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<center><span style="color:grey">Researchers at public universities are developing new ways of shutting down our capacity for independent thought</span></center>
 
<center><span style="color:grey">Researchers at public universities are developing new ways of shutting down our capacity for independent thought</span></center>
  
6th January 2019
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30th April 2019
 
   
 
   
To what extent do we decide? We tell ourselves we choose our own life course, but is this ever true? If you or I had lived 500 years ago, our worldview, and the decisions we made as a result, would have been utterly different. Our minds are shaped by our social environment, in particular the belief systems projected by those in power: monarchs, aristocrats and theologians then; corporations, billionaires and the media today.
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For most of my adult life, I’ve railed against “corporate capitalism”, “consumer capitalism” and “crony capitalism”. It took me a long time to see that the problem is not the adjective, but the noun.
  
Humans, the supremely social mammals, are ethical and intellectual sponges. We unconsciously absorb, for good or ill, the influences that surround us. Indeed, the very notion that we might form our own minds is a received idea that would have been quite alien to most people five centuries ago. This is not to suggest we have no capacity for independent thought. But to exercise it, we must – consciously and with great effort – swim against the social current that sweeps us along, mostly without our knowledge.
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While some people have rejected capitalism gladly and swiftly, I’ve done so slowly and reluctantly. Part of the reason was that I could see no clear alternative: unlike some anti-capitalists, I have never been an enthusiast for state communism. I was also inhibited by its religious status. To say “capitalism is failing” in the 21st century is like saying “God is dead” in the 19th. It is secular blasphemy. It requires a degree of self-confidence I did not possess.
  
Surely, though, even if we are broadly shaped by the social environment, we control the small decisions we make? Sometimes. Perhaps. But here too we are subject to constant influence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. A major industry seeks to decide on our behalf. Its techniques become more sophisticated every year, drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. It is called advertising.
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But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to recognise two things. First, that it is the system, rather than any variant of the system, which drives us inexorably towards disaster. Second, that you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right. But it also demands another, and different, effort to develop a new system.
  
Every month, new books on the subject are published with titles like “[https://www.wiley.com/en-us/The+Persuasion+Code%3A+How+Neuromarketing+Can+Help+You+Persuade+Anyone%2C+Anywhere%2C+Anytime-p-9781119440765 The Persuasion Code]: how neuromarketing can help you persuade anyone, anywhere, anytime”. While many are doubtless overhyped, they describe a discipline that is rapidly closing in on our minds, making independent thought ever harder. More sophisticated advertising meshes with digital technologies designed to eliminate agency.
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Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.
  
Earlier this year, the child psychologist [https://medium.com/@richardnfreed/the-tech-industrys-psychological-war-on-kids-c452870464ce Richard Freed explained] how new psychological research has been used to develop social media, computer games and phones with genuinely addictive qualities. He quoted a [https://www.kqed.org/futureofyou/379828/tech-insiders-call-out-facebook-for-literally-manipulating-your-brain technologist who boasts], with apparent justification, “We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behaviour in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.
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Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week, [a paper in the journal New Political Economy] by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the 20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st there has been a re-coupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.
  
The purpose of this brain hacking is to create more effective platforms for advertising. But the effort is wasted if we retain our ability to resist it. This is why Facebook, according to [https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/01/facebook-advertising-data-insecure-teens a leaked report it sent to an advertiser], developed tools to determine when teenagers using its network feel insecure, worthless or stressed. These appear to be the optimum moments for hitting them with a micro-targeted promotion. (Facebook denies that it offered “tools to target people based on their emotional state”.)
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A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. There must always be an extraction zone, from which materials are taken without full payment, and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution. As the scale of economic activity increases, until capitalism affects everything from the atmosphere to the deep ocean floor, the entire planet becomes a sacrifice zone: we all inhabit the periphery of the profit-making machine.
  
We can expect commercial enterprises to attempt whatever ruses they can pull off. It is up to society, represented by government, to stop them, through the kind of regulation that has so far been lacking. But what puzzles and disgusts me even more than this failure is the willingness of universities to host research that helps advertisers hack our minds. The Enlightenment ideal, which all universities claim to endorse, is that everyone should think for themselves. So why do they run departments in which researchers explore new means of blocking this capacity?
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This drives us towards cataclysm on such a scale that most people have no means of imagining it. The threatened collapse of our life support systems is bigger by far than war, famine, pestilence or economic crisis, though it is likely to incorporate all four. Societies can recover from these apocalyptic events, but not from the loss of soil, an abundant biosphere and a habitable climate.
  
I ask because, while considering the frenzy of consumerism that rises beyond its usual planet-trashing levels at this time of year, I stumbled across [https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02650487.2014.995284 a paper that astonished me]. It was written by academics at public universities in the Netherlands and the US. Their purpose seemed to me starkly at odds with the public interest. They sought to identify “the different ways in which consumers resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance.
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The second defining element is the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy. This seizure of common goods causes three further dislocations. First, the scramble for exclusive control of non-reproducible assets, which implies either violence or legislative truncations of other people’s rights. Second, the immiseration of other people by an economy based on looting across both space and time. Third, the translation of economic power into political power, as control over essential resources leads to control over the social relations that surround them.
  
Among the “neutralising” techniques it highlighted were “disguising the persuasive intent or the sender of the message”; distracting our attention by using confusing phrases that make it harder to focus on the advertiser’s intentions; and “using cognitive depletion as a tactic for reducing consumers’ ability to contest messages”. This means hitting us with enough advertisements to exhaust our mental resources, breaking down our capacity to think.
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In the New York Times on Sunday, the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz sought to distinguish between good capitalism, that he called “wealth creation”, and bad capitalism, that he called “wealth grabbing” (extracting rent). I understand his distinction, but from the environmental point of view, wealth creation is wealth grabbing. Economic growth, intrinsically linked to the increasing use of material resources, means seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations.
  
Intrigued, I started looking for other academic papers on the same theme, and found an entire literature. There were articles on every imaginable aspect of resistance, and helpful tips on overcoming it. For example, I came across [http://www.journalofadvertisingresearch.com/content/early/2016/02/10/JAR-2016-003 a paper that counsels advertisers] on how to rebuild public trust when the celebrity they work with gets themself into trouble. Rather than dumping this lucrative asset, the researchers advised that the best means to enhance “the authentic persuasive appeal of a celebrity endorser” whose standing has slipped is to get them to display “a Duchenne smile”, otherwise known as “a genuine smile”. It precisely anatomised such smiles, showed how to spot them, and discussed the “construction” of sincerity and “genuineness”: a magnificent exercise in inauthentic authenticity.
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To point to such problems is to invite a barrage of accusations, many of which are based on this premise: capitalism has rescued hundreds of millions of people from poverty – now you want to impoverish them again. It is true that capitalism, and the economic growth it drives, has radically improved the prosperity of vast numbers of people, while simultaneously destroying the prosperity of many others: those whose land, labour and resources were seized to fuel growth elsewhere. Much of the wealth of the rich nations was – and is – built on slavery and colonial expropriation.
  
[https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2324357 Another paper] considered how to persuade sceptical people to accept a company’s corporate social responsibility claims, especially when these claims conflict with the company’s overall objectives. (An obvious example is Exxon Mobil’s current attempts to convince people that it is environmentally responsible, because it is researching algal fuels that could one day reduce CO2 – even as it continues to [https://www.statista.com/statistics/264124/production-output-of-the-upstream-division-at-exxon-mobil-since-2001/ pump 10 million barrels] of fossil oil a day). I hoped the paper would recommend that the best means of persuading people is for a company to change its practices. Instead, the authors’ research showed how images and statements could be cleverly combined to “minimize stakeholder scepticism”.
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Like coal, capitalism has brought many benefits. But, like coal, it now causes more harm than good. Just as we have found means of generating useful energy that are better and less damaging than coal, so we need to find means of generating human wellbeing that are better and less damaging than capitalism.
  
[https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13527266.2016.1234504?journalCode=rjmc20 A further paper] discussed advertisements that work by stimulating FOMO – fear of missing out. It noted that such ads work through “controlled motivation”, which is “anathema to wellbeing”. FOMO ads, the paper explained, tend to cause significant discomfort to those who notice them. It then went on to show how an improved understanding of people’s responses “provides the opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of FOMO as a purchase trigger.” One tactic it proposed is to keep stimulating the fear of missing out, during and after the decision to buy. This, it suggested, will make people more susceptible to further ads on the same lines.
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There is no going back: the alternative to capitalism is neither feudalism nor state communism. Soviet communism had more in common with capitalism than the advocates of either system would care to admit. Both systems are (or were) obsessed with generating economic growth. Both are willing to inflict astonishing levels of harm in pursuit of this and other ends. Both promised a future in which we would need to work for only a few hours a week, but instead demand endless, brutal labour. Both are dehumanising. Both are absolutist, insisting that theirs and theirs alone is the one true God.
  
Yes, I know: I work in an industry that receives most of its income from advertising, so I am complicit in this too. But so are we all. Advertising, and its destructive impacts on the living planet, our peace of mind and our free will, sits at the heart of our growth-based economy. This gives us all the more reason to challenge it. Among the places in which the challenge should begin are universities, and the academic societies that are supposed to set and uphold ethical standards. If they cannot swim against the currents of constructed desire and constructed thought, who can?
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So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging. Part of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers of our age. Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben. Part of the answer lies in the notion of “private sufficiency, public luxury”. Another part arises from the creation of a new conception of justice, based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.
 +
 
 +
I believe our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative. Because no economic system is only an economic system, but intrudes into every aspect of our lives, we need many minds from various disciplines – economic, environmental, political, cultural, social and logistical – working collaboratively to create a better way of organising ourselves, that meets our needs without destroying our home.
 +
 
 +
Our choice comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?
  
 
[http://www.monbiot.com/ &copy;www.monbiot.com]
 
[http://www.monbiot.com/ &copy;www.monbiot.com]

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George Monbiot: The Mind Hackers

Researchers at public universities are developing new ways of shutting down our capacity for independent thought

30th April 2019

For most of my adult life, I’ve railed against “corporate capitalism”, “consumer capitalism” and “crony capitalism”. It took me a long time to see that the problem is not the adjective, but the noun.

While some people have rejected capitalism gladly and swiftly, I’ve done so slowly and reluctantly. Part of the reason was that I could see no clear alternative: unlike some anti-capitalists, I have never been an enthusiast for state communism. I was also inhibited by its religious status. To say “capitalism is failing” in the 21st century is like saying “God is dead” in the 19th. It is secular blasphemy. It requires a degree of self-confidence I did not possess.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to recognise two things. First, that it is the system, rather than any variant of the system, which drives us inexorably towards disaster. Second, that you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right. But it also demands another, and different, effort to develop a new system.

Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.

Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week, [a paper in the journal New Political Economy] by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the 20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st there has been a re-coupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.

A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. There must always be an extraction zone, from which materials are taken without full payment, and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution. As the scale of economic activity increases, until capitalism affects everything from the atmosphere to the deep ocean floor, the entire planet becomes a sacrifice zone: we all inhabit the periphery of the profit-making machine.

This drives us towards cataclysm on such a scale that most people have no means of imagining it. The threatened collapse of our life support systems is bigger by far than war, famine, pestilence or economic crisis, though it is likely to incorporate all four. Societies can recover from these apocalyptic events, but not from the loss of soil, an abundant biosphere and a habitable climate.

The second defining element is the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy. This seizure of common goods causes three further dislocations. First, the scramble for exclusive control of non-reproducible assets, which implies either violence or legislative truncations of other people’s rights. Second, the immiseration of other people by an economy based on looting across both space and time. Third, the translation of economic power into political power, as control over essential resources leads to control over the social relations that surround them.

In the New York Times on Sunday, the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz sought to distinguish between good capitalism, that he called “wealth creation”, and bad capitalism, that he called “wealth grabbing” (extracting rent). I understand his distinction, but from the environmental point of view, wealth creation is wealth grabbing. Economic growth, intrinsically linked to the increasing use of material resources, means seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations.

To point to such problems is to invite a barrage of accusations, many of which are based on this premise: capitalism has rescued hundreds of millions of people from poverty – now you want to impoverish them again. It is true that capitalism, and the economic growth it drives, has radically improved the prosperity of vast numbers of people, while simultaneously destroying the prosperity of many others: those whose land, labour and resources were seized to fuel growth elsewhere. Much of the wealth of the rich nations was – and is – built on slavery and colonial expropriation.

Like coal, capitalism has brought many benefits. But, like coal, it now causes more harm than good. Just as we have found means of generating useful energy that are better and less damaging than coal, so we need to find means of generating human wellbeing that are better and less damaging than capitalism.

There is no going back: the alternative to capitalism is neither feudalism nor state communism. Soviet communism had more in common with capitalism than the advocates of either system would care to admit. Both systems are (or were) obsessed with generating economic growth. Both are willing to inflict astonishing levels of harm in pursuit of this and other ends. Both promised a future in which we would need to work for only a few hours a week, but instead demand endless, brutal labour. Both are dehumanising. Both are absolutist, insisting that theirs and theirs alone is the one true God.

So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging. Part of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers of our age. Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben. Part of the answer lies in the notion of “private sufficiency, public luxury”. Another part arises from the creation of a new conception of justice, based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.

I believe our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative. Because no economic system is only an economic system, but intrudes into every aspect of our lives, we need many minds from various disciplines – economic, environmental, political, cultural, social and logistical – working collaboratively to create a better way of organising ourselves, that meets our needs without destroying our home.

Our choice comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?

©www.monbiot.com

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