I am not a Luddite. I enjoy writing here on We Are Respectable Negroes and elsewhere. Social media can be used to bring down regimes and to facilitate the free flow of information; social media can also negatively impact human brain structure, encourage clinical levels of narcissism, and bring people farther apart as opposed to closer together in a healthy, mutually sustaining, community. Ultimately, technology is just a tool. It can be used to either enhance human well-being, livelihood, and meaning; alternatively, technology can also be used to minimize and subvert it.
The last few decades have seen a limiting of engaged and radical citizenship in America (and the West) by the power elite. As Sheldon Wolin, Henry Giroux and others have deftly detailed, the United States is a market corporate democracy where "citizenship" has become conflated with capitalism and consumerism. Citizens have been increasingly socialized from the post World War 2 era, and especially from the late 1950s to early 1970s onward by schools, the media, and the advertising-marketing complex into a state of passivity, if not civic paralysis.
Moreover, citizens have been trained and conditioned to evaluate the efficacy of their leaders, and personal happiness, by the individual's ability to buy and consume (this same public also evaluates political leaders and public policy in the same way that they judge consumer products). What results is an illusory type of freedom, where decisions are confined to a limited set of choices, as opposed to the ability to upset power and engage a political and social project that would ask difficult questions about the Common Good, and how/if our political class is actually serving it.
There may be fleeting moments of citizen-activism such as Occupy Wall Street, or local actions against "stop and frisk" and police brutality for example. But, the mass public is more interested in the latest stupid people trick on reality TV or distracted by the faux horse race and electoral competition between two political parties that are both equally beholden, in varying degrees (however significant the differences) to the plutocrats, banksters, and the 1 percent.
The dream merchants are central to this apparatus of power. The Don Drapers of the world help you to realize needs and desires which to this point you were unaware of. Advertising and marketing are about the creation of false needs and wants. In turn, commercials and other media are designed to create an emotional connection to a product which will satisfy the sense of emptiness created by the dream merchants in the collective self. In total, in a market democracy the citizens feel complete and are made whole by buying things--most of which they do not need.
As Mad Men returns this weekend, I have been thinking about my previous least favorite commercial. To point. Apple's "Think Different" campaign is one of the most sophisticated examples of successful manipulation by the dream merchants of the weakened citizen self in recent advertising history.
How Gandhi or Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., real visionaries and radicals, men who were killed because of their principles of social justice, and courage to speak Truth to Power, could be linked to a consumer's purchase of an Apple computer is both vexing and stupefying.
One does not become great because of the ability to make a purchase. Social visionaries may be aided in their quest by technology. You do not become heir to that legacy of radical struggle by participating in the market as a consumer. A complicit and passive citizenry has been created because so many in the mass public, especially young people, have brought into that vision.
My newest least favorite commercial is for the Spring iphone5. It crystallizes the vulnerability and malleability of the Facebook and Social Media generation(s) to a passive type of citizenship which is actualized by consumerism and the false sense of belonging which comes from being in the embrace of the dopamine laced tentacles of online media, along with its false "friends," "likes," "tweets," "favorites," and other stimuli couched as rewards.
Sprint's narrative is explicit: purchasing a smart phone with unlimited data is the ultimate "freedom" in a digital age. Moreover, unlimited data transcends mere freedom. It is a "right" akin to the human rights which are at the core of Modernity and the Enlightenment projects.
Here, freedom is not the fight for labor or unions, the Black Freedom Struggle, the Women's Movement, or to expand and enhance the public sphere, balancing negative and positive liberty, and to make sure that citizenship is fully evolved and not precarious or contingent. No. Freedom is now buying a device that will allow a person to share the various ephemera of their life with anyone who cares to pay attention to a project of pseudo-fame and narcissism.
There is an Orwellian component to this reworking of both the boundaries and core essence of true freedom: with the rise of the surveillance society, social media's use as a tool by government agencies such as the CIA, NSA, and others to monitor and manipulate the public's mood(s), and how the citizen is actively surrendering privacy for a sense of belonging by in many cases actively uploading their location, purchasing, and other personal information to Facebook and other applications, they are actively complicit with Power's domination and control over their lives.
Sprint's iPhone5 ad also encapsulates the assault on the respectability of the 4th estate and the notion that the press occupies an important and critical role as a watchdog for democracy. Now, with Sprint's iPhone unlimited data plan anyone can be a "photojournalist" because they have a telephone that takes pictures which the passive consumer citizen will most likely post on Instagram or Facebook in an effort to (mis)represent the glorious and meaningful events of the day-to-day quotidian celebrity's life. Here, we/us can be famous too because of our ability to document pseudo-events and then to convince ourselves that they are meaningful and significant.
With the rise of the Internet and social media, Don Draper and the mad men have further solidified their hold over the masses and helped to create a disposable generation of narrow passive citizen who actualize their sense of self through consumerism. The dream merchants realized, long ago, that Power is not just punitive force. It is also reward and pleasure. Power is most effective when citizens willingly surrender to it, internalizing its logic and decision-rules over their own.
Are there any other ads or commercials which produce a similar sense of consternation and disgust at how citizenship has been made passive and moved from the terrain of risky, therefore potentially productive, and significant political struggle to the realm of the commercial and the passive consumer-citizen?