Sunday, November 20, 2005

These are some other droids

Derren Brown is a pretty scary fellow. If you've never heard of him, reading this page and then watching the 45 second video clip will give you some idea of what he does (beware of Channel 4's very irritating love of pop-up ads). I should make clear that I don't mean he's "spooky" scary or any of that nonsense. Basically, he uses the power of suggestion to make people do some really very freaky things. And I do mean really very freaky. What I find scary about him is that he has such a powerful understanding of human psychology and the workings of the subconscious mind. We humans really are very easy to manipulate if you know how it's done, and that's what I find so frightening. To be fair to Mr Brown, part of the reason he does what he does is so that people become more aware of this. He also likes to expose some of the scams used by hocus-pocus merchants and I'm all for that. Given his remarkable talents, I'm sure he'd be considerably richer if he'd decided to be a scammer himself rather than an entertainer. All in all, he's probably a decent bloke but I still find him scary.

But it's not really him; it's the implications that his talents have when applied to other areas of our lives. I'm on my way to politics (what a surprise) but I'm stopping off at the shops first. Try to imagine how successful Mr Brown would be if he worked in advertising or retail. "Look at me. You need these." "Yes, I need these. I'll take twelve."

There's actually no need to imagine it, of course, because it already happens. Maybe they don't have the same depth of understanding as Mr Brown but they're certainly working towards it. The ever-present smell of baking bread at the supermarket, and the equally ubiquitous fruit and vegetable displays by the entrance, are specifically designed to appeal to the subconscious mind of the customer. Many other elements of retail design are grounded in these strategies, like the fact that many shops are designed to enclose you completely. (No views of the outside world while you're in here. In here, everything is safe and warm and the outside world doesn't exist at all.) And many advertisments attempt to use the same sort of techniques of suggestion to part you from your hard earned cash. You can sometimes spot these attempts, especially in advertisments which are targetted at others. If the advert is targetting you though, you probably won't spot it (and even if you do it's probably still had an effect). Now I'm not saying we're all being brainwashed into mindless consumer zombies, well... I don't want to overstate this but that's not far from what I am saying. Watching one advert won't do it but there is a cumulative effect. It's not an evil conspiracy; it's just a whole lot of companies trying to maximise their profits to the fullest extent. In short, our subconscious minds are being poked and prodded every day by marketing goons who are just doing their jobs. As I've argued before, I believe this is fuelling an increase in dissatisfaction in our society. Leave my brain alone, that's what I say.

And so, to politics. It's obvious that influencing what people think is a very important aspect of politics. As Derren Brown knows, there are easier ways to do that than to actually win them over with the intellectual vigour of your argument. Unfortunately, Mr Brown isn't the only one who knows this. Image based politics is the result of that knowledge and it's destroying the political process. It isn't a new phenomenon, far from it, but the pervasive nature of it in today's politics is something new.

After the general election, Lynton Crosby, the Tories evil spin doctor, claimed that they could have won if they'd just been a little bit more like Kyle Minogue. That provoked me to make this rather unpleasant image.* Politics is supposed to be about policy, not about trying to be more like a tiny Ozzie singer, no matter how attractive she may be. I despaired. Is this what politics has become?

Sadly, it is. In the Conservative leadership contest, both David's have accused the other of being an image based politician, or a media obsessed policy maker or something similar., and they're probably both right. The contest seems to be more about which of them will look good compared to Blair and Gordon Brown and less about anything either candidate might actually have to say. It's about who "comes across better" on TV. This excellently titled article, by Newsnight editor Peter Barron, gives an interesting insight into the level of detail which goes into the process. We know that politicians choose their words with care, and we know that what they wear and how they look has been chosen to show them in the best possible light, and we know that backdrops are important (who hung that up there?) but it's really getting ridiculous. Cameron can't appear in front of a portrait of Thatcher on a Newsnight interview? A suitably plain backdrop was required (he's a man of the people, don't you know). Political debate at it's most stimulating it is not.

Unsurprisingly, I often tend to blame this on the Blair; he is undoubtedly a master of these black arts. In fact, the man could sound sincere reading the telephone directory; a pause here, a look there, here a gesture, there a change in tone and an arched eyebrow. Most New Labour loyalists would still clap at the exact same pauses without even having to go to the bother of engaging any part of their tiny little brains. He reminds me of an evangelical preacher in many ways and there's no doubt that he has hastened the arrival of policy free politics in this country to a greater extent than any other politician.

But, if I'm entirely honest, I don't think Blair is really the problem. If Blair wasn't doing it, someone else would step right up and do it instead. That doesn't let Blair off the hook, he's still a shallow, vacuous, manipulative, lying toerag, but in some ways he's more of a symptom than a cause. The real problem, I think, is in the political process itself. More accurately, it's caused by the intersection of politics, the media, particularly television. and an increased knowledge of how to influence people's opinions (there are other factors at work too but those are probably the most important). Unfortunately, it looks as if the slide towards image based politics may be an inevitable consequence of the world we now live in. The US and the UK are leading the charge but it's happening elsewhere too. Personally, I'm very worried about where that charge might eventually lead.

To conclude, I'd very much like to suggest some solutions to this problem. I just wish I could think of some.

*It's still the most viewed image on my Flicker account by a long way. People are very strange.

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