Conditioned To Believe
Many of us believe firmly in a Star Trek world to come, where technology and science would eventually have an answer to every problem we face today: from cancer to infinite growth on a finite planet. (Not that these are two different things at all.) This vision of the future certainly makes enduring life easier: it’s not unlike Promiseland here on Earth. It is giving people the hope that their descendants — far-far into the future — will have a better life, without the toil and suffering. Heck, in the big scheme of things fans of high-tech can even feel proud that they are part of this success story right here and now! A story of a single species from a fairly uninteresting planet conquering the entire Universe, bringing freedom and democracy even to the farthest reaches of the galaxy…
Is it possible though, that all this is but a magician’s trick, and we have been lured to believe in a future which might never come?
Remember Pavlov from biology class, who trained dogs by ringing a bell whenever he gave them food? After a few repetitions his dogs started to salivate in hopes of getting tasty bits just by hearing the bell ring. This is a perfectly normal reaction universally observable across all mammals, humans included. According to Britannica:
conditioning is a behavioral process whereby a response becomes more frequent or more predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement, with reinforcement typically being a stimulus or reward for a desired response
Reinforcement... Reward... Stimulus… Hmm, movies anyone? Fiction, both in the form of books and films provide plenty of stimulus, and you guessed right: plenty of emotional reward as well. Rooting for the protagonists to succeed in their quest to destroy a great evil is among the most ancient forms of entertainment. And the reward? Who didn’t feel joy over the victory of a hero? A rush of dopamine. A flurry of positive emotions. Success. Catharsis. Hope. This is why so many of us go to the cinemas or watch Netflix after all.
Mind you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Story telling (and listening) is one of the things that makes us human. The problem is with predictability. No, I’m not thinking about the usual things, such as the good side winning over the bad every time. Not even the story-line, the hero’s journey. I’m talking about the scene, the background in front of which all modern science — or rather: ‘unscience’ — fiction plays. Interstellar and time travel. Machines running on some mysterious form of inexhaustible clean energy, glowing with a bright blue light in a glass tube. Infinite growth of the human race made possible by colonizing the entire galaxy... For how long have we been promised this future? How many times have we seen this…?
Is it possible that we have become conditioned to believe in such a future, like Pavlov’s dogs? So whenever the bell rings (someone brings up a major issue like climate change, resource depletion or overshoot in general), we instantly start to ‘salivate’ on all sorts of techno-fix solutions almost instinctively…?
The answer lies in our desires for a worry-free, truly fantastic future and our hopes for a reward here and now. These perfectly normal emotional cravings provide a perfect breeding ground for manipulation, i.e.: “controlling someone or something to your own advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly.” We’ve got everything in place after all: repetition, emotional reward, the desired response — all packaged nicely as entertainment. The question is: to whose benefit, and for what purpose?
Let’s assume that you, as one of the many wealthy powerful individuals, would like to grow your wealth and power into infinity and beyond. In our current, capitalist society you would need consumers, a lot of consumers, in order to do that. Thus you need to create an image in your future customers’ head depicting
- consuming goods and services as a good thing, in fact as the key to a good life, and
- that consumption can and will go on indefinitely by expanding our civilization to other planets.
Now, is there a better method to plant this image in someone’s head than to lure them into a room, turn off the lights and then tell them a beautiful, entertaining story set in the scene described above, finally giving them a small emotional reward at the end?
Heck, as an added bonus, they will even pay for all this!
If story-telling is an extremely powerful weapon, then repetition is a powerful ally in achieving a predictable response from your audience — namely: buying into the narrative, that technology is a cure-all — so they can stop worrying and start shopping. What is easier then than to create a sequence set in the same ‘Universe’? Or do you prefer cashing in on endless remakes? Even better, why not create a series and add a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode — thus effectively denying the reward from your audience and have them on the hook for more…?
And while they listen to the story-line and root for the hero, you can keep bombarding their properly softened up brain-tissue with messages of infinite clean energy becoming a reality, with more technology being the solution to all of our problems, and the US being the most benevolent state actor across the entire Universe since the Big Bang. (Similarly you can also plant the message that there is no conflict “the world’s finest fighting force” cannot emerge victorious, while justifying all interventions as an added bonus at the same time.)
The manipulator, however, must remain hidden from plain sight. The audience must not notice that they are being worked on. Softened up. Made believe the physically impossible. Made craving for more technology, more intervention, more wars: translating into more consumption, and yes, higher sales. As Roger “Verbal” Kint famously quipped in The Usual Suspects:
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”
How to do this? In order to be successful, every manipulator needs to have a fallback plan should someone blow his cover. It’s even better to apply such a plan preemptively, effectively conditioning the audience (yet again) on how to react, should the truth somehow escape the tightly controlled spheres of information monopoly. You guessed right, all you need to do in case someone sheds a light on your shady dealings, is to scream at the top of your lungs: conspiracy theory!
This tactic didn’t came from nowhere though, nor happened overnight. Too bad, that real life served with plenty of crackpots to chose from: cutting out news articles, pinning them to a wall in a poorly lit (hidden) room, then connecting the dots with a red (and it’s always a red) thread. These people — whose names and stories should have been long forgotten — were put center stage and showcased in abandon. It took decades for the film industry, media networks, glossy magazines and the rest to build up the profile of the perfect conspiracy theorist, but now they’ve finally nailed it and now they’re applying this technique on every controversial topic at hand: ‘You see? This is how a conspiracy theorist looks like. Do you want to become one of them? Do you want to be alienated and labeled a lunatic?’
Tinkle! Tinkle! Food is coming! (Salivate.)
Pavlov is turning in his grave.
And here we go, on planet Earth near the end of 2022: where resources are unable to accommodate our growing needs, and where pollution and climate change fails to stop just because a few young boys and girls glue themselves to something made out of fossil fuels. Yet, we label everyone a conspiracy theorist (or propagandist, defeatist, doomer, you name it) who dares to question the effectiveness, let alone the sense, of the mainstream narrative pushed on all platforms from social media to movies.
The irony of our situation is so humongous, that it could fill the entire Galaxy. And filling the entire Galaxy it does: our egos, inflated by countless movies, novels, news articles of us becoming the God-species, cannot comprehend that we have been tricked. Fooled. We have been conditioned to believe in a future, which is bio-physically impossible. We have invested too much time, emotions and mental capacity into believing that all we have to do is to do our jobs from nine to five and keep consuming. (Responsibly and sustainably, of course.) In the meantime we haven’t noticed, that
the emperor is not only naked, but he is laughing his butt off as he strolls down the street, all the way to the bank.
Corporations are cashing in on our dreams of a just, sustainable, high-tech, spacefaring future, while deluding even themselves into believing that this level of consumption, pollution and ecocide can go on indefinitely… or at least till we figure out how to make warp drives. Worshiping in essence, that technology will save us, no matter what.
Only this time make-believe and magical thinking will not be enough. We need to be more creative than that.
Where are the blockbusters and record breaking Netflix-series set into an Ecotechnic future? What is that anyway? Where are the low-tech solutions? What is low-tech? Why don’t we see movies where the Pentagon is just one of those thousand year old ruins overgrown with trees and shrubs? Why don’t we see true science fiction (in line with our biological and physical reality), where people live their humble everyday life surrounded by plants, trees, animals and clever inventions made out of locally available and truly sustainable materials? Where are the people, inhabiting such a future, being happy with what they have, and not thinking about wars, killing evil aliens by the dozen or conquering the stars…?
I guess you all know the answer.
Rest in peace, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.
Until next time,