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One of the most prudent things we can do is pay attention to the promises advertisements make us—particularly from the most ecstatic salesmen of the day (in our day, they sell technology)—and ask whether the promise ever was fulfilled. Or even could have been. Over time, one can hope that the cumulative effect of such asking would be an inoculation against silver-tongued ads romancing our money and therefore our values.
We are awash in marketing. Every scrap of our attention is frantically sought after as a moment in which we might be enticed to consume. Every day we are sifted like wheat. Our urban environments especially are an audiovisual assault of sales pitches, a bullet-quick barrage of images and sounds drilling into our thoughts. In the haze, we seem to grow immune to the effects of advertising, but we are just as apt to grow dull in our ability to step back from the hawkers and shills to consider their honesty. We must come back to attention repeatedly.
One wireless company recently told me that I deserve to be unlimited. As this proclamation of my jubilee was delivered by a commercial, I presume that Sprint meant it as an offer. They would fulfill this essential of my human dignity with cellular data—the ability to broadcast and receive digital information anywhere. Well, anywhere Sprint offered wireless coverage. Well, anywhere they provided reliable coverage. Well, anywhere that coverage was uninterrupted (say by a storm, by nature, that inventive disrupter of the human agenda). Sprint, though, didn’t limit their language and disorienting imagery to the ‘unlimited’ data plan actually on offer, of which we have already found several limitations. This is because they were simultaneously selling cellular data and an ideal for human life, in particular how human life ought to interact with digital technology, the deliverer from analog limitations. Not just my available data, but I myself deserve to be unlimited.
I am, however, generally acutely aware of my limits. For one, there is my skin, that frontier between my body and all the rest of the entire world. I look at my hands and it’s plain where I end. Technology (even technology I enjoy and freely use—like books or the pen I used to draft these words) promises to extend this bodily limit, often by offering an intellectual escape. As though the mind were somehow not of the body and not subject to its own bodily limits. Via technology, my mind can seem to jump the banks of my body. Tech companies love to appeal to this illusion (not to say conceit) with their stunning galaxy of digital communication and its myriad worlds at my fingertips. By offering unlimited access to the ether, Sprint was trying to seduce my thoughts to come wander throughout eternity. Who would lose such an intellectual being?
I am limited even in my mind, though. I can only take in so much information before, overwhelmed, I begin to forget. Who can remember everything they have read, seen, heard, or even themselves said? Yet this unlimited access to information is ever on hand and offered as a sacrament. Some digi-evangelion, the gateway to a better life. Information has become so saturate as to flow like water from our screens. The preachers at the riverbank, that’s the marketing department. They call to us, ‘Wade in and be born into this new life.’ Baptized, full submersion. We have indeed been born away by the flood.
We fill our commutes to the brim with music, audiobooks, online courses, podcasts (though, to be fair, the amount of that last one may actually be unlimited). Our idle time is spent at table, feasting on all delicacies which data can deliver. Taken in and discarded with little digestion because we scarcely reflect. Reflection, after all, imposes a limit on our growth because it is the choice to stop taking in that which ‘expands our minds’ in order to take its measure. Without such a limit, our minds are so filled that information itself has become disposable.
This hypnotic flow, however, is not merely enticing as a trough for consumption. It is also a place to broadcast, so Sprint tells me, ‘every moment’. The people inviting me to their unlimited feast compel me to document and churn every moment into the stew in epileptic blips of text or, better yet, in pictures and video—the richness of the digital world, its fat. Both are data hogs, after all. We project our curated selves out and take in this museum of human activity, outrage, and dinner plates, behold it filtered, distorted, and over-bright as though our screens were warped glass.
Enough! We have just seen how the world in the screen cannot but pass us by unheralded and die largely unremembered. Why, then, do we throw ourselves into it, expecting to be remembered? Do we really desire to make our lives so disposable?
If this stream of information which data bears to us breaks over our limited minds and washes away lasting impressions, what does Sprint really mean when they compel me to be unlimited? Here it comes to a fine point: Sprint doesn’t really care if I am actually unlimited (I am not). They simply want me to feel unlimited as I consume their product because then I would ostensibly consume it limitlessly, which is a handy trait to have in a customer when you’re selling something and you’d like it to be expensive. What we are really being sold is our own demand, by which we will be sold more.
The promise of un-limits is ultimately a myth, but one with a real, practical cost that we bear in our emotions, intellect, and bodies. Poring through the shrine of the boastable slices of everyone’s lives leaves us envious, depressed, and awfully narcissistic. Notifications offer validation and so we cram the pleasure of life into single images or 140 barely-coherent characters where it vies with the avalanche of everyone else’s snowflake moments. We feed on info-calories until glutted on distraction and it would seem our minds are growing obese, sluggish, unable to function just as our bodies fail when grown fat on too much food. We live for the screen and fill our eyes with its light yet constant exposure to that glare keeps our minds and bodies from cycling into sleep and rest. So drained, might it come clear that limitlessness is not only a promise no one can keep, but something we should not even seek?
When we set our eye on the brilliance of the digital world, we have set our eye on a dark thing. Dazzling at first, but decaying. The deeper we stare, the deeper the darkness. Sprint advertises only the beautiful show to keep us staring, consuming that data bought under contract. The black at the fringe of the circus, what we find should we actually approach unlimited consumption, Sprint sidesteps deftly. ‘Just meeting demand.’ Never mind their effort to drum it up. ‘We just offer a tool. It’s not on us how you use it. Besides, it’s not like it’s killing anyone.’ It’s a convenient disintegration of the whole person to sell to the pleasure centers with no moral accounting beyond. Maybe we acquiesce to the disintegration, if we even notice it, because Sprint is a business and they function to make money, not coddle people. Nobody ever heard of the Nanny Marketplace, right? And maybe selling this unlimited notion is not such a big deal. The world in our devices is, after all, un-coerced and filled with exits. This does not preclude us, however, from seeing the schemes of the marketeers as bald-faced attempts to exploit the mind’s vulnerabilities, its hungers for connection, distraction, novelty, without care for the effects, and so we ought to be on guard.
It’s a cynic’s view, I know, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of the wonderment and delight on offer in ad spots like this one. Precision-honed by customer behaviorists with the devil at their elbow, boosting demand for that which will always and only make more demand. That’s the final disintegration, the severance of demand and satisfaction. Maybe we accept this state of affairs because to do otherwise would be to attempt bedrock change in the economic system in which we all have a stake. We have built a world of glittering towers and networks, set it spinning on the axis of supply and demand, and now its life is our own. What’s good for business is good for us because we need that rising tide to float our own ships. Fear of drowning in the economy can give us remarkable endurance. What we will bear for the lords of the market who come to us offering autonomy, which we buy with money and then leverage to gain more money and thus more autonomy. If that seems like an endless cycle, it’s because it’s an endless appetite and one which we share with the titans of business. We are all half-breeds of a hungry god.
In an economy where we are sold even our own hunger, what will disenchant us? Well, holding the ads we breathe to account, interrogating their promises should help us see the inevitable cycle of dissatisfaction that salesmen both offer to fulfill yet must continually aggravate. This will eventually require us to get honest about the desperate size of our appetite. But if we can learn our demand, we might finally find satisfaction.