Society of the Spectacle: The Unsettling Consequences of Living in an Image-Based Culture

For the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”

― Ludwig Feuerbach, 1843

Life on Earth in the twenty-first century is characterized by the near inability to avoid being constantly bombarded by images, day in and day out. No matter where you are, there is more likely than not a television, an advertisement, a magazine, a logo, or a computer screen within your field of vision.

Peach Blossom Thief by Yangna. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Peach Blossom Thief by Yangna. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

It does not matter whether you are in a public space or in the comfort of your own home; the endless barrage of imagery is almost inescapable. Airports, libraries, and bars all have televisions plastered on their walls blaring about the latest terrorist attack or the NFC Championship game. Drivers on the highway are always treated to depictions of delicious food or maps of cellular network coverage. Pedestrians in the cities gaze at the figures of celebrities which adorn the faces of entire skyscrapers. And if public spaces are lacking in vivid illustrations, nearly everyone carries around a screen in their pockets with which they can transport themselves into new fantastical worlds at any point in time.

Of course, this isn’t news to anybody. Fears of our transference to an image-based culture have been voiced by many for centuries. Furthermore, hardly anyone can deny that this transition is nearly complete given the daily experience of our lives. What has really been lacking, however, is a widespread recognition of and critical engagement with the consequences of this mode of cultural existence. While many prescient writers, including Ludwig Feuerbach, Daniel Boorstin, Guy Debord, and Neil Postman, have attempted to grapple with the way the image structures the way we think about the world, their voices have largely been ignored, drowned out by the spectacle of modern existence. This is a tragedy, because a large part of the profound alienation and cultural breakdown which we are experiencing today can be attributed to the effects of the image on our minds.

The Ascension of the Image

Before the image dominated our lives, public discourse was primarily mediated by spoken and written language. In the age of the newspaper, the average citizen learned about current events by reading about them and by hearing about them through the grapevine. Education was accomplished almost exclusively through reading and verbal instruction; visual aids and Powerpoint were nowhere to be found. This was the age that gave birth to and characterized the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Scientific and cultural progress were made by the interplay of various actors making well-reasoned arguments in pamphlets, newsletters, and books. In the political sphere, decisions were made by the citizenry after vigorous debates in the town hall. Candidates for office regularly held debates which often went on for half the day, at which there was enthusiastic attendance. The result of this cultural environment was such that even the average citizen was used to following long arguments and dealing with sophisticated language. Important decisions were often made on the basis of reasoned logic rather than quick, emotional judgments.

Today we have found this type of environment almost completely transformed. If a person even keeps up with the news at all these days, it is often through the medium of 24-hour news networks, which continually display emotional headlines, extravagant graphics, and a ceaseless array of photographs. Education is becoming increasingly characterized by the use of Powerpoint presentations and textbooks filled with fancy diagrams. And while political participation is at an all-time low, what’s left of it is marked by visceral appeals to emotion and simple language. As Chris Hedges writes in his book, Empire of Illusion:

“The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates of 2000, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln spoke at the educational level of an eleventh grader (11.2), and Douglas addressed the crowd using a vocabulary suitable (12.0) for a high-school graduate. In the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the candidates spoke in language accessible to tenth graders. In the 1992 debates, Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did Perot (6.3). During the 2000 debates, Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Gore at a high seventh-grade level (7.6) .27 This obvious decline was, perhaps, raised slightly by Barack Obama in 2008, but the trends above are clear.”

In fact, literacy has declined so much that over half of Americans never read for pleasure at all, a proportion that is increasing rapidly.

The primary catalysts for this transformation were/are the plethora of image-creating and image-reproducing technologies that have appeared within the last two centuries. The arrival of the photograph, combined with the printing press, was of course foundational in the ascension of the image. But as Neil Postman argues in his colossally important work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the technology which delivered the death blow to language-based culture was the television. Television is a medium, he argues, which relies on constant visual novelty to hold our attention. It is exceedingly difficult to draw viewers to a channel on which reasoned discourse is taking place when the mere press of a button can transport the viewer to the colorful rainforests of South America or to the tranquil beaches of the Caribbean. The way our brains are structured is such that marvelous scenes such as these are almost irresistible to us. Before the television made these visual fantasies possible, people were forced to fill their lives with the slow though often rewarding discourse which language had to offer. Postman writes:

“On television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.”






The Internet is another technology which has made the constant delivery of new and exciting images even easier than it was before. YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, and Reddit are all platforms which happily deliver novel images of crazy pranks, stimulating dramas, our friends vacations, and cute kittens daily. Interestingly, the Internet has also given rise to a new form of the article in which images and flashy headlines play a primary role and words are subordinate. One need only look to websites like BuzzFeed and Cracked to get a sense of these so-called “clickbait” articles. Of course, we must also be aware that the Internet, unlike television, can be used for the propagation of language-based discourse, as well. Wikipedia makes written knowledge universally accessible, e-books are widely available across the web, and there are countless blogs just like this one where reason and ideas are still the rule rather than the exception. But because the Internet bloomed in a time when TV was already king, it has been predictably used to perpetuate the extant trend of image-ification.

Appearance and Essence

Even if one grants that our culture is dominated by images, it is probably unclear to many why this should be a problem. At least on the surface of things, it appears that while the image is ever-present in our consciousness, it has not diminished the importance of words in our daily lives. And indeed, images have been present in human society for most of history, in the form of paintings and sculptures. Why should our present age be negatively affected by the supremacy of the image?

In order to understand the answer to this question, one must be able to grasp the distinction between a thing’s appearance and its essence. This distinction is an important one in the history of philosophy, particularly German philosophy. While a thing’s essence is its constitution, what is inherent in it, or the truth of its Being (as Hegel would put it), its appearance is simply a reflection of this essence. As such, it may have many distinct appearances but only one true essence. We cannot always discover the essence of a thing simply by observing its appearance; sometimes we must consider the many appearances of an object or an event to discover the truth about it. Thus, Karl Marx writes: “All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”

German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was among the first to notice that the culture of his age was beginning to become more concerned with the appearances of things than with their essences. The Essence of Christianity, first published in 1841, was Feuerbach’s attempt to critique the religious tendencies of his day. He writes:

“Religion has disappeared, and for it has been substituted, even among Protestants, the appearance of religion – the Church – in order at least that ‘the faith’ may be imparted to the ignorant and indiscriminating multitude.”

For Feuerbach, the Christian religion had devolved into a mere image of its former self. More concerned with maintaining a facade of religiosity and faith to its congregations and outsiders than with imparting to its followers the true essence of its religion, the Church had become an institution confused in all sorts of glaring contradictions and petty rituals. Feuerbach’s perception was an important one, but unfortunately his warnings were heeded by few.

Karl Marx was one of the few who attempted to apply Feuerbach’s insight to other areas of knowledge. His magnum opus Capital was mainly a reaction against the nineteenth century economists who were mostly concerned with maintaining a certain positive appearance of capitalism rather than understanding its true essence. But as the image became more and more important in facilitating our understanding of the world, the gulf between appearance and essence grew ever wider. Because images give us only the appearances of events and objects without teaching us their constitution, we begin to have confused and inconsistent ideas about these things. The more we focus only on appearances, the less effective we become at understanding the world.

Take, for example, the recent tragedy in France involving the mass shooting of journalists at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Naturally, the loss of human life is always despicable thing, and the journalists should certainly be mourned. For the average citizen, then, the appearance of million-strong crowds in France and across the world after this event seems to signify a bold stand against the senseless killing of innocent people in the name of a twisted ideology, as well as a strong affirmation of the principle of free speech. This is the image portrayed by the Western media.

When one begins to really think about this situation, however, certain strange contradictions become clear. These Western solidarity marches claim to condemn the murder of twelve innocents in France; yet they have nothing to say when their own governments kill twelve people on the way to a wedding in Yemen with drones. Both events are motivated by ideology. One is an ideology of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism; the other, economic fundamentalism and violent imperialism. Should we not condemn each of these events equally? Furthermore, the crowds claim that they will not be scared out of their right of free speech. And yet nobody seems to complain when rallies against the mass murder of innocents in Gaza are banned in France.

Alienation and The Last Man

Western culture’s obsession with appearances, combined with the proliferation of image-creation technologies, has resulted in an environment in which we are able to construct fantasies to live in rather than experience visceral, immediate reality. Television channels are overflowing with so-called “reality” shows, in which the intimate details of a variety of lives are captured on camera for the world to experience. Video games now offer such an immersive experience that some gamers live primarily in virtual worlds for long stretches of time. Sports have become so ubiquitous that many fans spend all of their free time not only watching the games themselves, but analyses of the games; some even build their own “fantasy” teams with which to compete with others, which requires constant updating of rosters and statistical analysis. The sad truth is that for many Americans, our lives consist mainly in working most of the day for a measly wage, coming home and entering the fantasy of living someone else’s life through the medium of television and computers, and sleeping, ad infinitum.



If you want to digest books much more rapidly, I recommend Blinkist. They condense entire books into potent 15-minute reads. Get your free trial now.

Read-Faster-with-Blinkist


“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

― Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

American historian Daniel Boorstin was acutely aware of this dangerous tendency. In his 1961 book, The Image, he warned that “we risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Unfortunately, his premonition has become all too real. Our withdrawal from reality in the West has resulted in a pronounced sense of alienation from which it can be incredibly difficult to recover. One in ten adults in the US have suffered major depression, and diagnoses are growing at “an alarming rate.” Suicides in the US have hit the highest rate in twenty-five years. Driven by deep feelings of insecurity, guilt, and estrangement, people continually turn to drugs, alcohol, diet fads, self-help programs, infidelity, and violence to help heal their wounds. Unfortunately, these distractions often serve to widen the gap between appearance and reality even further.

In a society where the image is king, women learn that only their appearance matters to others. “Others are not concerned with your beliefs, your experiences, or your personality,” scream the Miss USA pageant and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, “the only way to be worth anything is to be sexy.” Men, likewise, spend their time observing images of perfect strength and athleticism. On top of all of this, the incessant pressure on men and women alike to engage in sexual acts before they are even comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality results in even more insecurity.

In schools, where standardized tests can give the appearance of intelligence to those who do well, those who do not begin to view themselves as stupid and worthless. This pressure continues all the way through our childhoods, all the way up until the college admissions process separates those “destined” to be successful from those who are not. Other cultural pressures constantly tell us which TV shows to watch, which kind of music to like, which books to read, and which political views to have. For a society which claims to be founded on individualism, there is an impossible amount of pressure on each individual to conform to certain standards; as a result, many people spend most of their time crafting a certain appearance for themselves rather than discovering the true essence of their individual selves.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, this blog’s figurehead, Friedrich Nietzsche, crafted a category which he called “The Last Man.” The Last Man is characterized by apathy, a lack of passion, and contentedness: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ – say the Last Men, and they blink.” Lamentably, many of us in the West are looking more and more similar to Nietzsche’s Last Man.

Concerned more with image than with truth, we attempt to craft lives which merely look happy from the outside, despite the fact that they are often marked by a deep sadness. We seek easy, ephemeral pleasures rather than striving to achieve true happiness. The supposed mark of success and well-being in the West is that all-knowing god Money; the message is that only material wealth brings peace of mind. But the real essence of happiness is not measured in dollars, cars, or TV screens. It is marked by meaningful relationships, novel experiences of nature and culture, the search for true understanding of the world, and passionate work. The Last Man knows none of these things; his obsession with the false image of happiness distracts him endlessly.

Escaping the Spectacle

Despair not, my fellow humans. The fact that you are here and reading this likely means that you have seen the spectacle of modern existence for the farce that it is. There are many means available to us for escaping the culture of images which has been ingrained in us for most of our lives. Many of the articles on this very blog describe methods by which you can remove yourself from the world of appearances in order to begin to truly understand the world, yourself, and others. These include, but are not limited to: reading books, falling in love, writing, meditating, traveling, seeking novel experiences, creating art, and having discussions about things which are meaningful to you with your friends. All of these activities allow you to live deeply your own life instead of living by proxy. Via these modes of direct experience you can find a truer world and real, lasting contentment.

In your contact with other people, I implore you to fight the destructive power of the image culture. When a friend voices insecurity about the way they look or anxiety about their future success, reassure them that the essence of life does not lie in these fleeting frivolities. Encourage others to follow their passions. Try your hardest to see through corporate media pageant in order to understand the underlying basis of world events. Question everything you’ve been taught, everything you hold dear; no matter how certain you feel of some of your beliefs, they have likely been passed on to you through an ideological lens.

Finally, do not be afraid to love. It is all too easy in this world to hate; acts of violence, strange beliefs, and odd habits are often seen as valid reasons to despise another person. What far too few people understand, however, is that every weird expression or violent action has underlying it billions and billions of lived experiences, relationships, and ideas. The infinite web of human social relations is far too complex for any one person to understand. It is far better to attempt to structure our society in such a way as to foster mutual understanding and love rather than violently oppressing all of those who are different. In order to achieve this, however, we must first remove ourselves from the spectacle of our image-based culture.






If this was jazzy, read the mission and follow us on Twitter.



If you like Refine The Mind, you can support the site by subscribing, buying a t-shirt or poster, or purchasing one of my rap albums. Many thanks. <3

About Nick Clyde

Nick Clyde is a freethinker especially interested in investigating the ways in which our conventional ideas about life and the world are structured by social relations and mass media. He is also interested in exploring the phenomenology of twenty-first century existence. He graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Biomedical Engineering and Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in May. He has previously written in the student publication The Baltimore Zeitgeist. Feel free to add him on Facebook, as he’s always down for a good discussion!

  • Nick, thanks for this exceptionally relevant, insightful, and well-written essay. A few more ideas to subvert, disrupt, and/or escape from the spectacle:

    1. Don’t watch much TV, especially cable programming with commercials. If you’re going to watch a TV show or film, stream it or watch it on Netflix, etc.

    2. Use the add-on AdBlock for Google Chrome to eliminate virtually all advertisements from your online experience.

    3. Share content (like this essay) that is primarily language-based, requires sustained attention, and critiques the ways in which images are used (often consciously and maliciously) to distort perception.

    4. If you do share visual media (memes, images, videos, etc.), try to share *art*, un-photoshopped media, or media intended to challenge the prevailing norms of vapid or misleading memes.

    5. Nick kind of alluded to this, but: *have real, calm discussions and debates with people*. This is often the best way to reveal the shortcomings of conventional news sources or information outlets.

    6. Speak out publicly, on the Internet or elsewhere, about these ideas. Again, sharing this essay is a great start.

    7. Try to stop buying/supporting companies that rely on photoshopped ideals of beauty to sell products.

    etc., etc., etc.

    I fear that our image-based culture and its pernicious consequences are at this point such a deeply entrenched part of how our world functions that it would be basically impossible to ever reverse the situation. I think we have more of a hope of seeing a sizable chunk of the population “wake up” to the image-based culture and disrupt/evade it and form intellectual/discourse communities to critique and deconstruct it. A few million “enlightened” cultural influencers in various communities can, I think, play a huge role in shifting the present cultural trajectory away from the vapid and misleading, toward something deeper and more meaningful. I think we’re already seeing this happen in a lot of spaces on the Internet and in the corporeal world. We, as individuals, just need to keep congregating, “dropping out” of problematic cultural institutions, and *raising our voices* against the norms that threaten to destroy/limit our inner worlds of free thought and imagination. Or something like that. Thanks again, Nick.

    OTHER PEOPLE: PLEASE COMMENT, I WANT TO DISCUSS THIS MORE ^^

    thx. <3

    • Nick Clyde

      Thank you Jordan, for inspiring me to write this and inspiring everyone here to live more meaningful lives. I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that you are one rad dude.

      As an extra note, I believe that the Internet has the potential to be our most important tool in fighting the culture of appearance. All I can say to everyone is: read, read, read. Never before have so many people had such widespread access to written material. Use it to your advantage to continue your journey of self-discovery and to grapple with the tragedies of life. And above all, don’t use media to escape into the lived experience of another. Use its power to construct your own beautiful story.

      Stay groovy, friends.

  • Kronomlo

    The quote you provided by Feuerbach reminded me of another, very similar, quote from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact…print the legend.”, which reminds us how we’ve been well taught to view truth as truly profane.

    I really, really enjoyed your article, Nick. Several years I started noticing how t.v., video-games, etc., draw you into their realities and how it warps your own. Like so many things that mess you up, these immersions into altered reality are addictions, and like you said, we in the Western societies are sick because of it. The “fakeness” of everything is overwhelming at times, and so many people (not all of course) have become this “fakeness” because they don’t know any other way to be. They’ve become the advertisements and ceased being human, like they’re walking around as digitally-drugged-anti-social husks. No wonder so many are depressed and self-loathing. I’m finding myself almost avoiding most digital outlets and I only try to use the computer for very specific things, then off it goes. I do not have any social media accounts or have a smart phone, I just do not want to have these things as a part of my mind.

    I’d love to say more but…too many things to say. But I will say that your article is very true and has encapsulated so much of what I’ve been thinking about for long time. It’s a wonderful discussion topic, too bad we can’t all talk about this in person!

    Thanks so much, I appreciate your work.

    • Nick Clyde

      I’m glad you liked it, Kronomlo. I love the phrase “digitally-drugged-anti-social husks” 😛 I envy your strength to avoid social media. Even after thinking so deeply about this topic, I still sometimes find myself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Reddit and think, what the hell am I doing? It makes me deeply sad to think that so many people spend so much time on social media constructing the appearance of happiness rather than turning that energy towards finding what truly makes them feel fulfilled. But I’m glad that some people are beginning to realize the dangers of this kind of existence. Peace and love!

      • Kronomlo

        I think one big reason behind ‘mindlessly’ scrolling through websites is just our innate sense of curiosity, since we can’t always go exploring out in the real world and find really important information that we could only find on the internet. Granted, you do learn so much more when you’re outside among people and nature, using all your senses to interact with existence, but there are things in digital realm which are only found here (like this article you wrote), and they will add to the expansion of our education and perception.

        But yes, spending time constructing a completely different persona via Facebook or whatever, is not healthy. The more someone spends their time putting life into something that’s not real, the less time they’ll be spending being what they actually are – flesh-and-blood human. When I was reading your comment and part of your article again, I remembered an interesting passage from the book “Dangerous Emotions” by Alfonso Lingis: “Facing one another, we require responsibility. And responsibility requires integrity – not only sincerity but also an integration of the faculties and resources of the speaker. The temptation not to answer for something that was seen or said or done through our organism yesterday – to attribute it to another psychic agency, and to begin to break up into discontinuous psychic sequences – is the very formula for antisocial existence. The schizophrenic is a sociopath. Multiple personality disorder is the final psychosis psychiatry has to deal with.”

        People are being taught to project an image of themselves, a doppelganger, that does not express who they really are because they don’t freaking know who they are in the first place! Now they have two, or more, personas that they need to constantly update and make new additions to (updating their profiles). Once this sets in, so does the self-loathing, depression, and all the rest of it. Why? Because we are social animals and we need interaction. Social media has the so-called interaction part, but it’s fake, and not flesh-and-blood real social mingling that keeps up happy and interested in life itself. Therefore, like Lingis describes, we naturally become anti-social and forget how to be truly emotional beings with each other, and sadly ourselves.
        With a combination of imagery, education, social constructs, and the rest of Western cultural norms, we become “The Last Man”.

        I apologize for the length of my response, I had one of those brain-‘splodey “I need to write about stuff” moments after reading your comment. Fortunately, like you said, more people are seeing the dangers of false imagery and are beginning to see what’s screwed-up. It’s getting pretty obvious as of late.

        Thank you very much for responding! I really hope you write more in the future.

  • Jason Layman

    This is really good. Some great insight for our time. There’s so many possible directions this can take. It stands to reason that once someone is bombarded by excessive imagery they will respond in predictable ways. I’m riffing here so pardon my lack of scientific data. 1. Part of the image (or one’s perception the meaning behind it) becomes stored into their subconscious mind and is used occasionally to reinforce/compile worldviews. 2. Their conscious mind becomes desensitized to the excessive stimuli. 3. We press forward in search of something else that might pique our interests. They’ve done some analysis and research into how the human mind responds to multitasking. Needless to say, too much obviously dilutes the productivity than if someone had just stuck to singular tasks with reasonable time intervals in between each. The problem is that our minds dump dopamine when we change tasks. We’re wired for novelty. Even though we think we’re being productive by doing 15 things at once it can actually decrease it by a substantial amount (I believe I read a number close to 35%+ once) The results of modernity on our biological evolution are having some unintended consequences from this overwhelmingly stimulating time in the history of our species. This is also leading to phenomenons outlined in the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr. I would contend that a majority of today’s western population cannot possibly process everything with a degree of cognitive thoroughness practiced by a Nikola Tesla or Sir Newton. Professors are having to stop and offer Phone breaks because people can’t go without feeding the addiction burning a hole in their pocket (Yes, there’s always been breaks in school but we seem particularly infatuated with everything “out there”. The FOMO effect). We’re the Like generation. We either like or don’t like something. The middle ground is rapidly eroding to various groups who would see their perspectives preached as gospel. At best, if you are on the “wrong” side of an argument you are ostracized and forced to publicly renounce your position. At worst you are branded via politically correct labels and “put down” through a well coordinated and collective character assassination effectively seeking to end your marriage, career, etc. This is a lesson to abide by strict adherence of self-censorship. We’re witnessing a frenzy of people seeking boogeymen to crucify and faultfinding at every corner. It’s almost as though it’s become our mission to seek to frantically judge everything about everyone else instead of introspecting and discovering the areas where we can improve our own inner Self.

    I still suffer from certain dependencies which are particularly difficult to escape from. We all have our battles. Although I have done my share of perception-bending and seeking to grow the boundaries of how I see the world. One way is to bring awareness back into the Now and make that conscious effort to give energy to the mind’s Objective faculties of observation. To contemplate without an anxious feeling that you must take a “position” on something. Just merely being in nature can release that tension and heal the mind and I would even say the soul. Once the time is taken to make peace with the silence and connect with the spark of your essential Self it paves the way for newness of Being. Hope that’s not too flowery. Just my thoughts. Keep up the good work!

    • Nick Clyde

      Hey Jason, glad you enjoyed it. I’m especially interested in your second point: “Their conscious mind becomes desensitized to the excessive stimuli.” I think this is something we have all had experience with. Particularly while watching television, it seems scarily easy to just zone out, go slack-jawed and just receive random information about car insurance rates and cellphone plans even though I normally don’t give a rat’s ass about those kinds of things.

      I think you’re right to point out that people are almost fanatical about finding other people to blame for their problems. Its certainly something that plagues our political environment and even our close relationships. Personally I constantly have to remind myself, whenever I feel like blaming someone, of all the reasons I might be at fault or whether blaming is going to get me any closer to a solution. It can be very difficult to hold myself back, but it’s always rewarding when I do, and I always end up happier.

      I right there with you on having trouble escaping from old habits. The pressure to worry about appearances in life is so impossibly strong. I also find that focusing on the present moment really helps. Meditation is an important tool for us when we find ourselves lost in a confusing turmoil of pictures, sounds, and concerns. It definitely helps to release tension. Keep on fighting, Jason.

    • Kronomlo

      “The middle ground is rapidly eroding to various groups who would see their perspectives preached as gospel.”

      How very well said! The next few lines after that are very true, you need to be either one or the other: left/right, atheist/Christian, fill in blank/fill in blank, and if you’re not one of these, or are one of those, you’re worse than Hitler. Which is also true about “seeking boogeymen to crucify and faultfinding at every corner”, since we can’t face ourselves (cultivating our true Self) we need to both judge and compare everyone else. Which is so insidious because we know doing this is wrong, yet I still do this at a low level, I immediately stop myself and put it out of my mind, yet that reaction is still ingrained.

      “Once the time is taken to make peace with the silence and connect with the spark of essential Self it paves the way for newness of Being.”

      Very eloquent and very true, can’t add much more to that since that speaks for itself. All I could add is that I’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve encountered who cannot stand silence, or not being able to just sit and be still. It’s like their afraid to be alone with themselves.

      Awesome comment, thanks!

  • “In schools, where standardized tests can give the appearance of intelligence to those who do well, those who do not begin to view themselves as stupid and worthless.”

    This is a terribly important point. Our school systems’ most important goal should be to inspire self-learning, experimentation, debate, and of course, ACTUAL LEARNING. Not enforce some bullshit tests that prove whether or not your kid can memorize facts about certain topics, and then pretend that they are proof of intelligence.

    One of the main reasons I quit playing computer games, is that in it’s essence, it’s chasing a false sense of wonder, novelty, and most importantly, achievement. You feel as if you DID something, something worthwhile, and so you don’t feel the same drive to go out and ACTUALLY ACHIEVE something, until you’re already so far down the rabbit hole that you feel it is impossible for you to do so.

    “For a society which claims to be founded on individualism, there is an impossible amount of pressure on each individual to conform to certain standards.”
    Preach! This stuff can paralyze you. I used to be stuck in life because of this.

    When it comes to photoshopping models, airbrushing actors in movies, and incessant nit-picking by advertising/cosmetics companies, the consequences are quite apparent. The insecurity, the obsessions. I think this might be the time in history with the largest amount of people that feel like they are below average in terms of looks. And just the whole “beauty is important” narrative that plagues many movies/TV-shows, keeps us convinced that it matters in the first place. (Although it seems to have gone a little out of fashion of late, except the old ‘geek amazingly gets with a pretty girl’ meme.)

    I agree with a LOT of what you’re saying, but a speaker not using big words (possibly explaining difficult concepts in layman’s terms), doesn’t necessarily say anything about the caliber of the speech, and absolutely nothing about the intelligence of the general audience. And there’s no way of knowing whether they actually cared about what was said and stood for, or whether they just liked the way a candidate looked/talked, regardless of how enthusiastic the audience supposedly wast.

    You seem to slightly overestimate the general intelligence of the public during the ‘pre-tv-age’. “The result of this cultural environment was such that even the average citizen was used to following long arguments and dealing with sophisticated language. Important decisions were often made on the basis of reasoned logic rather than quick, emotional judgments.” Really? And what evidence do you base this on? Let’s not forget that factory workers during the 1800s often had work weeks of 60+ hours. The number of college educated people was worlds apart from today’s numbers as well. To me it seems very likely that there was a similar percentage of politically literate debaters back then, if not a smaller one, the general illiteracy rate has gone down, and admission numbers in collages and universities has gone up since, after all.

    And remember that there are literary equivalents of many of the bad things about TV/Movies. Novels/poems/songs are possibly the oldest form of commercialized escapism there is. And if anything, the contrast between the vivid, fantastical reality of some books with the ‘comparative dullness of your own reality’ can be much harsher than the feeling you’d get after finishing a TV show or movie. And then there’s ”true” crime, conspiracy theories, shallow self-help, and other genres that corrupt many a wayward soul. Some Google searches has led me to believe that newspapers covered many accidents and disasters, and it’s not as if radio was an ideal combination of Socratic debates, classical music and science lectures.

    Given that people had portraits made hundreds of years ago, that people sculpted and painted beautiful men/women you might even assume that their cared about image back then as well, way before the time of the camera. (In some older books I’ve read, the image painted of general society is often surprisingly similar to that of society at large today.)

    I think that largely what has happened, is that the “mindless masses” now have a much larger voice, especially with the internet, social media, etc. And that the media, and advertisers, have become better at catering to “the majority”. This results in our collective bad sides being a LOT more visible.

    I do think it’s a shame, that now in a reality where we have more freedom to ‘do what we want’ than we’ve had before, so many choose to simply live on autopilot whilst indulging shallow desires when possible.

    Sorry for the excessively long comment, your eloquent piece inspired a very long train of thought, so you have yourself to blame! Haha.

  • riz

    Great piece with lots of thoughtful comments. There is a lot of food for thought here. I am pro-capitalism and fairly libertarian but image based technology is getting increasingly powerful and while much good can come of it I am a touch concerned that we may become voluntary prisoners of our digital environments, which will appear like personal paradises and so entrap us. Think of the amazing new world of hologram glasses that awaits around the corner, which create a wondrous augmented reality. As this technology progresses, I imagine the underlying reality will become less interesting relative to the digital overlay, which will become more and more advanced while the underlying reality remains broadly unchanged. I want to see the good in this new world, but am ending up with a vision of swathes of the population choosing to spend their lives plugged into this system (which will offer exhilirating experiences at low marginal cost) and become less interested in engaging in the real world.

    • Jason Layman

      They’ve done research on the effects of a an electronically saturated early childhood. There’s a direct correlation between stunted emotional development and children being absorbed in “unreality”. Coupled with lack of even basic ethics and rising narcissism, selfishness is how we will increasingly live our lives. This augmented reality looks cool, sure. I, like you, have a concern for the future world. It has me reconsidering bringing another life into it because I feel we’re witnessing something huge take place and I don’t know if it would be fair to force another into similar circumstances. Your comment reminds me of two movies. Surrogates and The Congress. I suggest both of them because they address the topic of escapism very well.

  • Great stuff, Nick. I can’t help but think of the relationship between signs and simulations. Just like signs are meant to convey messages—messages which in many cases are untrue and/or unfulfilling—simulations offer the illusion of experience. The modern spectacle you write of seems to be one grand simulation. A simulation which promises emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual satiation—but hardly delivers.

    I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately. In fact, my IG tagline is “None of this is real. The world is a representation.” So your article is timely for me. However, a while back I read this quote and really liked it:

    “Making an…art out of your technological life is the way to solve the problem of technology.”

    Robert Pirsig wrote that. And, ultimately, signification is a type of technology. What I think Pirsig is suggesting (and I think this based on my take of his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) is that the subject determines her experience of the world. In fact, I think Pirsig might suggest that the subjective perspective DETERMINES the world.

    Now, I do think perception alters experience, but I also have a certain trust in my sensations, and the sensations that feel most real to me result from time in the wilderness, time with friends and family, extreme physical activity, and when I’m in the creative flow. And really none of these experiences are enhanced by the simulative world.

    This has caused me to reflect deeply on essences. It can’t be my perspective that causes my time in the wilderness or with loved ones to be more fulfilling than other experiences. There must be some faculty that senses something superior in these types of activities, and so we say they are more real. In short, some experiences attend to our natures more rightly, while signs and simulations do not. And the spectacle we have constructed threatens meaning and the very nature of being, because it ignores our better natures.

    But I still think Pirsig is right in one sense. Technology and this grand spectacle are not going away. I think that much like the philosophers and theorists who lamented industrialization in the nineteenth century, we are lamenting the digitization of culture today. There are serious side-effects to all this “progress”. But, back to Pirsig, I think he is right in that we combat it by making an art of our technological lives. And when I read articles and sites like this, that’s what I see people doing. We’re all in this simulative spectacle, but at least there are people making art of it.

  • Guest

    This piece says a lot. Thank you for summarizing the problem about obsession with consuming images in our current age. I agree with the approach and general outline of the problem; and your proposed solutions are lovely. However, I have found myself thinking about interesting ideas in response to some little nuances of the text. Here are some rather alternative perspectives.

    Firstly there is a question about language. Complexity of vocabulary is presented as an indicator of “more complex” and elaborate discussion, and perhaps also, thought. I think the connection between language and thought is not necessarily positively correlated, which is another story. But a politician having (or speaking through) the vocabulary of a seventh grader might also mean the language being much simpler, more accessible and “language of the elite” being dead. Sometimes simplicity is better than verbosity, unnecessary rhetoric and verbiage…

    In addition, perhaps it is possible to do political philosophy with images after all. We know that sometimes an image can speak volumes. Why would we need to bury ourselves into language anyway?

    Second, I think it is not necessarily the visual imagery that is the problem, but how the technology of visual imagery is implemented. It is not the internet that delivers distracting imagery, but the social media of a “mass” character, attempting to do the same through the internet what had been done through television.

    Lastly I don’t think a dichotomy of appearance and essence was what Debord had in mind when talking about “The Spectacle”. It was “representation” rather than appearance in opposition to a certain essence. The dichotomy can be traced back to Plato’s “ideal forms”, which I think, has its own set of problems. Image of an “ideal” human body in our contemporary culture, is not even a “reflection” of a particular essence, but just a “false representation”.

    As a side note for “truth”, any claim of “truth” is ideological in its articulation and a pursuit of “truth” is not the only thing that makes the world spin…

    This is just an exercise for me to think differently and I hope you find something worthwhile to consider, just as your writeup made me find something worthwhile to write… I loved your proposal of methods to deal the image bombardment. Keep up the good work.

    Love.

  • Onur

    This piece says a lot. Thank you for summarizing the problem about obsession with consuming images in our current age. I agree with the approach and general outline of the problem; and your proposed solutions are lovely. However, I have found myself thinking about interesting ideas in response to some little nuances of the text. Here are some rather alternative perspectives.

    Firstly there is a question about language. Complexity of vocabulary is presented as an indicator of “more complex” and elaborate discussion, and perhaps also, thought. I think the connection between language and thought is not necessarily positively correlated, which is another story. But a politician having (or speaking through) the vocabulary of a seventh grader might also mean the language being much simpler, more accessible and “language of the elite” being dead. Sometimes simplicity is better than verbosity, unnecessary rhetoric and verbiage…

    In addition, perhaps it is possible to do political philosophy with images after all. We know that sometimes an image can speak volumes. Why would we need to bury ourselves into language anyway?

    Second, I think it is not necessarily the visual imagery that is the problem, but how the technology of visual imagery is implemented. It is not the internet that delivers distracting imagery, but the social media of a “mass” character, attempting to do the same through the internet what had been done through television.

    Lastly I don’t think a dichotomy of appearance and essence was what Debord had in mind when talking about “The Spectacle”. It was “representation” rather than appearance in opposition to a certain essence. The dichotomy can be traced back to Plato’s “ideal forms”, which I think, has its own set of problems. Image of an “ideal” human body in our contemporary culture, is not even a “reflection” of a particular essence, but just a “false representation”.

    As a side note for “truth”, any claim of “truth” is ideological in its articulation and a pursuit of “truth” is not the only thing that makes the world spin…

    This is just an exercise for me to think differently and I hope you find something worthwhile to consider, just as your writeup made me find something worthwhile to write… I loved your proposal of methods to deal the image bombardment. Keep up the good work.

    Love.

  • Dean

    Hi, a well researched and relevant article.

    I dislike the direction society has taken. I am ‘another’ person who has been squeezed out of the middle class, despite my education and initially resources. I have concluded if it can happen to myself, it can happen to anyone. I only say this on awareness of the kind of resources and apparent opportunity that were given to me.

    I suffer from overwhelming sense of emptiness and meaninglessness. Only recently, am I trying to remedy this situation. Yet, as a digital native, since 1992, most of my life has been spent online. It is only now at 37- that I am experiencing the consequences of this.

    Like so many people, I know myself to have many skills and capacities, some developed over the course of years. Yet, I am without work. Whatever is happening in my life, it is unanticipated and to be honest very painful.

  • razorma

    The Image-based society isn’t inherently bad rather it’s people’s willingness to just passively consume media as well as other people’s willingness to use those images to further greedy, capitalist ends. Images in film, television, the visual arts, and even some new media can be rather engaging, and can be used to communicate several powerful ideas and themes. Many artist throughout the ages have used the image to challenge the audience/viewer. However today as I said earlier many are too content passively consuming. Instead a shift must occur in which people actively engage and challenge the image. Thereby the image and the written/spoken can thrive.