Do we really have the freedom to choose what we think?

This week has brought with it a debate that has interested, but also worried me.

Who are all the 590,000 people who ‘liked’ a Facebook post for MBNA credit cards?

Did they read it? Was that ‘like’ a virtual handshake? Like it totally spoke to them?

Maybe they had an MBNA credit card already, so ‘liked’ the post as a show of solidarity? Solidarity with what? Corporate slavery?


Why do people spread corporate bullshit?

Maybe they don’t think how their approval might influence someone else. That a ‘like’ means they support a multi-millionaire who most certainly doesn’t deserve it. Of the politico-economic suggestion they implicitly make to their friends and families.

They probably don’t care.

And why should they?

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t ‘liked’ something banal and expressionless? There we are, surfing the digital wave, finding bargains and information, booking holidays, and checking in with selfies. A like is just a high five, a passing shot. Nothing more.

What’s wrong with that?

Well … nothing.

Surfing the digital bullshit

With all the cowpat, is it even possible to tell the differences between things we really care about and the stuff the corporate elite want us to think about?

By the time we’ve waded through the uplifting stories conjured by content marketing, pricked our eyes at the sight of those ducklings making it halfway across a dual carriage way, and been assured that some woman’s rather dull Twitter riposte was the cleverest trolling yet, I’m not sure any of us is in a fit state to think critically. And that’s just the internet.

The combined forces of social media, advertisers, and what passes for news make it seem like our culture is based wholly on what we’re told to think. What and who is good or bad. What’s funny and what’s not. The frenzied hypes that drive film, TV, and book sales. Shopping. The hysteria about high impact events, and the constant terrorising about the weather. All media events and campaigns created to engage us. They merge the real with unreality. Social media merge with news.

We can’t do anything about any of it. Not which film really deserved to win the BAFTAs, not the high impact events, such as world terrorism, illegal wars, genocide, and murder, nor the weather. We can do shopping. If we can afford it.

But we become engaged with the onslaught of shit, so we buy the movies and music and all the related books, and it becomes common ground between strangers. We form opinions based on the channel we happened to be watching when the News ‘came on’. Then we regurgitate it into the social media multiverse, and advertise the ideology for free.

We’ve all done it.

Content marketers get you to do this stuff

Content marketers get you to use the internet the way they want you to. They give you shortcuts and doorways that lead you closer to their goal with every click. If they’re selling, their goal is for you to buy. Or, more accurately, for them to make a sale.

Sometimes their goal is different. Content marketers work for news channels too. And there are other, less clear motives. Can you figure out what this website wants you to do? www . illuminatiofficial . org. (Copy & paste and remove the spaces if you want to look). I’m not going to tell you what I think of that site, but I’m betting the ultimate goal is still money. Just an opt-in away.

Can we escape the frenzied media shitstorm?

How can we step back from all of this and work out what we really think? How do we even know when we’ve gained enough space for our own insights?

Do we even have the personal freedom to opt out of some media channels? Do you? What sort of loss would you suffer if you did?

Think about the medium of TV.

A 24-7 stream of images and sound that still spends the largest proportion of the ‘average’ person’s spare time. Most people grew up with it in the background, even my generation. When I was a kid, it was still optional.

It’s a stream of socialisation, an endless whirring of pop culture and terrifying news, and it helps us understand how we’re supposed to behave in any given event. Gives us ideologies to base our lives on. Sells us our beliefs for the price of a TV license. We’re given leaders to look towards, enemies to consider, and examples to follow, as well as plenty of cautionary tales.

It’s also a supremely passive activity, so information can be more efficiently passed to us and we don’t have to lift more than a finger to be entertained. Which keeps us passive. Nice catch-22 there.

We’re told what to think; given a few options from a biased point of view, and we form opinions from those options, never knowing there might be a further set of alternatives.

But TV’s even more potent than that. Not only is TV a media channel, but it’s got a power all of its own, because we’re brought up with it. It’s one of the family. The ever-faithful companion that didn’t lick your face with gunge and never died. How could you think about getting rid of it?

Would you even think to if no-one ever suggested it?

What would you do with all that time?

What does ‘personal freedom’ mean to you?

For many people, watching TV isn’t exercising personal freedom. TV is more invasive than some very hard drugs. Most users hit drugs in their teens and later, from some kind of choice. The TV diet begins in the womb. Babies have no choice. Screen time is a big social problem for parents and kids but none of the tablets, laptops, consoles or mobile phones are as constant as TV.

Miss out on popular culture at the same level as everyone else for long enough, and you start to stick out and feel left out.

Sure, you can catch plenty of socialising pop culture online, but it’s all mixed up with American and other cultures, a mishmash. TV gives us American and British programmes, but the lines are clearly demarcated. It’s not a visual cacophony. We understand our own culture best through TV.

If you know nothing else how can you think of alternatives? It’s not freedom of choice if people don’t have access to alternative choices.

My mother insisted that me and my brothers have access to TV for only half our childhoods. We had TV alternate years. We played outside, devoured books, broke bones and made tits of ourselves in front of our mates thanks to our lack of popular culture knowledge.

The lack of TV was gruelling, character-building, and made us ambivalent towards TV. My mother gave us the choice. Forced it on us. Thanks, Mum! Interesting paradox, that, forcing choice on someone.

Rodin's the Thinker

Is the ‘average’ person a sheep?

It’s not fair to call other people ‘sheep’. If you haven’t been educated out of the mainstream, figured it out from experience, or got a pushy, middle-class mother who believes in childhood experiences and hates TV, where else are you going to discover the world other than through a screen?

How are you supposed to sort good from bad when you don’t know what those are? When you’re told something is good and really it’s shite?

How do you know the difference between quality story telling and downright crap, without those dastardly content marketers to tell you? Sometimes you know it’s crap, but you still don’t know why you’re still hooked on it. Or you’re told something’s good and really it’s shite. You start thinking there’s something wrong with you if you don’t like it.

A lot of the time, what we like is all we have to go on; everything else is moot. If we like it and it entertains us, why shouldn’t we ‘like’ it? Just because 589,999 other people like it isn’t a reason not to.

Except that … maybe it is. But it isn’t our faults if we don’t know that possibility exists. Don’t judge. Critical thinking is a privilege of the educated, and education to that level is a privilege.

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