Showing posts with label Media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Media. Show all posts

16 December 2011

Commodification of the Self

I HAVE WRITTEN THAT I do not believe in virtual community, that the phrase itself is a misnomer, and I have been critical of the role of technology in our lives. Recently my attention was drawn to a rave entitled Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace by Carmen 'humdog' Hermosillo posted on The Well, an early online "community" in which she talks about the commodification of the self via the Internet. If anything this phenomenon has become more ubiquitous since she wrote her essay in 1994. [1]

The self here is obviously self without any of the technical spin normally associated with a religious point of view. A single example will suffice to show how the internet commodifies and on-sells the self. This process is exemplified, and perhaps even finds it's apotheosis in Facebook and other online social networking sites. Facebook is a profit making enterprise. It exists to make the owners rich, which it has done beyond their wildest dreams, and it does this by pushing entertainment and selling advertising. The form of entertainment it uses is ersatz social relationships and commodified thoughts and emotions. Each user expresses them self by broadcasts their verbalised thoughts and emotions. This is then re-presented for our 'friends' along with a number of adverts. The friends are supposedly people we have a social relationship with, though often there is no offline relationship at all.

It is the adverts that pay for Facebook. "Free" blogs, like this one, are more or less the same business model. I broadcast my thoughts and opinions which you consume and it's paid for indirectly. I do have Google ads, and get paid about USD10 per year for them [NOTE Sept 2017 I stopped hosting Google ads some years ago, J]. Google don't mind that this is not a popular blog, as long as it's active and some people read it and see the ads. Google's business is all about aggregates of activity. There are tens of millions of blogs like mine, and 100,000s more each day, and some get massive readership. The popular ones subsidise the rest of us. If you want to write an uber blog then lists of top blogs suggest you write about celebrities, technology, politics (certainly do not write the arcane elements of early Buddhist philosophy and linguistics!)

If you don't like my opinions, you don't stop using the internet, you just go consume some other opinions that suit you better - that you find more entertaining. The Internet is an almost infinite source of entertainment. And what is entertainment? Entertainment is an activity we undertake purely in order to experience certain emotions. Emotions are the opiate of the world, which the Buddha clearly knew when he described people as intoxicated by sensory experience. We are often blind to the emotions naturally occurring in us, and only feel the kind of intense emotions evoked by more extreme stimuli. News media actively seek to stimulate our reptile brain, to induce fear, disgust and anger. Just occasionally they try to make us laugh or coo (what I call kitten stories). On the internet the range of emotional provocation is much broader. Whatever emotion you want to feel in yourself, you can turn to the internet to stimulate it. We live in environments that are highly artificial and hyper-stimulating. Modern life dulls our emotions, and so in order to feel alive we seek out artificial stimulation: we're like people who have to have chilli on every meal, and have lost any appreciation for subtle flavours.

Since these personal opinions and stories are now a product being on-sold by Facebook, Blogger, Google et al, then our inner lives have become a commodity with a commercial value. And do we ever stop to ask whether this is a good thing? Should we not be paid by social media for providing them with entertainment content for the businesses that have made them mega-rich? Facebook is basically a social parasite. It kids us that by repackaging a service we already have (email) into a broadcast medium, that we are more in touch with people. But there is no 'touch' involved in email.

In my critique of so-called "virtual community" - ersatz community would be more a more accurate name - I said that online relationships lack eyebrows, they lack the multiple dimensions of personal relationships. Psychologists have coined a term for these non-real relationships: they're called Parasocial Relationships. These can include TV and novel characters, as well as internet friends we've never met. The former are like imaginary friends. Why do we indulge in this kind of relationship? We are social primates. We thrive in small groups where we experience a sense of belonging by being involved in the lives of our community. One of the ways we express our membership of the group is grooming each other. Some people have theorised that language evolved as a form of grooming, and I imagine that language can certainly play this kind of role - especially our non-word sounds. I wonder if texting is another form of grooming.

In the absence of a community to be involved in, we find substitutes in, for example, soap operas. Even quite intelligent people can get caught up in the lives of fictional characters, or in media creations in the form of pop stars. Whether it's JR Ewing, Harry Potter, or Lady Gaga, we want to feel like they are part of our lives. We know all kinds of details about the lives of people who've never existed, because we have a faculty and a drive to be socially involved, and if we don't use it we suffer. Just like a horse or a dog kept in isolation will slowly go mad, we humans do not thrive alone. But more than this we don't thrive when we are surrounded by strangers most of the time. The individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. However our communities are no longer spatially contiguous, and we have begun to rely on technology to bridge the gap. For many people their "community" is a disparate group only loosely connected. Such a community may be no more than a series of overlapping sets of cellphone numbers. I suggest that this is why people will interrupt a face to face meeting to answer their phone. Community is a value we all share. But note how isolating relying on the one to one connection of the phone is in case of the interrupted personal conversation.

Our online persona becomes like a soap opera that is processed and sold as entertainment and enriches those who facilitate the process, with little or no real benefit to us despite the hype. All of our selves become commodities to be bought and sold. Nowadays our electronic identity can literally be stolen, and the selves of some celebrities are being hijacked by online impersonators. And we buy into this system, I suggest, at least in part because we are no longer embedded in a community. The whole enterprise is presented to us as a remarkable leap forward in human interactions that is facilitating closer relationships and easier communication, but it only seems attractive in a world where our neighbours are strangers and people are isolated. Accept no substitute.


  1. The full text of Humdog's essay is online in many places. I consulted the version on The Alphaville Herald website.

"When girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they used IM, nothing happened. By the study’s neurophysiological measures, IM was barely different than not communicating at all." Wired Science. 7.1.12

27 March 2009

Buddhism and Religion

I've lived in Britain* for about seven years now, and one thing that has stood out for me about living here is the different preoccupations of the British. They are preoccupied with status in a way that, as a Kiwi**, I find baffling. One manifestation is 'class', which is a subject all of it's own! Stemming from this is the scrutiny of schools and education - where you went, where you send your kids, who teaches what - it's always in the news! One of the things that really stand out as different here is religion. The history of religion in Britain is complex and rich. We are left however with a rare thing in the Western world which is that the head of state, is also the head of an established (that is to say an official state) church. I've been a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (left) all my life, but I hadn't even noticed that she's the head of a church as well until I moved here. Christianity is everywhere: the towns are full of churches - some of them centuries old; state media must broadcast religious content, and state schools must offer religious education. Yes, the remit has been broadened out in recent times to include "other" religions, but the proportion still reflects that mad Victorian Melvil Dewey's classification system: Christianity 200-289; Other religions 290-299; (Buddhism is 294.3 in case you're wondering).

Another thing I've noticed is that when the media talk about Religion, they generally mean first Christianity, and second other Abrahamic religions. A kind of third category of Atheistic Materialist Humanism exists, since the atheists are defined by their sometimes fervent lack of belief in God. Buddhism is understood to be a religion, along with "other" religions like Hinduism, but doesn't get much air time. A couple of exceptions are Vishvapani's occasional 2.5 minute appearances on Radio 4's Thought for the Day slot, and Melvin Bragg's In our Time which looked at Buddhism's popularity for 45 minutes in 2002 - enough to keep up our Dewey proportions.

If you ask Google to define religion (which you do by typing "define: religion") you get much the same thing. The majority of entries emphasise divinity, the supernatural, and/or use terms drawn exclusively drawn from Christianity. In other words the internet generally reflects the idea that Christianity is the model of what a religion is (what George Lakoff calls a prototype for the category). 'Other' religions are recognised as religions by Westerners in so far as they resemble Christianity. But does Buddhism fit into this scheme? We have to answer yes, and no.

Pragmatically yes, Buddhism does resemble Christianity (in some ways). Like Christians we gather together for acts of worship. During that worship many Buddhists pray for salvation. The Buddha is not a creator God, and Buddhism recognises no creator God, but he is capable of offering us salvation. For some Buddhists there is no way forward except through the intervention of a Buddha, for others a Buddha is insufficient and salvation requires the intervention of a human teacher. Like Christians some Buddhists believe that without someone to lead the way (a Christ-like figure) no salvation is possible. I may be accused of being controversial for using 'salvation' - a term drawn from Christianity - where I might have used, for example, 'liberation' or 'Enlightenment'. But since the liberation cannot, seemingly, be attained on one's own, then we are being saved by the (supernatural) 'other'. Part of the ambiguity revolves around the multifaceted nature of Buddhist belief which is so broad that the varieties are bewildering. You personally might not believe any of the above. But this does not make it untrue. Furthermore the Buddhist scriptures are full of references to the supernatural: to ESP like powers, to levitation and magic of various kinds (even if only to ban their use by monks). 'Hindu' gods such as Brahma, Indra, and Agni simply abound; and animistic spirits like yakkhas, nāgas, appear on almost every page of the Canon. So in these senses at least Buddhism really does resemble other religions.

However in the rational West Buddhism is not a religion. Westerners, often refugees from organised (especially, state) religion are attracted to the Buddhadharma, but loath to take up the seemingly less rational aspects of it. So a kind of sanitised version of Buddhism emerges where references to the supernatural are seen as "mythic" or "archetypal" and thereby explained away. They may still inspire us, mostly they don't, but we don't have to take them literally. Often the non-literal attitude to the supernatural creates a seeing separation between 'us' and what have been called 'ethnic Buddhists'. However this is complicated when leaders, such as the founder of my order, regularly have (or at least had) what are described as mystical experiences involving personal meetings with various supernatural spirits. (See The Rainbow Road for an account of some of Sangharakshita's experiences). Mystical experiences aside (preferably), we focus on the rational, on the common sensical, teachings. The teachings in other words that appeal to the belief system that we have absorbed from birth from the surrounding culture. One of the main influences on surrounding culture is Protestant Christianity with a dollop of the European Enlightenment. This emphasises personal religion, plainness, chaste morality, distrust of papal (i.e. human) authority in favour of the biblical (i.e. textual) authority, hard work, and rationality. Indeed here are many of the things against which the spirit rebels, and over which the British are conflicted. Buddhism in the west, and in particular the FWBO, has been accused of being Protestant Buddhism. There is truth in this, but it deserves its own post. I suspect that Buddhism in predominantly Catholic countries will look quite different, just as French philosophy is very different from British philosophy.

The upshot is a Buddhism which tends to suppress the supernatural in favour of the rational, the personal in favour of the cosmic, the visionary in favour of the moral, and magic in favour of hard work. It doesn't look much like religion despite having Protestantism as an influence. And Buddhists of this ilk have carried on the venerable Buddhist tradition of writing polemics against the others - with Sangharakshita, despite his mystical experiences, being a great exponent of it. These kind of Buddhists tend not to see Buddhism as a religion. I am in this camp, despite being aware of the kinds of conditions that give rise to this belief - which is to say I admit that I'm not very original in thinking this.

Last week I argued that Buddhism, at least by Bryan Magee's definition, is not a philosophy and that the Buddha was not a philosopher. Prompting at least one Professor of Philosophy to admit that he's not a philosopher by that definition either! My own view, although I acknowledge that this is far from universal, is that Buddhism is not a religion either. What's left?

I think the fact that this is a question at all reveals much about the way the discourse is framed. Buddhism must fit into preconceived categories. The fact that it doesn't creates a cognitive dissonance, a discomfort that cries out for resolution - just like a dominant seventh chord cries out for the tonic to create the classic "amen" of the perfect cadence. Many a contemporary composer deliberately chooses harmonies that eliminate the possibility of the perfect cadence, leaving the listener adrift and uncertain. A metaphor for our times I am sure. So I'm going to leave it up in the air. The Buddha himself repeatedly said that he was only interested in suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way to bring that end about.

* The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official name for the region. Great Britain includes the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and the principality of Wales. Britain, technically, is only England and Wales. People in England, apparently, think of themselves as "British". England and Scotland have had a single monarch since 1603 - which the Scots appear to be very bitter about. The Prince of Wales is usually eldest son of the monarch of the UK (not sure what happens when there is no male heir).

** A "Kiwi" is someone from New Zealand. The Kiwi being a large fat, flightless, almost blind, nocturnal bird that eats worms and grubs, and is on the brink of extinction. It just happened to grace the lid of the (New Zealand made) boot polish of choice in WWI which created the association with the hapless bastards from down-under who went to fight for the King in Europe in 1914-18, only to be slaughtered on the beaches of Turkey in a futile exercise dreamt up by incompetent generals - thereby helping to forge a national identity distinct from Olde Mother England. We will remember them.
There is a good discussion of Buddhism as a religion in Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist, by Professor Richard Hayes (a man of many aliases and a fellow member of the WBO known in these circles as Dayāmati - Compassionate Mind). Pgs 142-150. I can also recommend his blog: New City of Friends.

08 March 2008

Violence and the Media

Memory Alpha
I've always loved reading science fiction, and enjoy science fiction movies and TV shows. My friends and I club together to buy seasons of Star Trek. Lately I've also seen some of the remade Battlestar Galactica and a new series called Heros. In these more recent shows there has definitely been a change in the way violence is depicted. It is more graphic, the obvious intent is to make it seem more real. It is more frequent. It is also more violent. Season three of Star Trek Next Generation, which I am watching at present, seems quite innocent by comparison.

Since my ordination retreat I have become a lot more sensitised to violence in the media. I find now that I cannot bear to watch much on the screen. The emotional response is too strong. I've also become aware of how violence is hyped in other media. Even the much vaunted BBC news focusses in on the most violent and shocking news. Perhaps their coverage is a little more sophisticated than a tabloid, but the tendency is to highlight stories which are violent - wars, disasters with many dead, mass murder, violent crime. These stories get the lead, and they are lingered over.

It is my firm conviction that the purpose of the media is to entertain. Fullstop. I no longer believe that "the news" is an exception to this. Stories are chosen on their potential for stimulating an emotional response, and written in such a way as to get the maximum emotion response from the target audience. It's all about creatingwhat physiologists call "arousal" . Violent images, whether intended as entertainment, or as "news", do have an affect on us even if the effect is below the threshold of consciousness.

Constant stimulation is not good for us. One only has to consider that in the UK mental health problems have replaced back-pain as the the no.1 cause of time off work sick, and of people on incapacity benefits. The thing about a fast pace of life is that our bodies cannot get back to their optimum resting state. My current understanding of depression is that it results from over-stimulation and an inability to process the physical effects of that stimulation. I recall an experiment we did in the 6th form on earthworms. Poke a worm and it writhes about vigorously in something analogous to our fight or flight response - it is making itself difficult to catch and eat. Wait till it stops and poke it again and it will respond with less vigour. Repeat this and the worm gives less response until after only 3 or 4 times it is unable to response to being poked. The lesson here is that constantly provoking a fight or flight response wears you out. I believe this is why depressed people avoid contact and anything stimulating - at worst they lie in bed in darkened rooms not moving.

Whether you realise it or not seeing violent images produces arousal in the body. This is generally short of the fully fledged fight or flight response. It can be sustained over longer periods and with more repetition. But it's clear that for many people it is happening too much, too often.

The knee jerk Buddhist reaction is to say that violence is a breach of the first precept, and violent images are in the same category. I think there is some truth to this, but it seems to me that it is more helpful to take a different tack. The Buddha liked to point out that the unenlightened are obsessed with, intoxicated by, totally caught up in sensual experiences - including the mind-sense. The Enlightened still have sensory experiences, but they have unhooked themselves emotionally from these. They are no longer caught up in the show, they no longer suspend disbelief. If everyday experience is intoxicating, then the media is like amphetamines, and media violence like crack cocaine.

Like any addict we do get a "hit", some kind of pay off, from the drug. Thanks to Will Buckingham of I recently read Cordelia Fine's little book A Mind of it's Own. In it she makes the point that physiologically speaking it virtually impossible to tell the difference between emotions: her example focuses on fear and anger which are physically indistinguishable. The only difference is in your thoughts apparently. Emotion, she says, is arousal + emotional thoughts. What seems to be happening in the West is that we are seeking out more and more stimulating experiences, at the same time as substituting virtual contact via the internet, email, and virtual reality games, for real human contact. The media reflects this desire for more intense and more frequent stimulation. However this is a characteristic of addictive substances also - the addict needs more frequent, and higher strength doses, in order to get the same effect. Overdose is not uncommon because of this.

The Buddha's advice for those unable to disentangle themselves from sensory experience was to apply appamāda (vigilance*), and guard the gates of the sense; or as my teacher Sangharakshita says: reduce input. I decline to watch violence violent images in the media these days as I can tell that they have a lasting deleterious effect on my mental health.

Live long, and prosper.


* appamāda can be translated more literally as not blind drunk on the objects of the senses. I expand on this a bit in my essay on the Buddha's last words.