There’s a famous experiment in child psychology where kids are given a marshmallow.
They’re then promised another one, but only if they wait for a few minutes while an adult leaves the room. Some children just can’t resist. But those who delay their gratification are said to be more successful, balanced and happy in later life.
We all want to be the child who waits. But in adulthood we’re stuffing marshmallows into our faces every single day.
From Instagram glamour to clearance bargains, Twitter spats to porn hubs we’re being served cheap crap that we’re powerless to resist. It’s depressing but true: the human mind is easy to hack.
Think about how vulnerable you are to things like social comparison (Instagram), binary outrage (Twitter) or brazen appeals to materialistic ambition (every advert ever). Our ape consciousness is putty in the hands of clinical psychologists, ruthless software engineers and gifted creatives.
In this new world of algorithmic behavioural manipulation, we’re babes in the woods.
I refuse to go gently into this dark night. I believe the future of our species will be defined by our ability to resist the allure of narcissism, strongmen, adverts and dopamine hits. We need to equip ourselves and our children with the ability to recognise psychological manipulation for what it is and focus on things that are good for us instead.
Human virtues like equanimity, compassion and calm have fallen out of fashion. It’s time to get them back.
I know this all sounds a bit religious. Things like temperance and equanimity are the stuff of frigid sermons in empty churches. But we need to rebrand these old concepts, to create new myths which place us in harmony with each other and the biosphere itself. I also believe this is a massive opportunity for the creativity community. We need the world’s great persuaders to replace the tawdry impulsiveness of the current times with something nobler, calmer, more graceful.
The secret will be doing this in a way that avoids cliche and worthiness, and helps us feel like we’re getting a free upgrade on our experience of life. As the philosopher Timothy Morton said after putting solar panels on his roof: “you think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure. Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.”
This is why there’s such a central role for creative people to help us evolve as a species. I’m from an NGO background, and I’ve always felt that real power comes less from laws and regulation then the great current of popular culture, the million mindsets that decide what’s acceptable for society and what’s not.
And yet, when people in advertising try to be altruistic they seem to forget what they’re good at. Instead of trying to change what we feel, they want to change the way we act. Fuck plastic straws. I want you to help me celebrate my essential unity with nature, to realise that every day is a staggering miracle of beauty against which throwaway culture is a modern obscenity.
So here’s an idea. We need a massive global movement with love, joy and empathy at its heart. A new politics based on compassion and fairness. Our children need to be shown mindfulness from an early age, as a means to understand when someone is trying to provoke them and consider their response to it. We need a new myth that posits the real evil in the world not as pantomime Presidents but in our own basest instincts, the universal temptation towards othering and bitterness that sits latent within us all. We need to see this struggle in terms of a collective, networked consciousness, and our interventions need to look more like cultural acupuncture than Twitter flame wars.
There’s a theory in neuroscience that our brains don’t develop the ability to resist instant gratification until some time in our 30s, when our frontal cortex has fully developed. This is why adolescents want to smoke and take risks: it helps them acquire wisdom through experience.
It’s hard not to draw the comparison with our perilous state as a species. Are we at the start of our adolescence period, or the end? Might we be poised to enter a new phase of maturity, a deeper enjoyment of our moment in the sun, or not? When our ancestors look back on our current time, I wonder if they will recognise a collective consciousness that looks like their own adolescence, puking their guts up on marshmallows because they hadn’t yet learned what actually makes them happy.
There has to be something bigger. The solution to our current chaos cannot simply be to regulate the tech companies, condemn the fascists and wallow in our echo chambers. We need to find a new cultural understanding of ourselves as passengers on spaceship earth. A celebration of the limitless potential available to us when we step beyond the narrow confines of shopping and shouting and sink our feet into the warm grass once again.
Right now we harness the world’s best creative talent and use it to sell us junk we don’t need. Imagine if we could use a fraction of that brilliance to illuminate the people and communities who are creating a different world — to sell us the ideas and values we need to thrive in the 21st century. This is the challenge for modern creativity: to help us level up as a species, to escape the dreary narcissism of today and recognise the wild beauty of a consciousness yet to come.
This piece was originally published in Hunger Magazine: www.hungertv.com/