Last Sunday's Observer featured an interview with John Cameron Mitchell, the director of Shortbus. Among musings on Republican America, the acceptability of the three-hour S&M-athon that is 'The Passion of the Christ', the condemnation of Janet Jackson's nipple, and how the portrayal of honest, real, on-screen sexual intimacy differs from pornography, Mitchell touches on 'social media', and the effects it can have:
'The internet and all this new technology, these opportunities for connection, are at the same time opportunities to be bombarded into numbness... the YouTube, MySpace phenomenon is an example of people reaching out, desperate for intimacy.'
The dangers of those connections, he suggests, are that they offer 'a palliative, a sugar high' and create an addiction to constant newness. 'Kids are afraid now of the lag in between checking their email. You lose sight of the fact that you have to get down to get up, that you have to have boredom in a relationship in order to get to the next step.'
What all that suggests, he believes, and what his film makes clear, is that 'it's a natural human requirement actually to look into someone's eyes at close quarters, open yourself up. You don't get that from looking at a computer screen. Our reactions to that, anomie, alienation, depression, are symptoms of the mind telling us we have to change.'
I understand his point, but I can also see the clear benefits of social media and online interaction -it allows people to be part of a community, irrespective of their location. For young people, and those with niche interests, this is a godsend. MySpace satisfies a fundamental need for human connection, and its success is testament to the ubiquity and power of that need.
People need to have friends as well as 'friends'. Because, really, 'Second Life' is no substitute for real life.
My good friend Graeme, who has a predilection for great opening paragraphs, would love the start of Ballard's latest novel Kingdom Come:
"The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world."
Ballard posits a future-present in which consumerism feeds the cravings of the bored and latently racist suburbs, turning them into breeding grounds for a new type of fascism:
"Consumerism is the greatest device anyone has invented for controlling people... For some particular reason, they call it shopping. But it's really the purest form of politics."
The protagonist is Richard Pearson, an unemployed advertising executive who, while investigating the fatal shooting of his father at the Metro-Centre mega-mall, takes the opportunity to test the subversively Dadaist advertising theories that cost him his career. Using psychopathology as a marketing tool, he creates bizarre, unpredictable communications devoid of any explicit message. Instead, they play directly to the irrational mind by manipulating emotions, fears and insecurities.
Consumerism becomes the only thing that gives life any meaning. Products become the new gods, the mall becomes the new temple.
"The churches are empty, and the monarchy shipwrecked itself on its own vanity. Politics is a racket, and democracy is just another utility, like gas or electricity. Almost no one has any civic feeling. Consumerism is the one thing that gives us our sense of values. Consumerism is honest, and teaches us that everything good has a barcode."
His campaign is highly effective -sales go up and up but eventually the public's search for meaning and structure leads to disaster. As he ushers in the inevitable apocalypse, Ballard (who was once an advertising copywriter himself) muses on the parlous state of modern England and its readiness to be marketed to, its ability to swallow sugar-coated lies rather than the unpalatable truth:
"They knew they were being lied to, but if lies were consistent enough they defined themselves as a credible alternative to the truth. Emotion ruled almost everything, and lies were driven by emotions that were familiar and supportive, while the truth came with hard edges that cut and bruised. They preferred lies and mood music, they accepted the make-believe... Consumer capitalism had never thrived by believing the truth. Lies were preferred by the people of the shopping malls because they could be complicit with them."
Hmmm, brands as lies that everyone buys into -I kinda like it.
This is a disturbing read, set in a typically dystopian yet all-too-familiar world. But it just doesn't seem that far away when you consider the ever-increasing numbers of pure-play emotional ads that we see everyday.
For further reading, Rick McGrath over at Culture Court has written a brilliantly insightful and highly-detailed article on this book, focussing on the ex-adman protagonist and his ad campaign. Definitely worth a look (but read the book first -it will spoil it for you otherwise).
Hugh at gapingvoid has been collecting 500 word manifestos -many are great, but (for my money, at least) Seth Godin's manifesto for change is truly excellent -in essence, he's echoing Virgil: "fortune favors the brave" and applying it to marketing (and blogging).
There really is nothing like going to a good gig after a hard day in the office, so on Tuesday (in direct contravention of No Music Day) I wandered up Camden way to check out Low Sparks at the Dublin Castle (which I am told by reliable sources was the birthplace of Britpop).
But this isn't a proper review -more a big up to the band. They were damn fine -jaunty and engaging, with intensity in all the right places. What I particularly love is that they are nigh-on-impossible to categorize... quirky and Beck-ishly lo-fi, but quite indie/rock as well, with a touch of the sea-shanty ... anyway, jump over to their myspace page and have a listen for yourself.
Someone should use 'She Was Always Cool' in an ad... you just don't hear enough kazoo these days.
"The best possible solutions come only from a combination of a rational analysis based on the nature of things, and imaginative reintegration of all the different items into a new pattern, using non-linear brain power."