What Do You See?
A plainclothes cop walks into a diner and finds no less than five gun-wielding criminals holding up the crowded joint. “We’re not just going to let you walk out of here,” the cop says. “Who’s we, sucka?” says one of the criminals. “Smith and Wesson and me,” says the cop. He draws his Smith & Wesson and – in a crowded diner – shoots four of the criminals and advances on the last gunman, who’s holding a pistol to a hostage’s head. One itchy trigger finger and the hostage could be dead. The cop glares at the criminal. “Go ahead, make my day.” The cop is “Dirty Harry” Callahan, but really he could be any Hollywood hero. The movie is Sudden Impact, but really it could be any movie or book or manifestation of Western culture.
With a few modern updates, Western culture has been re-creating the same story over and over again since Homer collected The Odyssey more than two and a half thousand years ago. Since the Greeks, the ideal of the unique and strong individual has become so prevalent in Western culture that we have stopped realizing that it is even part of our culture. Often we mistake our perceptions of the world for how the world really is.
Psychologists have long known that North Americans overestimate their own distinctiveness, especially in comparison with East Asians. When asked to describe themselves, Americans and Canadians tend to talk about their individual personality and personal outlook more than Japanese do. North Americans tend to settle arguments in terms of right and wrong, whereas East Asians tend to seek compromises. Dirty Harry is an extreme and violent example, but he is emblematic of Western culture and he sums up our single-minded, goal-oriented behavior with aplomb. “When I see an adult male chasing a female with the intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.”
New research shows that culture even affects our cognition. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that Americans and Japanese intuit the emotions of others differently based on cultural training. “North Americans try to identify the single important thing that is key to making a decision,” explains Dr. Takahiko Masuda, the study’s author, over the phone from his office at the University of Alberta. “In East Asia they really care about the context.” He studied the eye movement of Americans and Japanese when analyzing a picture of a group of cartoon people. When asked to interpret the emotion of the person in the center, the Japanese looked at the person for about one second before moving on to the people in the background. They needed to know how the group was feeling before understanding the emotion of the individual. The Americans (and Canadians in subsequent studies) focused 95% of their attention on the person in the center. Only 5% of their attention was focused on the background, and this, Dr. Masuda points out, didn’t influence their interpretation of the central figure’s emotion. For North Americans the foreground is all-important.
Dr. Masuda is quick to point out that Americans and Japanese are physiologically the same. The difference in eye movement is tied to the roots of our respective cultures. When trying to explain the natural world, the Ancient Greeks – the founders of Western civilization – tended to focus on central objects and sought to explain their rules of behavior. Funnily enough, Aristotle thought a rock had the property of “gravity.” It didn’t occur to him that a system was working its powers on the rock. The Chinese on the other hand took a more holistic approach. They believed that everything occurred within a context, or a field of forces, and thus they unraveled the relationship between the moon and the tides.
These differences in philosophy can be explained, at least in part, by the environments that spawned them. “We are surrounded by socially created information, which affects our perception,” Masuda explains. And perception affects our culture. Research shows that North American cities are less cluttered than East Asian cities, which means that North Americans can spend more time considering salient objects. When Americans or Canadians visit East Asia, they are often overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to process. I have experienced this phenomenon personally. The first time I bused from Incheon Airport into Seoul, South Korea, I was dumbfounded by the number of buildings, advertisements, lights, cars and people and had to turn away from the window to stop my head from spinning. Dr. Masuda first arrived in North America when he was 26. Compared to Japan, which was crowded with people and objects and “complex pieces of information,” he felt North American cities to be lonely places.
Masuda stresses that no way of perceiving the world is better than another and refuses to interpret his studies too broadly. He has yet to conduct his tests in Africa or South America. But it seems to me that Masuda’s study is important: It reminds us that there is more than one way of seeing the world.
North Americans have a tendency toward isolating singular goals and working doggedly towards them. And we have achieved some remarkable accomplishments. We put a man on the moon, invented the telephone and the airplane and achieved a thousand more seemingly impossible tasks. We congratulate ourselves on our individualism in our movies, our art, our personal relationships and, of course, our politics. But as we do so, we perpetuate this trait – perception informs culture, culture informs perception – until we mistake the way we see the world for the only way to see the world.
As alluring as the Dirty Harry approach may be, is it time to put away our Smith & Wesson and start considering the other customers in the diner? The problems we face today – the environmental degradation of our planet, global recession, religious fundamentalism – don’t fit inside borders or simple categories. Context is unavoidable. We need to start looking for it.
Ecology of the Mind
For thousands of generations we humans grew up in nature. Our teachers were flora and fauna and our textbooks thunderstorms and stars in the night sky. Our minds were like the forests, oases and deltas around which our cultures germinated: chaotic, wild, fecund.
But in the last couple generations, we have largely abandoned the natural world, immersing ourselves in virtual realms. Today the synthetic environment rivals nature as a driving force in our lives, and the mental environment has become the terrain where our fate as humans will be decided. By emigrating from nature we’ve done something more than just move domiciles – we have fundamentally altered the context in which we live our lives.
Along with this transition to a new psychic realm, we have also seen the exponential rise of mental illnesses. Globally, humanity is now suffering from an epidemic of uncontrollable anxieties, mood disorders and depression. The United Nations predicts that mental disease will be bigger than heart disease by 2020.
Why is this happening? Why are we breaking down mentally?
If you ask psychologists what increases the general loading of psychopathology on the human animal, they will list a lot of things: the breakdown of community, the insecurity of social roles, the stresses of modernity and globalization and maybe even the chemicals in the air, water and food that may be affecting our brains in unknown ways. Others blame the thousands of aggressive, erotically charged marketing messages our brains absorb every day as the culprit. And still others say that heavy internet use leads to addictions and depression and that the digital revolution may be rewiring our brains in unhealthy ways. Nobody knows for sure.
But it’s tantalizing to guess.
What follows is just a beginning, an introduction to some of the mental pollutants, information viruses and psychic shocks we have to deal with daily – a survey of the threats to our “ecology of mind.”
For countless generations the ambient noise was rain and wind and people talking. Now the soundtrack is full-spectrum, undecodable. From the dull roar of rush-hour traffic to the drone of your fridge and the buzz of your monitor, various kinds of noise (blue, white, pink, black) are continuously seeping into our brains. And the volume is constantly being cranked up. Two, perhaps three generations have already become stimulation-addicted. Can’t work without background music. Can’t jog without earphones. Can’t sleep without an iPhone tucked under the pillow. The essence of our postmodern age may be found in this kind of incessant brain buzz. Trying to make sense of the world above the din is like living next to a freeway – you get used to it, but at a severely diminished level of mindfulness and well-being.
Quiet feels foreign now, but quiet could be just what we need. Silence may be to a healthy mind what clean air and water are to a healthy body. In a cleaner, quieter mental environment, we may find our mood calming and depression lifting.
From the moment your radio alarm sounds in the morning to the wee hours of late-night TV, micro-jolts of commercial pollution flow into your brain at the rate of about 3,000 marketing messages per day. Every day, an estimated 12 billion display ads, three million radio commercials, more than 200,000 TV commercials and an unknown number of online ads and spam emails are dumped into our collective unconscious. Corporate advertising is the single largest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race. Yet, its impact on us remains unstudied and largely unknown.
The first time we saw a starving child on a late-night TV ad, we were appalled. Maybe we sent money. But as these images became more familiar, our capacity for compassion waned. Eventually these ads started to annoy us, even repulse us. And now we feel nothing when we see another starving kid.
The average North American witnesses half a dozen acts of violence (killings, gunshots, assaults, car chases, rapes) per hour of prime-time TV watched. As for sex in the media and porn on the internet, we all know what catches our attention and stops us from zapping the channels: pouting lips, pert breasts, buns of steel, buoyant superyouth. Growing up in a violent, erotically charged media environment alters our psyches at a bedrock level. It distorts our sexuality – the way you feel when someone suddenly puts a hand on your shoulder or hugs you or flirts with you – how we think about ourselves as sexual beings. And the constant flow of commercially scripted, violence-laced, pseudo-sex makes us more voyeuristic, insatiable and aggressive. Then, somewhere along the line, nothing – not even rape, torture, genocide, or war porn – shocks us anymore.
The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences. It pays to pollute. The psychic fallout is just the cost of putting on the show.
The information we consume is increasingly flat and homogenized. Designed to reach millions, it often lacks nuance, complexity and context. Reading the same factoids on Wikipedia and watching the same viral video on YouTube, we experience a flattening of culture.
Cultural homogenization has graver consequences than the same hairstyles, catchphrases, action-hero antics and video clips propagated ad nauseam around the world. In all systems, homogenization is poison. Lack of diversity leads to inefficiency and failure. Infodiversity is as critical to our long-term survival as biodiversity. Both are bedrocks of human existence.
At first all that information was pleasurable. It felt as if the sum of all knowledge was only a hyperlink away and we skipped joyously down the infotrail, sending emails to our friends, adding bookmarks and hopping from site to site late into the night. But as the initial glow wore off, we were left in a state of digital daze: unable to concentrate, feeling foggy, anxious and fatigued.
For many of us, what began as an exhilarating romp has become a daily compulsion. Our smart phones, netbooks and computers now keep us constantly online. While waiting in line at the supermarket or enjoying an evening walk or reading a book or even sitting at a concert, we keep texting our friends and receiving quick Twitter updates. We are drowning in an endless stream of connectivity. And future generations may be even more wired. A Pew Research Center study found that American teenagers send 50 or more text messages a day and one-third send more than 100 a day. Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that American children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 7 ½ hours a day using some sort of electronic device.
Our online lives may now be impairing our ability to follow a sustained line of thought, to think deeply about something and maybe even to reach “the heights of ecstasy and the depths of tragedy” in our creative lives. We may be suffering from the infodisease that Nicholas Carr first diagnosed in himself. “Over the past few years,” he writes, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory… what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
In the race for economic expansion we depleted oil reserves, pulped ancient forests and pumped water until the wells ran dry. Now we’re depleting the “old growth culture” – sucking dry the history, mythology, music, art and ideas that previous generations have bequeathed to us. All of our past is being picked over, recycled, remixed, regurgitated and repurposed.
Jaron Lanier, the father of “virtual reality,” is perhaps the most respected and outspoken technologist to identify a troubling deficiency in our cultural health. In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Lanier writes that our culture has become one of nostalgic remixing where authentic “first-order expression” is chopped up and mashed into a derivative piece of “second-order expression.” And although Lanier shies away from proposing an infallible metric for distinguishing between the two, he does suggest that what distinguishes first-order expression is that it contributes something “genuinely new [to] the world” whereas derivative works recycle, repeat and fail to innovate.
The result is a society that treats our cultural heritage as a resource for exploitation. Instead of producing new works of genuine art that replenish our mental environment, we celebrate the amateur whose mash-ups may be hilarious but contribute nothing of value to the cultural conversation. This situation becomes especially distressing when we consider that just as there is a finite amount of nutrients in our soil, there is a finite amount of creativity that the past can yield. Great art is rare, and only so many mash-ups can be released before the original power of a truly artistic creation is lost. And without the production of an authentic culture, our mental environment is in danger of becoming a clear-cut wasteland, overfarmed and depleted.
In Lanier’s words, “we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”
We are on the brink of a synergistic catastrophe. Financial, ecological and ethical collapse loom on the horizon even as the rate of mental illness continues to climb. The world has literally gone mad.
But as more people trace their anxieties, mood disorders and depressions back to the toxins in our mental world, the first murmurs of insurrection can be faintly heard. From blackspotted billboards to breakaway attempts-at-downshifting, to revolutionary provocations in failing states, we are witnessing the birth pangs of the quintessential uprising of the 21st century. What will come is a rewilding of our souls, a riot against the production of fake corporate and commercial meaning. What begins here today will be known as the environmental movement of the mind.
Kalle Lasn is cofounder and editor in chief of Adbusters. Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and is writing a book about the future of activism.
My Fetal Pony: Neoteny in Girls’ Toys
It’s no secret that Mickey Mouse has evolved in response to consumer pressures. Once a violent river-rat, he became the boy scout of rodents with good looks to match. Steven Jay Gould famously charted Mickey’s pedomorphosis over the years. The mouse reverted to a baby’s bigger skull, bigger eyes, and pudgier snout.
As a child of the 80s and 90s, I’ve noticed the same trend in the toy brands that once littered the floor of my suburban bedroom. Boys toys may be constrained to adult (and therefore masculine) characteristics, but girls’ toys are free to fall under the consumer pressures of the Mickey Effect.
The My Little Pony (MLP) reboot exhibits a classic retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, a process known as neoteny. The eyes are bigger, the face is rounder and flatter, and the body size and leg length are reduced. Compared to the more conventional equine outline of the original series, the new MLP appears based on an infant, even fetal stage of development.
Littlest Pet Shop, a toy series introduced in 1990, is subject to the same selective pressures as MLP. The characters’ limbs are dramatically shorter and rounder. Head size has increased relative to body size, and small, close set eyes have morphed into watery saucers well-adapted to low-light conditions.
Girls’ toys also exhibit a strong trend towards progenesis- sexual maturity achieved in a juvenile state. Bagworms do it; so do mole salamanders. Normally induced by environmental stressors, progenesis in toys is the result of a cultural imperative for women to embody both the cute and the sexual.
Bratz Dolls, seen here alongside their direct ancestor, are ‘tweens.’ Compared to the uber-model Barbie, they are less physiologically mature, with gigantic, wide-set eyes and abnormally large craniums. Yet despite their tender age, they exhibit hallmarks of female sexual maturity: a high hip-to-waist ratio and full lips, as well as social markers including skimpy clothing and heavy makeup. Bratz reach sexual maturity as pre-teens; apparently the lingerie-wearing Babyz can accomplish it as infants.
Social selection over the last few decades has heavily constrained the phenotypes of girls’ toys. The cute-ification of these playthings mirrors the evolution of the dog from a rangy wolf to the pocketbook-size ‘toy’ breeds. What would be lion-fodder in the wild is bred, manufactured, and cherished in Next Nature.
what happens when east meets west?
On a good day, you have received an impressive cross-posted e-mail and you really want to share with your friends. These graphics are striking for me as they show how well the designer observes, analayses and re-present through her eyes. Some of you may have already seen it, but it is nice to take another look.
These are icons designed by Liu Yang, a Chinese born but educated in her teen through adult life in Germany. Her work shows how East meets West. Her work fits so well with globalization of culture, peoeple and places.
See whether you agree with her.
Blue means the West
Read means the East/ Asian/Chinese
(The Image corresponds to the word/phrase below it)
eldery in day to day life
way of life
three meals a day
moods and weather
things that are new
perception of each other
handling of problem
queue in waiting
in the restaurant
Perhaps, it is quite a generalization but it is more or less the way of the West and the East. The two parts of the world are learning from each other while the division into two parts is too crude anyway. My favourite is ‘perception of each other’. Here, the West is learning to dreass, drink and eat Asian way, but the East is fond of modern look, sausage and beer.
What is your favourite?
How do you interpret these graphics?
Liu Yang’s exhibition
Liu Yang was born in 1979 in Beijing, China. She moved to Germany in 1990 and lives there since. She established Yang Liu Design institute in Berlin in 2004.
Your Scene Sucks – Know the dress styles
“Your Scene Sucks“, a nice set of illustrations that helps you to never make a mistake, recognize and know the clothing styles, among hipsters, punks, emos, the indies, the post-rockers, nerds, the hardcore geeks and others. The “Your Scene Sucks” are made by Rob Dobi, who just published a book.
I could write my own long, version of this but I think it’s something that all PCVs experience while they’re in-country. It’s been a year since I returned but I will think about it for the rest of my life…
What The Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure
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In West Africa, I confronted the toubab version of myself, a self previously foreign to me that was lethargic, cynical and at home with failure.
For a long time I hesitated to admit that I felt incompetent as a Peace Corps volunteer. I felt that if I expressed my suspicion that I was inept, it would confirm criticisms that the program itself is irresponsible and presumptuous. I signed up largely because I saw myself as a go-getter and I wanted a challenge. I have a childlike loyalty to getting things right; I lack a cleverness for bullshitting. Yet these traits, from which I had previously derived strength, became the source of my immense heartbreak.
I did extra work in my demonstration garden only to find out later that agriculture agents resented me for it. I had lengthy, optimistic conversations with a village chief about starting a community garden only to discover that I misread his reaction and that he was, in fact, against the whole endeavor.
When a project faltered, I wondered if I should blame the cultural difference or my language skills, my lack of expertise or my accidental impropriety. I never knew for sure.
And yet, seeing my confidence unravel was helpful. Maybe everyone needs a period in their lives when they barely recognize themselves.
The story that Peace Corps volunteers like to tell — and Americans like to hear — is one of urgent and awe-inspiring work. Americans like to feel that at least someone is out there fighting all those incomprehensible African problems.
This narrative is too simplistic.
As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary, some still find it hard to put a finger on what exactly the program achieves. There are both quantifiable yields, like number of wells dug and trees planted, and unquantifiable gains, like the intimate bonds volunteers make with people all over the world.
One benefit of the program that is never trumpeted (and likely never will be) is that it produces a group of young Americans who understand failure.
Americans, especially the variety who join the Peace Corps, are raised to believe that hard work pays off. We come from a place where the phrase, “We’ll meet tomorrow at 5,” means, “We’ll meet tomorrow at 5” — where you put a stamp on an envelope and it gets delivered.
“Failure is not an option,” according to the locker room poster likely brought to us by the same people who birthed “Impossible is Nothing.” Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that’s why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it.
We all have failures, yet we bury them in the folds of our pasts as curious gaps in our résumés and cryptic replies to direct questions. If we are unable to emerge triumphant, our failures eat away at us.
My Senegalese comrades are less brittle. They admit freely that their lives are full of fiascoes, delays and disappointments.
When I asked locals in Pulaar how work was going, I didn’t often hear: “Oh, just fine!” Instead, the response was a more honest, “I’m trying, little by little.” It seems to me that growing up with unpredictability has better equipped the Senegalese people to persevere in the face of real obstacles.
The same barriers Senegalese people manage to climb over regularly ended some of my projects. When I tried obtaining a grant for a women’s farm, the land rights had to first be legally transferred to the women themselves. While the paperwork lingered in a government office, I foolishly kept preparing for the project that would never be, blocking off months in my calendar that I would devote to it. Meanwhile, the women moved on, continuing their own, smaller version of the farm they wanted. They knew not to rest their hopes in government offices and the men who shuffle within them.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Peace Corps volunteers don’t accomplish anything. We do a lot of the things other aid organizations do, but our version is less grandiose: We hold small-group trainings on childhood nutrition and organic pest control. We help small businesses grow, often through a series of one-on-one interactions. Our hyped-up expectations of success are often quashed–we learn quickly that smaller is better.
I survived two years in the Peace Corps. My proudest accomplishment during my time in Senegal, one that can’t be expressed on a résumé, is how much I grew up.
I now know that no occupation, despite my generation’s obsession with passion-following, is without compromise or disappointment. And I know that failure, despite its negative connotations, takes practice.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mayalau