Spellbound

Gee Thomson’s critical evaluation of the current multimedia landscape just doesn’t go far enough

Mesmerization is a book about our minds. It aspires to make us aware of the powerful ‘spells’ concocted by advertising, tech­nology and the media that deter­mine the way we think. In the opening pages, Gee Thomson, co-founder of Contagious magazine, seems to promise a radical critique of the media land­scape and I expected to emerge with some exhilarating insights about what we need to do next. The more I read, though, the more I wondered where Mesmerization was really coming from. Considering the importance of the issues the book raises, and its claim that the spells are simpler than they might appear, it sometimes seems to be in two minds about what it wants.

In form, Mesmerization is certainly original: not so much a linear argument as a collection of lists. Each of the 65 spells breaks down into five themes: the values the spell embodies; its target audience; the emotions and fears it arouses; the promise it makes and the visual devices it uses; and the reward or outcome to which it leads. The spells relate to areas such as style, lifestyle, status, sex, health, travel, politics and religion. Under the heading of status, for instance, Thomson looks at luxury, art, cars and our prevailing ‘winner takes all’ notion of success, along with the ‘always on’, Blackberry­driven work ethic and the instant gratification provided by easy money.

Design really is half the experience here and most of the spells receive a juicy visual interpretation by Chris Curran and Geoff Williamson of Why Not Associates. Although these retain a clear connection to the Why Not house style, the book is a tour de force of graphic invention, extracting a spectrum of typographic colours and moods from the badge-like circular frames used to project the themes.

So the rounded type of the ‘Fat Futures’ spell snuggles in a nest formed by a loosely coiled tape measure, ‘Big Pharma’ is as cleanly efficient as a packet of Paracetamol, and ‘Conspiracy Theories’ rasps out its dark revelations in jittery bursts of monochromatic noise.

This is a long way from the standard, non-visual trade paperback in which urgent warnings about the state of society are usually delivered. Thomson has been reading a lot of these – Naomi Klein’s No Logo, David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, Oliver James’ Britain on the Couch – and he quotes from them liberally. He hopes that a visual approach might make these ideas available to a wider audience, but the book is so clearly aimed at a young, cool, visually aware, art-bookshop-frequenting readership that a broad audience seems unlikely. The thinking is questionable in other ways, too.

According to Thomson, if we know how the spells work, we can reduce their effect. But knowing how they work is not the same thing as breaking free from them and to acquire the motivation to do that a reader will need highly persuasive arguments and reasons. The book is much better at describing the intrusive, hyper-commercial reality we take for granted now than it is at analysing why these developments are a problem. Thomson’s critique of the spells is confined to a brief ‘reality check’ statement at the end of each spread and he sometimes seems to forget the argument he set out to make in the first place.

‘Retail Therapy’ concludes with the observation that the future prosperity of a nation will be marked “by the ability of its people to produce loads of stuff and (perhaps) more importantly, the ability of its people to consume loads of stuff. Concepts of retail therapy provide that powerful emotional accelerator.” So this spell is ok after all, then? In the book’s introduction, he seemed to want us to consume less. In the ‘Playnation’ section about computer games, he wonders breezily how it might be if the financial markets looked like a landscape out of Halo. Once again, an uncritical aside – and Mesmerization has plenty – undercuts the intended critical message.

It’s as though even Thomson, despite his positive intentions, can’t entirely liberate himself from the spells he lays bare with detailed insider knowledge and an often lip-smacking relish. Contagious – the name says it all – exists to provide businesses with sophisticated marketing intelligence and Mesmerization’s exhaustive lists, its urge to itemise every nuance of the way consumer decisions can be coerced, is much closer to marketing’s needs, methods and mentality than it is to rigorous cultural criticism.

As Thomson does, in fact, make clear, we need to consume less because the future of the planet depends on it. Unfortunately, as he also points out, the commercial environment controls our consuming behaviour by jamming its finger down hard on enormously persuasive buttons, such as our craving for sex, sustenance, power and status. The ubiquitous presence of digital technology, our utter dependence on it now, has given the marketplace hugely powerful new tools to manipulate our evolutionary conditioning to seek those satisfactions. If the spells are ‘memes’ – compelling ideas that spread like viruses – then the internet, social networking sites, mobile phones and iPods are the perfect way to dissemi­nate these memes globally. Young people are especially susceptible and Thomson mentions the claim by neuro­logists that computer games act on the ‘neural plasticity’ of the brain, moulding its circuits and addicting players to the need for high levels of sensation and excitement – mesmer­ization indeed.

Then again, perhaps mesmer­ization is too mild a term for some­thing that sounds more like enslave-­­­­ ment. Since addiction is what we are talking about, a better word than spell might be drug. There are signs through­out this book that the author would like to think we can have it both ways and not change things too radically, after all. Perhaps business will reform itself and lead us through. Perhaps we can create new kinds of enlightening spells to influence people to consume more moderately. Yet the logic of Mesmerization’s mostly accurate picture of the world, the scary conclusion it can’t quite bring itself to face, is that the only solution to the bondage it documents is to turn away, to refuse to act as host to these manip­ulative memes, to give your attention to something else instead. If the idea of life without the mediation of digital gizmos already seems unthinkable, we might even pause to wonder whose interest that serves.

Mesmerization: The Spells that Control Us – Why We are Losing Our Minds to Global Culture, Thames & Hudson, £19.95

 

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