02 January 2011

Psychic Overhead

I use a term to describe a particular phenomena of modern life: psychic overhead. Let me give you an example. I walk into the pharmacy intent on purchasing some simple, needed item such as toothpaste. For now we will not go into the psychic overhead of the selection process or the fact that I am in a pharmacy in the first place. I have made my selection. I go to the cash register.

While making my purchase I am asked, "Do you have a 'pharmacy' card? You will save 10% on this purchase and all future purchases".

It is already too late once this has happened. Now I must consider, 'What does that mean to me? What exchange is actually involved?,' and so on. Perhaps you will say that I do not need to consider these things at all. I might suggest watching yourself closely next time some like event occurs in your own life in order to determine that. So I, for my part at least, take some moment of consideration.

I will often say something like, 'No thank you. I understand you are required to ask that.'

Perhaps in that moment, particularly if I am purchasing several things, say at a book store, the person asking will suggest again "On this purchase 10% is $xx.xx. Are you sure you don't want one?"

"No, thank you."

Occasionally, very rarely I might then be asked "Why not?," as if declining this kind offer were some mild form of sickness or insanity, so strange that it must be inquired into. Perhaps this person will not be able to sleep tonight wondering about the strange and monstrous person refusing to be given $xx.xx value for nothing. What could be more insane and suspect than that? Perhaps it is simply an idle mistake on their part, the nature of which they are as of yet unaware. So they ask.

I will tell them, "I do not wish to incur the psychic overhead associated with such an agreement."

"The what...? Oh... we will not give your information to anyone or send you anything." (Sometimes)
(I need to give you information?)

"That does not matter there is still a psychic overhead to it. That is why you are required that to ask me. Suppose I am going to make a similar purchase in the future. I have the physical existence of your 'loyalty' card in my pocket. I am carrying it around. It is taking up space in my life in all sorts of ways. As I consider entering into some form of exchange for something I need or want I will find myself remembering that; thinking about that. I may find myself considering things for which I have no actual need whatsoever. I would rather not spend any time thinking about that. If I am not going to think about it, then honestly, I would rather not spend any time thinking about not thinking about it. But now I have this little piece of unnecessary plastic taking up space in my life, the sole purpose of which is to get me to think about exactly that which I do not wish to be thinking about. It is really too late since you have already asked the question. It is not really worth $xx.xx to me under any conditions, though I have enjoyed our conversation."

Or... consider FaceBook. I am antiquated, I know. I do not participate in FaceBook. What is the matter with me? I am not a luddite. In fact I am often a very early adopter of technology. I had a hand held PDA in 1988. I used it. I have been on some form of the net since about 1982. My sister requested that I make a FaceBook account so it would be easier to talk with one another. I made one. Within several days I had 50 or so people wanting to be my friend. I reported this to my sister (by means other than FaceBook). She said, "Oh, you can simply ignore them." Well, no. Before, I was simply ignoring them, for better or worse. Now I will need to take an action to ignore them, which is by definition not ignoring them. This is another form of psychic overhead.

In the early 90's, for a period of time I had a job that required a regular commute. I took the subway for about 30 minutes each way. Short walks on both ends. I decided to do an experiment. I decided to count all the advertisements I encountered on this short journey every day. I never succeeded. I quickly found I had to eliminate simple brand images, since that was just immediately overwhelming, even though they constitute a form of advertisement. I would often already be in the thousands without those. Later I learned the average number for such a commute in a Western city was something like 5000 ads. This is without actively seeking something about that; without an attempt or desire to purchase some specific thing or service.

I was (and am) swimming in a sea of unrequested, unwanted offers and enticements. How do I relate to that? Do I 'ignore' them? What does that take from me? What defenses must I create and enact and what are the consequences of that? What is the learned behavior of this? What does it teach me? At least, I must learn to actively delete great swathes of what is there, or to actively, then habitually re-contextualize it. I must then also pretend that this is not happening. Unfortunately, I am all to proficient at this. Or perhaps I wish to entertain and distract myself in some way by interacting with all these images? I imagine owning the thing, feeling the way it is suggested I feel owning such and such a thing or experience... or perhaps the horrible loss I will apparently feel not owning it. Is this a conscious activity on my part? What are the consequences? Perhaps I become professional in my enjoyment and critique of this entire domain of activity. "Oh, that is a good ad." At what cost? Can I be present to all the associations, necessities, and implications so actively and professionally asserted?

I find that so much of my attention is already caught up in this that it takes something fairly radical to undo that condition. It seems like it would be simple, but I do not think we realize our actual condition for the most part. I know I do not realize mine. Resistance is not useful. Complaint is not useful. Well... utility is not useful. The attention becomes fixed and habituated; possessed. Though many ads would themselves suggest otherwise, it is not possible to acquire freedom.

"Would you like to exchange your attention/freedom/consciousness for 10% off of this and all future purchases?"

"Hmmm... let me think about that for a moment please."


  1. today at a clothing store, the clerk looked sweetly at me and said. "...and can i please have your phone number?"

  2. Since I met you I have thought often of how a "fish doesn't know the water" and how there are so many thing that are happening or we are enacting everyday that are our habitual responses. I appreciate your interruption and highlighting some of the ways in which we are not making choices, but being swept up. I hope to be more and more conscious every day....but alas I seem to often be going backwards.

  3. I have been seeing how these ads work on me, whenever i feel vulnerable, the imaginations of who i can be, deeply planted in me will flower and surface. I let them work on me, getting beauty treatment, buying expansive clothes, then feeling guilty or at loss about them because i realised how standardised i become by my very attempt to be unique. But despite all these, the 'subconscious' seems much more powerful.

    So i tried to instill some of my own 'psychic overhead' and then i am secured about my insecurities...

  4. roger, please please read
    The City and the City...