January 12, 2008

"The Century of the Self" by Adam Curtis

Below is Part 4 of an excellent BBC series documenting how, beginning in the 1920's, Freudian theories gave rise to public relations techniques that have been used to uncover irrational, often self-centered or petty motivations of whole populations, so as to either cater to or manipulate them.

(Note, this video is nearly an hour long -- wish it moved a bit more quickly -- but the info is fascinating and important, and the visuals and audio are terrific -- well-edited, with lots of cool archival stuff. If you can't spare the time, I'm providing a cursory summary of some of the main ideas below.)

These psychoanalytically-derived techniques have been used not only by businesses in designing or selling products but also by politicians (and, I might add, by religious leaders -- see, e.g., Brands of Faith) in marketing themselves.

Some using these techniques believed they were helping to bring about a more democratic system in which the consumer or voter was "king." But the point of a "focus group" is not to hear our considered opinions on any given topic but rather to discern the more primitive desires and fears we might not admit to if asked but that often, with or without our awareness, drive our behavior.

After decades of immersion in the P.R. resulting from these techniques, we've gone from seeing ourselves as exploited by business interests to -- rightly or benightedly -- viewing the marketplace as a main source of identity support and fulfillment.

But our democracy has to some extent been reduced from an electorate actively undertaking organized action to make the world better for others as well as ourselves to a relatively atomized, passive agglomeration of consumers who secretly feel entitled to prioritize gratification of their every self-centered whim.

We feel we are free, but in reality, we've been enslaved through our unconscious fears and desires. We all kinda knew that, but the documentary provides fascinating details about how it was done, which can help arm us against such efforts in the present, as well as providing insight into the implications for our future.

You can see the other parts of the series on the Internet Archive or Google Video.

On a somewhat related subject, I'd like to recommend the recent New Yorker article, "Twilight of the Books," on the effects of the rise in TV watching and relative decline in reading. Among other things, it describes studies suggesting that proficient readers may think differently than people who rely more on visual communication. While both kinds of thinking are probably valuable, it appears that, generally, visual communication involves thinking oriented toward graphic, functional-narrative or emotional content, while reading facilitates abstract reasoning and an ability to compare and contrast subject-matter based on a wider array of kinds of logic.

Interesting to think about in connection with other studies about TV. As I wrote in a previous post (analyzing the Smith/Cohen cover video of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), "We all live in an ever more fully-saturated mass-media environment that continually urges us to consume and invites us to flee consciousness above all. Studies have shown how much TV has in common with both addiction and brainwashing – see here, here, and here. TV is unusual in that on the one hand, the brains of people watching it appear much more inert than usual, with their critical faculties turned almost completely off, while on the other hand, they are nonetheless uncritically absorbing the commercial and other messages being transmitted."

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