I like this video’s snappy, quick-cut deconstruction of several absurd greenwashing projects. In particular the eco-Barbie is tooooooo much! But is soundbite Web TV in keeping with true eco-communication? Well, there is no rule, of course, so it wouldn’t be fair to banish this kind of media from the realm of evolution. Working in its favor is the open-ended form of Web distribution. Going against it is the flashy-short-attention-span-twittery-ephemerality of it all. I just don’t know how this kind of stuff will stick without serious discussion. There needs to be a way to bring media into the realm of dialogue. This is my current model for organic communication, but I’m open to suggestion and the possibility that I’m wrong.
This year’s slate of Super Bowl ads indicate two trends: 1) a continued lack of imagination among the highest paid “creatives” in the world, and 2) a backlash against environmental activism. These Super Bowl ads were decidedly conservative by recycling standard demographic tropes to shore up the shrinking ego of the persecuted male species. This has been the long-standing approach of torch-bearer Bud Light, which perfected the art of celebrating the isolated, addicted male in defiance of the over-bearing power of women and community. What is new this year is transmuting this “abusive authority” into the guise of ecological consciousness.
Case study number one is the “Green Police” ads by Audio, which couches its anti-PC message in ironic humor, thereby softening the seriousness of its subtext. It confirms the fears that environmental regulation will result in a police state, and turns anyone who cares about the environment into a potential fascist. While we may laugh at such cartoony fears (it’s only a joke, right?), the Rush Limbaugh crowd takes them very seriously.
(It’s not an illegitimate protest. From an eco-justice point of view, the threat of global regulations forced upon local populations is real, but in the latter case the concern is that corporate interests will hijack environmental rhetoric in the service of obliterating local autonomy in the same way that trade liberalization promoted by the WTO has done.)
Here Audi defends the rich white male’s perceived loss of autonomy and his right to be a jerk. My particular peeve against Audi is based on personal experience in Europe where Audi drivers across the board are the most arrogant and dangerous exemplars of the tragedy of commons (for example, watch this ad). On highways one must be in constant alert of Audis rushing at jet fighter speed, lest your leisurely Sunday afternoon drive through the Tuscan countryside ends in a pile of crushed steel, bones and shattered glass.
The paranoia exhibited by Audi plays into the general meme that government regulation of corporate abuses will translate into socialist totalitarianism. Say “Green Police” ten times fast and you may end up with “Greenpeace.”
Call this a backlash shot across the bough of environmental activism. Green consciousness becomes the work of thought police.
Case study number two comes from Bud Lite, which (yawn) sticks to its failsafe storyline. In it Bud Lite’s primary target audience (those possessed by an inner 13-year-old “mook“) must retreat to their boys-only (stripper exception clause allowed) playhouse to take cover from moralistic authorities (women) who condemn their innocent behavior. But now the right to secrecy, addiction and misogyny is threatened by ecological activism. In this ad, rather than a house being built of recycled beer cans (which excites a young female foil), its owners have constructed a living refrigerator, without realizing, however, that symbolically it’s also a morgue.
Case Study number three is the Budweiser bridge. The only thing surprising about this ad is how it blatantly demeans humans as mere slaves to their corporate overlord. In this case, people are willing to let the truck (a symbolic container of the Budweiser corporate brand) drive over their backs. So while the previous ads play into people’s fears of losing individual freedom to ethical constraints, here people voluntarily become the servomechanism of corporate power and control. How’s that for ironic Super Bowl humor!
You can thank PT Barnum (quoted in the header) for viral video’s secret formula: videotape some kind of stupid human/animal trick (the more extreme the better) and draw a crowd. Enter Plane Stupid, a group that wants to reduce air travel by using freaky video to draw awareness to its cause. Problem is, the the ad’s logic isn’t logical. While it’s true that our taken for granted use of air travel leaves a tremendous carbon footprint, and the madness of building more airports defies common sense about the global climate crisis, equating a plane ride with a polar bear’s death won’t serve its hyperbolic purpose. It reduces the systemic nature of the problem into a simplistic kind of telemedic death porn.
Who does this kind of tactical media help? In the end, Plane Stupid. They will get lots of hits and new visitors (such as myself), thereby making the video a success for them. But does it facilitate understanding of the problem? Probably not. Though a worthy cause, in balance I’m wondering if the circus-act-as-medium is hurting the message. In the end we are left with Susan Sontag’s lament that we’ll remember the image, but not the circumstances that created it.
(watch the videos in order)
Do you want to frak this car?
One of the key themes of Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature is the loss of a cultural restraining ethic in our dominant global paradigm, one that limits “progress” and prohibits the over-exploitation of land. Up to the Renaissance it was commonly held in European cultures that it was sinful to plunder Earth. With the scientific and industrial revolutions, that ethic of restraint has become a heresy, in particular if it inhibits capitalism’s primary product, growth. As I write this, though, I see how “growth” is actually a gross misnomer because what “grows” is financialization, and hence disimbedding from the constraints of nature, while simultaneously diminishing the biosphere’s diversity and “budget of flexibility,” to put in Gregory Bateson‘s words, which makes ecosystems so resilient to disturbances. Bateson likened the situation to a tightrope walker’s balance pole getting increasingly smaller. We’re on the verge of whittling ours down to the nubs of our hands.
Given this context, we should be weary of popular buzzwords like “unleash.” From the Enlightenment perspective, unleashing the autonomous self on a global scale is a virtue, but from the view of a constraining ecological ethic, “unleashing” is akin to cutting loose the ego pitbull, which has been designed not to cooperate or participate in the cultural commons, but to terrify neighbors and to destroy a sense of community, best expressed by Margaret Thatcher, who said there is “no such thing as society, only individual men and women.” She added, “Economics are the method, but the object is to change the soul” (P. 23 from David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism (highly recommended!)).
Thus we come to Untamed Two, stand-ins for two new Mini Cooper models (two new *models*, get it?). This is a fairly clear example of the merger between culture and car industries in the current waive of branded entertainment. Gleaning the ad’s imagery and banal disco-pop soundtrack, the images at best a parody of the worst kind of Euro-trash bourgeois aesthetic, “aesthetic” being a kind word given the state of the world.
Part one’s mirror motif is reminiscent of a tale told by Borges. In it he refers to an old Chinese legend about an emperor’s battle against a race of specular beings from the mirror world who had previously lived side-by-side with humans. Upon losing the war with the Yellow Emperor they were banished back to the mirror world, and forced to imitate all our movements. The legend warns that one day the people inside the mirror will return, and we’ll know of their eminent arrival when we hear the clanking of their weapons from behind the mirror. I liken the mirror people to our fractured and shadowed unconsciousness, the disembodied observer self common to people who experience extreme trauma. In our collective Western psyche, with linear perspective and later the Industrial Revolution, we pushed away from our Earthen bodies as we increasingly mass mediated our lives, disembedding ourselves from a grounded and sacred relationship with the Gaia. The mirror world starts to replace the one we evolved in.
McLuhan writes of the Narcissus myth as an allegory for our amputated selves transported into this mirror world. Failing to feel anything in our own bodies, we look to the media to re-stimulate and reawaken our machinated corpses (see Romanyshyn’s Technology as Symptom and Dream for a great discussion of the transformation of our living bodies into corpses, machines, robots and now astronauts). The more we call upon media to awaken us, the more we turn ourselves over to the mediation of our very bodies so as to avoid feeling the pain of the world.
Which brings us to the next two installments of the Mini Cooper ads. In them we see quasi-David Lynch horror edits that jar the nerves, exemplifying how media evolve to make us feel (something), thereby satisfying the viewing public’s increasingly desensitized need for amped-up nerve stimulation, the clawing, animalistic growls an allusion–and nod even–to the repressed animal-being in all of us. Not surprisingly, it’s the “wild” woman–not the rational man who is to buy the car–who invokes in the male gaze a broken mirror of the ancient, “primitive” self. She smashes a pastoral scene with cows, an ironic image given that many believe that it was the domestication of animals and plants that initiated our separation from a holistic connection to the land and each other. So the deeper shadow of our long-lost carnal selves is there, but it’s so twisted and deformed, its benevolent and mutual aid nature has been mutilated beyond recognition.
Unless you pay attention.
In the digital media class I teach we have been talking about the “consumer sublime,” which is the idea that people seek increasingly more stimulating media to “awe” their senses in the same way we once encountered the sublime within nature. The clearest example is comparing the experience of going into the Grand Canyon versus watching an IMAX movie on the canyon’s edge (yes, it’s possible). This pattern goes along with the theory of the “creeping cycle of desensitization” which argues that every time media technique hits a threshold and becomes normalized, new media come along to amp up sexuality, violence, editing, sound and overall sensory experience. For instance, go to the IMAX home page and it instantly promises that you will “hear more, see more.” For another example, compare early James Bond trailers with recent ones, or old Bat Man with the new one.
Why does this matter for the environment? Because in our addiction for speed and thrills, we seek to supplant nature’s innate experience of awe with one generated by a computer; in the process of hyper-stiumulation we actually numb ourselves to the subtle voices of the extended natural world. But there is a fuzzy boundary between technology and nature (ultimately a false dichotomy, anyway), which might explain why naturalist Wade Davis of National Geographic would star in the IMAX film, “Grand Canyon: River at Risk.” On the one hand it seems absurd to watch this film inside a dark theater on the edge of the Grand Canyon when you could simply hike down and have the experience yourself. On the other, not everyone can travel there (the film can be seen in other theaters) and it does create an intimate experience that technology enables (such as telescopes or microscopes enhancing the invisible). This contradiction is similar to that which Walter Benjamin grapples with in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He argues on the one hand art loses its “aura” when reproduced, but on the other, it becomes democratized because it becomes available to everyone (unless, of course, if it’s being mediated by fascist propaganda or corporate media).
Any new medium both enhances and eliminates some sensory experience– no doubt certain aspect of nature become accessible to us through film and TV, while others are inadvertently cut off. BBC’s Planet Earth series, for example, takes us places we can never go, or allows us to see animals we’ll never know intimately. Or Winged Migration can show us birds’ “umwelt” (selfworld) in a way that we may never know (unless we become a shaman, that is). This is an over simplification of a much larger argument, but suffice to say, the natural sublime can be present in some kinds of media.
With that said, I now want to take a closer look at Comcast’s “Dream Big” ad campaign (the first is posted here, to see the others you can click on the YouTube playlist I created with examples). Like the IMAX Website, it promises more and better of everything (the jingle chimes,”Speeding forward, future hopping, always dreaming never stopping…”). The ad presents a veritable Christmas morning of sensory delight in which we can live out our fantasy of perpetual childhood. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with being childish, but as ecopsychologist Paul Shepard points out in Nature and Madness, our culture is traumatized because we are wired for rites of passage involving communication with nature, without which our “ontogenesis”–growth pattern– is corrupted. In other words, because of our increasingly deeper disconnection with the natural world, we never fully grow up and mature the way that our biology intends. Look around, and you will see the disastrous consequences of this kind highly addictive personality disorder. Rather than have a healthy, nurturing relationship with our natural world “parent,” we run around the globe like five-year-olds with M-16s gulping as much oil as possible, even if we choke on it. I use the royal “we” of course. Most of us, I presume, would not choose this mode of life if given a choice or were properly aware of our options. Yet, here we are.
Even more sad is the Prozac calm of the ad talent’s tone. There is nothing arbitrary about this because historically “advanced” capitalist societies have cultivated a certain emotionless gaze. Think Ray-Bans and aviator cool. This began with the “Fordization of the face,” industrialization’s efforts to smooth the temperament and emotion of workers so they wouldn’t rebel against mind-numbing work. The modern equivalent is advertising’s droll voiced 20-something narrator who bemoans the cubicle life, but surrenders to it, nonetheless. The logic is that the System is more successful when few care what its managers design or do with the world, as long as it is entertaining and fun on the weekend. But then again, that might be the very reason why the System is currently falling apart. Confuse, divide, conquer and rule the emotions of people, and they will no longer find any gratification from a system that is supposed to “nurture” them. This creates a perfect opportunity for nature to reassert herself into the center of our attention, because in the end we know deep down inside the Candyland reality of this Comcast ad is only an unfulfilled desire to bond with the Mother. In fact, it’s available to you if you go outside and look. I recently had my own Candyland experience with a patch of grass. In it was a wonderworld of tiny spring flowers, varieties of grass, buzzing bees, succulents galore and mounds of emerald moss. I imagined myself tiny running amok in this little forest and found it wondrous and full of awe.
Finally, I want to remark on the inevitable harvesting of Generation BoingBoing culture. If you have followed BoingBoing over the years (it remains one of my favorite sites), you’ll notice that its writers have become tastemakers, a role I don’t think they sought or care much about unless it has to do with promoting positive net values such as open source and sharing. But aesthetically they have certain obsessions that inevitably become pop culture “cool,” which is evident in the Comcast ad. Comcast is “remediating” (or recycling from other media) a number of BoingBoing motifs. First is the fetishizing of coy, flirty ukulele DIY songstresses recorded on Webcams in bedrooms by young, attractive females. Another is the flattened eboy art style of pixelated cities hybridized with the Sims-like virtual world playground of video games. It’s a consumer cornucopia of vintage vinyl and cassettes, Japanese monsters, 1970s toys, Sesame St. animations, Linux penguins, and so on. True enough, the Comcast world is full of “wonderful things,” which in and of itself is not bad, but put into the context of how the global culture is trending, we may do well to hit the pause button for a minute and wonder where in the hell we are, and assess how we really got here.
Unfortunately, to criticize something like this is to be labeled a “Luddite” against “progress.” But I’m far from it. I don’t bemoan the many great positive changes that are happening as a result of convergence and new media (such as participatory media, collective intelligence, and transmedia storytelling). Nor do I think that Comcast is brainwashing us into a specific reality frame. But what it does do is reinforce dominant cultural themes and mentalities that need to be called out. Failure to do so would mean a failure to intervene and read against the grain of paradigmatic thinking that normally goes unchecked. Frankly, if I wake up some morning in Comcast’s world, I’d say we’re pretty screwed.
Preparedness Now, created by the USGS Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project, is an interesting piece of environmental media. It tries to convey the catastrophic consequences of a major earthquake while keeping some distance through a youthful graphic style so as to avoid being too visceral, and therefore too scary to deal with. Before watching it I expected Day After Tomorrow-like graphics too real to imagine, but I think if it were done in that style it would make it “too much like a movie,” and actually lesson its impact. As many media theories have noted, we often use media as containers for that which we can not deal with in our bodies– we run fearful scenarios in film as a way to contain them and make them less material. We deposit life’s risk into these external shells. For example, all those earthquake films of the ’70s ended up as good fodder for Mad Magazine parodies and did little else but entertain.
In keeping with Scott McCloud‘s theory of cartooning, the more cartoony you make something, the more you can project yourself into it because the lack of physical detail creates a space for your psyche to enter. The filters used in the video recall those instruction films from grade school that ran through dirty projectors, invoking the necessary innocence of childhood in order to imagine yourself inside the event. In this way, I think this preparedness video is rather brilliant. It really maintains the right balance between threat and personal responsibility. As a kid who grew up in LA, I can appreciate the usefulness of the piece and wish we had something this cool when I was in school.
It would be fair to criticize the video from one perspective, however, which is the manner in which it disassociates humans from nature. In the video’s scenario earthquakes are something that happen to us, and are not described as part of the necessary adjustments that Gaia makes to maintain an equilibrium. In fact, one reading of the video could be the ridiculous point that we built a significant global metropolis in such a dangerous zone. Moreover, the implication is that insurance companies (and hence caitalism) can handle the threat for us. Finally– perhaps this was an unconscious choice of titles– but isn’t “Preparedness Now” a riff on “Apocalypse Now”? Considering that film and mass media are our main reference points for reality, I’m guessing the title is ironically intentional. As such, it might be interesting to loop back and ponder Apocalypse Now! as an allegory for California in the ’70s. Think about it.
© Gleison Miranda/FUNAI
As a cultural meme, photos of the so-called “lost” tribe of the Amazon circulated more rapidly in the mediasphere than electrons buzzing through duel processors. But now that the images have been revealed to be a “hoax,” we should kick back in our collective armchairs and probe what happened. To be clear, the pictures weren’t a hoax per say, because the people depicted in them are real and do live off our grid, but the implication that they were unkown or off civilization’s radar was false. Survival International, one of the organizations who published the photos, said:
This is a classic example of journalists getting the wrong end of the stick. The only people who ever claimed that the Indians photographed were ‘lost’ or ‘undiscovered’ were…. the press, despite the fact that Survival has been campaigning for the protection of the many isolated Indian tribes on the Peru-Brazil border for more than twenty years…. Indeed, you might have thought that the fact that the Indians are living in a government reserve set aside for isolated Indian groups would tend to indicate that they weren’t exactly ‘unknown’.
I found the images intriguing as a media phenomena. With our point of view coming from the surveilling eye of extraterrestrial flight, I can’t help but feel like these are stills from a Star Trek scouting mission in which we– the humanoid aliens– are observing a distant world uncontaminated by our civilization. For many viewers, I’m guessing the reverse reaction was true: that the indigenous people covered in body paint and pointing bow and arrow at our high tech aircraft are the strange, exotic creatures of a “lost” world. But as a reflection of our own zeitgeist, the intrigue of a potentially “lost” tribe says a lot more about “us” (the scientifically “advanced” world) than “them” (the forgotten, primitive ur-past of yore). In our effort to name and identify the event at a distance– i.e. to “other” the Others– the media buzz surrounding these photos is yet another indication that we have become aliens in our home world.
The images struck a chord because of the nature of media (interesting pun), which survives by cannibalizing novelty. Any photo that presents “newness” metabolizes into information and will froth to the head of the noosphere only to be gobbled and digested rapidly like a yeasty beer. In particular, what drives media’s center of gravity is the striving for authenticity in order to fertilize its newness reproduction cycle. This is not without some irony. Upon looking up “authentic” in Merriam-Webster, I found several curious and contradictory definitions. One is “made or done the same way as an original,” and the other is “not false or imitation.” A photo can embody both senses of the word, because on the one hand it is an imitation of something– reality–, and the other hand, it is a reality unto itself. The tricky thing about photos is that we assume that they are facts, yet what we do with them, how we choose what we see and the impact of the photo is far from the reality it purports to represent. Add to that digital manipulation, context and framing– i.e. the “naming” of the image–, and you have one big fat dose of truthiness.
This is the subtext of the image controversy, because there is an underlying distrust of media and civilization itself as ultimately inauthentic. Most of us feel like the characters in The Matrix. The only way that machines can keep us interested is to offer us scraps of reality through these kinds of controversial images so that we can verify the existence of truth and the so-called real. Nonetheless, I happen to not believe in the simulacra argument, because most of our lives are actually not electronically mediated, though we assume that they are. The distrust of simulation is older than modern technology and particular to the European mindset, going back to Plato. He was the one who said the bed was a mere imitation of a more perfect bed made by God. His is not a bed made by machines, but by human hands with tools. The interesting thing is that human language actually evolved from our hands and the use of tools, not the other way around: technology is human communication.
Plato’s fear and distrust of appearances has repeated itself incessantly as a tulpa trapped inside a hall of mirrors that is now modern media. Advertising simultaneously assures us of the world’s stability while the news makes us fearful of its structural integrity. Despite this tension, the capitalist system of commodities and consumption has become nature, our habitat. It is so normal that anything that can differentiate itself from the ambient background of consumerism and the techno-fetishistic mind will become novel.
Nonetheless, in this semiotic war for attention, capitalism still struggles mightily to be relevant and real. The underlying argument of typical advertising pitches is that their product is “the real thing” (to paraphrase one of the more memorable slogans of the century). Marketers use every magician’s trick to offer us some kind of allusion to authenticity, be it the bodily sensations of fear, hunger, humor and sexuality, or to wink at us by acknowledging that we all know this is a con game. It’s a treadmill that marketers fear to jump off of.
Which brings us back to the photos. Like passengers in a spaceship Hummer driven by the corporate dream world, many of us have become accustomed to feeling like aliens on our own planet. I consider this kind of “alienation” the true source of our pill-popping, “social anxiety disorder” ways. I quibble with some postmodernists who contend we are too alienated to be alienated, arguing that alienation requires a sense of self, believing that when we are decentered simulations of our own beings, there is nothing to bounce off of. I disagree. I believe we yearn for nature and connection because they are tangible and exist no matter how minute the splinter in our minds and souls. Without this longing, advertising could never proceed because it traffics in the language of loss.
These images demonstrate, however, that the prevailing “lost” trope in the media zeitgeist is reversing: in our grasping for the real, more than ever we feel the urge to really be “lost”: off the radar, away from the cell phone, pager and Internet like Into the Wild‘s Chris McCandless or the actor reciting Jack Kerouac in a recent BMW ad. In our post-National Geographic world where all has been disovered, cataloged, photographed and integrated into the electronic sphere of our realm, there is little left for us to remember or know about how we used to be. But like the X File’s Agent Mulder, we feel the truth is out there, hovering outside us like pixel dust blowing in the cosmic winds.
Contact with “authentic” humans in the natural world gives us hope and wonder, yet the very act of taking the photos violates that innocence. Some even argue that trolling the forests for “authentically lost” humans violates their right to be uncontacted. Consider Star Trek’s Prime Directive:
“No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.” (Quoted from Wikipedia)
Because these photos indeed touched upon the “lost” meme, they also drew awareness to Survival International and to the plight of indigenous people in the Amazonian preserve (an interesting word in itself) and elsewhere. The fact that ultimately we are talking about the fate of real people with integrity and just as much of a right to exist on their own terms as we do, makes the this whole discussion more urgent. The civilization end game is upon us, and our budget of cultural diversity is dwindling rapidly, suffering the same fate as the biological diversity that supports us.
So, while acknowledging that organizations like Survival International do necessary and important work, they also depend on the media to educated the public about their mission and projects. Like many NGOs, Survival International’s site has plenty of sensationalistic images and videos, which begs the question of whether or not other people’s suffering can be contained and communicated effectively through images. Is this unethical? Not necessarily, as long as we are clear about the game we are playing and the nature of how it works. But it certainly remains ironic that it’s through media that we have to communicate civilization’s inauthenticity via the language of propaganda and exploitation.
Bonus footage: the following is a short documentary produced by Survival International,”Uncontacted Tribes.”