If you’ve read this page on and off you may think I’ve got a bit of a problem with humanity, showing them up as fools repeatedly. This couldn’t be further from the truth as I’ve always been amazed by the invention and ingenuity of the human race. As a species we’re so smart at our best, not accepting any limitations and pushing ourselves further each time we encounter a problem. Of course, that’s humanity at their very best (and coincidentally a set of attributes that is shared by the worst of humanity too), but there must always be something that we compare the best of humanity to or how would we be able to appreciate the good things as much as we should? How would we know what to strive for? Who would we look to without something to believe in?
Which brings us to this tale of a human being who wants something a lot – in this case, an iPad 2. Such was the hype behind this frankly middling tablet “computer” (the lack of capabilities makes me a little wary of the computer definition) that seventeen year old Xiao Zheng decided he’d be willing to pay an arm and a leg for one if possible. After seeing an online advert that gave him the opportunity to gain some cash, Xiao got in touch with a middleman and arranged to have £2,077 given to him in cash. He arrived back home with an iPad 2 and a laptop computer (presumably to do everything that the iPad is incapable of). His mother got suspicious when she found the computers and noticed a deep red scar on his body. When questioned he admitted that he had been taken to the hospital and had one of his kidneys removed as he’d arranged over the internet. Such was the hype behind this device that a relatively sensible seventeen year old boy arranged to have one of his organs removed so that he could afford to have one of these devices to call his own. Worryingly Xiao isn’t the only teenager who is willing to go to extreme lengths to get hold of some Apple branded merchandise. Weibo, China’s home grown version of Twitter, recently got some worldwide coverage when a young teenager offered her virginity to the first person who would give her an iPhone 4. While many tried to talk her out of this insane proposition, some called it out as a joke or hacked account and others even offered her the phone to get their hands on her. One person did point out that the iPhone 5 will be out in a few months so she should hold out for that, but even the girl was not to be swayed by anything. Eventually it seemed that she had gone ahead with the deal according to the comments on that post and her replies to them.
Since he heard the immortal words “You want to murder half the world? There’s an app for that.”
So how can this have happened? How can a young boy sell organs and a young girl prostitute herself, both in order to get a phone that was out of date when it was released? Well, it’s down to human nature basically – more specifically the need for religion. Humans are hard-wired for religion and many different areas of the brain become active during a religious experience. Scans performed on mystics, monks, nuns and priests of many religions (from Catholicism to Buddhism) revealed that during their prayer and meditation routines the frontal lobe of the brain undergoes increased activity as the subjects concentrate on their activity more intensely. On the other hand, the parietal lobe (the part of the brain that helps us realise our place in a three dimensional space) features much less activity than normal, giving these people the feeling that they are apart from the world or in the presence of the divine. It’s only recently that technology reached the level that we can test such things, but the science of neurotheology has already come up with some very interesting results concerning the nature of our communication with divinity. I personally find these results are at their most interesting when compared to scans of the brains of fans of technology companies and sports teams. In these cases it seems that those super fans go through the exact same brain processes as people who are having a religious experience.
While it has long been known that religion provides a convenient way for our ancestors to answer the many questions behind our existences, the idea that we’re hard-wired as believers is something rather new and the entire point to neurotheology as a science. As the importance of a deity in our lives has been diminished by time and science that need to believe has been left empty and unfulfilled. Enter the brands, presenting themselves in a particular fashion and giving those pesky non-believers something to believe in. These sports teams and companies have been able to provoke that kind of religious feeling in their more susceptible fans, creating the same kind of devotion that religions once commanded and the same militant need to protect their devotion too, and I believe that it is this condition that Xiao Zheng fell prey to. While I’m not saying that he decided that Apple were his Gods and must be obeyed as they order him to sacrifice his kidney for an iPad 2, his mind experiences the same kind of euphoria from having their latest product as a Christian would feel from having dinner with Jesus, minus the whole slightly uncomfortable body and blood explanation. This need to believe combines with a need to belong inherent in all humans to create a cult mentality about certain brands. In short, this need to have something to place faith into, this need to feel a part of something bigger than oneself, the need to belong to a group and the need to have someone to take responsibility away by telling us what to do and think took over from the common sense these children had instilled in them.
So why is this happening with some things but not with others? The fact is that every well developed brand has that sort of power, but only a few know how best to capitalise on it and fewer still will actually use that power. Actually no, that’s not fair. Every brand that knows how to harness their brand power in that manner does so because money is to them what they make the brand out to be to us. Brands that concentrate on image (clothing and fashion-technology brands for example) are best able to build that feeling as they push the idea that the consumer needs their product to enhance their lives no-matter what. Brands that surround their products with mystery also are able to build some of that devotion up in their clients as a hidden product manages to build heightened levels of anticipation in the waiting congregation. Like the paradise promised by every religion, the hidden product is hyped up as the one thing that will come as a reward for a hard life, during the life itself. It doesn’t matter that the past five or six products have been marketed the same way, the new one being hidden for long enough allows the human brain to build it up to levels that the product in question could never actually manage to reach itself. We see the product as it cannot logically be, obsess over every minute detail of it and become sure that these small changes from what we’ve come to know will be life-changing things and the difference that can tip us from our current state into one of eternal joy.
Perhaps the cruellest part of all this is that we know we’re fooling ourselves most of the time. That rational voice pops up and tells us that this thing wont be as good as we’ve been thinking it will be. We listen to it and know it’s talking sense yet as soon as more information comes up then we’re off into our fever again. Should anyone attempt to talk sense to us then we’re likely to see that person as someone attempting to keep us from our happiness, most likely explaining them to ourselves as someone attempting to inflict their own misery on us rather than endure it alone. The vast majority of us are incapable of thinking that this person is trying to make us see sense as they are standing in the way of our religious fervour – our happiness – and, like the zealots of any religion when they perceive a threat, we react swiftly and violently towards it.
This new religion, this Cult of the New Thing is growing and nobody should be surprised about this. Given the knowledge in the world, many people are growing up without religion despite being hard wired for it. The established religions are so stoic in their ways and seem incapable of moving with the times to the point that when they do, it seems like they’re either betraying their own beliefs by going too far in the opposite direction or claiming to have changed while not doing a thing. These are institutions that are the same now as they’ve been for hundreds of years and have had their hypocrisies repeatedly exposed by the information age. How can we possibly expect our children to find solace in these societies? The Cult of the New Thing on the other hand is constantly growing and evolving with the trends, constantly coming out with shinier salvations and less barriers to entry. “Join us,” they say “and your life will be complete, at least until next year when you’ll have to buy in again.” This seems fair to many young people these days as all mainstream religions have a tithe of some sort and a yearly product release may actually work out cheaper in the long run. But as Xiao Zheng found out, new religions often call for prices to be paid in blood rather than a monetary tithe.
All this can be avoided of course. We can find our own miracles in the everyday world simply by opening our eyes and looking at it in our own particular way. A mathematician may weep at the simple beauty of the maths involved in the way a flower opens its petals while the artist may see a mish-mash of colours in tinned soup that affect the very core of their being in a profound manner. Should we open ourselves to these miracles in the world we’d have no need to place our faith in such shallow beliefs and practices as those that any religion, from the oldest practising to the Cult of the New Thing, can dream up. Only by placing our faith fully in ourselves and the world around us can we truly free ourselves from the shackles that bind us to false beliefs and impossible ambitions, and only then can we live out our lives as truly happy and complete human beings.