Every so often, on a train platform or in a busy city center, I’ll have that thought: “This is it. We’ve arrived at the dystopian hyper-capitalist future of my nightmares.” It sounds dramatic until you start to notice the emerging technology in our reality that mirrors the concepts of far-future science fiction.
In the second episode of the British sci-fi anthology Black Mirror, the writers explore a world where our time, energy, cognitive space, and attention have become consumables as opposed to inherent, a birthright.
The characters are housed in small rooms surrounded wall-to-wall by advertising. They have the option of skipping or turning off the advertisements if they pay a fee. If they close their eyes, they are penalized. If they don’t have enough to pay the penalty, they are tortured with blaring lights and sirens. If they watch, they suffer.
Matthew Crawford describes our real-life parallel succinctly in the The World Beyond Your Head:
Capitalism has gotten hip to the fact that for all our talk of an information economy, what we really have is an attentional economy, if the term “economy” applies to what is scarce and therefore valuable.
The manufacturing and service economies leveraged our human needs, irrevocably molded through evolution and documented by 20th century psychologists. We all have them: physiological, psychological, and emotional needs. We like to eat high calorie foods, we like to feel secure, and we like to belong. And so a promise was made. If you buy our cheeseburgers, security systems, and fashionable clothing, you’ll never feel hungry, you’ll be safe, and you’ll have a tribe.
What Black Mirror is proposing, and what I glimpse every once in a while, is not exactly an expansion of this model but a departure from it. Instead of attempting to understand human needs and leverage them to move product, we’re now sold the idea that the human being, in its current state, is fundamentally no good.
The evidence offered is precisely what makes us human: our lack of control. And we are persuaded by our the most infinitesimal moments of discomfort in our experience: missing someone’s touch, being annoyed by peripheral chatter, and natural slouching as a result of sitting for too long.
The free market and derivative economies, of course, produce many of these problems; they separate families and communities who are looking for better opportunities and better futures, they produce wholly unnatural sound clusters not easily processed by humans, and they encourage bad posture as a symbol of work ethic (the desk) and relaxation (the couch).
In the same way that the most successful companies have benefited from planned obsolescence (the practice of knowingly producing consumer goods of poor quality so as to require frequent replacement), a new wave of companies is now capitalizing on the discomfort produced by living in the modern world.
You just have to pay a small fee (and forgo the use of your neural pathways).
Instead of learning how to reckon with our fundamental inability to control every aspect of our lived experience and to embrace and process the resulting emotions, we’re told we should be able to control it all.
These companies drag us into a paradigm where our fundamental nature is the problem. Instead of rightly connecting our current discomfort to a divisive and unsustainable economy, they suggest we’re actually on the right track.
All we need now is one more thing.