Depression 2.0 is over


One of my young relatives living on the Left Coast is into body art, much to her parents’ chagrin. It all started out innocently enough with a tiny tattoo on her ankle, I think. That led to a couple of extra piercings in her ears. Now in her mid-20s, about a third of her body is covered in ink.

I’d like to say that I’m completely neutral about this. But I’m not. Even though I very much like art I’ve never been attracted to body art, at least for myself. I admit to having a natural aversion to it—not to mention the pain.

A lot of my reaction has to do with my upbringing. My parents weren’t much on tattoos, even though a couple of my uncles had small ones on their arms, remnants of their war experiences. My mother, especially, hated tattoos; she thought they were dirty. But she hated comic books too, and as a kid I loved them. So I can’t blame her. Ultimately, my real problem with body art is the fact that I don’t care for self-inflicted pain that much. If I want pain I can go outside and shovel the snow off the driveway.

So what is it about people who are willing to suffer the pain for body art? What motivates them? Is it fashion, or peer pressure or what?

I personally think the pain is part of the attraction. In a culture in which everything comes so easily, having to endure pain to achieve a result can be appealing. Pain makes us alive, just as much or even more than pleasure. We can all remember painful experiences from childhood very clearly; these experiences can last to the deathbed. Of course the most obvious reason for the attraction is to stand out. In a world with 6.5 billion people and average cities topping a million residents, and everyone publishing their lives on the Internet at the same time, it’s easy to get lost. So a pair of angel’s wings tattooed to one’s back kind of sets one apart.

Of course there are other ways to stand out. Having lots of children is one way. Angelina Jolie, for example, has both—tattoos and lots of kids. Both of these personal expressions represent rebellion against the unwritten rules of living in an overcrowded world.

All kinds of things happen in an overcrowded world. If we’re living in a Global Village, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, then we’re also subject to the kind of gossipy intrusion that village life brings, especially when we’re all hardwired to the media—and especially the Internet. We’ve all become neural extensions of the net, creating a vast collective human organism.

No where can this be seen more clearly than in the current financial crisis. It began, if you can remember that far back, in the winter of 2007 some folks in the media were suggesting that the housing bubble might burst. But no one was even talking about recession at that point, even though the current 20-20 hindsight media is now saying that the “depression” started then. But back in late 2007, no one in mainstream media was actually saying that. Somehow, since early in 2008, we’ve all started believing that the economy is going in the tank—and sure enough, so it is.

Of course it’s too easy to blame the financial meltdown on the media. They’re just reporting the facts, aren’t they? Sure. In the same way they didn’t report the unpleasant facts about the rush to war in Iraq (incidentals such as the fact that Iraq wasn’t involved in ramming the twin towers, or that Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction), and have just recently come to excoriate themselves for that little failing. So there are two things that we can conclude here.

The first is that the media is completely influenced by the political leadership of the day. The second is that the media is a colluding partner in inflating the news—as supplied by the leadership. In other words, the bigger the story the bigger the ratings or viewings. And the more important the story to the leadership, the more that story is propagated and inflated.

What that really means is this. No one in the media is actually motivated to stop inflating this current story about the second coming of the Great Depression. Because, damn, everyone is paying attention. This story makes everyone sit up and take notice.

Now the self-fulfilling prophecy is coming true. Over 8% of the US workforce is unemployed. Consumer confidence is at a 25-year low. Housing sales have slumped. Runaway, bottomless deflation is the new feared economic enemy.

But the underlying fact is clear. We were just bored. With just a few speedbumps we’ve had 40 years of endless shopping in endless malls, and now we’re tired. It’s not as if anyone consciously said, “Gee, let’s have a Great Depression. That’ll wake everyone up.”

The global economy is simply the greatest trust–confidence game we humans have ever invented. Since it’s all based on trust and confidence—our currency, the stock markets, the value of our homes and cars—it’s all based on belief. What we believe now shapes the course of economics—and current events.

Since it all comes down to what we believe, it comes down to the information with which we feed our beliefs. So it does all come down to the media. Nothing else has changed.

We still need to keep the lights on in our houses, and food on the table, and teachers instructing our kids, and nurses working in hospitals, and people collecting our garbage, and you know, all that goes on in life. As I said, nothing else has changed.

What we haven’t learned yet, as a collective organism, is how to curb our over-consumption and engage in more reflective activities. Instead, we go from flat-out boom to complete bust. Well, I want off that cycle. I’d rather take my pain in smaller doses, voluntarily.

So, I for one am declaring an end to this Great Depression. Any joiners?


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