Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The New Snake Oil Salesmen

Remember the snake oil salesmen from the old Western movies? They were sort of traveling "doctors" with dubious credentials, selling some elixir (such as snake oil) with ridiculous marketing claims often supported by pseudo scientific evidence which was typically bogus. To enhance sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a "shill") would often "attest" the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" would typically leave town just before his customers realized that they had been cheated.

Well, as they say, a sucker is born every minute, and the new snake oil salesmen are taking advantage of this unfortunate fact of life by hawking acai berry based products to the unsuspecting hoards.

Claiming everything from weight loss, the smoothing of facial lines, increased energy, curing cancer and reversing baldness, to name a few, acai berry, according to these scammers, is the miracle substance of the 21st Century. According to one acai snake oil company, “it will help you live a longer, healthier and happier life”. (I think the makers of Valium make a similar claim).

They even claim to have Oprah and Dr. Oz as their supporters (these would be their high powered shills), but both of these celebrities have gone out of their way to disassociate themselves from any products containing acai berry, and their lawyers are in active pursuit of these companies.

First some basic science regarding the acai berry. Virtually every berry -- blueberry, strawberry, goji, acai -- are anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidants. (This is good). This particular one is exotic. It's found in Brazil. However, Acai is a very sensitive fruit that cannot be just shipped up from the Amazon without losing about 95% of its effective nutritional properties. And most drying/freezing methods also render the anti-oxidant value to well below other more commonly available fruits. You can buy acai products all over the United States, but almost none of them have the actual benefits of fresh, whole acai.

Even worse, many of the products claiming acai’s benefits are so called energy drinks that are pumped full of caffeine and sugar. One such product sold via a pyramid scheme has 15 grams of sugar (for rotting your teeth) and other man made vitamins that have not been proven to be fact recent studies show they could be harmful. A great deal for 4 bucks a can....

Imagine a network marketing operation powered by tens of thousands of highly caffeinated, sugar buzzed acai zealots occupying “virtually”, via Facebook, every street corner in America. Yee Haw! There’s gold in them there social networks!

If you really want powerful antioxidants and energy, why not a strong cup of coffee or a glass of tea, two totally natural and inexpensive drinks that are gaining a well researched reputation for healthfulness. The latest news on coffee is that regular use could reverse the impacts of Alzheimer's disease. The great news about tea is that it is actually healthier than water, and protects against heart disease and some cancers. And all this research is conducted by real professionals working for real universities in approved research environments.

Ironically, our susceptibility to snake oil salesmen and other marketers of sugary elixirs are helping fuel a rise in obesity and diabetes while denying people the benefits of more proven healthful drinks, which is the exact opposite of what they are promoting.

People are drinking less tea and coffee than before, and drinking more vile man made elixirs than ever. WTF!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Digital Narcissism: The New Reality

On Kitty's radio show this week, we talked about and made light of a societal trend that is getting a lot of attention called Digital Narcissism. This refers to a changing set of human behaviors where people are more concerned about their digital personalities...sometimes to the detriment of their actual personalities and social lives.
Social scientists say that the increased use of social networks and virtual environments are physically changing peoples brains, and the changes could be permanent. Even though I am a Facebook user, as are many middle-aged people, the primary impacts of this fundamental transformation of human behavior are on the younger generation, 13-25 who have put these technologies in the center of their lives.
Instead of me ranting on about this, I am featuring the work of a blogger who is 19 years old and a philosophy major at UNCW. He has written on this phenomenon from the point of view of a member of the generation that is most immersed in not only social media, but the virtual worlds provided by gaming, the constant contact of texting, and user created video and music.
Since the guest blogger is my son and I pay all his bills, I have not asked his permission to use his stuff. I simply stole the piece from his blog.
I must say that is feels good to lift other people's content without fear of recrimination or lawsuit. Anyway, I hope you enjoy his essay.

The Reality DilemmaBy: Brooks Venters

We are all becoming virtual. Our bodies aren’t metamorphosing into hordes of 1’s and 0’s or anything, but our perceptual existence is being sucked out of our terrestrial bodies into the infinite escape of the virtual world. Our existence as perceived by most people in our general network of friends, family and acquaintances (aside from the lucky few who actually interact with you regularly in physical reality) is becoming gradually more virtual as online social networking becomes the method of choice in human relations. This virtual social movement is modifying the human thought and cognitive process, as we are beginning to move more towards typed text to express our thoughts over words, which is producing generation after generation (beginning with children born after 1980) of more socially awkward children, silent and distant because they exist only in their own heads and virtual reality. This trend is making children and adults alike pose to themselves a truly horrifying question: What’s better, reality, or virtual reality? More and more, the answer is an omen of a dim, sterile future.

Marshall McLuhan, a professor of Media Studies in the 1960’s and 70’s famous for the controversial “the medium is the message” concept, predicted what is now an abnormal social phenomenon. McLuhan speculated that technology, as a perceivable entity in human reality, is merely an extension of the human body; the wheel being an extension of the human foot, the fork being an extension of the human hand, etcetera. McLuhan speculated that these technologies constantly modify reality as we know it, and can even falsify or disprove realities that we already know. The internet, for example, has become an extension of the human brain: our thought processes are becoming more databasical and robotic as we use facebook as a social spreadsheet to reference. Our reality has been modified in that our thought processes, entertainment, and even social functions are now being carried out through the information super highway. McLuhan was wise beyond his years.

Let’s analyze the UNCW student of 2009, just as an example. So you’re a student and your primary objective is to be successful in your classes. To be successful, you need to keep up with homework assignments, readings, cancelled classes, whatever. Where is all of this accessible? UNCW Seaport. You need to keep in contact with your parents to let them know if you need money in your bank account for food (drugs and alcohol): g-mail. You need music to walk to class to: iTunes, but more importantly Limewire (who pays for music these days?). You need to keep in touch with your high school friends and try to contact that bangin’ girl you met last night at that crazy party: facebook. You need to do a research paper on Buddhism in Popular Culture: Google, Wikipedia, Ask Jeeves (who uses that bullshit anymore?). Finally, when you’re alone in your dorm, depressed because the bangin’ chick hasn’t sent you a facebook message back and it’s been four whole hours: Bang Brothers dot com (until your roommate comes back, in which case you scream, “I’m naked!” while frantically closing your laptop and pulling your pants up).

So it’s fairly obvious that we’re becoming increasingly more dependent on the Internet for our daily functions. Facebook in particular has taken a strange role in our social reality. While it is the perfect networking tool, it has become an alternative reality of representation, a giant party where everyone is exactly the way they wish they were in real life: well-represented.

Facebook is very gender specific, as women take the representation factor to an obscene level, spending hours crafting their facebook image: tagging the pictures of themselves that they took at the last party with the 300 acquaintances that they saw there, untagging the ones where they’re not fully dolled up or smiling perfectly, captioning the pictures with inside jokes, smiley emoticons, and superficial compliments or statements of appreciation for other girls, and finally, naming the album after a song quote from Lil’ Wayne or Nickelback. But that’s just the pictures. Superficial appreciation is the currency of girls’ facebooks, as “I love you!” or “bffff for life gurl!” seem to be the most common forms of conversation on the public walls of the female facebook. Rarely have these girls ever spoken to each other in physical reality, but in the virtual facebook world they have love for each other, or more accurately, for their virtual representation.

Men explore facebook in a much different way than women do. For men, the facebook design is supposed to be crafted conservatively, to exude the overall message of a lack of effort and caring for their facebook. Instead, where men utilize facebook is in the field of stalking, or “creeping” as the girls call it. This may sound disturbing, but males clicking through hundreds of facebook pictures of girls they find attractive has become a normality. It’s like a softcore version of porn: they find a girl they think is hot, whether they’ve met her or not, whether heard of through a friend, or seen while scanning through the pictures of anothers girl's facebook, and learn everything about her by sorting through her pictures, creating a sort of idealization process. This causes male obsession with girls who have no idea the male even exists, a trend that has become far too common for comfort.

Aside from the creeping factor, facebook is much less of an addiction for males, as they may check it four to five times a day while the average female checks it seven to fifteen times a day (this is based purely on personal observation). Instead of facebook, males are addicted to another form of virtual reality, video games. Marshall McLuhan mentioned that the more interactive and physically involved a media is, the more likely it is to consume the consumer. This is very true of video games, as they have become the new dopamine for males of all ages.

As a person who has played video games their entire life, I can personally say that video games are a dangerous and overwhelming addiction. In a reality where our parents are divorced, school is propagated and boring and it’s too hot or cold outside to be active, the virtual reality of video games is a refuge for many. It’s the ultimate escape, the ultimate form of an alternate reality, where you can really do anything you want; this is why video games are dangerous. An increasing number of males in today’s time are failing and falling out of our institutional system not because of drug or alcohol addiction, not because they are criminals, but because they want to be ranked the highest in online Halo 3 tournaments. It’s the ultimate in falsely gratifying virtual reality, even more than facebook, because with video games, you truly accomplish nothing.

So how is this false existence affecting us socially? It has invaded us socially, that’s what. Girls are now discussing who said what on facebook in the real world, complaining to their boyfriends about not writing on their wall enough, guys know everything about every hot girl at their school, including name, year, and relationship status. Men are not leaving their rooms for days due to the neverending quest to be the best online gamer. We’re all becoming better at conversating through text, and our oral social skills are suffering because of it. Our brains, no longer made to survive in a primal environment, are becoming active and aware only in front of computer screens. It is questionable trend that is compacting and containing us all, as the seperation of reality and virtual reality is being blurred and many people are choosing the latter.