For thousands of generations we humans grew up in nature. Our teachers were flora and fauna and our textbooks thunderstorms and stars in the night sky. Our minds were like the forests, oases and deltas around which our cultures germinated: chaotic, wild, fecund.
But in the last couple generations, we have largely abandoned the natural world, immersing ourselves in virtual realms. Today the synthetic environment rivals nature as a driving force in our lives, and the mental environment has become the terrain where our fate as humans will be decided. By emigrating from nature we’ve done something more than just move domiciles – we have fundamentally altered the context in which we live our lives.
Along with this transition to a new psychic realm, we have also seen the exponential rise of mental illnesses. Globally, humanity is now suffering from an epidemic of uncontrollable anxieties, mood disorders and depression. The United Nations predicts that mental disease will be bigger than heart disease by 2020.
Why is this happening? Why are we breaking down mentally?
If you ask psychologists what increases the general loading of psychopathology on the human animal, they will list a lot of things: the breakdown of community, the insecurity of social roles, the stresses of modernity and globalization and maybe even the chemicals in the air, water and food that may be affecting our brains in unknown ways. Others blame the thousands of aggressive, erotically charged marketing messages our brains absorb every day as the culprit. And still others say that heavy internet use leads to addictions and depression and that the digital revolution may be rewiring our brains in unhealthy ways. Nobody knows for sure.
But it’s tantalizing to guess.
What follows is just a beginning, an introduction to some of the mental pollutants, information viruses and psychic shocks we have to deal with daily – a survey of the threats to our “ecology of mind.”
For countless generations the ambient noise was rain and wind and people talking. Now the soundtrack is full-spectrum, undecodable. From the dull roar of rush-hour traffic to the drone of your fridge and the buzz of your monitor, various kinds of noise (blue, white, pink, black) are continuously seeping into our brains. And the volume is constantly being cranked up. Two, perhaps three generations have already become stimulation-addicted. Can’t work without background music. Can’t jog without earphones. Can’t sleep without an iPhone tucked under the pillow. The essence of our postmodern age may be found in this kind of incessant brain buzz. Trying to make sense of the world above the din is like living next to a freeway – you get used to it, but at a severely diminished level of mindfulness and well-being.
Quiet feels foreign now, but quiet could be just what we need. Silence may be to a healthy mind what clean air and water are to a healthy body. In a cleaner, quieter mental environment, we may find our mood calming and depression lifting.
From the moment your radio alarm sounds in the morning to the wee hours of late-night TV, micro-jolts of commercial pollution flow into your brain at the rate of about 3,000 marketing messages per day. Every day, an estimated 12 billion display ads, three million radio commercials, more than 200,000 TV commercials and an unknown number of online ads and spam emails are dumped into our collective unconscious. Corporate advertising is the single largest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race. Yet, its impact on us remains unstudied and largely unknown.
The first time we saw a starving child on a late-night TV ad, we were appalled. Maybe we sent money. But as these images became more familiar, our capacity for compassion waned. Eventually these ads started to annoy us, even repulse us. And now we feel nothing when we see another starving kid.
The average North American witnesses half a dozen acts of violence (killings, gunshots, assaults, car chases, rapes) per hour of prime-time TV watched. As for sex in the media and porn on the internet, we all know what catches our attention and stops us from zapping the channels: pouting lips, pert breasts, buns of steel, buoyant superyouth. Growing up in a violent, erotically charged media environment alters our psyches at a bedrock level. It distorts our sexuality – the way you feel when someone suddenly puts a hand on your shoulder or hugs you or flirts with you – how we think about ourselves as sexual beings. And the constant flow of commercially scripted, violence-laced, pseudo-sex makes us more voyeuristic, insatiable and aggressive. Then, somewhere along the line, nothing – not even rape, torture, genocide, or war porn – shocks us anymore.
The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences. It pays to pollute. The psychic fallout is just the cost of putting on the show.
The information we consume is increasingly flat and homogenized. Designed to reach millions, it often lacks nuance, complexity and context. Reading the same factoids on Wikipedia and watching the same viral video on YouTube, we experience a flattening of culture.
Cultural homogenization has graver consequences than the same hairstyles, catchphrases, action-hero antics and video clips propagated ad nauseam around the world. In all systems, homogenization is poison. Lack of diversity leads to inefficiency and failure. Infodiversity is as critical to our long-term survival as biodiversity. Both are bedrocks of human existence.
At first all that information was pleasurable. It felt as if the sum of all knowledge was only a hyperlink away and we skipped joyously down the infotrail, sending emails to our friends, adding bookmarks and hopping from site to site late into the night. But as the initial glow wore off, we were left in a state of digital daze: unable to concentrate, feeling foggy, anxious and fatigued.
For many of us, what began as an exhilarating romp has become a daily compulsion. Our smart phones, netbooks and computers now keep us constantly online. While waiting in line at the supermarket or enjoying an evening walk or reading a book or even sitting at a concert, we keep texting our friends and receiving quick Twitter updates. We are drowning in an endless stream of connectivity. And future generations may be even more wired. A Pew Research Center study found that American teenagers send 50 or more text messages a day and one-third send more than 100 a day. Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that American children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 7 ½ hours a day using some sort of electronic device.
Our online lives may now be impairing our ability to follow a sustained line of thought, to think deeply about something and maybe even to reach “the heights of ecstasy and the depths of tragedy” in our creative lives. We may be suffering from the infodisease that Nicholas Carr first diagnosed in himself. “Over the past few years,” he writes, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory… what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
In the race for economic expansion we depleted oil reserves, pulped ancient forests and pumped water until the wells ran dry. Now we’re depleting the “old growth culture” – sucking dry the history, mythology, music, art and ideas that previous generations have bequeathed to us. All of our past is being picked over, recycled, remixed, regurgitated and repurposed.
Jaron Lanier, the father of “virtual reality,” is perhaps the most respected and outspoken technologist to identify a troubling deficiency in our cultural health. In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Lanier writes that our culture has become one of nostalgic remixing where authentic “first-order expression” is chopped up and mashed into a derivative piece of “second-order expression.” And although Lanier shies away from proposing an infallible metric for distinguishing between the two, he does suggest that what distinguishes first-order expression is that it contributes something “genuinely new [to] the world” whereas derivative works recycle, repeat and fail to innovate.
The result is a society that treats our cultural heritage as a resource for exploitation. Instead of producing new works of genuine art that replenish our mental environment, we celebrate the amateur whose mash-ups may be hilarious but contribute nothing of value to the cultural conversation. This situation becomes especially distressing when we consider that just as there is a finite amount of nutrients in our soil, there is a finite amount of creativity that the past can yield. Great art is rare, and only so many mash-ups can be released before the original power of a truly artistic creation is lost. And without the production of an authentic culture, our mental environment is in danger of becoming a clear-cut wasteland, overfarmed and depleted.
In Lanier’s words, “we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”
We are on the brink of a synergistic catastrophe. Financial, ecological and ethical collapse loom on the horizon even as the rate of mental illness continues to climb. The world has literally gone mad.
But as more people trace their anxieties, mood disorders and depressions back to the toxins in our mental world, the first murmurs of insurrection can be faintly heard. From blackspotted billboards to breakaway attempts-at-downshifting, to revolutionary provocations in failing states, we are witnessing the birth pangs of the quintessential uprising of the 21st century. What will come is a rewilding of our souls, a riot against the production of fake corporate and commercial meaning. What begins here today will be known as the environmental movement of the mind.
Kalle Lasn is cofounder and editor in chief of Adbusters. Micah White is a editor-at-large at Adbusters and is writing a book about the future of activism.