“All that once was directly lived has become representation. . . . The real consumer has become a consumer of illusions” (Guy Debord, 1967).
The Situationists, an international revolutionary group of the ’50s critical of capitalist culture, spoke of “The Society of the Spectacle” which alienates people through a mediated and commoditized social environment. Media and products, in the Situationists’ view, dull the audience and control desire. Half a century later, we have newly created media with greatly expanded scope – which reinforce the Situationists’ principles. In the new digital millennium it seems that desires are not controlled, yet they are acceptable as long as they are associated with a market product, channeled through and stimulated by the media.
The Situationists perceived that in capitalism, emotions become transmuted into market products – and we have to pay up to redeem our emotions. The market, as they saw it, first takes away our real needs for connection and authenticity, then offers a pale reflection of the real – making us always thirsty for a real which will never come. The need for connection today is expressed through social networks which appear free and democratic. Yes, many Internet services are free of charge, but if we calculate hardware, software, the Internet connection – plus our time and attention – the cost must be reconsidered.
The market product now is us. We are being sold as targets to advertisers, according to the contents we view and produce on the Net. Moreover, the Situationists observed that people in our society are programmed to live a life that is merely a representation of a real life. Through technology, needs have been created in order to sell solutions. And the hi-tech market doesn’t even require much in the way of commodities any more, since it is represented digitally – making blatant Debord’s words about becoming consumers of illusions.
Replacing the Real
Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left (McLuhan, 1964, p. 68).
Even babies now are deprived of bodily contact – for various reasons. Parents have little time and, even when they are with their kids, their hands and eyes are on their gadgets. There are no longer large or extended families. Adults are sometimes scared to cuddle kids for fear of accusations of pedophilia. Yet body touch is important for a balanced emotional and neurological life.
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter. Apart from its well-known role in facilitating childbirth, recent research points to its absence in autism, personality disorders, depression, social phobias, psychosis and sexual disorders. Oxytocin is released during bodily contact, stimulating a sense of bonding, well-being and social participation. Some doctors promote the start of oxytocin treatment early in a child’s life to improve her social skills. This paints the picture of our situation: first, the real (contact) is taken away, then to reclaim the emotions (bonding) a substitute is offered (drug) – in the form of market products.
The need for human connection now feeds a huge industry of mobile phones and social networks. Once the Net becomes indispensable, we buy whatever is required to keep our connection active. The idea of falling out of the flow is too scary. But then we can buy apps for our iPhone or iPad which provide the same data easily available on the Net. Since we can’t sever the umbilical cord, we gladly pay for the nourishment it provides.
Brave New World
In Brave New World, every discomfort of old age was abolished. The character remained the same as a 17-year-old. People never stopped to reflect, always busy at pleasure and at work. Whenever a phase of reflection would emerge, the perfect drug – soma – was available in appropriate doses (Huxley, 1932). Eighty years after Huxley’s novel, we witness life extension therapies, antidepressants to feed desire, Viagra to renew sexual vigor, commoditized entertainment in every moment of our lives. All of these militate against the growth of the soul.
In the preface of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman (1985) wrote that, “In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us”.
The move of marketing into the digital realm creates an infinite marketplace where needs are replaced by desires. Desires, fed by the mind rather than by finite biological needs like food and shelter, are endless. The digital world, qualitatively closer to the mind and its incessant cravings, is profoundly non-sustainable. The Internet, as it replaces TV, is ripe for social control of a class of the population that might start to question the whole system. It promises to be the new soma for a society experiencing economic and environmental decay.