The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

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Why is BoJack Horseman so popular? Simple: it’s real

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If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.

That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:

“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”

Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.

The power of the image

Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.

Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.

In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.

Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.

Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.

Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: 

“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”

The problem with materialism

BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.

An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.

The irrationality of society

For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.

There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.

In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?

Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.

Beyond the fiction of reality

This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.

Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.

And that’s why we need it.

“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

There are countless examples of famous creative artists struggling with mental health issues or turning to addiction. Yet for every troubled genius who made it, there are countless others who didn’t. In this article, musician Christopher Tait shares his personal experiences of living with addiction – and what can be done to help provide support for struggling artists and musicians.

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“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

– The AA Big Book

I vaguely remember being curled up on a filthy mattress, praying to anyone/thing to make the pain go away. I recognized the pain – acute pancreatitis. It felt like there was an alien pushing though my sternum, and my veins were on fire. I’d experienced it before after some serious benders, and the only relief was to lay fetal-style and wait for it to pass. Or…go to the ER and beg for Dilaudid.

It was 2005 and I lived above Detroit’s premiere (and only) goth club in an old hotel called The Leland. The weekend I moved in, someone jumped off the roof after taking acid and wandering from the basement club up to the top of the building. That set the tone for my stay there.

I was gone half the year on tour, and the other half was spent living like a vagrant and shoveling tour profits up my nose. I’m not sure what made me think that that could go on forever, but as soon as I felt better, I’d escape the ER and walk down the hall, past my room with the dirty mattress where I prayed for help, and head straight down to the dealer’s place. (It helps to have the goods in-house during those cold Michigan months, fyi. While I enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, there was nothing like buying a baggie from the guy down the hall).

When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it.

Flash forward six years to 2011 – I wake up in a hotel in Nashville, not sure where I am. Again. No other band members are staying in the room, and there is vodka left in the jug. It was always a bad sign if there was booze left and the jug was in the trash – that meant I hadn’t put it there. It was probably thrown out based on behavioral backlash. At first it was just another morning of waking up and wondering what I’d done, and searching for keys, wallet, phone, etc. etc.; forget repeat; forget; repeat.

I woke to several texts and a knock at the door. I was sat down and told I’d be leaving the tour. After driving the tour van over a laptop (I hadn’t had a drivers license in nearly a decade), I repeatedly tried to fight multiple members of the group. I had this super power – when I was at my most unhappy with myself, I’d start drilling at everyone around me. Shockingly, my hotel roomies had had enough and gone elsewhere.

When I read back on what I just wrote, it sounds like badly-drawn Bukowski without much glory or wit. All signs point to insanity, but not when you’re in it. When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it. The universe was against me, and the bottle was my only friend. Or the dope man, on nights where I had enough scratch.

Flash forward again to 2013 – I’m on tour with Electric Six in the states, then Canada. Sober for two years and trying to stay sane on the road. I’m drilling at myself by this point, and my head is rampant with anxiety and paranoid fear that the others I’m touring with think that either I’m boring now, or that I’m a self-righteous turd (the ego is truly an amazing thing; two weeks into a van tour, everyone is just trying to get a few hours sleep, five minutes of peace, and laundry on a lucky week).

The fact that I think anyone gives a shit either way about me or anything other than staying sane at that point in the tour is in itself delusional. I’ve tried to go to meetings on the road; local AA info has led me to a bowling alley in Asbury Park, and an open field in Little Rock. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, we arrive late. There are no meetings around, my data doesn’t work, there is no green room, the Starbucks is closed. It is freezing cold out. I sit in the van and listen to an old AA tape on a laptop (Adam T – La Hacienda Reunion. An old chestnut in the world of AA speakers). I start to think to myself that it should be easier than this.

“Communication…that’s where the change began and continues”

I’m not here to rattle off war stories without purpose, and I don’t regret every single thing I did when I was actively using either. I’m here to present a cautionary tale, and a solution that helped me: Communication. At it’s very heart, that’s where the change began and continues personally.

When I’m on tour, I go to meetings. I have a show to do and beyond that, the gig environment is none of my business. When I’m off tour, I work with others that share the same issues. “Defects” even, as you often hear in recovery. I like the term “Character Defects”. It reminds me that it’s not something I can put a bandaid on, hoping it will go away. It’s there; But the garbage floating around my head – the anxieties, fears, and apocalyptic inclinations will recede if I discuss them with others who might be in a similar boat. And that’s enough, with regularity. If I open up, they diminish. If I keep them in, they get heavier until the bow breaks and I’m screaming at people who can’t hear me down the express way.

When I let my guard down, I can get vulnerable. I can laugh about this shit. I can sit down and talk with strangers anywhere in the world that relate, and the weight is lifted. I’m not alone, and much as my ego would like me to be the only single “tortured artist” on the planet that’s ever dealt with this, I’m not. We’re everywhere.

Before, my only answer to anything was to jump into a bottle. I suppose it was easier, until it wasn’t. But this is better. Life is still life, but I can handle it without the crutch of numbing myself. I live with, understand, and appreciate consequence and accountability. I have options; I don’t have to let everyone down, I can be there for myself and others, my bills are paid, I know where my wallet is etc etc repeat remember repeat. I still screw up, but I attempt to make right.

Passenger was started as a very small, simple, feet-on-the-street service in Detroit – If someone is on tour or traveling, they can call or email us and we will flesh out times with them to make sure they have options. If they have time for a meeting between soundcheck and stage, we’ll get them to a meeting. If their time is limited, we have a clean green room that’s just coffee, internet, peace and quiet.

For the last year, we’ve worked on The Compass – a metropolitan meeting-finder that will be updated through user interaction and central offices. We hope to make it like a Waze for people in recovery on the road. Efficient and current. Simple.

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Passenger’s Compass tool is a GPS-enabled app that offers directions and info for travellers to multiple types of meetings including AA/NA, buddhist recovery (Refuge), and mental health (NAMI).

Our campaign was put together with artists and musicians alike, both in and out of recovery. Our hope is to present a united front where artists from all walks of life can stand together to support those who have recognized issues or concerns in their own lives. We ask anyone who’d like to help to visit the campaign page and see how they can contribute:

https://www.patronicity.com/project/passenger__compass#!/

Help us provide resources for travellers and touring musicians struggling with mental health & addiction issues.

About the author of this post

Christopher TaitChristopher Tait has written and performed for Electric Six since 2002. When off tour, he’s at Brighton Center for Recovery (a treatment center outside of Detroit, MI) working with others who are struggling with addiction issues. Before starting Passenger in 2015, Chris was a freelance curator for Beats/Apple Music in Culver City, CA