The nineteenth season of South Park just ended, and the final trilogy of episodes contained an intriguing premise -- the idea that advertisements (especially internet ads), through quickly accelerating iterations of evolution, are gaining sentience. Between the ubiquitous pop-ups, embeds, "sponsored content" posing as news, and the cookie-reading that enables the sites you visit to know what you looking at on Amazon, the show raises two essential points:
- Already it is difficult for many, if not most, people to differentiate between an advertisement and an actual news item.
- It's only a matter of time before we won't know the difference between a sentient, three-dimensional ad and a living, breathing human being.
The second point is for now the stuff of Dickian sci-fi, but given that author's track record so far, that future is probably much nearer than it seems. Maybe it'll come from the military engineering and tweaking robot warriors, or it could be open-sourced from the bottom. Whether it's Big Brother or Little Brother or both, the tech is improving, probably more rapidly than we know. We are used to hearing about the more sinister Terminator-style possibilities of weaponized mayhem, or aggregated domestic spying. But it's equally likely that it would be used by advertising weasels to continue their never-ending quest to monetize literally everything you see, hear, read, talk to, fuck, or otherwise experience or interact with.
The first point is obviously a given right now, and is becoming a real problem. Engineers who create and innovate all these cool gadgets that we take for granted -- and couldn't have imagined just twenty years ago -- will to a person tell you that they create these devices out of a desire to improve people's lives. Obviously they want to make money, but innovation is its own reward to a great extent.
Engineers are, by nature and temperament, people who are skilled at acquiring and applying uncommon areas of knowledge at very high levels. Imagine being the engineer(s) who refined existing technology to create the high-definition flat-screen television, only to see that it was used to mostly watch "reality" morons sort their sock drawers. Consider the inventor(s) of the smartphone, a device that was unthinkable less than a generation ago but is now commonplace, and can do phenomenal things, yet seems mostly to be used to snap and post selfies, and remain constantly "in touch" in order to jabber about the most pointless ephemera imaginable.
No doubt the money keeps those tech folks comfortable, but on some level there must be feelings of disappointment, of unrealized potential. Sometimes the main use of a really cool invention or innovation is simply to make it easier for stupid people to be stupid, and even to get stupider than they already were.
And, of course, more than anything, both devices primarily aid in America's greatest pursuit, which is to buy things we don't really want with money we don't really have. Content should be the driver, but instead advertising rules content, and does so with the preening arrogance that it is only the tiresome ubiquity of those fucking ads -- endlessly adapting, improving, evolving -- that even make said content possible. It is the flat, ignorant denial by the huckster, the person who cannot do anything but market and sell, a denial that creative people will always create, for free if necessary.
Humans are wondrously adaptable. It's what has enabled us to get this far, this quickly, even if we have much farther to go, even if we use our "farness" for mundane and venal purposes more often than not. As good as we are at adapting, the accelerating pace of innovation seems to have outstripped our ability to keep up with it -- so we have great new toys that make it easier to do the same old shit.
Information on any and every subject is out there, free and ready for the taking; so is porn. Guess which of those things draws more eyeballs, more attention? Smartphones have only accelerated that gap, in that their portability and ease of use allows -- even encourages -- diminished and fractal concentration.
I'm part of this phenomenon as well. Until about nine months ago, I stubbornly held out on getting a smartphone. Too expensive, and just didn't seem worth it. But my daughter had a birthday, and was about to enter high school, and at that age, they need one. It has become an essential device, one that clearly distinguishes between those who have one and those who don't. So I got in on the deal and got myself one as well, figuring I might use it once in a while for work.
And I do use it for work, plus I've read a couple of full-length novels on it. I despise waiting in lines or on appointments, and the phone gives me something to do besides seethe in those instances. The game apps can be interesting as well, and are generally the kind you can play while taking a dump -- short, fun, addictive. It becomes a habit to check back frequently on any of those things, which becomes disruptive to maintaining a coherent train of thought, of focusing on multi-part tasks.
Again, I've had this damned thing for just nine months, and I still read and write and create quite a bit, though less and less, and find myself distracted and fractalized more and more. What do you think happens after several years to someone who didn't have any creative outlet or any desire to learn things in the first place? They learn how to manipulate the machine, which returns the favor by manipulating the users, not only with ads but with targeted ads. They know where you've been; they can predict where you're going.
When you really think about it, the consumerist culture conditions you to do one (or both, at different times) of two things: to lose yourself, or to find yourself. The first is the impulse to escape the realities of life -- debt, work, kids, spouse, health, boredom, etc. The second is the need to try to improve all of those things. The goal of advertising ultimately is to prevent you from being satisfied with your life, to make you always feel that you "need" something more -- even if you don't really want that thing. By definition, self-actualized people don't typically buy shit they don't need or want. The economy would collapse if enough individuals suddenly decided that they had enough stuff.
Since we are conditioned to pursue things, many of us don't have the time or inclination to pursue useful knowledge. We want to make more money but don't want to put in the time, effort, or money to learn a higher-paying skill. We keep intending to read a "good" book but it's so much easier after working and commuting to zone out in front of the tube, text a couple friends on Facebook, maybe crack a popular book once or twice a year, but never really finish it.
That's life for the majority of Americans these days: overworked, underpaid, under-informed. And the corporate media have no desire to change any of that. Wage slavery, debt peonage, and collective ignorance, plus the false carrot of Opportunity dangled just out of reach, are woven into the fabric of modern America. For the people that actually own and operate this country, those things are features, not flaws. The elites would be terrified if the peons knew as much about how they're getting fucked every day by rich assholes, as they do about their favorite sports teams, or the idjits on Duck Dynasty (is that stupid show still on? how could it not be?).
Which brings us to our favorite topic of 2015, Donald Trump. When Trump began his campaign six months ago, I laughed as hard as anyone else. People couldn't possibly take this jerkoff seriously, descending a fucking escalator with his peach-swirl head-pelt and puckered asshole of a mouth, braying about how great he thinks he is, and nothing of real value. People would see through this nonsense right away, and laugh him off the stage.
But since a significant chunk of Americans have become cognitively stunted and distracted, unable and unwilling to do even basic research to debunk the lies they're being fed, because they're lies that they want to hear, Trump still chugs along, though the canoe is finally starting to take on a bit of water. A cynical person might suggest that Trump is wanting to go third-party, but needed to gin up a reason to do so. The GOP is terrified that having Trump as their nominee would kill them down-ticket, and they're probably right. And since Trump himself doesn't care whether he becomes president or not, but simply wants ratings and ego-stroking, he understands that a third-party run is the most reliable way to continue that objective.
In the middle of Trump's boorish idiocies and spiteful boasting come two obvious truths, which Trump has articulated better than his opponents:
- The political class no longer represents the interests of the people, because they have been bought off.
- The middle class is broke and going under, and elected representatives are doing nothing about it.
Professional, incumbent politicians cannot make the above bullet points about the political class, at least not as bluntly as Trump, because they are part of the machine, and thus cannot complain about their machine. Trump, on the other hand, can and does say such things, because whatever else the man is, he's not owned by anyone. He has interests in money and personal power, and whatever actual political ambition he possesses is driven solely by those things.
It's true that Trump is, deliberately or not, exposing our political system for what it truly has become -- a spectator sport, a reality show, an expensive snipe hunt played by millionaires on a playing field owned by billionaires. But in doing so, Trump has also exposed the conservatard base for what they have truly become -- bitter, spiteful, paranoid, drunk on rage, indifferent to facts. Fortunately they are not as numerous as they think they are, but the degree of their scattershot vituperation offsets some of that.
It will be interesting to see what happens with them once Trump is no longer viable, whether because he finally crosses the line, or comes to the realization that he's a 70-year-old billionaire, and doesn't need a thankless $400k/year job. It's not that it's impossible for him to get elected; remember, this country let a moron like George W. Bush get close enough to steal the difference, not once but twice. All it takes is enough low-info ragebots to be gulled into voting against themselves, which is about as easy as selling them Slankets and fake boner pills. They want something new, they're just not sure what. Many of them want to be told what they want, surely an epistemological recursion if ever there were one.
What has finally become clear, as Trump spins rhetorically into ever-more divisive rants and proposals, and propels the odd narrative of his latest (and perhaps greatest) reality show, is that Trump is really just a sentient ad, for himself, for the long-running meta-show going on right in front of us. There's plenty of time to change the channel, but once that happens, where does the audience of disaffected dipshits channel their temper tantrum?