We’ll Settle for Fake Security

If you live near other people who have cars, you probably hear car alarms going off a lot. If you live in a city, they’re so common you sleep through them or walk past them without noticing. Hey, your car makes that hideous sound at me, I’m certainly not gonna try to save its ass.

What Need Does This Satisfy?

My question is, is there any data showing that making obnoxious noises is a good way to keep cars from being stolen? Has anyone heard a story of a car not being stolen because its alarm went off? I expect it must happen, but my completely scientific poll of a few randomly selected friends didn’t add a single such incident to my empty set of knowledge. Certainly the existence of alarms in cars causes thieves to be wary of setting them off. But doesn’t that just add a new challenge for the enterprising thief to overcome?

Seems to me that shutting off the vehicle’s mobility in the absence of a key or code would be a more effective theft deterrent. In fact Wikipedia claims that the NYPD thinks alarms make the crime problem worse, because people ignore them and it makes the neighborhood seem like a place where no one cares what happens.

So why do we keep making cars that emit horrible noises? I suspect it’s somehow tied to our deep human need for security against the vicissitudes of life.

We Live In An Infantilizing Culture

It’s an understandable yearning. As we become conscious of ourselves as individuals, we encounter the idea of death and are forced to consider our own mortality. Many people are so scared by this prospect that they feel they must turn away. My father’s second wife whistled past graveyards (and had migraines). Carlos Castaneda related Don Juan’s advice that death is always over your left shoulder; if you can’t get used to that, you won’t really be alive. I prefer the latter approach.

The problem with the need for security is, it’s impossible to satisfy. Vicissitude happens. Then what? Do we retrace our steps, see if we’ve contributed to the problem and what we can learn, then decide what to do with the here and now? Or do we scramble for the covers and try to reconnect with our lost sense of invulnerability?

We like to think we’d be adults and handle the situation, but we often fail to live up to our own standards. We let things slide, we put off the decision, we don’t open the letter, we decide it doesn’t really affect us.

In part, no doubt, this is a reflection of the universal fear of failure, and the particular fear of consequences. Then there’s the propaganda.

We’ll Put You In a Buying Mood

Our media (by which I mean US media; I only know non-US media by the web) and particularly television, encourage a sedentary, reactive style of interfacing with the world. If current TV reality doesn’t meet our pleasure, we switch channels or pop in a movie. We control the input, thus to some extent we control the outcome. (As long as we don’t put on the wrong movie on when the in-laws are visiting. My suggestion: hide the porn in the bedroom closet.)

Keen observers from Chomsky to Bagdikian have noted that advertising aims not only to sell individual products, but equally importantly to create a buying mood. Sales are up! Interest rates have never been lower! No money down! The economy’s taking off! Fewer unemployment claims! Adjustable rate mortgages to fit your needs! This baby’s got all the new features!

In Media Monopoly Bagdikian talks about the pressure on newspapers that results from perfectly rational requests by advertisers. For example, airlines and travel agencies might not want their ads on the same page as a story about a plane crash, or on the facing page. Such restrictions seem unobjectionable individually, but their collective result is to squeeze the amount of space available to certain kinds of stories. Get enough car ads and you’ll either have to add pages, delay some ads till the next edition, or leave out that story about the crash test. Pages are expensive, ads pay the bills, stories can be printed later.

If the Romans Had Television We’d Be Speaking Latin

Thus, without censorship, and perhaps without intention (if we believe their public statements), corporations influence what gets reported, and how. More directly, there are now, what, half a dozen corporations that own ninety-some percent of our mainstream media outlets. Are you likely to see a series about problems with nuclear plants on a network whose parent company builds or operates them?

Chomsky reports that the psychology of advertising as developed by people like Walter Lippman involves creating a sense in the advertisee of vague discontent. You should feel like things are great, but not so great that there isn’t something missing. If you just went to the mall, you could find out what it is, and buy it.

I think there’s even a current advertising campaign on this theme, with people buying, carrying, and exchanging It. The transparent mockery of our consumer impulses is meant to indicate with-It-ness: we all realize the silliness of the whole endeavor, but it’s a fun game. And it keeps the economy going. What did Richard Pryor say about God’s way of telling you you have too much money?

The Siren Song of Consuming

I recently traded a half-gig iPod Shuffle to a friend who’s all about Apple in exchange for his old mobile phone. It runs the Symbian operating system, has a normal-looking desktop on a 320x240 screen, a joystick, some configurable keys, a QWERTY keyboard, and so on. It can read PDFs, play MP3s and videos, do email, even run Opera. I can drag and drop those MP3s from Windows Explorer; I don’t need iTunes and its restrictions, or Nokia’s crappy interfaces.

So I basically got the phone for almost nothing. In the intervening weeks, I’ve spent

  • $13 to download a Symbian-based chess program, which my students love to play because they can beat it
  • $15 on a stereo headset with push-to-talk switch, so I can listen to music and still answer the phone when it rings—the music pauses, then resumes when the call disconnects, and the equivalent thing happens when I’m playing chess or entering a note
  • $28 for a two-gig memory chip, which holds around five hundred MP3s (and would hold even more with a more efficient encoding method and reduced sampling rate)

The two-gig chip is about the size of ten postage stamps in a stack. Since you can hot-swap the chips, you can carry a bunch of ‘em and use whichever chip has the application you need, or the one with that song you can’t get out of your head.

Now I’m attracted to the idea that a few of these suckers could be made to transport my entire music collection, in a package about the size and weight of fifty stamps. Then there’s all those cool applications waiting to be downloaded! Let’s see, new tab, eBay, Enter….

Who Am I To Blow Against the Wind?

And that’s just the phone. Then there’s the computer, the TV, the players of videotapes, DVDs, and CDs. The closet. The kitchen, the bathroom, the living room. The lawn. The car. Where do my needs end? When will I finally be happy, and how will I know?

Bertrand Russell, who studied philosophy, made his name writing about mathematics, and won a Nobel Prize for literature, is a saint in my religion. He replied:

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire—such as the acqusition of indubitable knowledge about something or other—as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself—no doubt justly—a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.


To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.

The problem with his approach is that it requires and creates a certain frame of mind, a certain model of the world, that isn’t as comfortable as the one to which we’ve become accustomed. It’s like waking from a pleasant dream; it’s not so much that the world sucks as that decisions have to be made, consequences and vicissitudes endured. Instead of watching a movie and suspending disbelief, we’re playing chess and making mistakes.

Thus, when Ron Paul suggests that US actions in the Middle East might have irritated the 9/11 attackers more than our concepts of freedom, he pulls back the covers and we shiver.

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