I find myself strangely obsessed with tracking the constant shuffle of Google Ads on the site lately. I worry a bit when Neurontic is papered with advertisements for suicide prevention hotlines, bargain-basement antidepressants, and therapy directories, as is the case when I spend too much time talking about depression treatments. I laugh when one posting that mentions the word ‘spaghetti’ results in a flood of links to pasta recipes. But I’m entirely perplexed by today’s top ranking ad: ‘God Ringtone.’
The ad instructs me to ‘send this ringtone to my phone right now!’ I can’t help wanting to. What exactly constitutes a ‘God’ ringtone anyway? Is it a George Burns voice over? A recording of a Latin mass? Is it sect specific? If you punch ‘3’ for Jewish, do you get a download of a famous cantor? Do agnostics just hear static? Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?
A couple of things from last Sunday’s Times Magazine I wanted to direct your attention to:
*First, Charles Seibert’s brilliant article on the dissolution of elephant culture: “An Elephant Crackup?” Regular readers will recognize Seibert’s name from “Are rats laughing at us?” an examination of the burgeoning field of Animal Psychology. His latest article explores how humans have upset the delicate equilibrium of Pachyderm society by steadily annexing the elephant’s natural habitat, and decimating the elder members of herds in the name of population control and commerce (ivory).
It’s a truly tragic tale and one that has caught the attention of mainstream psychologists who normally reserve their attention for bipeds. Why? Because, as it turns out, young elephants from broken families exhibit many of the behaviors of human adolescents suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Elephants who have seen their nearest and dearest gunned down at an early age become despondent, antisocial, paranoid–and often violent (elephant attacks against humans have skyrocketed in recent years). If you think I’m anthropomorphizing, take a look: “An Elephant Crackup?“
*And in “The Long Zoom,” Steven Johnson writes about Spore, a much-anticipated new game from Will Wright, the creator of The Sims. Wright has spent the last six years building a system that will allow users to play god in the most literal sense. Each player begins as a “single-celled organism, swimming in a sea of nutrients.” If you successfully survive the attacks of a legion of plankton-sized predators you start to amass “evolutionary credits” and eventually earn the title of “Creator Editor.” At this point, you are free to enact your own Genesis. You populate your world with creatures of your own design; you govern their ecosystems, construct their cities, organize their economies; manage the competing demands of your own self-created nation-states, etc.
Johnson believes that Spore is singularly suited to our historical moment, because it epitomizes the peculiar way cybercitizens view the world. Most eras have distinct “ways of seeing,” he writes:
. . . the fixed perspective of Renaissance Art; the scattered collages of Cubism; the rapid-fire cuts introduced by MTV; and the channel-surfing of the ’80s. Our own defining view is what you might call the long zoom: satellites tracking in on license plate numbers in spy movies; the Google maps in which a few clicks take you from the view of an entire region to the roof of your house . . . And this is not just a way of seeing but also a way of thinking, moving conceptually from the scale of DNA to the scale of personality all the way up to social movements and politics.
Spore, Johnson contends, is the perfect example of this brand of telescopic thinking. In Wright’s game, we begin by embodying one of the tiniest creatures on earth, an amoeba, but quickly morph into the all-seeing eye–a truly omnipotent god.
Johnson goes on to argue that this particular mode of seeing is beneficial, because it allows us to conceptualize the true interconnectedness of everything. We become virtual Buddhists, capable of recognizing how the extinction of a species of water bug in a swamp on one of our planets might contribute to the build up of green house gases on another; or how downturns in the Western economy can lead to war in the East.
According to Johnson, this crash course in synergistic thinking has the potential to make us better world citizens. He may be right. On the other hand, Spore could just as easily produce a generation of children with deeply entrenched God complexes. Who knows?
Plus, am I the only one who thinks this sounds like really hard work? I may be old-fashioned, but I generally warm up the old X-Box when I’ve had enough of real world concerns. The idea of spending my leisure hours recreating the universe from scratch strikes me as exhausting. I mean I couldn’t even get my Sim to go to work. He was so depressed he kept peeing on the floor. I’m not so sure I’m cut out for this whole deity thing.