The animated film The Polar Express is interesting mainly because of its shortcomings. Its animation aspires to be more realistic than many animators aim for — and the shortfall between what they’re emulating and reality makes some of the characters and movements pretty creepy. Aiming for realism makes the gulf between attainment and goal all the more apparent — ‘uncanny valley’ is the term coined for that kind of creepiness experienced when a model is not quite real enough. My concern is that, increasingly, uncanny valley is where we’re encouraged to live.
There’s something pretty unlikely about a lot of the claims made by people in the world of personal development, and the characters who make them. Can you imagine hanging out with Tony Robbins? Sure, I get you need to ‘go large’ when you’re on a stage — some of the time — but is there ever a moment when Tony is less than orgasmically satisfied with any aspect of his life? And if he’s so fulfilled, why the need to make things even better? Same with Richard Bandler, who over the years seems to have lost the subtlety of approach that you can see in footage of his work in the 80s, and I experienced in the 90s, and now exhorts people to double, double, and double that feeling again — what happens when the image of what you want fills the sky but still doesn’t prompt you to get out of bed..?
One of the problems ecstasy users face is the blue Tuesday comedown from being artificially pumped full of serotonin at the weekend. Fast forward thirty years to a retirement complex for those still on the personal development treadmill. Sitting together, doing their damnedest to manifest a turd that’s been days coming thanks to constipation, one of the byproducts of a bionic prostrate. Hoping the Secret might yet deliver the Ferrari they’ve been vibrating for all this time, wondering what to do with it now they’re past 90 and had their licence revoked. Struggling to feel much of anything now that botox has reduced their capacity to sense what others are going through, bringing them back to dwell on me me me.
We’re heading there already. Sports events now commonly feature audio that’s manipulated by sound engineers trying to replicate the hyper-detailed effects that computer games are using, and that the public now associates with being ‘real’. Models on magazine covers are digitally tweaked to make them more attractive, and young women and men increasingly experience dysmorphia at a younger age attempting to emulate looks that don’t actually exist. A third of American cosmetic surgeons are dealing with requests to do work on both partners in couples, and the number of mother and daughter combos wanting assistance is increasing. And woe betide you if you really are good at something: Asian teens are penalised by some American colleges for their allegedly preternatural mathematical skills by having their maths scores scaled down in their overall academic profiles. But, thanks to panic about Tiger mums, caucasian tots are now furiously doing calculus in their playpens, all the better to reclaim Wall Street for whitey when they enter the job market. Hallelujah, we’re going to Graceland.
Is it all bad? Well, for manyI suspect it will be. We already allow our dreams to be dictated by the media to an alarming extent. But some of us at least will turn that to our advantage. Props from Star Trek were part of the catalyst for the development of mobile phone technology and other advances. The impossible moves created by computer graphics in The Matrix have inspired a Romanian dancer to create an impressive act that will give him his fifteen minutes of fame. Distinctive guitarist Adrian Belew owes his career to some extent to reproducing what he was told was a Robert Fripp solo that had in fact been monkeyed with by producer Brian Eno — he didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so he just went and did it.
Still, while some will reach for the moon and get there, many more will suffer the consequences of a world that falls short of its media-created serving suggestion. There’s scarcely a product or service these days that isn’t promoted in a way that promises resolution of some personal want above and beyond whatever you bought the thing for in the first place. It’s not enough that you shelled out thousands for a car — it needs to remind men of their virile early adulthood while satisfying the need to be a modern family guy too. Fruit juice isn’t just about citrus, it’s a testament to your green credentials. We fall for this stuff in the same way that many East Europeans fell for the lie of communism.
Aspiration is wonderful. It can help people find meaning in their lives, create a sense of purpose that lasts decades. But it needs to be aligned with the world we actually inhabit, and not one that we’re distorting out of shape. And the more we kid ourselves that we really can make ourselves happy with conservatories for all-year round family dining, satisfy our financial needs with a four hour working week, realise our potential with just one more workshop, the less happy we’ll be right here, right now.