New York-based consultant Christian Madsbjerg writes, speaks, and teaches widely on the “practical application of the human sciences.”
“Humans adapt instantly to change but often without understanding the long-term consequences,” he writes. “At ReD [his firm], we tried to keep this radical openness to the transformation of even the most profound and philosophical questions as part of all projects. The future is never a theoretical prospect for any of us. You can observe it in all your everyday reality. The most challenging thing for all of us to see is what is really there.”
TED talk language, in other words: What does that even mean?
He spells it out in “Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World” (Riverhead Books, $29). Great title, I thought. I read a gushing review. I ordered the book.
Madsbjerg is a fan of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who asked, “What does it mean to experience the world from inside a human body?” To those of us grounded in incarnate reality, this is hardly a novel question.
At any rate, the anti-Cartesian point is: Don’t think; rather look.
So far, so good. How do we perceive space, experience color, and explore the complexities of perspective, Madsbjerg asks.
He reflects upon the work of light artist James Turrell, painter Seth Cameron, Donald Judd of Marfa, Texas, fame, and clay-shooting expert Gil Ash.
He moves on to the philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels, who posited a “gestalt quality” to reality by which the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The point, says Madsbjerg, is that we tend to focus on the foreground; the readily observable.
In fact — ka-ching — the real interest often lies in the “hurly-burly” of the background of life.
“Each of us,” he maintains, “can bring an awareness of this so-called hurly-burly and learn to observe it analytically. This is a meta-skill that is called ‘hyper-reflection’ and in this book I will walk you through how it works.”
Except he kind of doesn’t.
What follows are a lot of commonplaces: “Our every thought, every word, and all our experiences are happening on a social background we share with others.”
“Good observations always include the observer.”
“Science doesn’t explain everything.”
Go out and simply observe, he counsels. “New York City is filled with humans doing interesting things, and I am certain your city or town is as well.”
Watch people moving around a museum. Observe people at a jazz club jam session.
Check out a group of World Wildlife Fund volunteers.
Here, however, Madsbjerg reveals that he isn’t interested in knowledge, or wonder, or mystery for mystery’s sake. He’s interested in knowledge that can be mined and marketed.
In the early 2000s, for example, he became consumed with the phenomenon of the remote control. “Why on earth?” he wondered. “The strangeness of the remote control and the hundred-dollar cable subscription was a portal into the future of media. … Why did people behave that way?”
In the course of his research — and this really is fascinating — he comes across a marginal activity: “the shared social practice of a tiny group of people in Okinawa, Japan, who all had an interest in movies and TV shows shot in Monument Valley in northeast Arizona.”
This ragtag group of obsessives band together, exchange information, share digitized versions of old VHS recordings, and binge-watch obscure films often of abysmally low visual and sound quality.
Madsbjerg never answers the question of why people would cede their freedom to a remote control. Instead he has an epiphany: When these micro-interest groups were added up globally, “a new business model for media writ large was made possible.”
The beauty in such strange and singular little clubs, the delight in the face-to-face human encounter, the social aspect, the person-to-person sharing, the fun of the collective search: All this is lost on Madsbjerg.
What he “observes” is an opportunity for his clients to sell to Monument Valley film fanatics, and others similarly situated, “content” that is curated, available 24/7, and can be consumed in one’s own private space and on one’s own private screen.
In fact, that wild-card irrepressible human spirit that resists programming, that insists on busting out one way or another, is exactly what Madsbjerg and people like him want to wipe out.
Not surprisingly, he disposes of religion in a few chilling sentences:
“Change — radical change — that would be incomprehensible just a few years ago happens all the time. … Not long ago — and still for many of us — being human meant being God’s children. The world was created around us, and we answered to God. Now we think differently about something as basic as our own humanity. … It isn’t apparent anymore what separates us from the rest of nature and makes us different from machines.”
That this kind of thinking that increasingly permeates technology, medicine, politics, and the media should give us all serious pause.
As for the interchangeability of foreground and background, though, I knew just what Madsbjerg was talking about.
Right away I thought of St. Basil’s Church in Koreatown, where in fear and trembling I first attended Mass.
Before, the church had been a dull brown building in the midst of the hurly-burly of K’Town over which my eyes instinctively glossed.
Afterward, I saw it as the pulsating, supernatural center of existence to which the rest of the (interesting, glorious, to be sure) city — in fact, the world — was mere background.