Monday, December 28, 2009
The Technology-Driven Sheeple Machine
I for one am seeing a complete paradigm shift in American thinking, something unfolding, unknown in our history. It's not about what the politicians have done, or even the corporations. It's what we've done to ourselves. We have voluntarily and even aggressively sought to become a nation of sheeple.
I look back to the 1920's and 1930's for the beginning of this. Most people think of this as the Great Depression years, but it is also the Rise of Radio and also the Rise of Movies. Then the late 1940's and especially 1950's brought the Rise of Television. For the first time in history, this Instant Information Triad came into existence and began shaping the way people thought, felt, and even acted.
Before this, there were only books, newspapers, magazines, public town meetings, postal mail, or musical and theatrical performances to pass along information; this was slow and allowed for far more careful thought and discussion. Ideas traveled quickly, but there was a great deal of time to contemplate how they shaped society. But then, in the course of a single century, we added the instantaneous and directly audio-visual mediums of radio, movies, and television. Far faster than the written or spoken word, far more influential on our mental pictures of the world, our society became more homogeneous though the use of these instantaneous communication methods... and far less critical of what was being communicated.
Now add in the drive for consumerism which began in the 1920's and ramped up throughout the entire of the last century, mostly through the efforts of this self-same Triad. We were not only bombarded by advertisements, but also by both visual and auditory images of "the good life" expressed through everything from soap operas to comedies on radio and TV shows like Jack Benny, Family Affair, Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, Dallas and Dynasty, 90210, The Nanny, or Prince of Bel-Air, ... all shows with rich or at least very well-to-do households... and I'm not even going to go there with shows modeled after Lives of the Rich and Famous. The American people were convinced that if only they got that good education, climbed the corporate ladder, or maybe just married well, they too could live "the good life". And if not, they could buy their way into pretending they were. After all, if Elizabeth Taylor wears that perfume it will make me smell like a rich movie star, Betty Crocker is as good as home-made, and if you drive a fancy new Lexus you're pretty hot stuff, right?
Now add in the multiplexing effect of the Internet, and we have a perfect storm of instant gratification, instant numbness, instant information (often without context), and even instant political activism. Especially regarding this last, people of this latest generation actually think that if they sign enough online petitions, and join enough online groups supporting this or that cause, they are actually accomplishing something REAL. Mostly, they find that texting their votes to choose the next American Idol is enough.
Many of these people even work from home, watch movies from home, order food to be delivered at home, and some even attend church from home. Socialization amounts to going out to a "rave" where you can't even hear yourself think, or going shopping with a few friends (assuming they're not all online too). And it's not the youngest generation of adults I'm talking about here... it cuts a wide generational path. I for one acknowledge the latent hypocrisy of bringing this to an online medium for dissemination; but what other path is open to most of us? We, in a very real sense, ARE our technology now. We're not cybernetic beings, but we're so dependent on instantaneous communication technology that we might as well be; and probably, someday, will be.
We are becoming a people who are intensely networked and connected, but who are in many ways almost completely mute. I think we're fast becoming a nation of mere IP address locations and pixels and bits... a 21st century finalization of the instant communication of the 20th century, with the resulting pacification effects that brings. In America, we have not only become used to our instantaneous lifestyle, but demand it; in fact, I am sure that for many people, life quite literally would be unthinkable without it. No TV? No Radio? No Movies? No Internet? How could we possibly survive?
And truth be told, in many ways, we couldn't. Modern society and infrastructure is built around this instant communication ability. Without it, many of us would not be able to survive; if there ever was any kind of world-disrupting communications blackout, a great many people in the "Developed World" would die off, leaving those in the "Emerging World" quite capable of taking our place. We are losing our ability to survive without the aid of our technology, and that is just not a good idea from an evolutionary standpoint, much less a rational one.
And it is making us impotent in affecting greater change in society. Completing an online petition to save rainforests is helpful. But if that's all you do, all day long, it may make you feel better about yourself but it doesn't save a single tree. In fact, if people aren't physically marching in the streets, demanding change, the people who run our government (the entrenched politicians and the corporate special interests) will continue to do what they wish in the "real" world, feeling safe to ignore the ghostly Diggs and Shares and Reddits and Tweets of the furious but ephemeral online hoards. They'll just send along some highly-shareable YouTube videos and text message us about a sale at BigOnlineMegaStore, and we'll remain nicely distracted.
Unless we constantly strive to sift out the subliminal and subconsious messages we receive, to think critically about the information (and to limit how much and from which sources it comes), to find ways to physically get up off our collective bums and take to the streets to demand action from the government that, for the moment, is still technically "ours", then this country is no longer going to remain "The United States of America". It will become something quite different, unrecognizable either to ourselves or our forebears. We must use our iPhones and Facebook accounts to rally real people together at real events, to get away from American Idol and Bachelorette, or this country will cease to exist as anything but a mega-corporate ATM full of easily-distracted sheeple, happily leading their consumer-driven lives as their financial and mental energy is sucked dry.
And rainforests will continue to be cut down, healthcare will remain in the hands of the corporate profit-makers, educational standards will continue to decline, infrastructure will decay and collapse, and the environment will destabilize and destroy all life on the planet except maybe cockroaches, crocodiles, and the few rich and powerful enough to build their own private Galtian communes to survive the apocolypse they helped, but did not force, us to create.
1984 and Brave New World combined wouldn't hold a candle to what we're headed towards unless people break their self-made chains. Marx didn't have any way to know at the time, but the "opiate of the masses" was not and never has been religion; it is information overload and consumer satiation. With those two working at the behest of the people themselves, corporatists will never have to fear a return to democratic governance, much less "socialism"; they simply send out new products and sell the latest fad, and democracy will wither on the vine with the help of every person with a credit card.
This isn't a blame-piece, nor a back-to-nature call for everyone to join communes and live in harmony with nature (although that harmony with nature part would certainly help a great deal). And this isn't a rant about the stupidity of the masses in the style of Matt Taibbi or Chris Hedges; it's more of a question, or perhaps a plea: what can we do about this? Is it inevitable, and the collapse into sheepledom well on the way to completion, or is there a magic bullet that will wake people up to their self-made fantasy of comfort and security? More than anything, I want answers as to how we can re-engage our citizenry and re-energize our country, how we can return to a democratic society where the corporate machine doesn't reduce people to mindlessness. Do we still have the power to change this, or should we all go turn on Dancing with the Stars and forget about this grand idea we used to call The United States of America?