20 Jun

Better Things for Better Living

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/20/07

I first ran across the work of Richard DeGrandpre in an article he wrote for the magazine, AdBusters. That magazine's original editorial vision (which they seem to have forgotten in recent years) was to examine the ways in which the version of reality encouraged by advertising (and by other technnlogically mediated forms of communication) promotes habits of profoundly distorted perception.

The article I read by DeGrandpre was called The Great Escape (published in the March/April 2001 issue), in which DeGrandpre described experiments done in the 1930s by perception psychologist James Gibson. People were given glasses that distorted their vision, making straight lines seem curved. The subjects gradually compensated for the distortion of the lenses, and eventually, the curved lines seemed to be straight ones. When the glasses were removed, straight lines were perceived to be curving in the other direction.

DeGrandpre related this to the so-called beauty myth. Young women, he observed, have millions of exemplars from which to judge the sizes and shapes of the female body, yet this vast pool of reality is somehow overridden by a narrow band of hyper-reality. It's a perfect match with the finding of Gibson's classic study. Many young women, presented with their own image, fail to 'see' what appears on their retinas. Instead, as researchers have now documented, they often perceive a distorted, 'fatter' version of themselves. Again, their sense of reality derives from cumulative experience with the goal of adapting to whatever reality appears to be most pressing, or 'valuable.' Unfortunately, for many women, this 'valued' reality happens to make them sick.

DeGrandpre's discussion was a helpful reminder of how much our perception of reality is conditioned by our cultural setting. This leads some postmodernists to insist that there is no reality, only socially constructed perceptions. An alternative reading, one which has many resonances in Scripture and the Christian tradition, is that there is a reality, and our cultural situatedness can either help us see it or deter us from seeing it. The glasses I am wearing right now enable me to see what the trees outside my window and the birds at my feeder actually do look like, they do not enable an arbitrary and entirely idiosyncratic view of the world. They put me in greater touch with reality.

Richard DeGrandpre was concerned in that article about the way in which virtual reality was becoming more attractive to people than real reality, a theme he pursued well in his 2001 book Digitopia: The Look of the New Digital You (Random House). As he wrote in his AdBusters article,

The mind isn't some kind of computer that remains unchanged as cultural software runs through its cerebral circuits. Conscious reality changes as the software of everyday life changes, and remains changed thereafter. Whether it's watching the tube, surfing the web, or viewing the latest special-effects flick, chronic exposure to simulated ideas, moods, and images conditions your sensibilities, albeit to different degrees, for how the real world should look, how fast it should go, and how you should feel when living in it. When a thousand points of light shine upon you in a commercial war for your thoughts, feelings, and wants, your mind adapts, accepts, and then, to feel stimulated, needs more. Kids twenty-five years ago forfeited their quarters to a video game called Pong. Pong is to Sony PlayStation 2 what a firecracker is to the atomic bomb. Virtual reality wires us for a virtual world. . . . As you adapt to the latest digital experiences, straying farther and farther from your home world of the here and now, that home world becomes less satisfying each time you return to it. Simply, the virtual becomes the only reality that counts.

Later in the article, DeGrandpre talks about how the use of psychotropic drugs mirrors the increasing levels of engagement with alternative-reality media. About one in ten Americans filter their life experiences through antidepressants. But with the increasing number of people using such drugs comes a novel social philosophy. As dubbed in Peter Kramer's best seller Listening to Prozac, this is 'cosmetic psychopharmacology.' The idea here is that new 'lifestyle drugs' are being synthesized not to make us well, but rather to make us, as Kramer puts it, 'better than well.'

This is a profoundly cybernetic ideology: the progressive abandonment of concern over real-world causes of despair and dysfunction in favor of symptom-specific individual solutions. The better-than-well ideology marks not scientific progress—-several thousand compounds were tested by Eli Lilly before Prozac was stumbled upon—-but social regress. It urges you not to think about or pursue social change, but to seek out technological and consumer-based fixes to what are not individual problems.

Of course this cyborg ideology of more human than human couples perfectly with the postmodern ethos of the digital age. Both tap in to the same utopian technological spirit, both function as technologies of the self, and both help you accommodate your nervous system to a dying and dysfunctional social realm. As unplugged reality gets worse, the cyborg solution is to constantly upgrade and improve the self. By helping us cope in the middle years of today—-living neither as the socioborgs of times past nor as the true cyborgs of times future—-drugs like Prozac affirm our cultural direction. They are part of the great escape.

This article raised many of the same issues about happiness and society addressed in Carl Elliott's book Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.

Richard DeGrandpre had written an earlier book called Ritalin Nation: Rapid-fire Culture and the Transformation of Human Consciousness (W. W. Norton, 1999), in which he examined ways in which popular psychotropic drugs alter the brain and its expectations. Most recently he has written The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World's Most Troubled Drug Culture (Duke University Press, 2006), which examines the complicated reasons (few of them scientific) why some drugs are regarded as bad and outlawed while others are deemed to be good and encouraged by large marketing campaigns.

Posted 6/21/07 by Ken Myers