Rebel without a cause

Saturday, 7th December 2013

Do you like to indulge in drugs and booze ? Surely only boring losers would abstain from the exciting social life facilitated by binge drinking, cocaine parties and ecstasy-enhanced all-night raves. Maybe you like to gamble or play first-person shooters online with your virtual friends and imaginary foes. And what self-respecting young adult would not watch hardcore horror movies and gory action thrillers? You might even enjoy rapid-fire techno music and gangster rap. Could you conceive of a better way to unleash your inner demons than a visit to the nearest laser shooting range or a whole weekend of unadulterated paint-balling? It’s hard to deny the growing popularity of these pursuits.

Any discussion of their potential long-term psychological or, indeed, neurological side effects would open another can of worms. Gamers are adamant that their favourite vice has no adverse psychological effects and endlessy recycle the theories of industry-friendly experts. However, many participants still feel they are somehow rebelling against someone or something. At the back of their mind are images of puritanical clerics, admonishing them not to sin against God, their grandparents telling them to turn down that awful noise or some populist politician promising a crackdown on drunken and disorderly behaviour. By conjuring up these effigies of a bygone establishment (against which to rebel), today’s hedonists can always cite former opponents of cultural progress such as Mary Whitehouse (mainly concerned with pornography) or the occasional conservative columnist decrying our youth’s obsession with these unworthy pursuits.

Oddly these apparently subversive acts of rebellion are a multi-billion business. Booze, gambling and gaming millionaires have friends in very high places. Indeed the UK government not only deregulated gambling, but went as far as granting video game businesses special tax breaks and reaping huge windfall revenue from the licensing of premium adult services on 3G mobile. Advertising for these hedonistic goods is ubiquitous in all media from billboards to the sides of buses, TV ads and, of course, the Internet. Saturday morning shoppers are greeted by sales teams promoting Sky-TV contracts, paint-balling fun sessions and the latest and greatest shoot-em-up games, all with the full blessing of the shopping centre management. Such endless promotion is often punctuated with ads for financial services. A growing number of public places resonate to the deafening blast of loud fast-beat muzak, supposedly to entertain and enliven customers. The entertainment business promotes even technically illegal drugs by glamorising narcotised pop stars and providing venues for mind-numbing sounds, which frankly can only be enjoyed under the influence of MDMA (ecstasy). Away from the remotest rural backwaters, it is practically impossible to avoid advertising for these pursuits. Today abstaining from all such indulgences sets you apart from the rest of the crowd, especially if you’re under 40.

In my misspent teenage years I briefly identified with the so-called punk scene, yet another expression of youth culture reflecting the anxieties of the age of consumerism, industrial decline and economic uncertainty but skilfully exploited by big business. I could see plenty wrong with the world around me. Screaming at the top of my voice “God Save the Queen and the Fascist Regime” seemed an apt act of rebellion against the hypocrisy of teachers who would allow little discussion in class or against class mates more interested in football and cars than overthrowing the capitalist establishment. Of course, most Punk music was absolute drivel, barely listenable and anyone paying attention could easily learn how wealthy media executives manipulated the masses, not just to boost their bottom line, but to channel all dissent through safe outlets. All was revealed in the 1979 exposé movie “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” on the Sex Pistols’ short-lived stardom.

My father worked for the military-industrial complex and despite all the grandiose talk about freedom and democracy, life seemed pretty monotonous with little room for manoeuvre. One just had to fit in and go with the flow, although compared to the current era a wider of selection of hobbies and special interests were acceptable. If you wanted to collect snails or build rudimentary radio transmitters from electronic kits rather than play football or hang out with the cool kids, that was just fine. In reality the mid 1970s saw, comparatively speaking, the greatest level social equality and general prosperity that had ever existed in Britain and in the pre-PC era there seemed to be much more heated political debate. Revolutionary trotskyists and devout catholics with very traditional views on family and marriage could somehow coexist in peace or antinuclear campaigns as I discovered during my CND days. With no Internet, only very primitive video games and a limited choice of terrestrial TV stations, rebellious teenagers were attracted more to outdoor activities, clubs and protest groups. Yet gangland crime was mainly confined to a few inner city areas, pubs would close at 10:30 and few young adults could afford to frequent nightclubs on a regalar basis. To put things in perspective it was not until the late 1970s that basic video game consoles and video recorders became affordable. If you wanted to unleash your dark side back then, you might consider joining a gang or the army, but most kids just played with Action Men, slingshots and plastic guns, nothing even approaching the hyper-realism of today’s games, but at least providing great haptic feedback, i.e. contact with the real physical world. If you chewed the head off your Action Man, you had a headless male doll and could not simply restart the game and parents were back then much less inclined to surrender to infantile pestering for a replacement toy. Your only option was to paintakingly repair it. As detailed by Canadian authors, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their 2004 book the Rebel Sell, the advertising business has simply co-opted all deviant strands of contemporary counter-culture. even if the ideologies, associated rightly or wrongly with past regimes or revolutionary movements, have been re-marketed as mere brands that may appeal to non-conformist individuals seeking to set themselves apart from dominant cultural brands. MacBooks tend to appeal to more creative nonconformist types precisely because they are not a regular laptops preloaded with Microsoft Windows and associated with boring conformist office workers. While digital revolutionaries would run a free and open source Linux distribution, many of us would hardly bat an eyelid at the sight of a jeans clad advertising executive whose top of the range MacBook Pro not only sported an illuminated Apple logo but also a CND peace symbol and a Che Guevara sticker. It would also not surprise us if the very same advertising executive were discussing a comarketing venture between a leading gay bar chain and paintballing events company. It is all just a game.

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