“Advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century”, so says Mr Marshall Mcluhan, he of the ‘medium is the message’ message. For most of my adolescence and into my early twenties I was fully onboard with this appraisal of the dark arts – advertising combined my two favourite subjects (art and English) and so a career as an adman offered the perfect platform from which to launch my assault on the worlds of TV, film, music, fashion and whatever else my gilded creative hand desired. An advertising-related degree from Manchester Met Uni was secured and I was on my way to becoming the next Tony Kaye, Ridley Scott, Charles Saatchi…
However, something ended up going right.
After a year of standard exploitation at various agencies in the north of England, I decided to follow a classmate to the big smog where a higher standard of idea-theft awaited. Yet on the cusp of gaining entrance into this hallowed club of media manipulators it all fell apart. There is a longer story here (one I’m currently fictionalising into novel format) but the upshot is, through suffering what I’ve later come to realise was an attack of conscience – less poetically labelled: a nervous breakdown – I was able to escape the nightmare of a life spent chasing the American Dream and begin a less financially rewarding but far more spiritually fulfilling journey.
Today, the urgent-now-now-gadget-filled-buy-buy-sell-sell-nine-to-five-make-money-money-cancer-heart-attack-back-break-rich-before-dying-relentless-rat-race-death-pace sold to us is ever more insidious. The medium and the message ever more sophisticated… and ever more distracting. We are indeed way past Orwell’s 1984 and deep into Huxley’s Brave New World: so ‘preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy’ that there is no need for book-banning or information restriction. This fear of general apathy towards revelations of our oppression is echoed by our most recent consciousness pricker, Edward Snowden.
A caution is needed in elevating such figures to hero status above and beyond the unnamed unpeople actively resisting Empire across the globe yet Snowden and Chelsea Manning’s courageous actions must also give us pause to consider how we use the master-manipulator’s tools.
Although they can and are being used against agendas of hate (see the recent #racistvan hashtag) we must also be mindful of falling into the trap of turning digital activism into clicktivism. Similar awareness is needed of internet and communications media in general – we are actively changing the way our brains process information – complex thoughts, conversations and ideas now captured by a quick snapshot, a visual image, summed up by a one-line joke, a quip; has to be funny, entertaining, glib, less than 140 characters, less than seven seconds… view, listen, like, watch, retweet, like, like me, like me, validate my existence, now, please…
This technological onslaught of apps and innovations may indeed speed us towards some form of utopia where – as Terence McKenna hypothesised – our collective unconscious may evolve towards telepathic communication but, in the mainstream at least, we are drowning. Afloat in an ocean of gigabytes, lessons from history slip through our wireless nets. Instead, we climb aboard celebrity-captained Titanics, happy to Harlem Shake, tweet and twerk the night away, pausing only to chip a little iceberg into our drinks.
On the surface it may seem we are losing this battle of ideas but that is part of the illusion. The meme “We Are the 99 Percent” has global majority credence. Conversations – face to face – are important. Through attempts to mechanise every aspect of our lives: shopping, food, travel, education, entertainment, it is now very possible to go through the week without interacting with another real-time live human being. The systems of imperialism drone on but as yet, they cannot be fully mechanised. The Combine /cruise-ship still requires a driver, a manufacturer, a security guard; it still relies on human beings – and while it does, there is hope of affecting the humanity of the human being inside the uniform. My own ongoing adman to human metamorphosis gives me hope for this essential collective paradigm shift and with each whistle blow from a swim-away slave, my optimism is refreshed.
This then is our role as artists: to provide rafts, life-boats, platforms; moments of respite and possibility away from, inside of, and counter to, the neon cruise ships. To provide human connection, to remind us of our common bond, to change the narrative. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o instructs: to decolonise minds in our own native languages. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautions: to resist The Danger of a Single Story. As Akala demonstrates: to popularise our own terms for our experience. To, as Dorothea Smartt does, embrace the idea of TABOO – There Are Billions Of Options and to engage in what Ben Okri, and Blake before him, term the ‘mental fight’.
Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death
Terence McKenna – The Internet
Glen Greenwald – Edward Snowden’s worst fear has not been realised – thankfully
Futile Democracy – Trolling Racist Van
Centre for Story-based Strategy
Patrick Reinsborough – Giant Whispers: Narrative Power, Radical Imagination and a Future Worth Fighting For
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature
Chimamanda Ngozi – The Danger of a Single Story
Akala – Maangamizi
Sai Murray – TABOO – There Are Billions Of Options
Dorothea Smartt – Killing TINA, Embracing TABOO
Ben Okri – Mental Fight
William Blake – Jerusalem