Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Effort Shock, Future Shock and the Promise of Transformation

by Charles Hugh Smith

The Media/Marketing complex offers us all the Promise of Transformation, but it is a Devil's Pact.

An astute reader recently sent me a link to a humorous essay with a profound message: Effort Shock: How 'The Karate Kid' Ruined The Modern World (David Wong)

You know what I'm talking about; the main character is very bad at something, then there is a sequence in the middle of the film set to upbeat music that shows him practicing. When it's done, he's an expert.

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it's not obvious. Every adult I know--or at least the ones who are depressed--continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it's with effort. It's Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the "price" of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn't just a little harder than people think; it's 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds.

So, people bail on diets. Not just because they're harder than they expected, but because they're so much harder it seems unfair, almost criminally unjust.

America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, "If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don't have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc)."

Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, "All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two shitty cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month." So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down.

All of it comes back to having those massively skewed expectations of the world.

Though most have passed on now, making it that much more difficult to access the experience they lived, the generation of citizens who grew up in the Great Depression had radically lower expectations. I vividly recall a conversation I had in the late 1990s with my uncle and aunt, a school teacher and a social worker by profession. My uncle commented that having a steady job of any kind was his only goal after coming home from serving in B-17s in World War Two.

There are a number of factors working in this ratcheting up of expectations to impossible levels. One is that expectations naturally arise from whatever base has been established by the previous generation. For a variety of reasons, including globalization/wage arbitrage and dependence on exponentially rising credit/debt for "growth," the current generation will be less prosperous in terms of material possessions than the previous generation.

That is certainly one source of Effort Shock: no matter how hard you work, you won't ever have the "easy" abundance enjoyed by your parents and/or grandparents. Cheap oil and exponential credit growth were the props supporting that abundance, and their end cannot be reversed with gimmicks.

But impossible expectations are also the result of Neoliberal Capitalism's "last crisis." I cover this "last crisis" in depth in Survival+.

Having satiated basic needs and constructed a massive overcapacity in virtually everything (even creating the illusion of endless food, energy and water), global Neoliberal Capitalism was faced with the necessity of opening new markets.

The move to exploit cheap labor and open new markets is called globalization.

The opening of China and India, each of which sloughed off many of the constraints of socialism, opened up markets to newly prosperous consumers. But sadly for global coporations, the vast majority of residents were too poor to consume much in the way of goods and services.

So while pursuing those new international markets, global Capitalism also seeks to generate new "needs" in established economies via marketing.

The explosion of media and media-delivery devices has aided this program immensely.Advanced-economy consumers are now immersed in a sea of marketing, which essentially sells one thing: insecurity.

While advertising still offers "bargains" and "sales" as an enticement to spend and acquire, the more profound message is: You don't measure up. The standards offered as "measuring up" are impossibly high, guaranteeing that most people will feel inadequate, insecure, and needing some sort of external validation which can only be granted--surprise!--by some profitable product, service or accreditation.

Strangely enough, those few who ascend the heights and actually reach the pinnacle--they are slim, good-looking, well-educated and well-married, with a child or three and a secure, prosperous career--often experience a gnawing sense of anxiety or even emptiness, as in, "Is this all there is? Why aren't I happier?"

That is the dread treadmill of impossible expectations. Keeping the treadmill running is highly profitable, as the "prize" of fulfillment and happiness is always held just out of reach. You were "cool" last season, but oops, now you are so uncool it's really a shame.

By stepping on the treadmill, we each seal a Pact with the Devil: we will pursue the media/marketing definition of fulfillment and satisfaction, planning to jump off once we reach our goal. But alas, fulfillment and happiness are always (by careful design) just beyond reach.

There are other causal forces at work as well: the velocity of change in globally distributed technologies. Futurist pioneer Alvin Toffler was one of the first to popularize the consequences of the widening gap between technological and cultural changes and the institutions of society.

In answer to the question, "What led you to write Future Shock ?" Toffler replied:

"While covering Congress, it occurred to us that big technological and social changes were occurring in the United States, but that the political system seemed totally blind to their existence. Between 1955 and 1960, the birth control pill was introduced, television became universalized, commercial jet travel came into being and a whole raft of other technological events occurred. Having spent several years watching the political process, we came away feeling that 99 per cent of what politicians do is keep systems running that were laid in place by previous generations of politicians.

Our ideas came together in 1965 in an article called 'The future as a way of life', which argued that change was going to accelerate and that the speed of change could induce disorientation in lots of people. We coined the phrase 'future shock' as an analogy to the concept of culture shock. With future shock you stay in one place but your own culture changes so rapidly that it has the same disorienting effect as going to another culture"

Here is the Wikipedia summary of his book:

Toffler's shortest definition of future shock is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time".

Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society". This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation" – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also coined the term information overload.

Toffler followed up Future Shock with The Third Wave and more recently (2007), withRevolutionary Wealth: How it will be created and how it will change our lives.

What each individual faces is an onslaught of these forces:

1. Global Neoliberal Capitalism whose growth depends on seducing advanced-economy consumers into taking on more debt to acquire more superfluous goods and services

2. Political and social institutions which lag technological revolutions by a generation or more

3. Globally ubiquitous Media/Marketing which sells insecurity and dissatisfaction via unrealistic expectations and an apparently "easy" path to happiness and fulfillment (thereby inducing Effort Shock and a heightened desire for an "easy" short-cut)

The filmic fantasy codified in The Karate Kid and hundreds of other films-- the Promise of Transformation via Mastery-- is integral to the media/marketing complex's subversion of our innate drive for fulfillment. The film industry's depiction of gaining mastery is naturally dramatized to serve the narrative, but we should examine the narrative's end-state through the lens of media/marketing's goal of selling you something new and transformative.

My favorite plot device in the "tyro/longshot gains mastery" genre is the old martial arts movie ploy of a "secret technique" which is described in a scroll or book. Anyone possessing the "secret" gains instant kung-fu mastery. The hero/heroine's challenge is to obtain the book before it falls into the covetous grasp of the evil kung fu master.

If only it were this easy. But alas, only those who have sweated blood and mastered all the foundational skills can make use of any "secret," be it a martial arts technique, a chord change or a carpentry trick.

Selling the promise of transformation is easy; it's the transformation itself which is difficult.

The Media/Marketing complex offers us all the Promise of Transformation, but it is a Devil's Pact: in the end, we lose ourselves. What is "easy" is only a facsimile of transformation. Ownership of a product, diploma, corporate title or membership in some exclusive group is offered up as transformative, but you must sacrifice your own selfhood, autonomy and individuality to gain that "easy" transformation.

The transformation is thus necessarily empty of meaning. You have gained nothing but a flimsy facade, having traded away your authentic self for a mass-produced promise.

Readers often ask me to provide some practical solutions to the challenges we face, and this long, convoluted essay has led to perhaps the most important practical solution: Opt out by stepping off the marketing/media impossible expectation treadmill.

We all see people struggling to leave an abusive marriage, or an abusive boss/job. The person trapped in the Devil's Pact spends years rationaling the situation, and most of their inner energy goes into attempting to parse out the inner workings of their torturer.

Very little of their energy goes into trying to analyze what factors within themselves have made an obviously destructive situation so compelling to them.

We all want a short-cut to fulfillment, prosperity, security and happiness. That is the appeal of a no-down payment, interest-only mortgage: why spend years scrimping and saving up a down payment, when I can be a "homeowner" right now?

But it was all a chimera, a facade; the freshly minted "homeowner" actually owns nothing but a sucker's debt. The same can be said of everyone who buys into the media/marketing complex's promise of transformation.

The irony is that the one transformation which is profound and easy is the one which must be hidden: walking away, opting out. The "secret technique" to weight loss and lifelong fitness is actually "easy:" walk away from the American diet pushed by the marketing/media complex, step off the impossible expectations/transformation-via-drugs-products-services treadmill, and recover yourself. Put another way: stop making yourself sick by eating "food" (the fast-food, packaged-food American diet), and regain the joys of movement, strength and self-discipline.

Prosperity requires prudence, frugality and an individuality which has been regained from the sell-your-soul enchantment of the media/marketing complex.

Once you walk away from that perfection of Hell, never to look back, then real transformation can begin. We have been trained to seek transformation in the marketplace, in medications, in institutions, or in "difficult" esoterica. Recovering oneself is the first practical step to surviving and prospering in the years ahead.

I know this isn't the practical checklist many want, but no checklist makes sense without this foundation. is now open for aggregating our collective intelligence.

Order Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation and/or Survival+ The Primer from your local bookseller or from or in ebook and Kindle formats.A 20% discount is available from the publisher.

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