Great Britain

The world's on fire, our nerves on edge: the merchants of Calm have just the fix | Jessa Crispin

California is still on fire. I take half a tranquilizer with two glasses of a sparkling rosé, pull the weighted blanket over my cashmere pajama-clad body, and cue up the next episode of HBO Max’s new series A World of Calm. It’s the one that has Keanu Reeves telling me the story of a reclusive Latvian man who lives in harmony with the animals and the plants of the forest. He harvested a tree in a way that would cause as little damage as possible to the fragile ecosystem around him, and now he will hand-carve a canoe from its trunk. The forest is not on fire. It is being taken care of, by a Latvian man in a turtleneck. And now maybe I can find sleep.

If trees aren’t really your thing, there are other options on the first season of this streaming adaptation of a very popular mindfulness app. If you need to forget about the mass exploitation of children, migrants and other nations’ political autonomy for the sake of international agriculture, you can listen to Priyanka Chopra Jonas murmur to us about chocolate and the Mayan women who act as “protectors of the cacao”. Or we can let Idris Elba distract us from the piling up of space junk as earthlings litter the great expanse that surrounds us with garbage by growling to us about the history of the cosmos.

Our fantasies about celebrities used to be a little more stimulating. There were torn items of clothing, frantic grinding in bathroom stalls and so on. Now the fantasy is only that maybe Keanu will stroke our hair as we softly cry and he will whisper about how well we’re doing, truly.

It’s no longer religion that is the opiate of the masses. It’s an ASMR video of a woman running her acrylic nails over a textured surface while whispering about how calm and relaxed you should be feeling. It’s a brain.fm channel hypnotizing you out of an anxiety attack so you can work on that spreadsheet. It’s a mindfulness app helping you to understand there is basically no world outside of your conception of it, just so you can just close your eyes and let it drift away.

How have we come to a place where we need so much coddling? Could it be a generation adrift, masculinity gone soft, a certain robustness lost that needs recreating? No, it’s the usual: the thing, in this case the internet and our devices, selling you the solution to the problem it caused.

After all, we needed something to come down from our addiction to doom via a device designed to buzz and purr and intoxicate with an ever-storming feed of terrible things happening that one must pay attention to. We get dopamine hits when the lamestream media sends us notifications about the latest thing compromising our democracy. We are biochemically addicted to the social media parade of charlatans shrieking about the immorality of the latest movie we liked, or the sexual misdeeds of a person we only learned existed ten minutes ago, or this cat who is the cutest cat in the history of all cats. And then we get another notification, setting our brains alight again, telling us all the plastic we thought we recycled over the last 20 years went into the ocean instead and killed baby dolphins.

So of course we need these numbing techniques and Silicon Valley sedatives to recover from that, which we helpfully learned about via an advertising experience tailored to our needs on the same apps driving us crazy. Apps like Calm, where, for only $69.99 a year, we can learn from LeBron James how to reach peak mental fitness, giving us the intellectual strength to withstand the experience of our daily lives. Then we can upgrade our Calm experience and subscribe to HBO Max for only $14.99 a month for 20-minute videos that are like watered-down David Attenborough documentaries, which are pretty and all, but how can we use them to soothe our adrenals when Attenborough keeps mentioning this baby orangutan is threatened by the encroaching human presence in his habitat? Or we can subscribe to a premium version of YouTube for only $11.99 a month so we can fall asleep to eight hours of rain sounds without ads to settle down from having recommended videos of Ben Shapiro flung at our face by the platform all day long.

We’re stuck, pinned between these two modes. Whichever way we turn, we end up in the same place – staring into our distorted reflection on our screens, whether it’s someone using a TikTok video of teens dancing to explain the CIA’s role in destabilizing foreign governments or Tom Hardy reading us a bedtime story illuminating our darkened rooms. The medium is the message, and the internet’s message will always be that, in a hyper-connected world, you are all alone. So why not close your eyes, listen to some soothing tones and let it all just drift away.

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