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So Cool, So Digital, So Miserable

Two new books offer a provocative critique of the most powerful forces in work and life today: digital technology and our branded existence. Are you ready to embrace a return to authenticity?

It’s the time of year for taking stock. It’s also the time for airing millennial hopes and anxieties. But rather than float utopian dreams or doomsday scenarios, let’s state some facts — and ask some questions.

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Fact: We are living in an era of unprecedented value creation and innovation.

Question: If we’re making so much progress, how do we account for so much fear of destruction? In 1992, 1,500 scientists, including most of the living Nobelists, signed a “Warning to Humanity.” And two years later, 58 world academies of science released a similar document that warned that population growth, overconsumption, and economic expansion are destroying Earth’s irreplaceable natural capital.

Fact: Americans have the highest standard of living on the planet, characterized by convenience and staggering abundance.

Question: If our quality of life is so evolved, why are so many people scrambling to simplify and downshift their lives? As much as 12% percent of the U.S. population has joined the “voluntary simplicity” movement. Americans are buying “simplicity” books by the millions and are moving to the country in droves.

Fact: We’re living in an era of dizzying individual freedom, control, and choice. People have never been more free to invent the kind of life they want to lead; consumers have never had more information and direct access to companies.

Question: If things are so good, why do we feel so bad? Since the 1940s, worldwide rates of major depression have risen steadily in every age group. The United States has a higher rate of depression than that of almost any other country, and data show that as Asian countries Americanize, depression rates increase accordingly.

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These are some of the simple facts — and poignant questions — at the heart of two important new books whose timing could not be better. In interlocking arguments, “High Tech/High Touch: Technology and Our Search for Meaning” (Broadway Books, $25) and “Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America” (Eagle Brook/William Morrow, $25) argue that the very forces providing the momentum behind the new economy are also producing cultural violence, environmental destruction, and widespread anomie. What’s more, we’re so caught up in the cycle of consumption that we’ve lost our free will: We watch the hit summer movie and then buy the laptop the hero used to outwit the bad guys; we upgrade to the newer, better gadget even when the old one works fine; we laugh when a laugh track tells us to.

It’s a simple, graphic — and persuasive — argument, made even starker because it comes from such distinct voices. John Naisbitt has been a member of the techno-elite and a pioneering social forecaster since 1982, when he published “Megatrends.” (He wrote “High Tech/High Touch” with his daughter, Nana Naisbitt, and Douglas Philips.) Kalle Lasn, author of “Culture Jam,” also created Adbusters magazine (www.adbusters.org) and is the architect of a global network of artists, activists, writers, educators, and entrepreneurs he calls “culture jammers.” Rather than millennial rants of frustrated Luddites, these push-back manifestos present a picture of the way we live with an activist spirit and a humanistic message.

Plugged In, Disconnected

Naisbitt and his coauthors take on our complex and unexamined relationships with a panoply of new technologies. Technology, says Naisbitt, has become the conversation in America. “We talk about television shows, media events, and Internet jokes as if they were our own personal stories,” he says.

More than an obsession, Naisbitt argues, our relationship with technology has taken on the characteristics of an addiction. We confuse reality with life on the screens that pervade our lives: movie screens, TV screens, computer screens, Game Boy screens, personal electronic-organizer screens, cell-phone screens, call-screening screens. “Screens are everywhere,” says Naisbitt. “They’re in every setting, directing us, informing us, amusing us. And without our conscious awareness, they are shaping us.”

Naisbitt’s aim is not to trash technology but to lift our awareness of it, to “detoxify” our relationship with it, and to ground it in the “high touch” realm: the sweet, fresh face of a three-year-old girl, the smell of a hot bowl of soup, an idea that tickles your soul. Naisbitt decodes our interaction with technology through the unique human lenses of time, play, religion, and art. He starts off by asking, “What is the effect of surrounding ourselves with technology all day, every day, at home, at work, and in our cars, with no relief?” His answers are alarming.

One of technology’s most alluring promises is the ability to save time — to simplify our complex, hurried lives. Naisbitt argues that we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns with consumer technology. Paradoxically, “what promises to save us time consumes our time.” We spend so much time upgrading, maintaining, and synchronizing our technology that we’re always a frantic step behind in our obsession with productivity and efficiency.

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If we think that information technologies have had a profound impact on society, watch out for the innovations of the next century, says Naisbitt. Genetic technologies raise even bigger questions — and call our very humanity into question. In the second half of the book, Naisbitt demonstrates the power of conscious reflection and pluralistic dialogue to anticipate those consequences and deal with them. In a fascinating discussion of the various genetic technologies on the table, Naisbitt weaves the opinions, questions, and thoughts of a diverse panel of theologians into a dialogue.

He ends with a review of the cutting-edge “Specimen Art” movement — with its themes of sex, death, inner body, and the corporeal. It’s a fitting demonstration of his contention that “Fringe voices raise flags, blaze trails, and give perspective. They warn, they amuse, they cajole, often with wisdom. If we listen carefully to the voices that seem extreme today, we may glean what it would be like to live as peaceful human beings in a technologically dominated time.”

The Unswooshing of America

That’s certainly a recommendation for turning to “Culture Jam.” Kalle Lasn, like John Naisbitt, paints a harrowing picture of media addiction and “mental toxins.” But he points the finger more strenuously at what he terms the “Corporate Cool Machine.” Broadly sketched, the problem with our society today, says Lasn, is that “America is no longer a country. It’s a multitrillion-dollar brand. America is essentially no different from McDonald’s, Marlboro, or General Motors.” Our culture is no longer created by the people, he argues. Our stories are now told by companies instead of being passed down within families and communities. “The most powerful narcotic in the world is the promise of belonging,” writes Lasn. “And belonging is best achieved by conforming to the prescriptions of America.”

Our very freedom and authenticity have been co-opted by “a perverted sense of cool” doled out by big brands. ” ‘Cool’ used to mean unique, spontaneous, compelling ? Then ‘cool’ changed. Marketers got hold of it and actually reversed its meaning. Now you’re cool if you are not unique — if you have the look and the feel that bear the unmistakable stamp of America. Hair by Paul Mitchell. Khakis by The Gap. Cars by BMW. Attitude by Nike. Pet phrases by [David] Letterman. Politics by Bill Maher.”

While Lasn laments “it used to be easier to work up a good rage,” he manages to raise considerable ire — as well as a plan of action. He proposes a simple but radical “rebranding strategy” for our culture: Turn the power of marketing against itself in a series of “demarketing” or “uncooling” campaigns. Lasn and his network of culture jammers have already spent the past decade producing professional uncommercials such as “Buy Nothing Day,” “TV-Turnoff Week,” and “Obsession Fetish,” and petitioning (unsuccessfully) major networks and media conglomerates for airtime. He likens the media universe to the former Soviet Union: There, it was forbidden to speak out against the government. “In North America today you cannot speak out against the sponsors.”

Lasn dedicates his book to enlisting readers in the fight and creates a spunky tool kit for his brand of civil disobedience. The goal: to reclaim “mental control.” He also poses a question: “What does it mean when a whole culture dreams the same dream? . . . Dreams, by definition, are supposed to be unique and imaginative. Yet the bulk of the population is dreaming the same dream. It’s a dream of wealth, power, fame, plenty of sex and exciting recreational opportunities.” But he leaves readers with a sense of hope and something worth striving for: “What’s better than being rich? Being spontaneous, authentic, alive.”

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FC Recommends

Big Idea: “The Long Boom: A Vision for the Coming Age of Prosperity,” by Peter Schwartz, Peter Leyden, and Joel Hyatt (Perseus Books, $26). Best read through rose-colored glasses. A look at how far the business world has come in the past 20 years, and where it’s headed in the next 20.

Best Practice: “The Microsoft Edge: Insider Strategies for Building Success,” by Julie Bick (Pocket Books, $20). A behind-the-scenes look at life in Redmond, Washington, with an emphasis on ideas and techniques that you can apply to your work life. Real, hands-on, useful stuff.

Sleeper: “The Cathedral & The Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary,” by Eric S. Raymond (O’Reilly, $19.95). Essays, commentaries, and white papers from one of the most influential thinkers on the future of software coding and Internet-style competition.

Keeper: “All Hat and No Cattle: Shaking Up the System & Making a Difference at Work,” by Chris Turner (Perseus Books, $25). The former “Learning Person” at a major business unit of Xerox offers a smart (and hilarious) manual for change agents. If you want to have an impact inside your company, read this book.

Cheat Sheet

After reading these books, you’ll never want to watch TV again. So during your next human interaction, try these messages about life on the screens, adapted from “High Tech/High Touch.”

Murder Inc.: The U.S. electronic-game industry is a $16 billion business (twice the size of Hollywood’s box-office gross). Here are some video-game slogans created for kids: “Act Locally, Kill Globally, Unleash the Beast Within”; “You’re serving up massive destruction and roadkill is the main course.”

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It’s the Television, Stupid!: In 1992, the American Medical Association published a study that found that the homicide rate doubles in almost any part of the world 15 years after television first appears there.

Programmed Kids: In the Disney-planned high-tech community of Celebration, Florida, schoolchildren wear “Java” rings encoded with their name, social-security number, and which books they’ve checked out of the library. Parents program their child’s Java ring with money so that kids can insert the ring into a slot and buy lunch or snacks at school.

Conspiracy Theory: The ACLU has a name for invasive technology: “function creep.” The social-security identification system, which was created specifically for use with the retirement program of the 1930s, has become a universal identification system. A social-security number serves as personal identifier, tax ID, driver’s license number, health-insurance code, and employee ID. Likewise, DNA testing has experienced function creep. The government is considering testing everyone who gets arrested. Hospitals and insurance companies are proposing the creation of DNA data banks.

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