Packaging Ourselves to Death

We live in a culture of our making, and it's in need of managing.

The following was originally posted to the Psychology Today blog Neuronarrative.

We humans contain a plethora of paradoxes, and that's to be expected. Evolution doesn't employ consistency comptrollers to ensure that every adaptation dovetails with all the rest. So it's not shocking that we so often say one thing and do another, or that we're endlessly confused by the professed intentions and contradictory actions of those in our lives (and ourselves).

That we strive for integrity at all is, in my view, a mark of progress. That we challenge ourselves to align our words and actions--our intentions with our expressions--is one of the hallmarks of human social advancement, and it's no small step.

But no matter how far we've come, much of our culture is still devoted to concealment and pretense. The messages we ingest every day come packaged--in some cases to enhance the meaning of the message, and in others to disguise something that lives behind it. Company X is spending millions of dollars this year to "reduce its environmental footprint," even while it makes hundreds of millions of dollars producing products that overflow landfills and pollute rivers.

Often the packaging is less sinister but equally misleading. No one can argue, for instance, that the way most restaurants portray their food is consistent with what ends up on your plate. It's a lie so obvious that we're numb to it. We, in fact, expect the representation of the product to be fictional. Imagine how odd it would be if fast food chains started advertising undoctored images of what they sell--as sloppy and squashed as we actually receive it.

Or what if Wal-mart started running commercials with actual employees haggard from a typical workday, instead of spruced and smiley actors who would sell a kidney before working a grueling day in retail?

You can think of thousands of similar examples, and they all beg the same question: what would our culture look like without the packaging?

That's a hard question, and I'm not sure we want to find out. As idyllic as "authenticity" sounds, it requires an entirely different level of tolerance to accept. What if job interviews stopped being dances of concealment and started being transparent discussions. Imagine a job candidate saying, "Well, I left that firm because I couldn't stand being in the same room with my boss. He disgusted me, and to stay another day would've pushed me over the edge." Or the interviewer saying something like, "The main thing you need to know about this company is that we don't like liberals."

These interactions don't happen because so few people are equipped to handle them. We're acculturated to joust with motifs and metaphors. We're trained to think the truth (as we see it), but speak with qualifiers and embellishments. If we were given license to openly tell everyone in our lives exactly how we feel, we wouldn't know what to do with it.

I'm not arguing for an authenticity utopia, because I think it would quickly become a really weird nightmare--a dark comedy we couldn't escape. I doubt we'd survive it. But we're also tempting disaster by allowing packaging to become the defining characteristic of our culture, instead of a necessary and sometimes useful part of the social construct.

I'm hardly an advocate of the "real you" cliché, because I think the self is far too multifaceted to be categorized as any one thing. But I am a proponent of self-reflective narrative--a thread that pulls together and integrates our many facets, if only loosely, so that we can think and function with relative consistency. That narrative draws in many things, and a lot of them come from our culture. If the culture exalts packaging, if it makes concealment a virtue, then it stands to reason that those who live in it will do the same.

Not everyone, of course, is affected the same way. Genetics, upbringing and a slew of other factors are plugged into the imprecise calculus of personality. But, I'd argue, we're all affected in some way, and children coming of age in the culture of packaging are affected the most.

In a culture where even the term "Keep it real" is a sales slogan, staying grounded isn't easy--in fact, knowing where the sky stops and the ground starts isn't easy. Kids in this culture need another layer of education atop the typical: they need an education in critical thinking and skeptical analysis. They must be trained to know the faux when they see it, whether it's on TV, on the Internet, or sitting across the table.

Accepting what is said or written in deference to the medium that carries it is a mental laziness we can no longer afford, Marshall McLuhan be damned. For all of us, and children especially, adopting a sharper perspective is crucial. Think of your mind as an exacto knife slicing through the packaging that surrounds you every day. If you don't use it, the more wrapped up you become in packaging of the commercial, the political, the religious, and the "popular." Kids need at least the rudiments of this mode of thinking, not so they can become cultural curmudgeons and hermits, but so they can enjoy the best of what culture offers while not giving anyone or anything control of their discernment.

The irony is that the culture of packaging has even commoditized critical thinking. You can't argue for its importance without sounding like a huckster from the pundit-radio millionaires club. Perhaps going back to the time-honored and simple term--skepticism--is just as well.

Whatever name you prefer, this culture needs more of it. It's the only real defense against the engulfing phantom born from our own enticements. Because, in the end, what is culture if not the product of what we think and do? The culture of packaging is our creation, and managing it is our responsibility.

David DiSalvo is a science, technology and culture writer for Scientific American Mind, Mental Floss,and other publications, and the writer behind the blog, Neuronarrative, which reaches 100,000 readers in more than 200 countries every month. He has appeared on CNN’s Headline News, and his work is referenced in news outlets worldwide.

David is also an award-winning public outreach and education specialist with nearly 18 years of experience communicating complex technical messages with palatable prose. He has served as a consulting research analyst and communications specialist for the US Environmental Protection Agency and several other public and private organizations in the US and abroad, spanning from Boston to Beijing.