Held hostage by the Dopamine Cartels: BigTech’s feast and the remaining void

Held hostage by the Dopamine Cartels:
BigTech’s feast and the remaining void

We live in a time where, for many, the allure – or should we say score – of the next swipe, like, or share is just a flick of the thumb away, we’ve unwittingly become the leads in a ‘structured reality show’ remake of The Matrix ([1999]. Our director? Algorithms with a perversion for human psychology, intent on turning us into the very essence of what we consume: a series of endless, augmented human adverts and mind-numbing distractions. Ted Gioia’s, soberingly insightful and terrifying exploration of the “State of the Culture, 2024” unveils a society teetering on the brink of a post-art, post-entertainment apocalypse.

To summarise, Ted Gioia’s central hypothesis is that our culture is transitioning from a focus on, and means of expression by, traditional arts and entertainment to a post-entertainment society dominated by distractions and superficial engagements. The shift, he suggests, is driven by technology platforms that exploit our brain’s dopamine responses, leading to addiction rather than genuine cultural enrichment. As a result, we’re moving towards a future where constant, short-lived stimuli replace meaningful artistic expression, leaving in its wake a society of digital addicts.

Once upon a time, art and entertainment served as our windows to the soul, mediums through which we could explore the depths of human emotion and connection. Fast forward to 2024, and the landscape has morphed into a bizarre bazaar of distractions, where the art of conversation has been reduced to exchanging memes, and Coleridge’s verse, Woolf’s prose, or, even Dylan’s lyrics are about as enticing as last year’s tax returns to our brains when they’ve become big-tech-dopamine-lab-rats. Gioia’s observations aren’t just a wake-up call; they’re an alarm blaring in the void of our collective consciousness, begging us to reconsider our insatiable addiction to…well, vacuous nonsense.

But here’s the problem: as we navigate this brave new world, we’re witnessing a curious phenomenon. The very language of psychotherapy—once a lexicon mostly reserved, appropriately, for the therapy room— has been appropriated, diluted, and repackaged as bite-sized pseudo-therapeutic affirmations served up between TikTok dances and OOTDs. Where influencers casually declare everyday difficulties or embarrassments as “trauma” that leave them with (undiagnosed) “PTSD”, sandwiched between sponsored posts for weight loss tea and a luxury watch. The irony? The commodification of mental health discourse has created an echo chamber of superficial validation, distancing us further from the genuine introspection and the healing we desperately seek. Not to mention the linguistic slippage: the dissonance and growing distance between ‘sign’ and ‘signifier’. How can we communicate our feelings and become less of a stranger to ourselves when the very language that was used and created to express and communicate our inner selves acutely has become so diluted it no longer means those things?

Sometimes the absurdity of it all makes it more tempting to find humour than alarm. Picture this: A world where ‘therapy speak’ – if, indeed it hasn’t already, becomes so mainstream that we’re diagnosing our morning coffee with abandonment issues because it went cold. Which to be frank, is a more relatable and applicable situation to our own relationships than, an influencer sharing a tip for the post-yoga enlightenment they felt at a “stunning café that serves the best matcha-nut-oat-wahtever ”, which when you turn up is just a queue around the block of people stood in silence staring at phones – and when you get there, the coffee is cold, and the croissants stale #blessed.

Beneath the absurdity, however, lies a sobering truth. As we drift further from the “source” – genuine human connection and understanding—our collective mental health teeters on the edge of a virtual precipice. The appropriation of psychotherapeutic language by the very algorithms that ensnare us in the dopamine doom loop, makes hiring the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse look like a sound decision. It’s not just the Arts that are being swallowed whole by the insatiable beast of distraction; it’s our very ability to communicate, empathize, and connect on a deeply human level.

So, where do we go from here? What is the path forward? Language is a living thing, it evolves, as does technology, work and culture. However, until now this evolution has happened in a slow and inherently diplomatic way over decades, rather than delivered lightening-fast into our brains by a few oligopolies.

I do think most of us now look at our phones as a tool to speed up time, when we’re sad, overwhelmed, bored, lost. We can lose hours and indeed days, months, years. And speaking for myself it’s a deeply regrettable loss. And, most importantly, it never ‘feels’ like a choice.

So, perhaps we embrace the challenge laid before us by Gioia: to unplug, if only for a moment, and notice the trees. Or perhaps, to simply start noticing each other. When caught in the “dope loop”, and feeling more a stranger to ourselves than normal we should remind ourselves to, “touch grass” (as I believe the kids say?).

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