There is an idea out there called the "consumer sublime," which is the concept that people seek increasingly more stimulating media to "awe" their senses in the same way we once encountered the sublime within nature. The clearest example is comparing the experience of going into the Grand Canyon versus watching an IMAX movie on the canyon's edge (yes, it's possible). This pattern goes along with the theory of the "creeping cycle of desensitization" which argues that every time media technique hits a threshold and becomes normalized, new media come along to amp up sexuality, violence, editing, sound and overall sensory experience. For instance, go to the IMAX home page and it instantly promises that you will "hear more, see more." For another example, compare early James Bond trailers with recent ones, or old Bat Man with the new one.

 

Why does this matter for the environment? Because in our addiction for speed and thrills, we seek to supplant nature's innate experience of awe with one generated by a computer. In the process of hyper-stiumulation we actually numb ourselves to the subtle voices of the extended natural world. But there is a fuzzy boundary between technology and nature (ultimately a false dichotomy, anyway), which might explain why naturalist Wade Davis of National Geographic would star in the IMAX film, "Grand Canyon: River at Risk." On the one hand it seems absurd to watch this film inside a dark theater on the edge of the Grand Canyon when you could simply hike down and have the experience yourself. On the other, not everyone can travel there (the film can be seen in other theaters) and it does create an intimate experience that technology enables (such as telescopes or microscopes enhancing the invisible). This contradiction is similar to that which Walter Benjamin grapples with in his famous essay, "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction." He argues on the one hand art loses its "aura" when reproduced, but on the other, it becomes democratized because it becomes available to everyone (unless, of course, if it's being mediated by fascist propagandists or corporate media).

Any new medium both enhances and eliminates some sensory experience– certain aspect of nature become accessible to us through film and TV, while others are inadvertently cut off. BBC's Planet Earth series, for example, takes us places we can never go, or allows us to see animals we'll never know intimately. Or Winged Migration can show us birds' "umwelt" (selfworld) in a way that we may never know (unless we become a shaman, that is). This is an over simplification of a much larger argument, but suffice to say, the natural sublime can be present in some kinds of media.

With that said, I now want to take a closer look at Comcast's recent "Dream Big" ad campaign (click on the YouTube playlist I created with examples). Like the IMAX Website, it promises more and better of everything (the jingle chimes,"Speeding forward, future hopping, always dreaming never stopping…"). The ad presents a veritable Christmas morning of sensory delight in which we can live out our fantasy of perpetual childhood. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with being childish, but as ecopsychologist Paul Shepard points out in Nature and Madness, our culture is traumatized because we are wired for rites of passage involving communication with nature, without which our “ontogenesis”–growth pattern– is corrupted. In other words, because of our increasingly deeper disconnection with the natural world, we never fully grow up and mature the way that our biology intends. Look around, and you will see the disastrous consequences of this kind highly addictive personality disorder. Rather than have a healthy, nurturing relationship with our natural world "parent," we run around the globe like five-year-olds with M-16s gulping as much oil as possible, even if we choke on it. I use the royal "we" of course. Most of us, I presume, would not choose this mode of life if given a choice or were properly aware of our options. Yet, here we are.

Even more sad is the Prozac calm of the ad talent's tone. There is nothing arbitrary about this because historically "advanced" capitalist societies have cultivated a certain emotionless gaze. Think Ray-Bans and aviator cool. This began with the "Fordization of the face," industrialization's efforts to smooth the temperament and emotion of workers so they wouldn't rebel against mind-numbing work. The modern equivalent is advertising's droll voiced 20-something narrator who bemoans the cubicle life, but surrenders to it, nonetheless. The logic is that the System is more successful when few care what its managers design or do with the world, as long as it is entertaining and fun on the weekend. But then again, that might be the very reason why the System is currently falling apart. Confuse, divide, conquer and rule the emotions of people, and they will no longer find any gratification from a system that is supposed to "nurture" them. This creates a perfect opportunity for nature to reassert herself into the center of our attention, because in the end we know deep down inside the Candyland reality of this Comcast ad is only an unfulfilled desire to bond with the Mother. In fact, it's available to you if you go outside and look. I recently had my own Candyland experience with a patch of grass. In it was a wonderworld of tiny spring flowers, varieties of grass, buzzing bees, succulents galore and mounds of emerald moss. I imagined myself tiny running amok in this little forest and found it wondrous and full of awe.

Finally, I want to remark on the inevitable harvesting of Generation BoingBoing culture. If you have followed BoingBoing over the years (it remains one of my favorite sites), you'll notice that its writers have become tastemakers, a role I don't think they sought or care much about unless it has to do with promoting positive net values such as open source and sharing. But aesthetically they have certain obsessions that inevitably become pop culture "cool," which is evident in the Comcast ad. Comcast is "remediating" (recycling from other media) a number of BoingBoing motifs. First is the fetishizing of coy, flirty ukulele DIY songstresses recorded on Webcams in bedrooms by young, attractive females. Another is the flattened eboy art style of pixelated cities hybridized with the Sims-like virtual world playground of video games. It's a consumer cornucopia of vintage vinyl and cassettes, Japanese monsters, 1970s toys, Sesame St. animations, Linux penguins, and so on. True enough, the Comcast world is full of "wonderful things," which in and of itself is not bad, but put into the context of how the global culture is trending, we may do well to hit the pause button for a minute and wonder where in the hell we are, and assess how we really got here.

Unfortunately, to criticize something like this is to be labeled a "Luddite" against "progress." But I'm far from it. I don't decry the many great positive changes that are happening as a result of convergence and new media (such as participatory media, collective intelligence, and transmedia storytelling). Nor do I think that Comcast is brainwashing us into a specific reality frame. But what it does do is reinforce dominant cultural themes and mentalities that need to be called out. Failure to do so would mean a lack of imagination on our part to challenge these techno fantasies. Frankly, if I wake up some morning in Comcast's world, I'd say we're pretty screwed.