Category Archives: Psychology

In Pursuit of Reality: The Cognitive Function of Fashion Media

New York Magazine’s “Spring Fashion Issue” [Table of Contents – February 5, 2018] raises the #MeToo debate to a fever pitch, partly as a result of editorial intention, partly as a result of media finance infrastructure, which intermingles intellectual content and advertising: The articles may be read as criticism of the ads, which may, in turn, be read as examples for the critique; OR, the ads and articles may be read as a complex whole, exemplifying and demonstrating a moment in the history of culture, when virtual (the world of advertising images) and real (the world of intellectual apperception) are confusedly interpenetrated. Either mode of reading points to a question about the role of fashion and social media in relation to lived experience.

The interpenetration becomes obvious from titles of articles explicitly raising questions about “fashion”:

Other articles explore pop culture phenomena, including an exploration of “Instagram influencers”—”ordinary people” whose product buying choices are integrated into brand marketing programs. The confused interpenetration of virtual and real becomes explicit:  “Of course, what the influencers say they are offering, above all else, is ‘authenticity,’ even as they become fully compensated players for the advertising team. ‘Influencers resonate with so many people because of the sense of realness you get from them….'”

This “authenticity” comes with a price—not simply a monetary price paid by the advertiser, but a personal (dare we say spiritual?) price paid by the influencer: Here’s a statement from a November 2016 article in Bloomberg Businessweek: “Constantly,” Floruss said, when I asked him how often he takes pictures of himself. ‘You sell part of your soul. Because no matter what beautiful moment you enjoy in your life, you’re going to want to take a photo and share it. Distinguishing between when is it my life and when am I creating content is a really big burden.’”

Another NYMag article focuses on “Poppy,” a YouTube performance artist: “Is she a robot, a troll, a high-concept art project, a postmodern cultural critique, a cult leader, a clever satirist? Do I get the joke? Is there a joke? What is reality, even? But somehow, Poppy has confused people into paying attention to her. People have willingly gone through the looking glass — or, more accurately, the Black Mirror — in order to understand what this simulacrum of a pop star means. Except now, to further complicate matters, Poppy appears to be trying to become a more traditional kind of famous person….” Poppy told NPR’s Scott Simon in November 2017, “I hope I’m the most special part of [my fans’] day. I want them to feel like I’m taking them to a part of their imagination they’ve never experienced. Poppy’s world is a magical place, and it’s the most free part of the entire universe.” 

The references to “through the looking glass” and “Black Mirror” neatly implicate the experience of reading the magazine itself. On one hand, this makes the “fashion issue” a bold editorial gambit, tossing caution to the winds and challenging the paradigm of high (read exotic, transgressive) fashion—indeed, challenging the notion of “fashion” itself. On the other hand, this gambit produces the very “looking glass, Black Mirror” effect—readers are buffeted by analyses targeting their experience as viewers. In this sense, the editors are playing with a variation of the question posed by the title to the article about Poppy: “Like Warhol But for 2018. Is Poppy enacting a meta-commentary on fame in the YouTube era? Or does she simply want to be famous?”

Startling and amusing results happen in a media format subject to algorithmic ad placement. For example, an ad appeared on my screen last year as I read an article about sex robots in The Guardian July 2017: Plunked into the author’s serious questioning whether sex robots “could amplify objectification of women” because they are “based on representations garnered from pornography” was an ad for women’s clothing from Rosewe, whose website says, “Our target audience is the fashion conscious 18-35 women’s wear market. We aim to be exciting and innovative, offering our customers the fashion they want, when they want. To stay in touch with the ever changing trends within our market we have developed a dynamic and very responsive organisation.” I took a screenshot:

I trust you see the quasi-pornographic aspects of the image. My point, however,  goes not to the imagery as such, but to the algorithmic automaticity of its appearance in the midst of a critique of such images! Looking glass and Black Mirror, indeed!

In 1899, William James addressed the topic of “Apperception,” in Chapter 14 of his Talks to Teachers: “The gist of the matter is this: Every impression that comes in from without, be it a sentence which we hear, an object of vision, or an effluvium which assails our nose, no sooner enters our consciousness than it is drafted off in some determinate direction or other, making connection with the other materials already there, and finally producing what we call our reaction. The particular connections it strikes into are determined by our past experiences and the ‘associations’ of the present sort of impression with them.”  James was at pains to demystify the process of apperception, but also to “confirm in [teachers] a healthy sense of the importance of [their] mission, to feel how exclusively dependent upon [their] present ministrations in the way of imparting conceptions the pupil’s future life is probably bound to be.”

What are the implications of James’ insight and concern today, in a time when the educational model of teachers and pupils has been superseded by social media and corporate advertising, in which the overwhelming majority of “impressions…from without” are simulations of reality, produced in an effort to maximize profit for the impression producers? One suggestive answer to this question comes from Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1988): “Simulation … is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – … It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”

Not to put too fine a point on it:  It appears that advanced (read: hyper-capitalized) society has come to the point where an insufficient sense of “realness” drives masses of people to seek to become commodities—going beyond the commodification of persons and relations implicit in a capitalist economy. This drive toward a virtual realness fuels both sides of the pop culture—”fans” and performers. Warhol’s (in)famous equation of business and art marks an historical moment when creative acts are not creative unless—and to the extent that—they occur as commodities. And individuals become “real” only to the extent they appear as “fans” of a “famous” other—imitators of one talked about.

=============== addendum ===============

On 16 February 2018, Jenn Abelson and Sacha Pfeiffer, of the Boston Globe’s famed “Spotlight” team, presented the results of their investigation into the “fashion industry”—“Modeling’s glamour hides web of abuse”  (Wow! I beat Spotlight by 6 days… :-). They present excerpts from extensive interviews with more than 50 models. One sentence in the article particularly captures the “looking glass” and “simulacra” phenomena: “the very nature of models’ work involves the marketing of seduction. At times, they are asked to dramatize sexual behavior they may not yet have experienced in real life.”


Social Media Critics Recognize Mental Health Issues

On 9 October 2017, I wrote about how social media exploits the frailties of human consciousness and monetizes the results of mental addiction — “Capitalism’s Attack on Mind; Meditation as Antidote to Social Media Addiction”. I suggested meditation as an antidote because the mental phenomena targeted by social media are understood in meditation as forms of suffering, to be alleviated rather than exploited. Recently, other voices have pointed to the same underlying vulnerability in human consciousness and have suggested withdrawal from social media. Among the most prominent critics are former executives and engineers at FaceBook (which a friend calls FacelessBook, to highlight the virtuality of its “community” experience).

On 12 December 2017, the Associated Press reported, “Some of Facebook’s early friends now its sharpest critics.” The AP report quoted Sean Parker, the company’s first president: “Facebook exploits a ‘vulnerability in human psychology’ to addict its users.” AP also quoted Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook vice president: “Facebook is ‘ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.'” Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in both Facebook and Google, was quoted as saying “both companies ‘threaten public health and democracy.'” The AP report adds explicit discussion by these figures about how social media aim to exploit human consciousness for corporate profit.

On the same date, The Guardian newspaper published an article focusing on Chamath Palihapitiya, under the headline, “Former Facebook executive: social media is ripping society apart.” In addition to the mental health aspects of social media exploitation of consciousness, the article explored political implications: “Social media companies have faced increased scrutiny over the past year as critics increasingly link growing political divisions across the globe to the handful of platforms that dominate online discourse.”

On 15 December, The Guardian followed up with a report, “Facebook admits it poses mental health risk – but says using site more can help.” The report stated, “Studies have repeatedly found that Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites can damage the emotional wellbeing of heavy users, particularly younger people.” As might be expected—following the lead of tobacco companies and other corporate actors faced with evidence of harm—FB “painted the literature on the subject as mixed and inconclusive.” But the company also says it will introduce new user features to “hopefully make their experience more positive.” {BTW and FWIW: “Hope” was the last item in Pandora’s Box.}

As the issue becomes more sharply focused, we may see people taking their minds back from the algorithms. As Palihapitiya said of his former employer, “I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.”  On the other hand, likely under pressure to tone down his critique—despite his personal withdrawal—Palihapitiya later “walked back his comments, saying: “I genuinely believe that Facebook is a force for good in the world.”

For the millions of social media users {n.b., drug addicts are also described as users} who begin to feel used and understand they are being used, the power to pull free remains in their hands and minds. Meditate on that.


Capitalism’s Attack on Mind; Meditation as Antidote to Social Media Addiction

Corporate social media aims to capture personal data by exploiting the frailties of human consciousness. Meditation aims to liberate human consciousness from the mental habits that constitute that frailty.

“How can we be assured that Facebook is really safeguarding democracy for us and that it’s not us who need to be safeguarding democracy against Facebook?” asked Max Read, writing in New York Magazine (1 October 2017: “Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?”). Read’s question echoes growing concern that social media systems are in fact undermining democracy. As Sabrina Siddiqui put it in an article in The Guardian (26 September 2017: “‘From heroes to villains’: tech industry faces bipartisan backlash in Washington”): “As political polarization continues to plague Washington, a rare consensus is emerging between the left and the right that America’s largest technology companies must be subject to greater scrutiny.”

These questions are important, but they stay at the level of economics and politics—systems theory—and leave individuals with a sense that things are out of control unless we happen to be high-level corporate or political actors. In Read’s telling, even the latter may be unable to mount any effective response to the global situation:  Facebook’s role in the last U.S. election, though “presented as a democratic town hall was revealed to be a densely interwoven collection of parallel media ecosystems and political infrastructures outside the control of mainstream media outlets and major political parties and moving like a wrecking ball through both.” Read concludes, “Facebook is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere company.”

The self-proclaimed Facebook “mission”—to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”—wraps the platform in the rhetoric of “community values”; but as Read puts it, the guiding principles of the Facebook “community” are “whatever encourages people to post more. Facebook’s actual value system seems less positive than recursive. Facebook is good because it creates community; community is good because it enables Facebook. The values of Facebook are Facebook.” Read cites a recent essay for the London Review of Books, in which John Lanchester argues “that for all its rhetoric about connecting the world, the company is ultimately built to extract data from users to sell to advertisers.” Read says, “This may be true, but Facebook’s business model tells us only so much about how the network shapes the world.”

Read acknowledges the monetization of attention and human desires (and fears) inherent in social media—how could he not?! He quotes Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor and author of The Attention Merchants,  “Facebook has…attentional power, but …not a sense of responsibility. No constraints. No regulation. No oversight. Nothing. A bunch of algorithms, basically, designed to give people what they want to hear.” But Read frames that issue as “the government’s problem,” and segues into a confession: “From one angle, the Facebook hypercube terrifies me; from another, it’s a tool with which I have a tremendous and affectionate intimate bond. I have 13 years of memories stored on Facebook; the first photo ever taken of me and my partner together is there, somewhere deep in an album posted by someone I haven’t talked to in years. It gives me what I want, both in the ­hamster-wheel–food-pellet sense, and in a deeper and more meaningful one.”

A major impediment to critical thinking about social media arises from failure to investigate the human infrastructural elements of the “business model” underlying social media functions (and dysfunctions). The problem can be expressed in a single phrase—”monetization of attention”—how does social media capitalize (literally) on human consciousness? The answer, as Lanchester puts it, is that social media functions on the basis of “how people’s minds work and in particular of the social dynamics of popularity and status.” This functional basis rests on what Lanchester calls “a pretty dark view” of human nature—that we have no “values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare”—a view propounded by Christian philosopher René Girard, whom Facebook investor Peter Thiel studied at Stanford. Lanchester quotes Thiel, who said. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.” Lanchester adds, “We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.”

 Paul Lewis, writing in The Guardian (6 October 2017: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”), interviewed a number of silicon valley “refuseniks:..  designers, engineers and product managers who created the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves.” Justin Rosenstein, for example, was the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button; he told Lewis that “Facebook ‘likes’ are ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’ that can be as hollow as they are seductive.” The mechanisms by which Facebook and social media systems generally attract people’s attention not only “addict users” to the systems, but—in a seeming paradox—contribute to a phenomenon called  “continuous partial attention”, which limits people’s ability to focus. As Lewis notes, a recent study showed that “the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.” As Rosenstein put it, “Everyone is distracted. “All of the time.”

The silicon valley engineers are not limiting themselves to calling for government action. They are, as Paul Lewis put it, “weaning themselves off their own products” and preventing their children’s attentions from getting hooked. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products—teaching techniques used in social media—writes, “The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions.” He explains the “subtle psychological tricks…to make people develop habits, …to create ‘a craving,’ … exploiting negative emotions that can act as ‘triggers’: “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.”

My first response to reading Read’s confession was pity: How sad to find his mind and memories intimately captured by forces outside his control; to feel intimately bound to that which terrifies; to have his life story in a database for corporate advertising; to recognize without resisting hamster-like behavior. But then I realized this confession opens the way to getting out of the hamster wheel through an exercise of our own power as individuals, independent of whatever any government may do—our “attentional power.” The power we have to “wean ourselves” from social media addiction involves paying attention to our attention!  Advertisers and social media systems exploit the inverse of this phenomenon—namely, that our attention can be manipulated by others.

At this point, we can understand that social media exploits—takes advantage of, trades on—the human mind’s capacity for distraction; and, more importantly, we can focus on this capacity as a problem susceptible to our own power to pay attention to our attention, otherwise known as meditation, mindfulness. Much has been written about mindfulness meditation. Robert Wright’s new book, Why Buddhism is True, provides a useful introduction* combines a focus on core Buddhist teachings with information derived from research in neuroscience and psychology. As he explains, “Mindfulness meditation…is a good way to study the human mind. At least, it’s a good way to study one human’s mind: yours. You sit down, let the mental dust settle, and then watch your mind work.” Mindfulness  meditation practice aims at breaking the grip of the very same mental habits—the “mental dust”—that social media encourages and exploits for commercial purposes!  Corporate social media aims to capture personal data by exploiting the frailties of human consciousness. Meditation aims to liberate human consciousness from the mental habits that constitute that frailty.

  • * Note: Wright provides useful discussion of meditation practices, insights, and implications; but his digressions into “natural selection” (“Darwinism,” “evolution”) to present meditation as “undoing” evolution get in the way. First of all, the ground on which meditation happens—mind—does not require an explanation; a description suffices (e.g., “subject to illusion,” “agitated by desire and aversion,” etc.). Second, Wright grossly misconstrues “natural selection,” referring to it as “design” and “intention”; but as the Berkeley site, “Understanding Evolution” puts it in “Misconceptions about natural selection,”: “‘need,’ ‘try,’ and ‘want’ are not very accurate words when it comes to explaining evolution. The population or individual does not ‘want’ or ‘try’ to evolve, and natural selection cannot try to supply what an organism ‘needs.’ Natural selection just selects among whatever variations exist in the population. The result is evolution.” Third, if we want to hook up meditation and evolution, we would do better to follow the implications of the Berkeley discussion: “The genetic variation that occurs in a population because of mutation is random — but selection acts on that variation in a very non-random way: genetic variants that aid survival and reproduction are much more likely to become common than variants that don’t.” The question becomes: Are there genetic markers associated with ability or predisposition to mindfulness—human “attentional power”—that aid human survival? Only time and space will tell.