Jenni Davies

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Toronto, ON

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Why the world is sick.

October 14, 2016

The whole world has gone insane. How's that for an intro?

 

Once upon a time, societies functioned in roaming bands, influenced only by survival limitations, such as food, water, and shelter. Trading goods were common means of economic redistribution - like I'll give you my carrots if you give me your potatoes. If it's a fair trade and both parties think they will benefit from it, then they go ahead and make it.  After the industrial revolution, when all the roads and train tracks had been built, the developed world was overflowing with a surplus of products and after World War 2, the age of the Baby Boomers transformed North America into and economic goldmine. Everyone wanted little houses in the suburbs with white picket fences, microwaves, and blenders. 

 

Years later,  the internet happened - and with it, google galore. With a couple clicks of a button - at our fingertips: all the information a consumer could ever want, compiled into neat little compartments of the bazillions of products available to purchase anywhere in the world - through apps such as GoogleShopper or even Pinterest. These services literally compile lists, boxes and "boards" to help the consumer decide what next to purchase. As a result of all this capitalist propaganda - this incessant need to buy, possess, experience more - the developed world has been transformed into a global marketplace, completely saturated with consumerism. This is not news. We are all aware of this.

As marketing, advertising and the cultural marketplace transform, methods of consumer participation naturally shift with it. Niche markets have sprouted like fucking dandelions all across the globe, as entrepreneurship is celebrated as an icon of the new American Dream - and I'm not talking about random products to buy. I'm talking about cognitive services; immaterial assets.


Our culture now values a unique knowledge of very particular specialized skills. From this, a new form of capitalism has emerged - rooted in digital culture; something called: cognitive capitalism.

Essentially, this refers to the availability of services to be traded like products but come exclusively from the human brain: things like Crisis Management or Marketing Consulting. Something that an algorithm, robot or computer can't do by itself. Sure, the tech can collect and process data - but it can't necessarily factor in all the social components, perceptions, patterns and ways of thinking that a real live human can.

In 2004, Facebook introduced the world to the dazzling platform of Social Media [sure MySpace came first but that failed entrepreneurship is so microscopic in comparison we can just going to skip it all together]. We all know what Social Media is, but I'm going to break it down for you regardless. Basically, a company creates a platform where users share their lives with other users through illustrations of success, individuality, and self-expression - adorning their lives through selfies, filters on those selfies, and filters on those filters, framing the narrative of the user's life behind the smoke and mirrors of smartphone and laptop screens. With over 400 million users on Instagram, 305 million on Twitter and 200 million on Snapchat, digital culture has grown as standard as overpriced apartments in Liberty Village. 

 

The distinguishable factor between this kind of buy/sell relationship and other forms of consumerism is found with the model in which it operates. When we go buy the new iPhone 6S, we are exchanging money or more credit card debt for a tangible product we take home. When we take a vacation, we pay for an experience. But if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold. Since we are the ones using the service we see ourselves as the consumers. But Facebook's clients aren't really the 1.23 billion users.  

 

 


We are not purchasing anything, in fact. In reality, the consumers are the advertisers to whom our personal information is sold; the same personal  information we eagerly provide through our likes, retweets, interests, searches, and followers. We're doing the work, but we don't view it as work - liking a page on niche climbing gear for women ages 24-30 using only organic materials and handcrafted in the Himalayas isn't the same as waking up at 6am to drag your sorry ass to work. But distributing personal information is like housework - stuff you gotta do but don't get paid for. It's hard to see it as labour, but you still have to scrub the toilet if you know Mum and Dad are coming to visit. 

 

This is a pretty basic example of that something called cognitive capitalism, I mentioned earlier. Checking facebook doesn't feel like much of a mental strain - and by itself, it's not. But then factor in scrolling through Instagram, checking links on Twitter, updating your LinkedIn profile, recording new Snapchat stories, uploading to your YouTube channel, and let's not forget, pinning stuff on Pinterest, and then multiply that by all the people in Toronto alone [and then times that by all major cities in the world]. Now think about jobs that involve real, complicated strategy. Couple that with our massively consumer-oriented society and throw in our digital culture - by demanding the same mass production of these services (brain power) as any other product, and our happy little planet diverges from a healthy, well-functioning society into the shit-smeared hell-hole we have today.

It's an unsustainable production model because we're desperately trying to keep up with robots making shit and we don't get software updates every 6 weeks.

Humans are not machines. Humans cannot keep up with the pace set by machines. Humans cannot process the amount of information thrown at them by these machines. As we push our bodies to their limits we attempt to function as machines, yet deny the fact that we are organic beings with real physical limits. But still, these expectations seem "normal" in lieu with the rest of consumer-driven ideologies that have been rooted deep within the foundation of our Western civilization, with no separation between the very real limitations of the human mind and body and the products we discard when they wear down. In the eyes of cultural norms, we collectively fail to meet the demands of our social contract leaving us miserable, disappointed, exhausted, burnt out and wondering what the hell is wrong with us. 


Once upon a time, I worked for my Dad's construction company. It was super hard, gruelling work where I did things like dig, sod or carry rocks and stuff, and by the time I made it home I often passed out with my boots still on. After a good night's sleep, I'd wake up refreshed [provided I wasn't hungover] and do it all again. Compare this to my the months of April and December hunched over a desk in the basement library cubicles ingesting every bit of knowledge I had failed to keep up with throughout the academic year - and working construction was a joke. After a month of next to no sleep, a shitty diet in the form of dry cafeteria bagels, plastic-wrapped sandwiches and 20mg Adderall capsules, I'd emerge from my cell into a world of black and white. There was no joy, no hope, no sunshine. Everything was terrible. I would never save the world. There was no point to anything at all. A week later, after wallowing in dejected insanity, spoon fed nourishing yummies by Mum and after permanently imprinting my outline into the couch amidst an overwhelming amount of naps, colour would slowly filter through my peripherals, filling my soul with childish glee once more.

 

So what are the side effects of a brain-powered cognitive-capitalist culture? What happens when capitalism utilizes knowledge and other intellectual skills as a production force - as a consumable product - to be exploited for economic gain? What elements of human development are jeopardized by this unattainable precedent of production?

Let me enlighten you: the whole fucking planet is sick. 

 

Digital Dementia is a term coined by some fancy neuroscientist named Spitzer. It maintains that overuse of digital technology is resulting in the breakdown of cognitive abilities. Something about cerebral performance - like short-term memory or, say, intuition - seems to malfunction because we are infiltrated with so much information and data on a daily basis that retaining even a fraction of it, is impossible. Basically, the brain suffers imbalance due to overuse of the right side of the brain - the side where we process stuff - causing deficits in the ability to concentrate, short attention span, memory alterations and emotional disturbances. In short, we are giving ourselves a multitude of mental illnesses faster than we can name them. 

Now let's throw another layer on this mix. We all know what Schizophrenia is. We all saw A Beautiful Mind [one of my fave movies -I relate to John Nash's character with frightening accuracy.]. But for context purposes, let me elaborate. Schizophrenia is a biochemical brain disorder affecting your ability to determine what is real and what is not. Now ask yourself how real Alicia's cases are after a 7 episode binge of The Good Wife. What about all the pictures you throw up on Instagram - you know you used Perfect 365 to edit your eye circles and contour your nose. You know that it was the best selfie of the other 12 you took. You know that the LoFi filter makes your complexion appear smoother than all the other ones. But when you scroll through your feed and stumble across Jessica's newest post, you still find yourself enviously questioning how she looks so fucking good all the time. How insane is that? Seriously. Did you just forget how long it took you to edit your own selfie?

We observe what could be interpreted as simple, early renditions of insanity in our everyday lives - fatigue, stress, anxiety, intense bouts of hard cognitive work followed by reprieve and retreat, de-stressing at home engrossed with Netflix and a bottle of wine. As viewers, we grow emotionally attached to the narratives of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. We find ourselves immersed in video games that are not real, often with an alarming measure of devotion [okay I personally don't cause I have zero hand-eye coordination, but I hear other people do].

 

Everyone is fighting to get ahead in the rat-race of the corporate world, but very few actually are - and if they do, what are they sacrificing to achieve this success? How many times do you come home from work and wonder what the point is? When we cram for exams with an impregnated course load, literally studying for up to 18 hours straight, or slave over a project for weeks with other peoples' money on the line - the rest of the world stops mattering. Clarity ceases to exist. Healthy doses of contemplation and reflection cease to exist. Our brains are on overdrive and most of us don't know how to turn them off. 1 in 4 adults between 18 and 35 have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression - and then there's the whole chunk of us who are too proud or too scared to even talk to our doctors about it, instead hurling ourselves at Self Help books and poorly performed meditation from the privacy of our bedrooms. And then on bad days, we call in sick - ravaged with the fear that we may get fired, or we've "taken too many sick days this year" - crying under our blankets, or lighting up a joint just so we don't have to face a reality that is too fucking hard.  
Through this new age digital culture, we have  created an altered reality, a byproduct of an alternate universe that exists within a digital mind. It is not tangible. It is not real. Our organic bodies, striving to compete with non-organic materials,  are exhausted, fragmented and strung out.

In efforts to keep up with the demands of our culture, it has become normal to supplement the human mind and body through a myriad of medications. We take Adderall to keep focused, Cocaine to keep going, Viagra because we don't have time for foreplay and Prozac to eliminate the awareness of the pointlessness of our lives.  

 

SO. 

This new-age capitalism - using cognitive functions as products for consumption - is taking all our mental energy. By placing the economy on top of these processes, we are collapsing as a functional society. Why do you think so many people are taking that chance to flee to Bancroft and live in a cottage away from the 6ix? What about this whole new trend of Tiny Houses and living off the grid? It's all fine and dandy for those of you who happen to have the resources to find that escape - but what about Generation Y and Zed? 

As organic human beings with limited abilities and resources - both mental and physical - trying to sustain an economic system that never sleeps, is literally killing us. We're consuming pharmaceutical products like Xanax and Zoloft as temporary fixes to band-aid a deeper problem. 

We see a cultural norm of isolation and anxiety, despite holding more tools for connection than ever before. This is what results when human cognition is turned into a business: sacrificing what it is to be human, to exist in a culture that cannot support our basic needs.

But yet - you won't delete Instagram, will you?
[I know I won't]

 

 

 

 

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