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.

“Delete Your Account?” We Need to Demand Better

For weeks, major American media has been chomping at the bit for a Donald Trump–Hillary Clinton general election campaign to officially begin. With Clinton declared the Democratic Party nominee earlier this week (even though the superdelegates needed to put her over the delegate threshold do not vote until the Democratic National Convention at the end of July), and President Obama formally endorsing her Thursday, that general election matchup seems to have begun in earnest. How did it kick off? Bold insights about the state of the country? Hopeful policy proposals? Nope, this:

Which got this memed response:

And then the mainstream news media erupted:

%22Delete Your Account%22
via @adamjohnsonNYC

We are in the midst of (at least) two major crises: rampant economic inequality and man-made climate change. Each of them is a runaway, destructive force that requires immediate action and wise strategy. Instead, the only political issue receiving attention is the childish Twitter squabble between the two major candidates for president. Is this what the next five months has in store?

If either candidate has stated consistent, thought-out positions on economic inequality or climate change, you’d be hard-pressed to summarize what they are.

Clinton’s campaign has been dominated by the possibility that she would be the first woman to become President of the United States. That would absolutely be a historical achievement (for the US). But what happens the moment after she achieves that? I’m the first woman who’s President of the United States is not a platform–especially one that addresses the real needs of the country. #ImwithHer sounds more like the glorification of an individual than a movement for the benefit of the masses.

Trump has been so wildly all over the place demeaning and scapegoating different groups of people that it’s hard to interpret his Make America Great Again slogan as anything other than Make America Comfortable for Tribalistic White People Again. His recognizable policy proposals are about obstructing immigrants. Most of the time he’s shooting from the hip about the latest person or people that he can’t stand and how they’re losers or criminals.

You’re smart and so you already know this. You see Trump’s absurdity and demagoguery. You see the shallowness of Clinton running on simplistic identity politics and merely not being Donald Trump.

It’s a whole bunch of divisive fluff at a time when we need foresight, substance, and inclusiveness.

We need real policy that addresses the major crises we face. We need to move toward an election process that’s better than choosing the lesser of two (very objectionable) evils. We need news media that care more about spotlighting difficult truths than sensationalizing triviality. We need to demand better.

 

This Week in Upgrades: April 11

Hello there! Welcome to a new week. I don’t know about you, but I’m locked in a real battle with my tiredness. Last week was a long one without a lot of free time.

But in the time that I did have, I’ve been enjoying reading After Nature: A Politics for the AnthropoceneThe US, along with the rest of the world, needs to take a good look in the mirror about our relationship with nature, and what we need to do now to adapt to climate change. After Nature has a lot of great things to say about that, and I’m sure some of it will end up in future posts.

It was a busy week for human things happening the world. Here are some of the most interesting:

Twitter announced that they’ll be offering employees 20 weeks of paid parental leave. That’s not bad compared to other businesses and some US cities, but still not even close to other countries. Paid maternity and paternity leave of several months should be in every presidential candidate’s platform.

In encouraging environmental news, wild tiger populations are growing for the first time in 100 years. The world’s wildlife has been decreasing dramatically in recent decades.

Quartz took a look at the paltry state of public transportation in the United States and who will fix it. Plenty of room to improve where I live.  How about where you are?

Such a curious thing that we have moving stairwells everywhere. Have you ever wondered about the invention of the escalator?

The more we study bacteria in the gut, the more we understand how important it is. A recent study shows how they relate to brain function.

Speaking of bodily health, almost all of us will probably have checked WebMD at some point. Is it trustworthy?

Continuing the conversation about stuff: fast fashion is not sustainable. Let’s fill our closets with stuff made to last, yeah?

Have a great week!

 

The Digital Dream

The Virtual City
agsandrew/Bigstock.com

Remember Inception? Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film explores the labyrinthine, perception-altering nature of dreams. In Inception, dreams can be architectured to your own design without the restrictions of the real world, yet feel real as you experience them. You can even share dream worlds with other people. Over the course of the film, both the characters and the audience become disoriented. Such seemingly real dreaming inhibits the ability to properly function in the real world. In the universe of Inception, some people even prefer to dream all day. For them, dreaming is more enjoyable than reality. 

At first blush, Inception is merely a far-fetched, entertaining story. But the film, it turns out, is a rather good allegory for our increasingly digital, nonfiction world. Replace dreams with cyberspace, and the whole mix of imagination, hopes, relationships, perceptions, and preferences readily applies to us. Cyberspace is not a full-blown reality shift like a lifelike dream or all-encompassing virtual reality. But the digital universe of cyberspace in which many of us interact, and the so-called Internet of Things, are significantly more immersive than anything we’ve experience as human beings before. The digital immaterial bleeds into the tangible material, and in many ways is beginning to supplant it.

It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to start to understand why. There’s a dopamine seeking-satisfaction loop that shifts into overdrive when sending and receiving Snaps, Tweets, photos, texts, and the like. The digital commons, like dreams, is not subject to the rules of space and time in the way our bodies are. We can connect and engage with a seemingly infinite number of things in the expanse of cyberspace. There’s a huge rush in the feeling of transcending physical and geographical limitations.

What’s more, the digital commons seems to give us all the pleasurable and positive elements of interaction without any of the awkward and negative ones. You can keep up with the latest happenings of family, friends, old classmates, and former romantic flings without ever needing to talk to them or see them in person. You can distance yourself from painful or uncomfortable conversations by simply texting or emailing. Send it and walk away. Or if you are the recipient and you don’t want to respond just tap to exit and ignore. No fabricated schedule conflicts, small talk, or conversational exit strategies required.

A recent Pacific Standard article noted that online support groups seem to be more honest, reduce loneliness, transcend stigmas, and increase solidarity and validation compared to their in-person counterparts. For people who suffer from things like depression and bi-polar disorder, “Being able to just articulate something society tells you not to is very powerful…they’re looking for a social space where they can be heard.”

If such things occur they should be celebrated. If you live in Rural, Anywhere, or feel isolated in a metropolis, your only catharsis may be a couple of friends chatting with you online from thousands of miles away. Thank God that’s possible.

But we need to be conscious and cautious about giving preference to the digital commons over the real world. The digital is, in fact, incomplete. The reason you can text or email and back away is precisely because you are interacting in an ethereal space rather than the concreteness of being face-to-face. Like a dream, others are merely shallow imaginings or facades. When confronted by a dream-state projection of his wife, Inception’s main character Dom Cobb remarks, “I can’t imagine you with all of your complexity and all your perfection and imperfection…you’re just a shade of my real wife.”

It’s a thin, sensory- and intricacy-deficient version of the real world. Actual eye contact and touch are impossible (Skype and Apple Watch vibrations hardly come close to the real thing). In cyberspace, you can click to disconnect at any time and you’re instantly uncoupled and unburdened from any engagement. The people on the other side could be entirely different than how they present online, or even be some sort of bot. There’s no density or tangibility to the relationship.

In the same piece on online support groups, author Alana Massey recalls a time when she worried someone on the other end of an email correspondence had died since she had not responded for a few days.

My friend Maryam is someone whose voice I have never heard and whose smile I have never seen. She exists as a pretty but serious avatar in my email inbox and on social media accounts. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, I received an email from her regarding an essay I wrote about depression and language…It was a message of gratitude and familiarity that arrived at a time when I felt particularly isolated. Connecting to someone whose experiences reflected my own was especially welcome at that particular moment. We began an email correspondence that consists mostly of long updates that are characterized by the kind of humor and honesty it might take years to develop with an offline friend.

During a commute home in April, I realized that it had been a while since we had written and my talent for assuming a worst-case scenario made me suddenly panic that she was dead. It was not too far-fetched a thought about a young woman who has frequent suicidal thoughts. We share no mutual friends, we live in different cities, and we don’t even have each other’s phone numbers, so I’d have no way of knowing…I breathed a sigh of relief after arriving home and finding her Tumblr recently updated.

Online support seems great, until someone might need all-out support. It takes an actual shoulder to lean on to hold someone up. You can see the struggle in someone’s gaze. And it’s blatantly obvious when they’re not present—they’re physically not there. Maybe you need to go knock on their door, take them out to lunch, or chaperone them to a counselor or the ER. In the digital commons, these things are hidden behind the superficiality of the medium. Someone can forget or choose not reply and others are left lost and poring over terrible hypotheticals. We shouldn’t find out that they’re OK only through a random social media post.

If we’re not careful, we begin to turn into versions of ourselves as incomplete as the digital space we’re participating in. By preferring actions like:

Texting over conversing face-to-face

Streaming entertainment inside over going outside

Online groups over groups showing up to meet together

Photo-toggling dating apps over the possibility of chance romantic sparks at unexpected times and places…

We are forgoing needed relational depth for comfortable superficiality.

In a scene in Inception that’s easy to overlook, Cobb is talking to his kids over the phone an ocean apart. He hasn’t been home with them for years, and he can’t tell which child is which as they speak. He can’t even picture their faces in his mind. The scene suggests that subsisting entirely on phone-to-phone conversations is as ethereal and incomplete as dreams are to reality. The ultimate resolution for Cobb is to be home. Not memories and daydreams in the mind or fanciful dream worlds—actually home, wrapping his arms around his children. When they finally do meet eye-to-eye and smile-to-smile, you feel Cobb’s rich pleasure of real contact in contrast to all the preceding exciting, but ultimately tenuous, world of dreams.

Snapchatting, Tweeting, texting, emailing, and the rest, all work well when in their right place. They’re not inherently evil, and I’m not a technophobe. I use them daily too, and I’ve burned plenty of hours drifting through cyberspace. But they are inherently incomplete. If the medium is the message, the message is that we don’t need the engagement and complexity of the real world to have meaningful relationships. Short snippets of text or video, sometimes in tandem with emojis, GIFs, or other simple visual and audio cues, are sufficient for social bonds.

But there’s no long-term substitute for real faces and voices. No substitute for the complexity of other people: their posture and demeanor, their touch, all the things they’re saying without speaking. Not to mention all the subtleties of the surrounding environment. A seemingly mundane hug in a backyard is exceedingly more complex and satisfying than even the most innovative digital, dreamlike engagement.

In a burgeoning era of digital immersion, we have to choose to give primacy to the real world. It’s where we’ll actually find healthy cycles of seeking and satisfaction. Complex, concrete reality has the potential for more serendipity than the digital dream ever will. Yes, some experiences can be awkward or undesirable. But in persevering through it you might break relational ground or do new things you never had before—deepening your personal enjoyment and satisfaction. It’s a fulfilling, stable dopamine loop.

No matter how pleasurable and exciting it may be to transcend the limits of space and time in dreams or the digital universe, you can’t function without a sense of place—of home. A dense self-identity, feet firmly planted somewhere, relating well to the people and things around you. Too much of the incompleteness of the ethereal leaves us longing for a completeness we can only find at home in the real world. Hopefully, like Inception, we can find our way back.