Friday, March 13, 2009

Walled Off

Everywhere I go these days I see people who have walled themselves off from our world. You know what I mean, the people you see on the street with headphones on or cell phones at their ear, totally oblivious to all around them. You can tell by their eyes. They never meet yours as you pass them, but seem to be focused on some distant, invisible universe.

Thanks to the miracle of electronic miniaturization, almost everyone you see on the street is listening to music or the radio, talking on their cell phones, or riding in their cars on a beautiful day with both music and windows up.

Way back in the horse-and-buggy days, horses were forced to wear blinders. These were little flaps that were mounted alongside each of the horse’s eyes, blocking its peripheral vision. They could only see things that were in front of their heads, and the direction their heads pointed was controlled by the reins.

That was done so the horse wouldn’t be distracted by other horses and the general chaos of busy streets. The horses saw only what the driver wanted them to see. Put differently, people couldn’t exploit the strength of their horses unless they controlled what the horses saw. Without blinders, the horse might go where it wanted instead of obeying the driver’s commands.

Now that portable communications and entertainment devices are as common as cat droppings, our electro-toys have become our electro-blinders. These virtual blinders serve to isolate us from our surroundings, save for a narrow focus on a selected range of topics. And as with horse blinders, it is the drivers who determine the direction of our gaze.

And guess who the drivers are: The vast and interlocking corporate behemoths that, together, make most of the important decisions about our lives and our world. They know that the best way to continue swindling us out of our money and our freedom is to keep us perpetually diverted.

Or, as the Roman satirist, Juvenal, observed almost two thousand years ago:

... Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man,

the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time

handed out military command, high civil office, legions - everything, now

restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

In other words, as long as there’s an ample supply of trivial entertainment to be had, and there isn’t mass hunger, people won’t pay much attention to what their ‘drivers’ are doing.

Once they’ve succeeded in smashing the traditional ties of family, clan and community, that void can be filled with an endless array of diversions, from corporate pop music to video games to airhead history programs on TV’s many ‘Hitler Channels,’ portable video, spectator sports, etc., etc., etc. ad nauseam.

Even the political process is made into a spectacle, with elections and fundraising treated like horseraces and political discourse taking the form of ‘square-offs’ between hostile partisans, a sort of political cock-fight. (Pun intended.)

Indeed, it seems that our media proxies do all of our socializing and discussing for us. Think about it. In the old days, the talk around the water cooler was usually gossip about people in the workplace or community. Nowadays, water cooler gossip is about fictional characters on TV shows. You’ll hear discussions about their peccadilloes as if they were real people known to the speakers.

Same goes for sports. Most of the commentary sounds like the living room banter of the viewers. Talk shows too. It’s as if they’re having our conversations for us so we don’t have to go to the trouble of getting together and talking with our friends. We can have them all alone with our TV and radio ‘friends.’

This may not seem particularly sinister but remember, all of these are commercial media. Most of them are supported directly by advertisers’ dollars and the rest—like recorded music, movies and video games—are made by huge, interlocking conglomerates that have a big stake in preserving the status quo.

All of them depend on getting us to buy more stuff. Not only that, the system demands that corporations increase their profits (or try to) each year. So even if they make the same tidy sum every year, that isn’t enough. They must strive to make their money-piles larger and larger. And that means constant pressure, relentless propaganda aimed at getting us to purchase more and more each year.

Billions are spent on the most sophisticated non-coercive mind control techniques known to humanity, namely, advertising. And that propaganda is embedded in almost everything we see.

In the movies and on TV, the happiest people are usually the ones who have the neatest stuff. The smartest people are the savviest consumers. The reason the characters are idly sipping Diet Coke and driving Jeep Cherokees is because these companies paid the producers to put them there. When you buy or rent a DVD, there are advertisements trying to get you to buy or rent more DVDs.

The very survival of these corporate behemoths depends upon conning us into believing that our lives are incomplete unless we buy their products or use their services. We won’t be liked, won’t get laid, and people are laughing at us behind our backs unless we’re buying (literally!) the consumerist myth: that happiness and acceptance demand an unending supply of cool new stuff.

“When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

Of course, all of these are contradicted by social interaction. I mean, what will happen if some stranger tells you you’re unworthy, but your family and friends assure you otherwise? What will happen if the TV tells you you’re stupid or boring or ugly, but your active social life convinces people that you aren’t?

Well, the advertising just won’t work. That’s why they have to lure us away from outside activities, where we might get useful information about the real world and our place in it. Temptation comes in the form of The Sopranos, Harry Potter and American Idol.

Instead of youngsters gathering to shoot baskets, our Masters want them to while away the hours shooting virtual baskets in NBA video games. Even if they play together they don’t really interact, except for a few terse comments about the progress of the game. Splendid!

And pre-adolescents, who used to develop their imaginations, their bodies and their social skills in vigorous outdoor play, are now spending their free time with Mickey, Barney and Sponge Bob. Just the thing!

Rather than debating the issues of the day with the people around us—with whom we just might combine to make significant changes—we’re lured away by loud-mouthed partisans on the news channels and talk radio. These shows never seem to give any meaningful information on how to mobilize our friends and neighbors—the way that most important changes have been wrought—just endless sniping over manufactured ‘hot-button’ issues.

All of these media are structured in a manner designed to lead us away from spending any uncontrolled time socializing and learning from one another. They must invade every aspect of our lives in their quest for ever-larger shares of our money, our political power and, ultimately, our very souls.

But even if I’m completely wrong about all this sinister stuff, ponder this: One day you’ll be lying on your deathbed, feeling life slipping away. As we’ve all heard, people in this situation typically spend those last days pondering how their life was spent.

Now, when that time comes, I doubt you’ll be lamenting, “Oh, my life has been wasted! If only I’d spent more of my precious time listening to canned music and watching TV! If only I’d worked a few thousand extra hours away from my friends and family so I could’ve bought more cool stuff!”

No. I suspect you’ll bitterly regret each moment wasted on such idle diversions. You’ll curse every second spent away from the ones you love. You’ll long for just one more hour of life so you can cherish the simple joys of watching clouds move lazily across the sky, listening to the wind rustle through the forest trees, or overhearing the laughter of children at play.

And none of these cost a dime.




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