The Age of the Spectacle

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Is this the real world or is it fantasy?

Glowing billboards. ‘Reality’ television. Instagram influencers. Golden yellow arches crowding large city centers. Fake bodies, fake personalities, fake plastic trees.

Flooded with information, memes and seductive advertisements.

McDonalds – I Am Lovin’ it.  Nike- Just Do It. Coca-Cola – Taste the Difference. Apple – Think Different.

Manufactured desires. Manufactured appearances.

Passive spectators. Passive consumers.

Welcome to the age of the spectacle. A world of carefully crafted images and illusions. Fiction becomes reality and the ‘real world’ becomes undesirable.

In modern societies do we think of ourselves as ‘humans’ or mere ‘consumers’? We see an endless stream of advertisements persuading us to buy more and more stuff Source

Even prior to the advent of the internet and social media, French theorist Guy Debord recognized modern societies obsession with appearances and images. In his seminal book The Society of the Spectacle, Debord critiques consumerism and the advent of mass media and marketing which came to dominate our day to day lives beginning in the latter half of the 20st century.

He tracks the evolution of social relations from being into having and subsequently from having into appearing.

  1. Being into Having: This transformation represents a shift in human relations where the focus is not one’s character or temperament (ie. who one is), but rather what they own. Their social status and stuff that they have.  
  2. Having into Appearing: A second shift occurs in modern societies when prestige and recognition becomes dominated by the world of images and appearance. That is, the representation of a thing or event take’s precedence over one’s own direct experience in the moment. Images and appearances are now of paramount importance. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach summarizes this concept nicely,

…the present age… prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence… truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

Amongst the numerous examples of this phenomenon, the most obvious of course is the addictive social media apps we all know and love. Every minute of our lives comes to be meticulously recorded, carefully crafted, edited and posted online.

Satisfaction in one’s life does not come from our direct experience with the world, but rather from the likes, comments and shares we get from our pictures and videos. Think of those who go to concerts only to watch the whole show though the screen on their smartphones.  

A copy of a copy – Image Source

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The spectacle shapes and influences our desires, goals and aspirations. It tells us who we are and who we ought to become. If only I could look like the athlete from the latest edition of Sports Illustrated with his toned body, big smile and perfect lifestyle. We think to ourselves, “perhaps if I purchase a BMW I will become as attractive, sleek and confident as that man in the commercials.”

Further, the spectacle affects how we think of personal, romantic and professional relationships. We desire for our dating experience to be as dreamy as those couples from The Bachelor or our marriages to exemplify our favourite romantic film.

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Happiness can be bought, one purchase at a time. Image Source

Ultimately, all these endless spectacles and advertisements we see on a daily basis distort reality, and hinder our ability to think critically about issues. We become alienated from ourselves and to others as everything becomes a commodity. It becomes increasingly difficult to live in the world authentically when corporations and their marketing departments shape our interests, beliefs and consumption habits.

The spectacle permeates not just through seductive marketing campaigns, but also has become the norm in our ‘news’ media and politics. Entertainment, viewership and attention becomes more important than genuine policy discussions or analysis.

Recall in the movie Gladiator, how the Emperor Commodus used the gladiator games to distract the public of the various crises across the Roman Empire. This strategy of entertainment and diversion has not changed much from the past, we just have more sophisticated means of distracting the population.

The spectacle prevails.

Are you not entertained?

The political theater that we’ve all become exhausted from isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon per say, but it is just far more apparent with our current crop of politicians. Further, it becomes amplified with the range of digital technologies now available to everyone.

Humanities fascination with the world of images, illusions and representations has been well documented throughout history by philosophers, most notably in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Just like the prisoners fixated on the shadows, we ourselves have become detached from the ‘real world’ ,and our direct observable experiences with our endless digital distractions.

As technology advances, will we continue to become mere spectators in this world of images or can we cultivate the wisdom and self-awareness to break free from our chains?

To pull the plug and leave The Matrix , turn away from the spectacle and embrace the ordinary.

To love and cherish the one world we have.  

Plato’s cave in the 21st century, Image Source

When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for hypnotic behavior.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

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Coca-Cola – Saving the world one healthy beverage at a time
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A Short Meditation on the News

A Short Meditation on the News A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

A reading of my article : A Short Meditation on the News

Scroll. Swipe. Click. Share. Repeat.

Your heart races and you start to breathe heavier. Internal tensions flare as you are confronted with the world’s latest catastrophic event.   

How can one possibly maintain a sense of calm or equanimity while watching the news?

One quickly becomes mentally and emotionally exhausted by the constant reminder of our grim and dark Hobbesian world. We ponder, maybe Thomas Hobbes was right when he noted “life is nasty, brutish and short.”

Attention, our precious finite resource, is constantly hacked by the continuous shocking headlines. Curiosity and terror grip your mind scrolling through the latest articles in your news feed.

Your imagination runs astray.   

I empathize with all the suffering that is displayed in the news, but how much compassion can a heart hold?

In a fragmented media environment, the reasonable person is bound to ask – who is right, who is wrong, what is truth?

Fact becomes fiction, and fictions becomes ideology. Who am I to trust in the battle of narrative warfare?

Facts are cheap, and they come easy when they are just one Google search away. But wisdom, has become far scarcer.

I have nostalgia for a time when things moved more slowly. A time, perhaps in the past, when having access to instantaneous information seemed like a lifetime away. Call me naïve, but I do perhaps romanticize the time where people communicated through hand written letters.  A time when you had the luxury of processing and digesting the words you were reading.  

Must I need to know everything? Must I have an opinion on every topic? Ignorance is bliss they say, but I wish it was acceptable in our time.   

I care not to impress others with knowledge of superfluous facts about politics or the stock market.

I do desire, however, to remain informed of what is important, namely of what affects my day to day life. To be a responsible citizen.

But first, let me take care of things internally. Let me cultivate my mind, and find inner calm.

So, I plead, give me knowledge and literature from the great authors of history.  Give me the works of great philosophers, and the insight to distinguish knowledge from opinion.

But please keep me away from the news. 

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The Search for Connection and Solitude in a Digital Age

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The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had a mission to break down spatial and geographic barriers and connect the world. In many respects he has succeeded. You can now instantaneously connect with family members or friends living across the globe. Moreover, you can virtually keep up to date on key milestone events in the lives of loved ones or distant acquaintances.

Despite the hyper connectivity that these technologies promote, preliminary research has identified several negative repercussions with excessive use of these applications. These applications incentivize individuals to post content of positive experiences in their lives in an attempt to receive ‘likes’ or social approval from their peers. This consequently causes us to incessantly compare ourselves to the artificial and manufactured social media profiles of others that we see online. Numerous studies have pointed to the association between social media use and a host of mental health issues including depression, anxiety , eating disorders and even loneliness. [1]

I want to focus the rest of the article on two key repercussions that social media and other digital technologies have had in our culture. That is, they have altered our communication and interactions with others, and have made it more difficult to unplug and seek solitude.

 Substituting for Face to Face Interactions

While social media may increase the quantity of our social interactions it is an inadequate substitute for the cognitive benefits of face to face interactions. Conversing online does not allow us to assess the feedback or visual cues of the individual(s) we are engaging in conversation with.  As Adam Atler argues in his book Irresistible, we fail to learn how to empathize with others because our conversations online do not enable us to watch how our actions affect other people. It is far easier to send a mean and spiteful comment online than it is to relay that same message to a person face to face. This is because the social and emotional consequences are not the same.

Furthermore, on a neurological level, online interactions do not generate the same degree of social connection. As Dr. Anna Machin notes during a typical social interaction,

Oxytocin lowers inhibitions and gives you the confidence to form new relationships by ‘quieting the fear centre of the brain’. Dopamine is released in conjunction with this, giving you a rush of pleasure – rewarding you for making these new relationships. Beta endorphins are also released, which feel good, but as a natural opiate can also lead to withdrawal symptoms when you don’t get enough, encouraging you to stick together.

You may see social media as a subsidy towards or even a replacement to socialising, but if it is, nobody has told your brain. ‘If you get loads of Instagram likes, you get a nice dopamine hit, but with things like beta endorphin and oxytocin you don’t get anything at all’

Solitude

Almost all of ancient philosophical, spiritual and religious practices emphasize the significance of cultivating solitude and stillness. These traditions embed the discipline of stillness as a key concept in their belief systems. As Ryan Holiday writes in Stillness is the Key

The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an ‘evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.’ The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas……. It’s all but impossible to find a philosophical school or religion that does not venerate this inner peace—this stillness—as the highest good and as the key to elite performance and a happy life

No other author popularized the benefits and significance of solitude than the 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau. Famous for his book Walden, Thoreau secluded himself in the woods for over two years to realize the benefits of living a minimalist lifestyle free from the noise and day to day toil common in urban cities. In Walden Thoureau writes about his reverence for stillness,

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

The fast-paced nature of digital technologies hinders our ability to attain solitude and stillness. The notifications we receive on our devices make it seem that we must respond to everything instantly. This gives us no time to seriously reflect on our thoughts or actions, and put things into perspective. We simply do not have an opportunity to recharge.

How can we possibly think clearly when our brains are constantly stimulated?

A Way Forward

We need not remove social media or digital technologies from our lives, but rather assess how these technologies help us achieve our goals and support our values. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism helps us chart a path forward.  He recommends that we consider three central questions before using an existing or new technology:

Question 1: Does this tech support something I deeply value?

Question 2: Is this the best way to support this thing I value?

Question 3: How do I use this tech to maximize the benefit and minimize the harms?

While seemingly benign, technology companies undertake in vast amounts of research and invest millions of dollars to get you to spend more and more time on these applications. Cal Newport’s approach enables us utilize technology as a tool, and to not get hooked on its addictive qualities. He recommends that we limit time on our devices to engage in deeper and more authentic social interactions.

 Although at times the world may seem frantic, we all must learn how to limit our inputs, more effectively filter out information that does not serve us and regain connection to the beauty and awe of the world around us. Through solitude and contemplation, we can rid ourselves of the constant noise and chaos of the modern world and distance ourselves from our internal cognitive biases. Through this practice, we can better understand ourselves.

Till next time,

AA


[1] It is important to note that evidence is still forthcoming and it would be an over simplification to insinuate that there is a direct casual link between social media use and mental health issues.