“Searching for the Why of Buy: Researchers scan for insight into how marketing may brand the brain’s preference for products and politicians” is one of those unbelievably significant stories that got buried in the Martha Stewart news last week, even though it was on LA Times‘ Page 1, Sunday edition. Science stories, especially neurology, go nowhere in contemporary America. I think they fly in the face of the fundamental philosophy that man is the master of his own destiny, or the liberal arts anti-science attitudes, and obviously play against scripture. [This is no longer so true.] And, although various experts downplay this in the story [also no longer true], this will no doubt begin to be used as a tool by advertisers, political consultants and parties, and by the entertainment industry. Probably some religious groups as well. And that is just in this country.
20th century totalitarianism was only made possible with the rise of mass electronic media, especially radio and to a lesser extent film. Without radio supplying the message nationwide without the possibility of answering back, and without films providing the visual to match those messages, the propaganda upon which the mass and unquestioning obedience to the totalitarian message relied would not have been possible. Certainly not to the degree necessary to create a Nazi Germany and a Soviet Union*.
Well, those days are over. The collective human mind of a nation is no longer waiting pliantly to be shaped by messages from a speaker or the silver screen. No one is able to gain the critical mass necessary any longer to create a totalitarian regime through the mass media with all of the other outlets for dissent and contradictory information, overwhelmingly driven by the Internet. So a new means is necessary to get inside brain, all that subliminal stuff we used to fear from blipped messages in commercials. And, with the rise in cognitive and neurological knowledge—which is actual hard knowledge and not as much guesswork as in traditional psychology—it will soon be possible to tailor messages so that they fit neatly into our minds, into our very consciousness. We will react as we kick when tapped on the knee with a rubber hammer. We will connect with a product, a candidate, a leader the same way a man can’t help staring at a glimpse of a shapely thigh, or a woman reacts to the sound of a crying baby. It will be that simple. And it will be in but a few years. This will remain in the realm of science fiction for maybe a few months. And then everything changes. Think about it: just as Al Gore (or whoever) could never have predicted that his Internet would bring down tyrannies, Marconi would never have imagined Hitler being elected after broadcasting his speeches on the radio. Edison could not have envisioned the Nazi Party employing their own newsreel crews. (Hell, the Wright Bros would never have figured on Hitler flying from campaign stop to campaign stop via airplane…also a first. But we are off message, as they say.)
Get ready to be read, folks. I believe it was the Firesign Theatre who said your brain is not the boss. Your brain will belong to your boss. Well, parts of it. At least for a generation or two, until the mind evolves beyond these cheap tricks (the mind…not the brain itself; the mind seems to be able to shape itself much faster than the actual organ containing it). Do I think we’ll have a return to totalitarianism? Or perhaps a new sort will blossom? No…there are still too many outlets for dissent in the electronic media, mainly via the Internet. And the totalitarian movements of the first half of the twentieth century were possible only because of the sudden existence of one-sided mass media out of a world of telegraphed news stories and village gossips. But things will certainly change. We will buy things we didn’t know our brain knows we need. And we will vote for people we didn’t know our brain would need to vote for. We will do all these things because we are still a subspecies of bipedal apes–homo sapien sapien–just a couple hundred thousand years in existence, and our minds, well, don’t know any better. Literally.
* see my essay Stalin on the Phone.