Mesmerized at the Surface

I’ve spent more time than I should have thinking about Justin Timberlake’s attempted rebrand with his latest album. The title track video, “Man of the Woods,” deserves its own attention for its bougie, bland white masculinity. I’m most interested in the supposed social commentary in the video for “Supplies.” It reveals a lot about our current state of entertainment as activism.

“Supplies” is clearly grasping at something about feminism and the possibilities of a better future. But the actual moral implications and supplies metaphors are sadly the same old regressive bullshit. Showing a clip of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or an “End Racism Now” poster doesn’t really mean anything simply presented without comment. It says little to nothing about where Timberlake stands on all of it. Wow, you saw this stuff on TV and felt sad? Damn, I guess the patriarchy is over now.

When you watch and listen carefully, “Supplies” is mostly just a lot of Timberlake’s usual entendre and objectification—wrapped up in some Blade Runner and Matrix production design to borrow that hope-in-dystopia vibe. The only real agency the heroine has is punching someone and setting fire to a mysterious shrine. The rest of the time she’s Timberlake’s post-apocalypse booty call.

Because those emotionally charged clips are thrown in—and a small child at the end tells someone (who?) to just die already—it certainly feels like the video is portraying something meaningful. It’s sort of edgy or progressive or a laudable artistic entry for feminism or racial equality (or something). Many sites and fans said as much without specifying how it is, exactly. It really isn’t once you go deeper.

Is “Supplies” the most sexist thing of all time? No. Is the beat good? Sure. Can lazily injecting current events into a piece of pop culture start conversations? Possibly. But we’ve got to stop being deluded into thinking that vague emotional appeals are anywhere close to the actual, material engagement that’s needed to transform the ways people’s lives are being destroyed. I guess Timberlake felt like he needed to say something. What came out is ambiguous attention-seeking. Perhaps he should have taken his own advice and said nothing at all.

In the excellent book Infinite Distractions, Dominic Pettman writes that we are no longer distracted away from social turmoil. Instead,

The decoy itself—the thing designed to distract—has merged with the distraction imperative, so that, for instance, news coverage of race riots now distracts from the potential reality and repercussions of race riots. This is a more sophisticated form of propaganda than those engineered in the twentieth century, when the conscious decision would be made to distract from civil rights protests by screening the Miss America Pageant. This new form of distraction—which acknowledges as much as it disavows—is harder to mobilize against, for the simple reason that no one can accuse “the media” of trying to cover up “the truth.” Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.

Acknowledges as much as it disavows. Whether on purpose or accidental, you can purport to be shining a light in the dark while actually obscuring and distracting. Uncomfortable truths are uncomfortable, so it’s a lot easier to point to them in art or news or social media without getting too deep into the details. Hard truths and real moral progress give way to surface-level commotion that only generates likes, views, and emotional gratification.

If we’re actually going to speak truth to power and make inroads for the common good, we have to move away from shallow, Instagram-ready resistance that merely distracts. Art, news segments, protests, tweets, and conversations need to bring the uncomfortable specifics of what’s going on and what needs to be different into focus. This pay discrimination. That thing everyone says or wears that’s actually super racist. This healthcare policy that will give everyone some existential peace. That trope in art and advertisements that just reinforces misogyny. This march that actually excluded and suppressed people who should have had a prominent voice in it. That person in power who’s actually a terrible human being with zero repercussions.

Some sacred cows need to be smashed. Some people who are off to a good start need to be encouraged to go deeper and wider. Others need to realize things are not magically going to be better and we can all relax at brunch just by electing a certain person. Some hot new songs and celebrated movies and heartfelt speeches need to be called out for regurgitating regressive ethics or sounding nice without sticking their neck out.

Even with great intentions, too often we’re getting caught up in news and entertainment and social media content that acknowledge as much as they disavow. We have to dig into the uncomfortable realities around us and stop being mesmerized at the surface.

Internet Brain

“When we go online,

we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading,

man working on the smartphone in sunny day

hurried and distracted thinking,

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and superficial learning.”

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Internet culture and the Internet itself are now so ubiquitous that you may not even think of life as being separated into online and offline. If you have a smartphone (and the odds are good that you do), you probably keep it in a pocket or bag–somewhere very close to your body–throughout the day. And overnight, too, lots of us will keep it on a bedside table or right on the mattress or pillow we’re sleeping on.

Even if you’re not actively using your phone, you could receive a text, social media notification, or some other message at any time because it is always connected. It could, of course, lose the signal. But there’s a good chance you’ll see that as a frustration rather than a benefit. I try to be judicious about my phone usage, but I found myself annoyed on a recent camping trip when I couldn’t post to Instagram without any signal at the campsite.

Even if you don’t have a phone or don’t have it on you, you’re likely surrounded by an expanding array of networked things. Everything from fridges to things that we wear to shops and theme parks are becoming more connected in some form or another. Whether cyberspace is taking over the real world, or the real world is diving into cyberspace, we are now thoroughly immersed.

As someone who can remember life pre-Internet (I’m old…ish), it’s crazy to think how quickly and thoroughly things have changed. How natural it feels now to be connected all the time. Most of us could not function without it–whether for the demands and obligations of work or school, or for the more pleasurable things like entertainment, relationships, and staying in the know so you’re not missing out. Constant connectivity, and our reliance on it, has become a way of life.

But because of the dramatic and comprehensive saturation, we should take time to examine the kinds of things it might be doing to us that we’re not immediately aware of. Specifically, how it shapes the way we think, feel, and act. Our brains are the epicenter of concentration, emotion, intelligence, and imagination. We better make sure that anything influencing our brain function–Internet or otherwise–isn’t hampering our ability to be ourselves and be fully human. A person is not just a brain but a fully embodied creature embedded in society. Any changes to our brain will shape how we act with other people and move and breathe in the world.

In some ways, heavy use and reliance on the Internet have boosted our mental and relational powers. Rapid communication and new ways of speaking (emoji, GIFs, memes, and short videos), the way we share stories and experiences, quickly finding information, surrounding ourselves with diverse points of view, and certain improvements in abstract thinking and visual-spatial skills.

But the Internet doesn’t just boost and supplement what we can already do. It also shapes us in its image. Our brains have what’s called neuroplasticity–they adapt and rewire themselves based on what we subject them to. In Internet immersion, our brains start to resemble the things that typify the web.

A preference for the short and sweet–the informal and immediate–because that’s how tweets, texts, and other notifications are packaged. An attention span that defaults to skimming the surface because it’s acclimated to scrolling and swiping with few pauses. Extreme multitasking and information overload that mirrors the bustle of several apps, windows, and tabs all in play at the same time. A reliance on servers for memory rather than our own mind because it’s easier to offshore it. And a reliance on links and searches in a browser to move between ideas rather than an internalized understanding of what’s true and how it’s interrelated with other things.

Kind of a big deal. Maybe you notice these things about yourself, maybe not. But if you’re using your phone or some other kind of device for hours a day, this is the kind of shaping and reshaping that’s happening. For all the perks connectivity brings, we’re at the same time being rewired in some concerning ways.  “The net seizes our attention only to scatter it.” We are losing a centered, integrated sense of calm, attention, and deep thinking.

So what do we do? Few of us can disconnect completely. But you should disconnect when you can. You’ll crave connectivity–at a visceral level–so this isn’t easy. Once it’s conditioned, your brain is waiting for the sweet neurochemical hit of a notification and the habitual frenzy of swiping through apps. But carving out some time to not be connected or near a device can help you get back to a better baseline. Maybe try things like no Facebook days or setting a timer for how long you’ll allow yourself to wander through messages and pages. Keep your phone in another room when you go to bed. Maybe that sounds lame or laughable. I get it. You’ll have to figure out what works for you.

Spend some time doing activities that encourage focused attention and long, deep thought. Things like reading, writing, painting, cooking, listening to music (where you focus only on the music). They’ve been a part of the human experience for a long time because of the individual and cultural benefits they bring. They can be a strong counterbalance to the scattering effects of the Internet.

And get outside. Since connectivity is there at every turn, a change of scenery and the restorative benefits of nature can be especially vital. You may find yourself without any signal to connect to at all, and hopefully you’ll see it as a godsend rather than an annoyance like I did.

Internet brain is the standard model we’re all conforming to. The struggles and limitations that result from being constantly connected outweigh the perks. We can reduce the struggles and limitations by taking time to disconnect, diving into things that take the neuroplasticity of our brains in welcome directions, and immerse ourselves in nature. The more connected we become, the more the Internet will continue to shape us. But we can choose to make it one among many things shaping us, rather than the predominant force guiding how we live.

Who Are You Doing It For?

You’ve done it. I’ve done it.

You post something. You say something. You wear something. You buy something. And why did you do it? Not primarily because you’re excited about the thing itself. But because you’re excited about how others will react to you doing it.

The likes. The comments. The praise. The admiration.

You post it, say it, wear it, buy it…because you know it’s got a coolness about it. Some social clout. Some cultural capital. And so you doing whatever it is makes you appear cool or interesting or important by extension. You do it primarily to be seen doing it.

You post a picture at that fly-ass bakery that just opened because you know everyone is going to freak out that you were there. You leave an A+ paper out on the table for the whole period so the rest of the class sees it. You spout off your review about the movie that just released to show everyone you’ve already seen it. You tweet about first-world problems you’re having on vacation like you’re suddenly a local there.

In the age of social media, some people have been able to make a living out of being seen doing things. The people who post travel pictures on Instagram to be seen jetsetting. Who Facebook about eating at the trendiest spot to be seen eating at the trendiest spot. Who “try out” a new product in a YouTube video to be seen using it. They have a reputation of coolness that they get paid for in various ways, because they’re always seen doing the coolest things.

But you needn’t be trying to make a living out of being seen to be a participant. And it’s nothing especially new. Doing things primarily to try to gain status and admiration has been around for a long time. Conspicuous production & consumption seem to be a part of our human nature. Part of the quest to fit in socially and feel liked by others.

We just have more opportunities to do so now than ever before. Instagram has over 600 million active users. That’s a lot of people who can easily post photos and videos in a medium where there’s a temptation to do it to see how many likes and comments you can get.

Are you in an interesting or unusual place?

Did you just see something or someone famous?

Are you doing something exclusive–something others don’t have access or ability to do?

Are you the first to do something?

That could really get a response.

But what if no one saw you do what you’re doing? If no one praised you for it or told you how awesome you are? If you got zero likes or comments? Would you still do it?

How you decide to live and move in the world shouldn’t come down to the things other people will love you for doing. It should be about what you love doing. Things you do because you enjoy them–regardless of what others will think.

If you feel the urge to post a picture or video or status, do it because you feel privileged to experience something that brings you joy. Not because you think others will be impressed. Post it, and then close the app for awhile. Don’t even watch the response come in. The metric of value was that you loved it, not that 100 other people loved you doing it. Maybe don’t even post anything at all.

Do things for you. Not for them.

 

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: September 5

“So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.” Those words from an 1894 House of Representatives committee report pointed to the welcome arrival of Labor Day as a federal holiday. Whereas previously, work in America was often characterized by 12-hour or longer days, 7-day workweeks, child laborers, unregulated safety conditions, and appallingly low wages, the late 1800s saw mass unionization and strikes to improve working conditions for everyone.

There’s still a long way to go to achieving the common good–perhaps a total rethink and remaking of the American Dream, achieved through more unionizing, striking, or other collective effort. But I hope that, at least today, many of you are able to rest from your hard work and enjoy the day as you please.

Tons of interesting things in the world and on the web to delve into on this holiday…

Maybe enjoy the day with some oysters? They’re surprisingly great for the planet and for you.

Be careful out there: bad driving is the primary cause of traffic jams. Just another reminder that we all suck at driving.

Looking for something to kick back on the couch and watch? Chef’s Table: France is très bon.

As someone who doesn’t even use Snapchat, this interview with a 14-year-old on how high schoolers use photo- and video-based social media was super interesting. I feel so old.

This is not how the voter-candidate relationship is supposed to look. Money in politics is an ethics issue for both major parties and their candidates.

Life on Earth may have emerged much, much earlier than we thought. Absolutely fascinating.

Hooray for print books (#bibliophile)! Also, could we maybe get to 100% of Americans having read at least one book in the last year? Learning and new experiences make the world go ’round, and you’re talking about a page or less per day to read one book in a year.

Some overzealousness with Zika wiped out millions of bees. Bees can’t catch a break, and we need them to.

A National Institutes of Health review confirms that non-drug treatments like yoga and acupuncture are effective against common pain. +1 for yoga.

Fracking just caused the largest manmade earthquake in US history. I’d say we need to be asking some more questions about an energy extraction process that does this.

Speaking of energy extraction, the fast-tracked Dakota Access Pipeline construction is causing all sorts of destruction and desecration of Standing Rock Sioux land. Protesters were met with pepper spray and dogs. Complete WTF situation.

Here’s a brief history of stop-motion animation. Such a cool art form. Want to see Kubo and the Two Strings.

Hope you have the best week possible. Thanks for reading!

This Week in Upgrades: November 7

Young Girl with Tablet
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More and more parents are giving kids devices to keep them busy. “If children are sitting by themselves glued to digital candy, we simply don’t know what the consequences are for their early social development.”

And it’s not just the little ones. A new report says teens spend 9 hours in front of screens everyday. Whoa.

If you’re using Snapchat, have you actually read its new terms of service?

Old is new: Amazon now has at least one physical bookstore.

Bread used to be delicious and good for you. What happened?

Mark Bittman, genius food-writer, has left the New York Times to help people cook more plant-based meals at home.

It’s a bigger problem than most of us realize. How can we all stop wasting food?

Guys are being major creeps on Instagram. We’re better than that, gents.

Every generation is rebelling against the previous generation. Millennials got a raw deal.

This Week in Upgrades: July 18

Grazing Cattle
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Grist is doing a series on the ethics of eating meat.

“This is literally the world’s dumbest problem.” Hunger and food waste happen simultaneously in the United States. Is an app the solution?

“Is the WI-FI working for you at all?” Too accurate.

Beneficial bacteria, like those found in your favorite yogurt, may contribute to our emotional stability.

Many Native Americans are in food deserts and suffer from obesity. How can it be fixed?

IBM introduced Tone Analyzer, which can tell you if your messages are passive aggressive.

Is Instagram the best social media network?
Back to the Future is going to be rereleased into theaters for its 30th anniversary. Is this real life?

This Week in Upgrades: July 4

LEGO Conquerer
cjmacer/Bigstock.com

Happy 4th of July!

The chemistry of firework colors. Still waiting for perfect red, white, and blue. Nautilus

More and more of us are demanding quality, ethically sourced menu options from fast food and chains. Where will it all come from? Eater

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision on mercury emissions, what is the future of the EPA’s authority? NPR

Another reason nature is the best. Pacific Standard

In a Q&A, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicts we’ll soon share emotions digitally, among other things. Popular Science

Have you tried Apple Music? What do you think? Here’s one review. “In Apple’s glory years, Steve Jobs turned simplicity into an art form…It’s starting to seem as though Apple no longer abides by that religion.” Yahoo

How Instagram shapes the social dynamics of high school. Fast Company

LEGO makes 60 billion bricks per year. Good reason to transition away from oil-based plastics. Good Magazine

This Week in Upgrades: June 6

Counting Calories
annafrajtova/Bigstock.com

I’m an avid Spotify user, but give up when it comes to classical music. Why are streaming services terrible with some of the best music ever made? NPR

No time to waste. With corrected data, we now know there’s been no slowdown in global warming. NOAA News

Good on IKEA, which consumes 1% of the world’s commercially logged wood, to set aside €1 billion ($1.12 billion) to fight climate change. Grist

Google thinks it can combat obesity by counting the calories in your Instagram food photos. Popular Science

In the battle against cancer, profit still trumps health and well-being. NBC News

For those with kids: are you excited about smart diapers with poo alerts? Fast Company

Your body has a complex rhythm for maintaining energy. Are you undermining it by drinking coffee at the wrong time? Washington Post