Ten days ago I was invited to do a 2 hour presentation and debate about The Illusionists at the American Graduate School in Paris, France. This occurred shortly after the inauguration of a new American president, right after the introduction of a deeply contested travel ban for citizens of several Muslim countries. A constant stream of anxiety-inducing news populated newspaper headlines and social media posts around the world. I felt it apt to start my talk with the following statement: “You may think that it’s an inappropriate time to bring me here to discuss The Illusionists, with everything that’s happening in the world. But I promise you that what the film discusses is not trivial. The Illusionists on the surface may appear to be a documentary about beauty, but it is so much more. It’s about the techniques used by big business, advertising and mass media to manipulate consumer behavior. And I would argue that if you understand how these techniques work, you can apply them to the world of politics, to technology, and to many other areas.” Many students in the audience nodded.
One of the main premises of my documentary is that “sad people are biggest spenders.” In the words of Jean Kilbourne, “It’s often seemed to me that a person who feels happy and secure isn’t going to be a very good consumer, because that person isn’t going to be looking for products to shore up the self-image or to feel better about oneself.” I would argue (as Naomi Klein has done so eloquently in her book The Shock Doctrine) that a population that is anxious and afraid may also be easier to manipulate by those in charge.
We often talk about unhealthy eating habits, environmental pollution, but we rarely discuss the ways mass media, apps, and social networking sites are hijacking our attention and ultimately making us feel more anxious. If I were to start working on a new project today, I would turn my attention to these “weapons of mass distraction.” Twenty years ago, in December 1997, Wired Magazine published an incredibly prescient article titled “Attention Shoppers!” arguing that “The currency of the New Economy won’t be money, but attention.” Last week, Flipboard CEO Mike McCue in an interview said, “Sometimes I think of news feeds as the ‘mystery meat’ of your information diet. It’s not like you finish reading your Facebook feed, after half an hour, and feel like, ‘That was a great use of time!’ It’s like if you ate potato chips all day long.”
This may sound like a bleak vision of the current state of affairs. Yes and no: it’s all a matter of perspective – and how we choose to react to this. I’ve been working on a new project called: The Realists – a counterbalance to The Illusionists, that aims to address all those issues and also encourage community members to educate ourselves and, more importantly, to carry out experiences together (example: a one week social media fast, a book club…). I can’t say more for now, but I’ll leave you with this: the URL for our website – http://therealists.org – which has a signup page, where you can be notified when the platform launches.
A couple of additional thought-provoking articles for you:
- Tristan Harris: “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds?—?from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist”
- This video essay by Max Stossel: “This Panda Is Dancing”
- Wired: “Attention Shoppers!”