April 8, 2022

Toneshift

And so it has come to this. We can pull off every Big Idea in the radical playbook — invent true-cost markets, rid politics of secrecy, put corporations in their place, defang Big Finance.

But unless we get this next part right, none of it will matter. To survive through the 21st century we must come up with a new turn of mind, a new way to . . . inhabit this place.

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Every era has a vibe, an ambiance that permeates our experience. It is the stamp of what it feels like to be alive, the pulse of the zeitgeist. It’s an intangible thing, hard to pin down when you’re in it. But its gravitational pull is so strong that it bends history.

The beats gave us permission to be wild and carefree. The situationists taught us to live without dead time. The hippies pushed us back into nature. The punks tuned our radar for hypocrisy and our will to resist. The footsoldiers of Occupy Wall Street made us believe that world revolution is possible — and set the tone for what’s to come.

More recently, movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have fundamentally changed the way we feel about the most intimate aspects of our daily lives, and what the human contract actually is.

Art and design movements — from impressionism to Dada, De Stijl to design anarchy — come and go, catching the essential spirit of their time.

“Many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are aesthetic,” J.G. Ballard said, and of course he’s right.

But now, at the beginning of the 21st century, something feels ominously different. We find ourselves in a planetary endgame, a “code-red emergency” — gripped by an existential tension the world has never seen. This calls for wild, urgent, creative, hair-on-fire innovation. Instead, we have . . . straight-line thinking.

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Last year, I happened to turn on the TV during the baseball playoffs. One team was facing elimination — lose this game and they were done. This team had its best pitcher on the mound, and he was pitching out of his mind. Unhittable. Untouchable. Damn near shamanic. The performance was giving everyone the shivers, no matter which team they were rooting for.

Then the manager walked out to the mound and pulled him off the game.

See, the quants in the front office had determined that when a pitch count hits 70, pitchers start to lose their stuff. On average. And so management hedged its bets. It busted in there and broke the spell and killed the magic that was materializing in front of their eyes. They couldn’t see it. They couldn’t feel it.

In came a new pitcher. And promptly gave up the tying and winning runs. And just like that it was over.

I thought: This is why the world is imploding. This is what straight-line thinking does: it kills everything it touches. It has no clue about the damage it’s doing.

Superrationality. The master narrative of life on earth. A holdover from the Enlightenment, with no real course correction in 300 years. It is the worst tool imaginable for the job of pulling off a global mindshift. We shuffle into our apocalyptic circumstances with nothing but our buttoned-down executive brains. We speak in corporate jargon and technobites. Our whole lives crushed down to probabilities, data points, Bayesian calculations. Run the numbers. Protect your priors. Quant it out. You can’t have enough pixels on your phone camera or memory in the cloud.

We shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us. This is where we’ve ended up. The media engines we made have re-made us. We think in algorithms now — some of them sound, some of them unsound, but all of them running by themselves like headless chickens.

Frederick Hunterwasser famously said, “The straight line is godless and immoral,” and at Adbusters we’ve been coming back to that sentiment again and again because it seems to contain a magical aesthetic secret.

The logic freaks have had it their way for a very long time and all they have to offer is more of the same: more technology, more rationality, more consumption, more surveillance, more control.

But now suddenly, up from the greasy boiler room of the heart comes . . . a toneshift! Hyperrationality rolls over and a touch of divine insanity creeps in:

To hell with straight line thinking — let’s learn to wobble again!

This was the conclusion we came to at Adbusters, after we’d put a couple of issues in the can.

We’d started out as pretty much a clone of other commercial magazines on the newsstands. But we quickly realized that magazines like that were poisoned mindspace, because the ads rule. They disrupt the flow and kill the magic. So our first aesthetic decision was to never run ads.

Breaking rules is deliciously addictive — you just keep going. Bit by bit over the next few years, we threw out all the conventions of commercial magazine publishing. We killed off the page numbers. (They’re just clumsy interruptions, like pulling out a measuring tape in the middle of sex.) We lost the table of contents, the department heads, the front-of-the-book stuff. (On a fiery mind journey, who needs pronouncements?) We killed the letters section and sprinkled the letters throughout — a very democratic move. We ripped stupid ads out of other magazines and plopped them in, hanging these companies with their own rope. We mucked with punctuation and grammar. (Why be so anal with language?)

Every which way we could, we abandoned the sanitized, soul-destroying modernist look.

What was this thing, tattooed with doodles and coffee spills, jammed with random poems and newspaper headlines snipped with sewing scissors? How do you even read it? From front to back or from both ends at once, colliding in the middle? It was more like a movie than a book. We’d grab our readers by the throat on the cover and never let go. We’d create a jump-cut in the human imagination, break the trance of modernism. You pick up the magazine and out falls a blackspot — an anti-logo representing people power. Activists started putting them up on the wall. In the cities they replicated like spores, or mold, nature reclaiming human minds.

What graphic design needs, we figured, is ten years of total turmoil, fuck-it-all anarchy. After that maybe it would mean something again.

In that spirit we hatched the First Things First Design Manifesto 2000.

Thirty years earlier, UK designer Ken Garland had speartipped a crusade basically accusing designers of selling out. Now we recreated his manifesto with a vengeance. We said to designers, Look: You are the most powerful people in the world. You are to the information age what engineers were to the age of steam, what scientists were to the age of reason. You set the mood of the mental environment — the look and lure of print, the tone and pull of TV, the knack and smack of the Net. You are the very form of the culture . . . the typesetters of thought . . . the editors of sentiment. So for chrissake, start acting like it! Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand that you move away from just the marketing of products and toward the creation of a new kind of meaning. Instead of using your skills and imagination to sell sneakers, detergents, hair gel, butt toners, credit cards, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles — instead of kissing corporate ass — why not break out of the commercial design box and start playing around with the eco- and psycho-dimensions of the product-in-use. Nudge human behavior in new directions. Steer us away from the hubris and self-destructive chaos of the planetary endgame. Design things that raise goosebumps on people’s skin.

Become a design anarchist! Create the new wobbly vibe that will save the world.

More than a thousand designers signed our manifesto, including 22 of the biggest names in that world. And as we talked to young designers in the years that followed, we could see their thinking scaling up.

We’ll use recyclable materials.

Nice, but it’s not enough.

We’ll work for nonprofits.

Okay, but what’s the vision?

We’ll work together to co-create the vibe that stirs people’s souls, disrupts their toxic routines and tips this whole human project toward justice.

Now you’re talking.

This is the pivot our whole culture now needs to make.

The aesthetic of our time needs to be kicked out of the orbit of its destructive formalism, its whoring corporate supplication. Dirty it up. Summon the trickster out of the shadows. Scavenge value from the margins, from the stuff we reflexively throw away. Generate an era of tumult that wipes out every remnant of the old vibe.

“Order has failed so let chaos prevail!”

And so, the grand reset begins.

Mo —> Pomo —> Nomo

Modernism laid down the rules — “form follows function” — that programmed a whole century. It built planned cities, tone-deaf buildings, urban social housing that proved so soul-crushing it finally had to be leveled. Monster homes plopped on the seashore, boxes upon boxes, right to the property line, the curve of the shore against the diminished straight-line imagination of developers.

Pomo arrived as a correction — but it went too far, and the ground turned to liquid under our feet. Everything meant anything so it meant nothing.

Now we’re on the cusp of a new era. We don’t know what it’s about, don’t even have a name for it yet (maybe Nomo?). All we know is that we’re in a winner-take-all race to find a new story to make sense of our code-red moment. We’ll stumble towards a new sensuality, a new structure of feeling, a new sense of spiritual purpose . . . or we’ll zombie-walk into a new dark age.

What Nomo won’t be is the popular sci-fi vision of next-level techno-hyperrationalism; that is the wet dream of the logic freaks sliding into China’s social credit model of algorithmic living. More likely Nomo will look to nature for its codes. Biomimicry, ribosomal thinking. Humans insinuating ourselves into the web of the world. It’s like the difference between rowing and sailing. Rowing is brute straight-line effort that seems powerful and efficient, but you’re never going to cross the ocean that way. The secret hack is to tap into the currents and the wind. The solo rower is doomed because as soon as you let go of the oars for even a second, you grind to a halt. But under sail, once you get yourself aligned with the forces of nature, you can lie back and dream.

In his new book The Day the World Stopped Shopping, J.B. MacKinnon visited the Japanese island of Sado, where type-A Japanese, burned out from life in Tokyo, flee to recover their sanity. Here he heard the word “utori.” It has no direct English translation, but means something like running “below capacity,” having a little slack in the line. Several people defined utori as having “space in your heart.” I am available to you, because I’m not overwhelmed by ratrace demands. I can give you my time and my attention and my energy and my thoughts. Yes, yes. Come on over.

MacKinnon had been around the world chasing the new post-consumerist vibe that will save us, and he may have found it in this one word. On some level, everyone he’d met who was living an intentionally small, happy, minimally destructive life was positively brimming with utori. You put people first. A spirit of soulful generosity becomes both the bedrock of your private experience and the face you present to the world. People with utori, MacKinnon concluded, “are simply better at being human.”

As the temperature rises, screws tighten and the doomsday clock approaches midnight, all of us face a moment of reckoning, grappling with the most personal questions there are. Questions like: Would I rather be very rich or very spontaneous? Which person would my children rather be around? Who’s more at peace? Who’s living more softly on the planet?

People have had it with culture and politics in hyperrational overdrive. They’re done with risk-management software, talking points on teleprompters and expertly concocted carbon-reduction plans that ultimately mean nothing. (That is, they sound good but don’t actually make a dent in the problem.) We ache for proof that full-blooded living is still possible out there.

I think this explains why sixty million Americans voted for Donald Trump.

A lot of people were willing to forgive the crazy-ass stuff coming out of his mouth because they were sick of the law-school elites running Washington. They were desperate for someone who shoots from the hip and doesn’t give a damn about making a mistake or being cancelled. Trump walked up to a gaggle of journalists every day like a trumpeter ready to play jazz — with no firm idea of what was going to come out of his horn.

Miles Davis once said: “The biggest challenge in jazz improvisation is not to play all the notes you could play, but to wait, hesitate — to play what’s not there.”

Trump did that. And that level of spontaneity was, in his hands, a kind of black magic. That’s what made his base so passionate and his rallies so raucous. It’s how he was able to command incredible loyalty and keep his grubby little fingers on the levers of power.

Every one of us needs to learn to live a little more like that. When we Lefties demonize Trump, we lose the lesson: If you’re afraid of what the next note will be you’re not going to be able to play it. Pulling punches and playing defense all the time, like we’ve been doing for the past 20 years, that’s not going to get us anywhere. Sooner or later you have to learn how to play jazz and go for it.

One shot, one life!

Time of the Magicians, Wolfram Eilenberger’s book about Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer and Heidegger, had me mesmerized for a good part of the year. I felt that these four men who re-invented philosophy after WW1, were on the same life journey that I was . . . and it was wonderful to walk alongside them for a while.

But halfway through the book I had a strange epiphany. It occurred to me that all four of them were firmly stuck inside their heads. They thought they could solve all the problems of the world and discover the secret of living good life by swirling things round and round in their brains. Heidegger secluded in his Black Forest hut, Cassirer in his patron’s vast library. Wittgenstein is the most frustrating. Early on, he was fired up about creating useful things in the world — among them an ingenious aircraft engine he designed and patented. Then he met Bertrand Russell at Oxford, and his nimble hands fell still, his brow beetled, and he became an abstract thinker, committed to logic. He was never able to break out of his anxious brooding.

My god, I thought: could this kind of obsessive thinking — our default mode since Aristotle, Pythagoras and Plato over two thousand years ago and the one Descartes captured in five words: I Think Therefore I Am — be the fatal flaw of Western civilization? Could this be where we veered off course . . . where we fell into the trap of thinking that we can think our way out of everything?

Now after finishing the book, I believe we must pass over much of the thinking these four men did in silence. Yes, they made some stunning conceptual breakthroughs, but their playbook has outlived its usefulness. Our obsession with head-down, nose-to-the-stone logical analysis may no longer be fit to solve the multiple existential crises that now confront us.

Maybe the vibe of the 21st century will reveal itself when we take the leap from

I Think Therefore I Am —> I Connect Therefore I Am

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The way forward for humanity may well turn out to be a new mode of guerrilla activism, one that’s less about street fighting and more about spiritual insurrection.

Maybe we will simply let go . . . cultivate a certain looseness of mind . . . “Live suddenly without thinking,” as e. e. cummings put it . . . and fall into whatever comes next.

Which is what?

Nobody knows . . . but it’s tantalizing to speculate.

Maybe we’ll start reversing a lot of things . . . shed many of the constraints we never asked for and choose their opposite. The stuff of the real world over digital simulacra. Traditions over fads, mystery over certainty, pathos over logos, listening over pontificating, child’s play over exegesis, the collective over the individual, yin over yang, sharing over consuming, the long-time horizons of the planet over quick payoffs and indulged cravings.

Maybe as the techno-rationalist Western vibe wilts at the task before it, the so-called WEIRD vibe of the rest-of-the-world — communitarianism, family, tradition, faith — will rise as an alternative.

Maybe the new vibe will be a maker vibe — more about creating (which makes you powerful) than about consuming (which gives away your power).

Maybe we’ll opt for small rather than imposing things. Muted colors. Understatement. Not the action but that pregnant moment before the action.

Maybe we’ll abandon the spectacle . . . and revel instead in the intimacies of everyday life: the touch of a lover, a chat with a bright-eyed stranger, a quiet moment in the wild?

Maybe the old American dream about prosperity will morph into a new one about spontaneity?

Maybe we’ll learn to start having . . . fun again. Just crazy, uninhibited fun. (Where did that go?)

Whatever form it ultimately takes, one thing is clear: Nomo is the project of our century. And in its emergence, just maybe, will be the answer to a question that has not yet been answered: Is capitalism with empathy even possible?

One thing is certain: If we don’t get it right, if we cannot recover our innate empathy, find balance and come up with a new tone, a new ambience, a new aesthetic to live by, then it will be a century of hubris, brutality and mayhem on a scale the world has never seen.

— Excerpted from Adbusters’ forthcoming book.

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