Wake to Alarm

Very interesting week.

I gave a talk at the Eastern Communications Association annual conference. Well, more of talk/discussion. It’s still weird for me to sit in front of a room of real professors and such, as the ‘lead thinker.’ It’s one thing to give a talk to the readers of my books or kids at a school. But I’m still intimidated by people with real degrees, or multiple degrees and tenure and beards, so it’s strange to be in the role of an authority with people upon whom I’ve already transferred authority.

But this event was a bit different. I sat in front of them, and began by sharing what’s troubling and confusing me. I mentioned the Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirt that people on the media-squatters list have been talking about. It’s a racist satiric depiction of Chinese laundry people, and most likely one of those campaigns designed to cause a stir – and then be canceled. It’s the same technique Calvin Klein used in his ad campaigns featuring children in pornographic situations. They knew they would be forced to pull the ads — but also knew they’d get more ‘secondary media’ from news outlets covering their controversial campaign than they could ever pay for in real ads. And Calvin Klein would be remembered as sexy and dangerous. It was the same image they were attempting to portray back in the 70’s by having teenage Brooke Shields declare, “nothing gets between me and my calvins” – meaning, she wasn’t wearing underwear.

But the A/F t-shirt is worse, because the communication is about something else, entirely. Since the mid-90’s, AF’s image has been fascism. It’s catalogues feature muscular Aryan-looking teens on “forest retreats” in the style of nazi-youth camps. They frolic in a sexy, uber-preppy utopia, where sex is plentiful, the girls are beautiful…even the orchestra is beautiful (ref: Cabaret). AF’s image is meant to create an aspirational world where none of the confusion of real life exists. It is a perfect world, with no nagging problems.

The racist t-shirt campaign is not a t-shirt design at all, but a media sensation designed and planned to cause the stir that it did. It was intended, I believe, to upset people and intended to be canceled. (In fact, as you’ll see in the article linked above, A/F’s stock thrives on negative publicity.) But not before confirming AF’s role in promoting the anti-politically correct, racist backlash that has come to characterize this decade. Susan Faludi reported the backlash against feminism that brought Maxim and other ‘laddy’ media centerstage. Well, with AF, we’re seeing the beginning of the backlash against multiculturalism and racial tolerance.

What so irks me about the campaign is that its making use of the very techniques I was celebrating in my earlier books – most specifically Media Virus – but using them for the opposite reasons. Disruptive campaigns like this were once the technique of the counterculture – from the Situationists to Abbie Hoffman. They were designed to help people wake up from the captive spell of mass media programming. Even Benneton’s disruptive campaigns tended to expose the false nature of our society’s authorities. They showed Queen Elizabeth as she would look if she were African. At least this use of disruptive media was to make people think about their own prejudices.

AF’s campaign is intended to make people celebrate their own closet racism, and to identify the brand with a simpler time, when Chinese-Americans were Chinks, and white kids were “normal.” The techniques of disruptive, viral media are now in use by a counter-culture of anti-intellectualism and racism.

We all ended up having a great talk about this. Not just the ad campaign, but the anti-intellectual flavor of news media, public debate, and political rhetoric. The new media technologies of the 1990’s gave people access to the engines of story creation and manipulation. Now, we seem to be voluntarily surrendering them back to the man behind the curtain. We don’t want to know.

We don’t want to know, for example, what the US did to the Iraqi water supply after the Gulf War. We don’t want to know what we’re doing to the global environment. And neither do the ‘oppressed’ want to know about the complicity of their own fundamentalist leaders in maintaining their oppression. It’s easier to manufacture the other guy, race, or nation, and keep the over-simplified conflict alive.

I’ve accepted that the intellectual window opened by the advent of interactive media is, most likely, closing. But I don’t think it’s compeltely closed, yet. I think there are people who are still awake – still aware that they can take an active role in the creation of a new human story and human reality. And if another dark time is, indeed, ahead – I think its severity can be moderated.

The question, for me, is how to embed the society of tomorrow with some of the knowledge we have gained, today? What hints can we lay about the nature of this reality before everyone goes back to sleep? Do we write a new myth – content for the next extended dream state? Or do we lay some sort of consciousness land mines? And what would they look like? Monuments? Cultural artifacts? How do the people of a dying movement and age communicate their values to future generations?

Or is it too early to give up? Are there ways to wake people up? People in a pleasant media-created dream have little reason to want to wake up into something that appears very much like a nightmare. How would we nudge them into greater awareness? How do set the clock: ‘wake to alarm,’ or ‘wake to music?’