This article was originally published by
Full Insight, 9 January 2016 REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
With a quick glance I could see a deep blue sky frame the upper atmosphere, unaware of my immediate surroundings I kept walking down the street, looking down, blindfolded by the 4 inch screen that kept me fixed to the company of thousands of push notifications, beeps, buzzes and screen pops. I almost stepped on the stinker water hole that had accumulated gunk of Brooklyn ooze. For a moment I thought I would pocket my 4G smart phone as it would be smarter to pay attention to the spots of dog poo that decorated the broken sidewalk ahead of me. Panic stricken that no one would like me, I kept focused on the tiny screen, hoping for a tweet or liken, hoping the rows of passer buyers would not think I was butt lonely. I was terrified at the appearance of loneliness as I almost bumped into a couple of heavily tattooed teenage chic’s taking a selfie; “excuse me you moron” they yelled, “watch were your going," yeah, as if they too were not elsewhere but here, unaware of the moment. Sidewalks have become strange places a sort of red carpet for unimportant folks who are constantly advertising themselves, believing they are above the crowd, in their own self-glamorizing bubbles. I wondered why I couldn't just put the cell phone away and walk with my head straight, maybe this was evidence of a deeper psychological disorder, and really, the rest of the world would not panic if I was not available for the next 10 minutes, I said out loud: “I am much more than this”. That’s precisely the problem as our stream of notifications, likes, tweets and sharing makes us feel wanted and needed 24/7, we think we are much more important than who we really are.
I decided to go cold turkey and power off my cell phone, in a matter of seconds my jones kicked in and left me trembling. This desire for approval overload has reached obsessive heights inside the social media consumer, leaving us addicted, hooked on the spectacle of cheap thrills, constantly sucked into more and more expendable stimulation in order to be satisfied. The sense of loneliness is only one aspect of today’s smartphone addiction. The sharing of our collective obsessions invokes a new value system expressed by the currency of friends, likes and re-tweets. Every stroke of a button communicates our identity to the world, broadcasting non stop to the data cloud every moment of our personal stories, as if this were important and fundamental to the collective psyche. The hidden truth is that this data cloud is mined by the corporations that feed us. They keep close track of our trends and friend sharing, turning this data into money, in a new currency of likes; they put us to work in the promotion of the rich and famous, branding their products on the back of our game of responses. These master manipulators have really ripped us apart in fierce competition for high ratings. Experts at the skill of getting people to like you while the whole world watches, this reward seeking conditioning is a pervasive value system that prioritizes our actions in the promotion of fame by association and shallow interaction. The ageless concern for approval has turned popularity into a new currency and our self-esteem redeemable to the number of likes on our Facebook.
Social media was supposed to be empowering, never before have we had such grass root tools of communication. Never before had we direct access to the vast amount of information available at our fingertips. This opportunity of spreading meaningful content is being lost in the noise of photos, albums, selfies, video bits, chats, threads and streams of ubiquitous noise and chatter that keeps us distracted.
This elsewhere but here virtual reality has replaced traditional face to face body language and made us incompetent social beings unaware of our panoramic views and non verbal cueing. The habituation to a blindfolded rectangular phone screen experience is reducing our life to a caricature of language and reality.
My ten minute phone break was over as I impatiently flipped my phone open, heart beating rapidly, I opened my collective inbox in hesitation, both thumbs paused for a second as a push notification from the candy crush app gave me current ratings, I was relieved to notice nobody had reckoned my silence.
My self-proclaimed vanity reified in a virtual presence, I was desperately seeking a fan based merge that would earn me sponsorship. The illusion of public interaction and free choice mesmerized me. Unaware of the dissolute socially stratified space I had entered, a sort of digital fortress that led me by the hand to the ghetto of the internet. You used to be able to count your friends with the fingers of your hand. The truth was that I had almost no friends in my like box and this frightened the hell out of me, what if I didn't get a single message all day? What would happen to my internet identity? At least the game app notification algorithms beeped every once in a while to remind me I was still there. Suddenly a flashed icon precluded the familiar meme ringer, activating the operant conditioning in my head rush, amplifying the need to be wanted, “You like me therefore I am” read the puzzling text message on screen as I kept walking.
I noticed on the street corner a conglomeration of people packing close together, a wall of smart phones covered their over heads rushing to capture the excitement, some bearded hipster dude wearing only drawers and pretty weird piercings, mauled over his new hip hop dance routine captivating the crowds watching. The girl with the selfie stick next to me tried to spark a conversation inviting me to take a snapchat, Is he famous? “I promised my followers I would keep them posted” she bragged me. Without warning a loud screech muted the boombox cadences, from above I scanned the blue screen backdrop as it drew clearly the outline of the JMZ train whizzing over the ground commotion.
Astonishingly nobody in the multitude noticed, their eyes remained glued to the broken phone screen dude that kept on dancing. Hidden in plain view, reality sped light speed away into the unaccounted past, as the zombie publics blind spot mistook the witnessing present through the prosthetic eye candy of vane entertainment. I felt lost in the embedded network of the cultural fabric. The erosion of human communication laid lost in the digital relays of a vast machine. What were we really craving? Was it not meaningful relationships? Not this insane self-absorption orgy mediated by the data-sucking corporate hub that treats our self-promotion as merchandise.
Awakened by this introspection, my own solitude was feeling less lonely. I felt like smashing my broken phone screen on the sidewalk.
After this realization I don't remember what happened, I had lost track of time; a shattering phone alert shook me seated inside the subway cabin which was full to its capacity. Eyes wide open, It seemed as if I was the only one watching, everybody else stood looking down in stupor texting and thumbing their touch screen gadgets. I seemed to be the only one annoyed by the constant beeping of different phone apps. A lonely passenger answered a cell call very loudly cursing somebody out in slam nuyorican jargon; deafened by slick colored earphones, the rest of us public transport users appeared undisturbed. I couldn't care less about your private conversation, our public spaces have been hijacked by the private discourse of personal trivia. I could not help but notice texting went on with many different people at once. How could anyone multitask and carry several conversations simultaneously over such dissimilar topics? Many experts argue that social media will evolve the way we communicate, perhaps what they are really implying is that language will be lost and tinkered with, instead our cell phones and tablets will do the thinking and talking for us, dumbed down into bits and grunts of fragmented expressions, we will be downgraded and socially disabled.
I impulsively reached down to my pocket inseam sensing my cell phone was missing, perhaps I had in fact slam shattered it on the murky sidewalk. Instead my hand took out of my green tote bag the book by Henry George “Social Problems," which kept me company. I randomly opened page 242 and read: “Power is always in the hands of the people. What oppresses the people is their own ignorance, their own short-sighted selfishness”. There were no cell phones back in 1883 no text messaging, yet this statement read all to familiar and relevant. I then thought this meme was totally a trendy tweet worth sharing with my friends and followers, perhaps it would go viral. Unplugged from the matrix I was unable to send this message to the search engine, I had successfully severed the umbilical cord that kept me connected to the data cloud, a sense of being free took me over. I did not know where this train would take me, nor if the jammed cabin noticed the derailing, in the end it did not matter and I did not care as no one would follow or like me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carlos Cuellar Brown is a New York City time-based artist and essayist who has written on media art, social theory and metaphysics. He is currently a columnist for Second Sight Magazine out of the Netherlands and blogs here.
With the release of a refreshingly pessimistic science-based documentary that connects human development with the global ecological crisis, there is even more reason for concerned citizens to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers to demand a radical shift in government priorities. See also
A new era of global protest begins, Rajesh Makwana, STWR, 14 January 2016
Has the international community left it too late to prevent runaway climate change and widespread ecological degradation? Does the typical citizen and career politician have the inclination to accept the severity of the ‘planetary emergency’, let alone make the lifestyle changes and policy decisions needed to address it? And can the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Paris really signal an end to the unregulated dumping of carbon emissions, or mark a shift away from the business-as-usual approach to economic development?
These are among the many troubling questions that emerge when watching a new documentary written and presented by one of the world’s foremost scientists, Professor Stephen Emmott. The film – Ten Billion – draws on a bewildering array of statistics to paint a grim picture of humanity’s future prospects on Planet Earth. As the title suggests, the narrative emphasises the overwhelmingly destructive impact that human ‘progress’ is having on the natural world, especially as the global population heads towards the ten billion mark at the end of this century. Given the ongoing failure to reduce population growth and curb ever-increasing levels of consumption, Professor Emmott argues that governments appear to be completely incapable of adopting a more sustainable socio-economic model, even in the face of an impending ecological catastrophe.
Notwithstanding its bleak message, this is a powerful and compelling documentary that can help raise much-needed awareness about the environmental dimensions of the planet’s interconnected crises. It’s therefore a film that (like many others) should be compulsory viewing at this critical juncture in human evolution. While the style of the documentary is reminiscent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the Professor’s presentation takes the form of a theatrical performance rather than a public lecture, and the director Peter Webber has made full use of cinematic special effects and graphical illustrations to add context and a genuine sense of drama to the final cut.
There is much in the film to commend, including the way that a wide range of complex and interrelated issues are considered through the lens of humanity’s endless appetite for material consumption. However, many environmentalists will (rightly) be perturbed by Professor Emmott’s brief but notable statement in support of nuclear energy as the only pragmatic short-term solution to the energy crisis. Others might berate him for suggesting that the fear of reaching ‘peak oil’ is unfounded: he makes the undeniable point that new and plentiful reserves of oil are being discovered regularly, and that there is little sign that oil companies will want to shift away from fossil fuel production in the foreseeable future.
A broader concern is that the film lacks a robust political analysis of the structural injustice and unequal power relations that are the true cause of our environmental and social ills. For example, central to any discussion about ecological overshoot must be the recognition that the richest 20% of the world’s population are responsible for 80% of all consumption. But there is little emphasis on how unfettered consumerism in industrialised countries poses the real ecological threat, and not population growth in the Global South. Nor is there any mention of the role that neoliberal capitalism or the ceaseless pursuit of economic growth and corporate profit plays in maintaining a highly unsustainable global economic system. And despite framing the crisis as a ‘planetary emergency’ only fleeting attention is paid to the reality of world poverty and life-threatening deprivation, which is a substantial oversight given that 4.2 billion people are struggling to survive on less than $5 a day and 17 million people die needlessly every year – mainly in developing countries.
As well as failing to explore these critical systemic issues, Professor Emmott offers no guidance for those who (having been moved by his presentation) might want to get actively involved in an environmental cause, and he purposefully avoids presenting a vision of how the ecological crisis should be addressed. On the contrary, he scorns the argument often put forward by so-called ‘rational optimists’ that we can “technologise” our way out of these problems; he dispels the notion that politicians and UN conferences are capable of implementing the policy changes that are now so urgent; and he suggests it is unlikely that the general public will ever be willing or able to change their consumption habits.
With no vision of hope or tangible solution offered at any point in his presentation, the audience is left somewhat bereft by the end of the documentary. Indeed, nothing sums up the film’s essential message better than the melodramatic remark that Professor Emmott uses to conclude his sweeping analysis: “I think we are f****d!”. Although this depressing assertion is perhaps appropriate in the context of a theatrical performance, many will find it unnecessarily negative, disempowering and hyperbolic – especially at a time when the majority of people have no appetite for ‘system change’, or are disinclined to demand such change having convinced themselves that ‘there is no alternative’ to their present way of life.
When pressed during the Q&A session after a preview screening of the film in London, Professor Emmott conceded that he didn’t understand why more people – especially young people – are not protesting relentlessly in the streets to demand radical reform. On this note, the Professor’s personal views are in line with those of Share The World’s Resources (STWR), who have consistently called for ordinary citizens to unite through widespread, continual and peaceful protests for sound environmental stewardship and an end to the iniquity of poverty in a world of plenty.
In light of the scale of the crises that Ten Billion brings to life, it is safe to assume that mass public protest is now the only option left to the many millions of people who yearn for a more just and sustainable future. As STWR’s Mohammed Mesbahi argues, “The real question we should ask ourselves is not why our governments are failing to save the world, but why are we failing to compel them to take appropriate action as our elected representatives?” With government leaders preparing to meet for the concluding round of UN climate talks in Paris, let’s hope that this uncompromising documentary does ultimately encourage more people to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers – even if it is out of sheer exasperation with a perilously outdated model of human development and economic progress.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rajesh Makwana is an activist and writer at Share the Word Resources (STWR), a London-based civil society organisation campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.