By Dr Christian Jarrett. Suppose there were a device you could buy that zapped your brain whenever your mood dipped.…
I once found myself in a nondescript hotel at the tail end of breakfast; it was just me and the waitress, and two loud blabbermouths bantering about the merits of ham and pineapple pizza.
“I just love pineapple on pizza,” giggles the female, her face scrubbed clean, her waxed hair shining. Her male companion chortles outrageously in response, his vacant eyes gleaming.
I grimace and turn to the waitress. “Can you turn them off?”
“But why?” she retorts.
“I didn’t invite them to sit down with me for breakfast,” I answer.
The waitress looks offended and waddles over to the wall. She reaches up and flicks off the switch and the two morning show hosts disappear from the TV screen. For the first time I can see my surroundings the cereal and juice lined up, the croissants and coffee.
Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the word ‘solastalgia’ in 2003 to describe a feeling of melancholia and depression felt by some in response to environmental degradation: global warming, rising sea levels, ocean acidity, fracking, animal extinction, crop failures. Solastalgia, presumably, hits anyone who is acutely aware of the raw data and the looming environmental catastrophe. Or perhaps some people are just more in tune with the rhythm and beat of Mother Earth – they suffer from solastalgia because they feel the Earth’s pain.
I think we also need a term to describe the hair-pulling frustration of listening to morning talk show hosts, and half-witted media personalities such as newsreaders, food and health ‘experts’, sports commentators, and other Z grade media celebrities. The inane chatter, the ridiculous gestures, their sweaty-faced excitement in front of the camera. And on comes “celebrity B who has, you will never guess, lost two dress sizes!” Perhaps it could be called ‘medialgia’, or ‘media misery syndrome’ – an affliction rising from exposure to media crud, with symptoms on par with coming down with some horrible illness.
An early sufferer of medialgia was my great-grandfather, who, I was told, used to yell at the television set at night. I wonder: would Scottish engineer John Logie Baird, who built the world’s first television set out of an old hatbox in 1923, be proud of his invention today? His ingenious technology, which could have been utilised to mobilise our society for good – to educate, inform, and enrich people with the knowledge to live a better life – has been employed instead as a titillation machine.
Medialgia is not restricted to the medium of television – there’s radio, Hollywood blockbuster movies, tabloid newspapers, and magazines.
You’re waiting in line at the supermarket checkout and spot a magazine cover. There’s an image of a plastic-faced celebrity with an idiotic caption – “I’m having triplets, too!” – and grade one despair creeps over you. You leave the supermarket feeling rather nihilistic. Or alternatively, you’ve been flung out onto a dark pavement on a Saturday night – having watched for the past three hours a film about rich, young Americans in Paris. You stand in the rain waiting for your bus with a tattered ticket in hand and wonder why your perspective on life has suddenly taken a turn for the worse.
Medialgia, like any psychological disorder, can cause not just mental pain for sufferers, but also abnormal behaviour. After watching Hollywood blockbusters, or French arthouse movies, many people take on new life directions. “Whatever I do, I must live in Paris”. “Whatever happens, I will become a world-famous actress”. Images from movies and the Internet infiltrate not just western cultures but, these days, can pop out of any browser or screen, anywhere. As a result, hill tribe people in remote regions of the world can catch medialgia too. “Whatever I do, I must live in New York”. “I will own a condo and a white poodle and buy new shoes every morning.” Witness to unbridled wealth and consumption on the rot box, medialgia can lead some to travel across dangerous seas and find themselves living in squalor. The promise of something better can ultimately lead to something decidedly worse.
What’s telling about both solastalgia and medialgia is that they are afflictions caused by external forces. They are conditions imposed upon individuals by others with agendas, such as companies that profit from environmental destruction, or, in the case of the media, companies that profit from titillation. Media is all about flicking on the greed or fear switch – and fanning those illusions ever so lightly.
But the good news about medialgia is that, unlike solastalgia, it has a readily available cure. You do have control over what you see and listen to; you do have the ability to flick off the switch, turn your gaze away, or put down the paper. You get to decide whether you’re subjected to the ramblings of a plastic-faced talking head at the breakfast table.