Monthly Archives: January 2007

Masterpieces of Persuasion (Part III)

In America, during the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign aired a historic television advertisement. The commercial itself has since become iconic of the dawning of the age of ‘political advertising’, and has always remained my favourite example of the incredible power of good advertising.

In the ad, we hear the voice of Johnson as he boldly proclaims “These are the stakes.” This tagline was used again by the Republican Party during the 2006 General Elections, in direct reference to the threat of terrorism.

We must never underestimate the power of fear as a tool for weilding political influence. I was first shown this ad in a lecture about 5 years ago, and it has always stood out in my mind as the most stirring advertisement ever produced. By capturing the hearts and minds of a nation, this ad proves that advertising is capable of selling far more than lip-gloss and automobiles.

The ad is called “Daisy Girl,” and for obvious reasons, it was aired only once.

This ends the “Masterpieces of Persuasion” three-part series.

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The Speakeasy: Watering-Hole of the Damned

Bars, pubs, nightclubs, whatever you call them. Places where you go to drink. They are always really interesting places. But you know, I would love just once to experience a something called a “speakeasy.”

There was a time in American history when the federal government banned the production, sale, export, import and consumption of all alcoholic beverages (1920 – 1933). Drinking establishments in the cities used loosely conceived storefront facades to disguise the fact that they were still selling booze (smuggled in by the Mafia of course). They were called Speakeasies because you had to “speak easy” when you ordered.

In other words the sale of alcohol continued just under the radar of the law, through a network of quiet subcultural social cues and organized smuggling. Funny, how human society insisted upon having its freedom to drink. The prohibition was eventually lifted as a result of social pressure. 

You know, sometimes I think North American might have been a better place if prohibition had worked back in those early days. It’s a shame that people kept demanding it, because it ultimately led to organized crime. If people had instead accepted prohibition, then it would have been fantastic! No drinking and driving, no alcoholism and abuse, no barfights and puke on the streets. Cities might have been, at least, a bit more livable for people.

So why do we insist that we be allowed to consume CnH2n+1OH for the purposes of pyschological and physical anebriation?

And why is it that some people in my generation are so socially dependent on the consumption of alcohol, that they cannot engage in social communication until they are drunk as a skunk? Why is it that people need a depressive chemical agent in order to have the capacity to meaningfully engage the opposite sex? It’s all a bit silly, and I sometimes regret the fact that I sometimes have fallen victim to it.

I’ve heard many people debating about whether or not alcohol makes you a bad person, or if it lets the real you come out. I have to say, this is one debate I have never been able to form a solid opinion on. I think alcohol brings something out of people, but I also think it brings the bad side out of people, more than the good.

And what does it mean, to be “drunk” anyways? When you think about it, it’s actually a very peculiar feeling, like a very bizarre state of consciousness. You don’t feel like yourself as much, you feel kinda like only half there. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s a pretty horrible human condition. And yet, we insist on putting ourselves in such conditions.

I don’t think anyone can claim that they’re above it. If you don’t drink, smoke or do drugs… if you don’t drink coffee, eat lots of fast food or drink a lot of pop… then you probably have some other vice that provides you with your own addictive chemical state. Maybe you gamble, maybe you get angry, or maybe you have sex or maybe you cry. Any way you decide to do it, it’s apparent that humans have a bad side of them that always needs to find a way out.

Anyways, the point is that Speakeasies usually had secret tunnels leading out the back alley so that people could escape when the feds showed up. Call me crazy, but that would be fucking fun!

Five Easy Steps To Making Sense of a Senseless World

We live in a very complicated world. So complicated, in fact, that I don’t think there is any one person on Earth who knows what is really going on in the grand scheme of things. People like to point fingers and put blame on others because that is just what people do. Blame blame blame… but it never does the world any good. So in this entry, I propose a review of some of the major complications facing the world today, and I will try my best not to make it accusational towards any person, political body or school of thought, UNTIL the end. Then, I will point the finger directly at the source. Ultimately I wish to give readers my own personal take on the world, the overarching trends that I have read about or noticed, and what it means to our possible future. I want to tell you who I personally blame for the world we live in. So if you have 10 minutes or so to waste, please read on with an open mind.

I’ll start with the biggest issue:

1) Climate change – Though this issue is often framed by the media as a scientific debate, I firmly believe that that is untrue. Meteorology is a complicated science, and it is sometimes impossible to reach positive conclusions. Rationally speaking, I think we’ve reached the point where there is at least enough statistical significance in the research to show that there is something going on that is at least worth stopping to think about. Can we not all agree on that much?

Who cares where the blame lies? Shouldn’t we still address the issue in a more meaningful way rather than just arguing about it, or making idle chatter about it? More importantly, shouldn’t we be just a LITTLE bit skeptical of big business and the media telling us that “everything is okay” while they persistently reiterate the obvious reality that “nobody can prove anything?” Personally, I chose to believe in the only body that is unbiased and untethered to any special interest: the scientific community. And everywhere you read, resoundingly scientists warn of disaster if society does not begin to respond in a more proactive way to impending climatological fluctiations. Period.

Whether or not climate change is caused directly by CO2 emissions is, in the longrun, irrelevent. The broader implications are clear: natural or not, the changing climate will pose potentially insurmountable challenges to the future of human habitation on Earth. That means flooding, desertification, rising sea-levels and the loss of arable land could become very real problems to even more people around the world, including the west, in our lifetimes. Of course, climate has always been very dynamic, and so it should be expected that we will adapt. The only difference now is that the current human occupancy on Earth is far greater than it ever has been, (energy demands nearly matching Earth’s photosynthetic capacity), so adapting to changing climates will not be as fluid as it might have been for the small groups of nomadic tribesmen and tribeswomen who survived ice ages long before us.

Most climatologists will tell you that climate change is an ongoing natural process, one that is actually intrinsic to the continuing survival of life on Earth. Throughout the course of one human lifespan, one will get to know some of the rhythms and cycles of planet Earth very well. For example, most of us are familiar with the cycle of day and night, the tidal rhythm, or annual rotation of the seasons. It is much more difficult for the average human to distinguish the broader patterns and cycles that exist on Earth, such as glaciation, changes in oceanic currents or patterns in the geological cycle.

Consider that any humans born during an ice age would have had no history books or scientific data – in other words no frame of reference by which to compare their current climate. They just accepted what they had. And that is what we will have to do. The question is: is it possible for mankind to adapt to climate change in our current state of global economic interdependency? I’d be lying if I said I had the answer. It’s often difficult to make out exactly how we’re all connected.

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The fact is that climate change has always been a challenge to mankind. It is only NOW, in the age of human civilization that we have become more broadly aware of it. Because of modern science and recorded history, we can begin to gauge our situation within the climatological process. We have long lived in naivety, with the assumption that the Earth has always been (and always will be) a bountiful place for the human species to live. Sometimes I think the worry over climate change is like the first pangs of panic for a species that is slowly realizing that it’s great civilization was NOT built on solid foundations, but on quicksand. Only now, thanks to the advent of modern science and relative international cooperation, we can begin to truly grasp how dynamic the Earth’s weather really is. Limited though it may be, remember that our knowledge and records of climate change has been, historically, non-existent.

I’m not saying we should or shouldn’t act to STOP climate change. I really don’t know if there is much point. So why do I cite climate change as a potential source of human strife? The reason is simple: because man’s fate always has been and always will be inextricably tied to the land… because changing climates means changing power relations. Changing weather will only intensify already existing problems. It is not the sun or the ice we should fear, it is our own REACTION that we should fear. That brings me to number 2.

2) The Continuing Spread of Warfare – Despite a long list of political and/or ideological motivations for going to war, it ought to be maintained that violence in human civilzation has ultimately been an economic endeavour. The struggle for land and resources has persisted throughout much of history as the primary cause of aggression. Land and resources are, of course, entirely geographical factors. Western civilization only increased in size and complexity because of its geographical advantage (See Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs & Steel”). As the fissure between rich and poor nation-states becomes further wedged by the diminishing availability of vital resources and fluctuating accessibility to productive land, desperation will inevitably contribute to the ever increasing anti-western attitudes among those nations that are at an economic disadvantage. If they decide to express this anger using violence, we call it “terrorism.”

Under the banners of the major organized religions, wars will be fought over land and resources just as they always have been. Already, there is a culminating tension between old enemies, Christianity and Islam, over the last drops of industrial life-blood that is fossil-fuel. Though the institutions of religion often exploit their doctrines as rationale for engaging in war, it would be naive to think that conflict in the Middle East is ALL about Jihads and Crusades. It must be clear to everyone by now; oil is also a factor. Yes, the crude slurry of hydrocarbons that makes our way of life possible, just happens to be found abundantly in politically unstable desert countries. How unfortunate for us.

So why is there conflict in the Middle-East, Africa and South-East Asia? Trying to wrap one’s head around all the subtle geopolitical complexities on Earth can drive someone to the brink of insanity. Like I said in my introduction, I don’t think anybody can truthfully claim to know everything about it. Instead, as individuals we must look at the trends and use our better judgement to formulate rational opinions. Unfortunately, a lot of people are TOO broad in their analysis. For example, they conclude that because the Middle-East, Africa and South-East Asia are all predominantly MUSLIM, that Islamic faith is necessarily to blame for all the violence. This is an utterly naive assumption, based more on bigotry, ignorance and fear than on sound political analysis.

In fact, there is another commonality between these three regions: poverty! I find it far more likely that aggression towards the west is in fact a reaction to economic disparity, as has been the case throughout all of human history. And, as usual, the institutions of faith serve as convenient symbols through which support can be rallied, and through which power and be consolidated (Islam for Al-Queda, Neo-Christianty for the American Middle-Classes). It’s the same as any other war: the Allies were ultimately fighting Nazism, NOT Germany… and yet Germany often gets labeled as the cause of  World War II. Like I said, you have to read the trends, but be careful not to generalize.

 It is perfectly clear that Islam is not the source of international conflict. It’s just a convenient symbol to plug into the over-simplified narratives of good & evil that we have oft’ turned to in times of uncertainty and fear. Don’t make the mistake of denouncing an entire belief system simply because it is being used as a symbolic vehicle for terrorism. And I know a few other people who use fancy doublespeak to disguise the fact that they are related to terrorist organizations. That brings me to number 3.

3) The American Administration – There are many people who like to blame the administration of the American Empire for all the conflict overseas. This is because America has engaged in a number of militaristic endeavours around the world since the end of the Cold War. The specific reasons for going to war have varied from region to region, and have also varied in success. But there is a common theme between all of them: America has consistently tried to depose autocratic or fascist governments in order to replace them with auspicious ‘business-friendly’ regimes. They call it “democratization.” Depending on who you ask, and what your ideological leanings are, this can be considered very good or very bad. This is how the Americam military divides the world into “areas of responsibility:”

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I’ve often wondered: why would America want to spread democracy to other countries? What do they, as a nation, have to gain? Again, one must consider this question in the broader scope. Consider that the American political system is just a bureaucratic process by which the manifest will of both corporations and consumers is exerted. It should come as no surprise, then, that America’s foreign policy necessarily entails exporting consumerism… even if it means turning that country’s political system upside down… even if it means introducing and manipulating farcical puppet regimes through intangible networks of international business relationships. Over the decades America has used a variety of methods to get what it needs from other countries (thus the ever growing anti-Americanism in the international community). And yet, it seems to easy to just put all the blame on the American government. That can’t be right.

America is not responsible for poverty in other parts of the world. What it IS responsible for is acting greedily and irresponsibly towards these vulnerable nations. And yet, we cannot blame the American government directly. After all, it is technically  a democracy, which means it is theoretically governed by its citizens. How can the everyday decisions of citizens in the west be responsible for all this conflict? Is it possible that THEY are the greedy ones? That brings me to number 3.

4) Consumerism – Something funny happens when you combine democracy with a free capitalist market. Over time, your vote becomes less important. More important… is what you buy.

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We’re all aware of the incredible centralization and corporatization of western business over the past few decades. Now, many of the bigger corporate bodies are more powerful than some nation-states. This means that they have unprecedented political influence. This is enhanced by the fact that corporate America and the Whitehouse share similar social circles which often overlap to produce dubious power relations that can be socially counter-productive. If one man can have a cushy chair on board of directors at an energy company, and a cushy chair in congress at the same time, then it’s obviously not likely that a lot of Clean Energy Laws are going to get passed. Thus, the corporation poses a very real threat to the fundamental principles of democracy and capitalism (despite the fact that corporations were originally facilitated by the combination of democracy and capitalism). Ironic, yes I know.

This is how I imagine it: a simplified theoretical system for trying to make sense of the consumer economy. I think that every time you drink a Coke, eat Sushi, or fill your gas tank, YOU indirectly put a small amount of pressure on that system to secure the necessary resources for you:

You Buy Gas

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Gas Market Goes Up

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Exxon Mobil Stock Rises, Has Greater Influence

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Democratic/Capitalist System Abides Forces in Market

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Administration Engages in Exploitative Economic Endeavour to Meet Demand

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Planes Crash Into Buildings

Corporations are threatening for another reason: they tend to trick consumers into making stupid choices. It really is that simple. I don’t need to prattle on about the obvious reality distortions created by Wall Street… we’ve all seen the ads and we all know that they’re bullshit. But at the end of the day, advertising immerses us so completely into the consumer lifestyle that we find it impossible as individuals to remove ourselves from it. By cleverly using products to code the very rituals of everyday life, corporate America has slowly incubated generations of individuals who are so dependent on (and addicted to) the promises of the consumer life-style that very few people will actually choose to engage in responsible consumption habits. After all, it takes a great deal of personal sacrifice, and that goes against human nature.

The ultimate symbol of the paradoxical nature of consumerism is Wal-Mart: the company that has become simultaneously emblematic of the threats that corporatization poses to the American dream (entrepreneurial opportunity, local community, self-sufficiency), and the immediate demands of the everyday consumer (economy-scaled pricing, convenience). As a society, the west must choose which it values more. The Wal-Mart example nicely illustrates the kind of ultimatum consumer society will have to face, probably very soon. And who will help us make that choice? 

5) The Irresponsible Media – The media does not help us to make sound decisions. Now heavily tied-in to the corporate world (through partnerships, buy-outs, mergers and other synergies), the institutionalized media’s agenda is primarily to perpetuate irresponsible consumption habits. This is done by skillfully using the cultural industries (music, movies, television etc.) as platforms for creating false needs among the population. Advertisers employ powerful methods of persuasion, often targeting younger generations who are vulnerable to various social and sexual pressures. By encoding products with different social meanings, the consumer system effectively weaves the act of consumption into the very tapestry of human courtship and everyday social engagement. The popular media is thus a very big part of the problem… much more than a mere “distraction.” The popular media is a continual reminder that “everything is alright” – the collective delusion of an entire civilization in denial.

In fact, what you will see in the media is a flagrant trivialization of the most important issues. The major problems facing planet Earth today are addressed as if they were of peripheral importance to the tribulations of Hollywood’s “cultural elite,” or as if they were verboten and tired. Conflict in Iraq, for example, is often treated in the media as something “other worldly,” as if the repercussions of Middle-Eastern violence are of no real consequence to the western lifestyle… as if by the grace of our hand we could stop the spread of war at anytime… as if this war will just quietly disappear when we get bored of it… as if the sights on their weapons were not squarely set on us. That is why many young people did not hear about Osama Bin-Laden, Sunnis, Shi-ites or even Islam until after the dust had already settled in New York. Reality is bad for business.

The fundamental architecture of our popular media actually discourages dialogue and discussion, and encourages ignorance and apathy – it gives us that “warm & fuzzy” feeling that makes us want to invest in DVD collections and 3-year cell-phone contracts… you know, that feeling that disappeared temporarily in 2001, when we caught a brief glimpse of reality and the kind of unstable world that we actually live in. We cannot count on the media to keep us aware of changes in our world, that much is painfully obvious. One day, it will just happen… and then we will know.

And so we can’t blame the weather, nor the reality of war. We can’t blame our governments, our shopping malls, or our television sets. We can only blame:

Ourselves – I once read that our generation has a very unique responsibility. Ours is the first generation that has the power to end civilization, if we so choose. Ours is the first generation that must overcome human nature and, for the first time ever, choose to have less. We can hope that changes on our Earth will be gradual enough to allow for adaptation, but we can never be sure. It’s up to us. Ordinary people, naked as the day we were born.

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All said and done, let me say that I am optimistic. I know there are people out there that think about these things all the time, and have already begun to prepare themselves mentally for the kinds of drastic social changes that our generation will face. Just exactly how it all goes down, I can’t guess. As I said before, I’m only looking at broad trends here, and I could very well be wrong about a number of things (comments are open if you want to fill me in on your opinions). All I know for sure is that “this” will not be a feasible way of life forever.

And where is there hope?

You know, I make a lot of entries in this blog praising the Internet. I really want to express how ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL I think it is. I don’t just think of it as a handy tool, I truly believe it could be the saving grace of human civilization. If you go back and read the problems that I’ve listed, the Internet has the potential to change many of them. It has the power to bring down empires, re-ignite discussion and re-create communities. It puts a great deal of power back into the hands of everyday people, and it is those same everyday people that will rise up and begin to make more informed and responsible decisions.

By virtue of me writing this, and the fact that you chose to read it, proves that I’m on to something! Because it shows that we are at least thinking about it, and that we do care.

Moderated Presence (Howl of the MSN Junky)

“Moderated presence” is a fairly new word. It basically came about with the rise of online chat and instant messaging. It’s the idea that you can be “online” or “offline.” However, in many later generations of IM service (such as the current MSN Messenger), one can chose from a more scalar representation of presence, rather than strictly categorical. That is, one can be “out to lunch” or “away”… within some moderated version of presence.

I think this is a brilliant realization of how individuals actually act in society. I have often noticed that people often consciously monitor the degree to which “they” are present, even in real world face-to-face social situations. I think that people somehow, hold back… as if they are intentionally not showing a very big part of themselves.  I find these to be very peculiar people. What are they holding back, and why? What do they NOT want the world to see? Thus the need for an virtual manifestation of “moderated presence.” Perhaps you are insecure, perhaps you seek social gratification…. either way, there is a buddy icon just for you… a little place inside you that wants to stay hidden.

That’s not that I’m against IM culture. In fact, I predict that IM is far more important to my generation than most people tend to think. I can honestly say, I would probably not be friends with the people I call friends, if it weren’t for the advent of socially acceptable Instant Messaging. It’s a fantastic way to broaden one’s social prospects. In fact, ultimately what I’m saying is that Instant Messaging filled a necessary social need among people… to have friends at an arms length, if you so chose, without ever losing touch. It’s a new kind of control that people have over the tightness of their social networks. It’s now much harder to lose touch with people than it is to stay in touch with them. I mean crickey, I don’t talk to 90% of the people on my MSN list, but I ain’t deleting ’em any time soon! Weird how it goes.

And everyone is the same. Nobody talks to EVERYBODY on their lists… just the same as nobody actually wants to party with all their friends at the same party. People gotta pick and choose which friend belongs in which situation… which friend they wanna stay closest to, which friend was just providing convenient rides all those years, which friend gets blocked, and which gets added to your list.

So don’t write off the language of emoticons just because it seems silly. Instant Messaging is an incredibly powerful tool for social communication, hands down. It will likely exist in some form or another for the rest of our lives. My generation is hooked to text-based social communication now… it’s what we grew up in and now it’s all we know how to do. Some people can only conduct meaningful communication over text-based media now… it’s really quite strange. Be it MSN Window, email or blog… many of the tough conversations I’ve had in life have been conducted on at least one of the three, always written vague and cryptically. Don’t you feel the same?

Book Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

In order to keep track of the books I read this year, I’m going to post short book reviews in my blog. The first book I read of 2007 was “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon. It is the unlikely tale of a boy with autism who tries to solve the mystery of who stabbed his neighbors dog to death with a pitchfork. While unraveling the mystery, he inadvertently unravels the scandal of his parents’ separation. I like the book because it does a good job of vividly illustrating the world from the perspective of an autistic person. Also, it’s just well written. There is a good balance of tension, mystery and comic relief. My only complaint was that the mystery was too easy to solve. But it’s quick and easy, and definitely worth the read.

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iPhone: The Product The World Has Been Waiting For

Steve Jobs has finally made the keynote lecture that everyone has been waiting for. He introduced the iPhone, Apple’s portable media/communications device for the year 2007. I’ve spent much of the past year imagining what this product would look like. Would it have a clickwheel? What would the keypad look like? Would it be white?

I never imagined this.

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Apple has always been famous for coming up with innovative user-interfaces. They inveted the mouse and the clickwheel. The iPhone uses an interface called “Multi-Touch” which basically means that there are no buttons on the device… the entire screen is touch sensitive, and it changes depending on what is on screen. I knew this technology was possible… but I thought we had a few years to wait.

I’ve always believed that interface design is the most important part of any new technology. If you look back on which devices have met with success in the market, it’s always the devices that make it easy and fun for people to use. Apple has certainly clued in, and has always made devices that are fun. I think the iPhone is the sexiest piece of technology I’ve ever seen.

It comes out in Canada in summer 2007. It will cost between $500-$600. It plays music and full widescreen videos, just like an iPod. But it has other weird quirks. For example, if you turn it on it’s side (so it looks widescreen), the screen will automatically go widescreen as well. You can use your finger to flip through your album artwork just like in iTunes. It connects to the Internet and SMS networks just like any other cell-phone. It’s also got BlueTooth and WiFi, so it can connect to the Internet in a meaningful way (unlike other cellular technology).

Finally, we are beginning to see a new generation of portable devices that bring together all of the needs of consumers. I can confidently predict that this product will be just as successful as the iPod MP3 franchise, if not more.

By 2008, we will syncronize not only our music with our computers, but our telephones and televisions as well. Throw YouTube and Google into the equation, and well… you can just imagine what they have in store. With Apple’s new line of products, I am finally beginning to see how the Internet and television will be bridged. Could Apple ultimately end up being the primary arbiter of nearly all digital media? I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Jobs had that in mind.

I suggest anyone interested in the future of consumer technology watch Jobs’ Keynote Address. Click here to find it.

Death of a Dictator

I think it’s an amazing fact that a cell-phone was used to document the execution of a dictator, and that the world watched it on YouTube. Nobody will ever convince me that media studies is not important.

The following video, choppy though it may be, is still somewhat graphic. Those who are not comfortable watching an execution should abstain from watching. However, for those of you who insist on familiarizing themselves with current events, this is the full hanging of Saddam Hussein.

I chose to feature this video for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think it’s an important moment in history – that much is clear. Furthermore, I’ve always believed that people should take the time to see what actually goes on in the world, even the graphic details. Why should we shield ourselves from the brutality and violence suffered in other parts of the world?

That’s Western arrogance for you. We like to just sit back and say “I don’t like watching people die or get shot. I don’t like watching bomb explosions and children being dismembered.” Well big fucking surprise, neither do the Iraqis! But holy shit, they have to live with it everyday! I feel sickened that some people choose to turn a blind eye, as if it were a scene in a movie. If anything, I’ve always felt we should make a conscious effort to acquaint ourselves with the kind of violence that is happening around the world. It’s the only way it will affect us.

As a side note: I’m sick of hearing about how Saddam’s execution is being used for political leverage in the US. The man was a cold blooded murderer, and he got killed for it. If you care so deeply about human rights, then go pick on something a little more pressing than the death of a ruthless autocratic dictator. You know, there is still genocide in Africa, just in case you forgot, you self-righteous hypocrites. 

If anyone is using Saddam’s execution to spin politics, it’s all the ignorant leftists trying once again to blame “The Bush Administration” for anything and everything to do with the Middle East. I’ve always marvelled at how the whole “anti-bush” movement claims his administration to be simultaneously the most ignorant and the most clever one. Make up your minds! Sure, the Bush family wanted Saddam dead. But Saddam lived in a fucking palace and used nerve agents to kill hundreds of his own people. Do you think maybe some other people might want him dead too? And don’t you think they should be factored into the whole equation before you go putting all the blame on “the man?” Damn hippies.