stream running burbling through the rocks. Pepsi stands up, unzips its billion-dollar ad budget, and takes a leak, staining it forever brown. Your brain, a verdant old-growth forest, until it dies the death of a thousand swooshes. Your soul, filled with the crystal fresh air of early morning, until Philip Morris blows in a cloud of its seductive smoke.
No. Mental environmentalism may be the most important notion of this new century, but the only way to start this discussion is by admitting the analogy is not exact. Whatever the mental environment is, it’s not a pristine wilderness untrammeled by man. It’s not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or the Antarctic Biosphere Reserve. No, the mental environment has been shaped by culture as long as we’ve been, well, human.
The mind is, among other things, a tool for collecting, storing, weighing images and ideas. Perhaps earlier in our primate evolution our brains worked diff erently, but for millions of years we have been shaping our own minds and the minds of those around us. Our mental environment is not the Yosemite of John Muir or Ansel Adams – it has always been more like Central Park, a landscaped reflection of human notions. Every generation, every community, has had a mental environment. The culture. The zeitgeist. It is that almost invisible fog of assumptions in which we live our lives, the set of images and ideas we barely notice because they are so common as to be both banal and overwhelming.
What’s more, this is not the fi rst moment that our mental environment has been polluted. We’ve seen all kinds of toxins poured into the infostream. Check out a Leni Riefenstahl movie if you want to see what I mean. Try to imagine life during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The state, the church, have time and again become mentally oppressive, until eventually a resistance emerged – a resistance that, from Martin Luther to Vaclav Havel, said at least in part: We want our minds back. Not all the way back – we’ve never owned our minds entirely. But more of our minds, in better shape.
Which brings us to the present moment, the moment that we have to deal with, the moment out of which we have to stage our singular resistance. The mental environment is under siege from a particularly diffi cult variety of pollution. To understand it, consider an analogy from the physical world, where carbon dioxide is threatening to warm the planet disastrously. Taken in small doses, carbon dioxide is not dangerous, just as the occasional commercial or billboard is hardly a problem. In fact, CO2 in small quantities isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as most chemicals, just as Ronald McDonald couldn’t do the same kind of damage as, say, Joseph Goebbels. But every act of a modern life releases carbon into the atmosphere. Spewed from the rear ends of a billion cars and factories and furnaces, this constant pollution now seems likely to raise global temperatures five degrees in this century, altering everything from rainfall to ice-melt to wind speed. Similarly, the modern consumer economy sends up an almost infi nite blitz of information and enticement, till the air is so thick with it that every feature of our society is changed. In neither case is it pollution in the usual sense, easily cleaned with a smokestack filter or combated with a more wholesome image. Instead, it’s a volume problem. In the case of the so-called information society, it may be the largest psychological experiment in history.
Here’s another way of saying it: We are the first few generations to receive most of our sense of the world mediated rather than direct, to have it arrive through one screen or another instead of from contact with other human beings or with nature.
So far, in one sense, this experiment is working. That is, people manage to consume more stuff with each passing year, keeping the economy expanding. And since nations have taken that expansion as their sole goal (“It’s the economy, stupid”), we count this as a success. In fact, we now spread this experiment around the world, by persuasion (Chiat Day), and by force (the IMF). And yet, by most other measures, cracks are appearing. Just as the physical world is sending warning signals about rising temperatures (disappearing glaciers, more powerful storms, changing migration patterns), so the culture is sending everlouder signals about the side-effects of this experiment.
>> Americans now have a negative savings rate, which is to say our consumption now outstrips our actual income. According to the US Federal Reserve, the tradition of keeping up with the Joneses has left us with a $7.3-trillion debt owing to credit card companies, banks, and other loan sharks.
>> Our physicians warn us of a coming consumer epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control found that obesity in the population increased from 12 percent in 1991 to 17.9 percent in 1998, and earlier this year, the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine reported that the number of overweight children has more than doubled in a single generation. Research consistently links these fatter kids to hours spent staring at various tubes.
>> One survey after another shows the bonds of community loosening. The numbers of people volunteering, spending time with neighbors, going to church, attending public meetings or joining clubs — all are down, and many are plummeting. Since at least 1999, studies have shown that the average American child spends 40 hours a week “consuming media.” It’s a full-time job.
But if you want a bottom line, perhaps it can be found in the annual surveys of “personal satisfaction” that pollsters have been conducting for several generations. The number of people pronouncing themselves as “very satisfied” with their lives peaked in the mid-1950s. It slid downhill after that, even as we grew immensely richer, even as our “choices” expanded exponentially.
So there is something toxic in this new info-air we breathe. But we need a subtler diagnosis than that. In the physical world each toxin works differently, after all chlorofluorocarbons scavenge ozone, sulfur acidifies rain, organochlorines cause mutation. Something the same must apply to the mental environment, and so researchers have tried to parse the messages that caress and jolt us daily. Is it the violence? The blunting of our emotions by endless shock? The unending hype? All of those, surely – but something else even more.
If the mental environment we live in has a single distinctive feature, the way that oxygen defines our atmosphere, it is self-absorption.
That’s what a mental environment gone awry has produced; that is the toxic outcome of our era’s unique pollution. Some years ago, working on a book, I watched every word and image that came across the largest cable system in the world in a 24-hour period — more than 2,000 hours of ads and infomercials, music videos and sitcoms. If you boiled this stew down to its basic ingredient, this is what you found, repeated ad infi nitum: You are the most important thing on earth, the heaviest object in the universe. From the fawning flattery of the programming to the mind-messing nastiness of the commercials, it continually posited a world of extreme individualism. Even more than, say, violence, that’s the message that flows out the coaxial cable. Characters on television may turn violent to get what they want now, but it’s the what-they-want-now that lies nearer the heart of the problem.
This hyper-individualism is a relatively new phenomenon in our lives. For most of human history, people have put something else near the center — the tribe, the gods, the natural world. But a consumer society can’t tolerate that, because having something else at the center complicates consumption. Say you really cared about the natural world — there’s no way you’d buy an Explorer or a Navigator or a Blazer. Say community was the most important thing on earth to you — you might be tempted to share your tools or your toys. Say, on this Christian continent, people actually put the Gospel message somewhere near the center of their lives. Th e economy as we know it simply could not survive, any more than it could survive in a truly Confucian China, a Buddhist Japan.
This appeal to us as individual fragments grows ever more powerful and precise. Most of the new technologies premise their appeal (especially to advertisers) on their ability to target with frightening accuracy our locations and our psyches. In a 1997 piece on “push media,” those ever-foaming evangels at Wired magazine predicted that before toWired too long your Personal Digital Assistants and cell phones and their spawn would be firing you messages wherever you were, providing information about things to buy, entertainments to enjoy. And why would we want this? “Relief from boredom. Push media will penetrate environments that have, in the past, been media-free — work, school, church, the solitude of a country walk. Through cheap wireless technologies, push media are already colonizing the world’s last quiet nooks and crannies.”
To judge by the number of people with cell phones welded to their ears, styluses gripped in their fingers, the soothsayers at Wired were more or less right. Th e empowered human being! Ever more independent! Free even of the need to ask directions or look up at the stars.
And then what? As the colonization expands, what frontiers remain? So far, the assaults on our mental environment have been mainly from the outside, but we are seeing sorties to the inside, too. Already we see psychopharmacology rampant, the ranks of people who need such medicine swelled by a creeping malaise, but also by a gradual redefi nition of our foibles, of our tiny personal tragedies. There are pills for the camera-shy, for “shopper’s remorse,” for the stresses of personal bankruptcy — it’s getting crowded in the collective bummer tent. Before long, genetic engineers may well be able to literally tweak the brains of our children, off ering them “extra intelligence” or perhaps docility, upgraded memory at the price of downgraded meaning. Improved individuals, at the price of whatever individuality should mean in its sweetest sense.
But. The human mind and heart are not dead yet; indeed there are signs that we’ve reached the moment of resistance, that a million Vaclav Havels, albeit often tongue-tied and unsure precisely their mission, are rising from diff erent corners to challenge this assault. If you ask me what I remember from the WTO battle in Seattle, it is not the sting of rubber bullets nor the choke of gas; it is a jaunty balloon rising above the melee with this message painted on its side: “Wake Up Muggles.” If you’ve read Harry Potter, then you know: Muggles are all of us, living in a world of magic but unable to see it, focused as we are on television and mall. But we are waking, in sufficient numbers to insure that there will be the same kind of fi ght for the mental environment as there has been for the physical one. And, of course, the fights will overlap.
People are turning off their televisions — that explains some of the desperation of advertisers for “new media.” And sure, Madison Avenue is capturing some of those eyeballs on the Internet. Maybe they’re capturing most of them. But other folks are using that technology as a bridge to the real world, a way to reconnect to human beings and to the reality that lies beyond the electronic mammary. To nudge themselves from the center of the world and to consider other possibilities. We organized a big anti-SUV protest in Boston this spring, but it took a suburban minister to show up with a truly subversive sign: “What Would Jesus Drive?” Th ere’s an idea that even Detroit may have a little trouble co-opting.
Mental environmentalists may well lose, just like their colleagues working in the physical world — global warming may be too much to overcome, and so may push media or genetic engineering or the simple warm-bath skill of those designers and marketers who would sap our lives for their own advancement. But the fi ght itself holds tremendous possibility. Th e liberation from self-absorption comes most of all in the battle to help others and in the vision of a world that makes sense to our minds, a world where no single idea (“buy”) holds sway.
Forget monoculture, in our fi elds or in our heads; imagine instead a thousand diff erent communities, adapted to the physical places they inhabit, sharing insight and diff erence, appreciating small scale and large heart. Where no musician sells 10 million copies, but 10 million musicians sing each night. Where we are freed from consumer identity and idolatry to be much more ourselves. Where we have our heads back.
Adbusters: Culturejammer Headquarters
Tradegy Of The Mental Commons
BY KEVIN ARNOLD from Adbusters >> Jan/Feb 2004 >> #51
Driving to the airport to pick up a friend, I stop at a red light.My eyes wander to a bus-stop bench across the intersection. “Norma Whitfield – Your Real-Estate Connection.” Wham. Before I even have time to react, the advertisement has entered my mind and lodged itself between the folds of my thoughts. Another chunk of my mental landscape, grabbed without consent. Th ere was nothing special about this ad. Every bench in the city is festooned with a marketing message, and my eyes have passed over thousands, possibly millions, like it before. Yet this time it stood out, somehow starker than the rest. Some balance inside me had tipped, and I suddenly felt saturated. My mental landscape had been overgrazed.
Thirty-five years ago, Garret Hardin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, authored a ground-breaking article in the journal Science that introduced an idea: the tragedy of the comScience commons. Our survival was at stake, he argued, if we failed to open our eyes and realize that Earth’s physical resources were fi nite. Treating them as a free-for-all was no longer acceptable if we wanted to reduce human suff ering and prolong our existence on this planet.
To illustrate the tragedy, he used the example of 14th-century common land. “Picture a pasture open to all,” he wrote. “It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.” When a herder adds a cow to the pasture, he reaps the benefi t of a larger herd. Meanwhile, the cost of the animal – the damage done to the pasture – is divided among all the herdsmen. This continues until, finally, the herders reach a delicate point: as the pasture becomes overgrazed, each new animal threatens the wellbeing of the entire herd. “At this point,” Hardin argues, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
For me, the advertisement on the bus-stop bench felt like that tragic breach. We continue to share a commons today – a commons of the mind. It’s a mental environment, shaped by everything from cultural cues to the physical space that surrounds us. At every level this mental commons is cluttered and commercialized. Millions of data points and marketing messages threaten to “overgraze” our attention. Our mind is their pasture.
“Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,” said Hardin. As pessimistic as this view is, we have proved him right. Since he penned this warning, humanity has spread to every corner of the globe: we’ve scoured the land, razed the forests, emptied the seas and dirtied the rivers in the selfi sh interest of progress. Now, just as we begin to grasp our impact on the physical commons, the tragedy has begun to replay itself in an even more fragile realm. Th e assault on the mental environment has become an ever greater threat to our survival: we are losing our capacity to focus, to think, to fi nd common ground, to communicate and come to agreement. We are losing the mental clarity to deal with the crises that we have created.
An exaggeration, you say. Not quite. The staggering rise of anxiety and attention defi cit disorders, depression, suicide, workplace violence and addiction is now a staple story of our news media. Less familiar is the concern rippling through the marketing industry itself. Th e herders are getting nervous: “Marketers are going through a diffi cult period right now,” declares one company’s website. “Channel proliferation, attention span reduction and marketing overload are creating an increasingly cynical consumer audience who are each subjected to over one million marketing messages per year (or over 3,000 per day). ‘If you’re not interesting me now then you can forget later,’ is becoming their mantra.” In a desperate attempt to free our mindspace, we are simply tuning out of everything around us. Th e UK marketing trade magazine Campaign did a study in 1998 that found that 52 percent of consumers were fl ipping channels during commercials.
Even the so-called “well-adjusted” among us are feeling the pressure. Th e eff ects may be subtle – a slight anxiety, a cynical attitude, a wave of fear – but this makes them all the more insidious. You see a can of Coke in a movie, and you stop following the plot to deconstruct Coke’s marketing strategy and determine that you’ve just been subjected to paid product placement. You see a kid in a bandana loitering in a convenience store parking lot, and a flood of mental images and messages warns you that he may be a gang member. Instead of working, you check your email every 10 minutes in need of new information, fresh stimulus. You notice that you can’t speak or listen for more than a minute anymore. Your mental environment is wearing thin.
Is it too late to reclaim our mental commons? It wasn’t long ago that our mindspace was still comparatively clean. I can remember – and I’m only 30 – when bus benches were only for sitting on, when the wall above the urinal was just an expanse of white tile, when a fashion magazine was lighter than a phone book. I remember when you could let your mind wander as you fi lled your car with gas, instead of staring at a tiny billboard on the nozzle. When the attendant would say, “Th ank you, have a nice day,” instead of pushing an Esso Extra card on you. Would it be that hard to get it back?
The question, as Hardin noted, is one of freedom. ‘When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so.’ We must decide whose freedom is more important: the bank robber’s or the banker’s; the marketer’s or our own. We need to grasp the idea of the mental commons, and realize that it, too, can succumb to an all-too-human tragedy. Putting more cows out to pasture isn’t helping anyone.