The Future of Passivity

Where Do Today’s Idols and Mediums Point Towards?

But what comes next? What North American hero can hope to succeed the placid Frank? We await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond the calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.
David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”

Look how cool Frank Moody, from Californication, is.

So cool.

Degenerate, by his own admission. He wears it so well; a sort of tasteful brooding on his handsome, yet sorrowful, forty-something year old face. He’s tortured on every front: a family he disappoints, a ‘writer’s block’; cheap self-medication with ‘cigs and ‘alch to mask it all.

But god does he get laid.

Women throw themselves at him. It’s an entire song and dance when this happens. Moody rolls out unnecessary one liners. It’s like a 007 seduction, but funny.

As a young man, one finds themselves mentally taking notes during such scenes. It doesn’t matter if Moody is fictional, what’s the truth behind his fiction? Why is he so cool? We may never get his looks, but could we get his…look? The brooding, I mean. Could we self-medicate and self-torture to get it?

So with Moody, so with other media idols. ‘Reality’ TV stars getting paid for pettiness on camera. TV dramas centered around jaded trust fund kids. It’s a sort of reverse Faustian hypothetical of accepting these people’s demons to get their lifestyle, but if we’re candid, wouldn’t the majority of people take it? Few people, however well intentioned, would refuse winning this lottery. In the face of certain trends, asking whether this is a sickness of human nature or of society are probably the wrong questions.

We didn’t Romanticize these idols as kids. Kid want specific jobs when they grow up, and they want to be awesome doing it. No kid wants to be a disgruntled writer. No kid can imagine Moody’s burdens.

What changes after childhood?

In his excellent — aptly titled — essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, Venture Capitalist and Essayist Paul Graham puts most of the fault on modern schooling. The depressive, hormonal malaise that’s assumed as the default for teenagers halts a very important conversation. As Graham writes:

“If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century”.

What’s changed is what the youth does growing up. Modernity’s productive, office-space economy has dissolved the need for child labor on the farm or workshop. While the economy is more productive than ever, society can’t have roving packs of idle children. Compulsory education, Graham argues, is a convenient detaining area. Has anybody asked why entering the workforce should, necessarily, take ten to sixteen years?

No authority can admit this function though. Long progressions of curriculum are to be completed throughout the student’s career, but whose usefulness teachers have difficulty articulating. Authority becomes absurd. Maturity — embodying the authority — likewise becomes absurd. Diligent students look like brown nosers; to what end are they being obedient?

School begets the morbid “rat race”, where it’s fair to say the same mentality pervades. In response to the Gallup Poll’s question “Do you feel engaged at work?”, only 13% of people answered ‘yes’.

Moody is cathartically authentic about how much this…system, sucks. Each broody cigarette smoked is a middle finger to it. His life is a weekend. We love this rebel.

But while Graham’s description of school is morose, his stance is characteristic of a humanist’s optimism: a social system is stifling the best of human nature. It’s a stance that — broadly speaking — a very optimistic Silicon Valley has; society is to be ‘hacked’ and ‘disrupted’ for the better

Before we condone it, let’s dissect this old, corrosive, teetering sounding ‘system’ that’s to be reformed, and which — for brevity — we will call: “the main stream”.

This “main stream” is something I typically imagine as a 9 to 5 worker who commutes from the ‘burbs, buys cars and TVs, and can zone out at the news for — on average — something around six hours a day. It’s the aesthetic of a baby boomer’s ‘American Dream’. Promotions at work and tourism mark the passage of decades. This generation feels like it scorns this person not because anything is morally wrong with them, but because there’s an absence of skepticism on whether it’s the best way of life. You would think such thoughts might at least come during the — on average — 90 minutes of commercials these people watch; alas it rarely seems to.

Who benefits from such…numbness? Well, follow the money and power. It will bring one to the opaque fusion of corporate, lobbying, government bureau culture normal to Washington DC (specifically the surrounding suburbias, which are ranked amongst the nation’s wealthiest). Hopefully this isn’t too shocking. A question follows: “What’s the structure for money and power?

An independent and healthy populace can pay more taxes, yes. But they also don’t need most medications and — probably — buy better, more efficient, and longer lasting products that don’t need to be replaced. They don’t need most products or government programs in the first place. This latter claim isn’t intended to spurn the socialists, just keeping the point consistent.

Instead, the pinnacle of power would be a sort of Stockholm syndrome — in which the masses are grateful for and reliant on your abuse.

There’s no need for an Illuminati entity in all this, just a look at the incentives. The most famous politicians are the ones who spend the most, not those who legislate ‘an ounce of prevention’. CEOs are responsible for paying shareholders and feeding as many employees’ families as possible. If this means lowering quality to cut costs, and engineering new addictions — they’ll do it.

The prospect of such a structure — of addiction and erosion being the incentive — how does this morph any stream based conception of society?

Rather than observing platitudes observe actions. How many time do cliches fall on deaf ears? How many obese people logically know how to lose weight, but don’t? How many people spend more than they earn? How many people are just indirectly aggressive? How many of the religious would actually go to hell? Statistically, the cliches of “mainstream” thought are only purported, not acted on; useful logic that the masses simply parrot and prescribe to one another.

The path and stream with the most traffic is the path of least resistance. It relishes the fact that it has no logical claims, only aesthetical and sentimental ones. The drug user feels justified in his usage from a vague — definitively advertised — conception of the necessity to ‘chill’ and get ‘wasted’. It’s passive modes of consumption in drugs and media that most people — logically — know can become ruinous over time, yet even this has a certain intrigue to it.

Paired with his desire for life (eros), Freud identified these urges as “the Death Wish”, or generally: passivity. Freud argued that laying at rest, distraction and convenience was the default of humanity — not suppressed creative potential. It was contrary to the earlier mentioned humanistic sentiment that had spread before World War I, and indeed, has been much of the bases behind Western Civilization. Put simply: humans minimize as much time and effort as can be gotten away with.

Because there was a small tribe or farm to take care of, humans used to get away with very little. Occasionally in history however — especially during periods of opulence — this urge gets a foothold, and even mass acceptance. Freud — taking from Nietzsche — believes this was the original basis for Christianity. There was a growing cognitive dissonance between what the masses actually did and could do, versus virtues of meritocracy and power Romans decried. Christ eased this. The weak became chaste, merciful and dignified in their poverty. It was directly contrary to the period’s logic, but there was a beauty of it people that people cowered to.

One wonders if we’re going through something similar today in our own, very opulent, Western society. The morals are different, but not Freud’s passivity. Reality TV stars (Jersey Shore, in my day) are more famous than politicians or CEOs (as of publishing, it’s been theorized that Donald Trump, in part, is doing well in the Presidential Race because of The Apprentice ). The youth glamorizes getting “Fucked up”, and shares Facebook videos that cut through scenes of raves, Yoga, cave jumping, and emboldened captions to “Follow Your Passion” and “You Only Live Once”. Categorically obese actresses are on the cover of magazines espousing “Body Positivity”. There’s an undercurrent that self love should, self-evidently, be unconditional.

Will these morphous affirmations condensate into something integrated, and with the same fervor as Christianity? Who can say. Only trends — not destinations — can be detected for the future.

But whether or not we agree with Freud’s interpretation of history, the humanists, optimists and general advocates of free will have to confront a uniquely profound trend for our time: technological novelty. Beyond particular ideology, the mediums communicating them are changing us — probably for the worst.

Older novels like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ render scenes of entertainment as people gathering in large rooms to read books together, write, play music and cards, or just talk. Occasionally they danced at balls. Besides work, that’s where the time went. The mind had to engage itself to be amused.

Engagement isn’t needed anymore. Computers offers entire universes of immediate, if-then, button click feedback waiting to be passively absorbed. The iPhone can anger, arouse, or sadden me within a few taps.

I would claim that more than anything, this 180 degree shift — from engagement to absorption — is the most profound change of modernity.

Cheap, novel stimulation is dissolving a necessary palette for reality’s subtlety. Porn is eroding the opposite sex’s nuance. High fructose corn syrup is eroding taste. Modern media is eroding a mode of focus necessary for uninterrupted work, conversation, and sleep. Americans used to read Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist to make informed political decisions. Today they watch ‘NowThis’ and ‘BuzzFeed’ clips.

Some of technology is used as proper distribution. Both Facebook and Medium allow me to, seamlessly, post this essay. Farmers and artisans can sell their wares online. But, as with anything, these are simply outliers to the rule.

What stops this trend? Where do seemingly logical maxims like ‘moderation’ end? Obesity and depression are accepted as normal today. Five years ago one was considered rude if they looked at texts during conversation; now they’re ‘disciplined’ if they don’t.

Consider this latter technology’s potential; future devices like ‘smart contact lenses’. Orientationally, one can appear to be looking at someone — while also watching little animal videos. How do these future people — supremely confident in their ‘multitasking abilities’ — interact with one another?

There is a mode of focus that’s being dissolved, but whose death remains unseen. What rationalizations placate this cognitive dissonance between the reality’s demands, and this techno-fantasy? To what extent can the masses disengage from reality before society begins tearing at the seams?

Or perhaps it doesn’t tear. People continue becoming more comfortable and ‘pleasured’ than ever — content in their own little bubbles. What a terrible future for the humanists though.