The Privatization of Consciousness

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Most of us don’t think much about advertising. Granted, we find most ads annoying, but on a certain level, they get under our skin and seem to colonize our awareness in the strangest of ways, unbidden and unwelcome. like that jingle we can’t get out of our heads.

I became most aware of this after spending six months in a South Indian eco-village, where it was positively free of advertising compared to here. No billboards, corporate posters, commercials, etc. My mind and spirit felt peaceful.

Author Jerry Mander is one of my favourite thinkers on the impact of technology and advertising. In his book In the Absence of the Sacred, published years before the Internet took off, he correctly foresees the “failures of technology,” which he predicted could be used to surveil, control and collect data on ordinary citizens on an unprecedented scale. We see these hypotheses now played out by the Edward Snowden story and the recent revelations of widespread NSA surveillance.

In his article “Privatization of Consciousness,” he outlines the history of advertising, which developed massively after the end of the second world war, as a way to boost the mass consumption of goods now made in factories that once made war weapons. To keep the economy going, people had to be convinced to buy things, and television was a major vehicle of this new consumerism, and still is, writes Mander:

Over the last half century, the combination of television and astronomical advertising spending has effectively reshaped the consciousness of the United States and the entire planet: our self-image, the way we aspire to live, our habits, our thoughts, our references, desires, memories. [..]

Ours is the first generation in history to have essentially moved its consciousness inside media, to have increasingly replaced direct contact with other people, other communities, other sources of knowledge, and the natural world which is anyway getting harder and harder to find with simulated, re-created, or edited versions of events and experiences.

This is something that Mander has also alluded to in Absence of the Sacred, and which he attributes to the deliberate creation of a global monoculture of the mind, perfect for unquestioning, mass consumption at all costs, including that of our own sanity and health, and that of our planet:

It’s a primary drive of corporate globalization that every place on Earth should become like every other place on Earth. This creates new investment opportunity for global capital and promotes efficiency in resource management, production planning, marketing, and distribution for millions of commodities and their producers. But the external homogenization process also requires an internal homogenization process a remake of human beings themselves our minds, our ideas, our values. The ultimate goal is a global monoculture of human beings that fits nicely with the redesigned external landscape, like so many compatible computers. In the end, corporations seek a mental landscape that nicely matches the physical landscape of freeways, suburbs, franchises, high-rises, clear-cuts, and the sped-up physical life of the commodified world.

Mander also pinpoints that the uninspired, concrete monotony of our built environment plays a huge part. Yes, architecture influences our consciousness, and it’s no accident that big box stores all look the same, suburbias and condo developments all over are interchangeable, nondescript and soul-destroying:

Most of our lives are contained within physically reconstructed, human-created environments—cities, buildings, streets—where nature is no longer visible. It’s as if we have moved inside the minds of the people who imagined these constructs and realities. In this way, generation to generation, we go more deeply into human thought and creation: mediated reality.

From our mediated, physical environments, it’s a seamless step to mediate, spin and distort the information that comes out of the media, and ultimately the truth:

With most of our information mediated that is, processed and edited and changed by human beings who have specific purposes for the image and without any direct contact with the true circumstances of an issue, how can anyone possibly know what is right and what is wrong? And yet we are asked to make our country’s major decisions based on the knowledge we receive from the machine. So, it’s Murdoch or Eisner, or Shell Oil and GM, or Democratic media consultants, or Republican media consultants, who enter our brains, leave their viewpoints, and firmly implant their images. Then they each spend millions of dollars’ worth of political ads, most of which are wildly distorted. We can only guess what to finally believe.

Mander suggests that to fight this ubiquitous intrusion of advertising, we have to see it as a kind of “mental pollution.” He proposes some radical but rational steps to curb this corruption, such as banning advertising in public spaces, controlling Internet advertising, taxing advertising and introducing statutory regulation of the ad industry.

Mander’s ideas are compelling, and he isn’t the only one calling to protect our mental landscape and our collective consciousness as a precious resource. If we don’t protect it from unwanted corporate colonization, we risk being alienated from our true nature — and being replaced by a cookie-cutter consumer addicted to buying and keeping up appearances. Perhaps this is why some are pointing to a rapid globalization of addiction, as addiction can be seen as a psychologically based symptom manifesting out of spiritual emptiness and dis-ease, a kind of separation of our true selves. This separation is what prompts us toward a kind of existential death wish, to annihilate what we mistakenly believe to be empty, and is what drives the decline of this civilization. While it looks dire, the good news paradox is, that according to the ancient sages, we can never be truly separated from our true nature, it was and is always there, waiting to be revealed. Easier said than done, but at least it’s said.

Read more over at “Privatization of Consciousness,”

Image: Oscar Keys

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