FeatureIssue 20

America Anonymous

I need never return to Paris, my cab driver tells me without irony, because they have the Eiffel Tower here. As they have the Statue of Liberty. And the Sphinx. And the Giza Pyramid, done in all black, in which I am staying the night. And it does feel like a night outside time; a night with the dead. Inside this hollow structure they have an exhibition with – one is assured – “real artifacts” [sic] recovered from the Titanic. Inside this pyramid the walls are uniformly honeycombed with corridor balconies for rooms going all the way up to the top, like an ant colony. Inside this hive insectoid figures scuttle or drift, blank-eyed, to do the bidding of an invisible queen; to put money into boxes showing lights.

I am within the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Stepping inside takes your breath away – and then gives it back to you, all in a rush, because oxygen is pumped in through the air conditioning; to keep you awake and gambling. Walking in from the smog outside and inhaling this air has the same enlivening effect as a bucket of iced water and a slap in the face. And this artificial atmosphere is, in part, necessary, because the Luxor Casino – like all of the others in Vegas – has no windows. You can’t tell what time it is by any reference to the world outside, so the only suppression of your melatonin and the regulation of your body’s circadian rhythms come from the lights of the machine. You begin to breathe and sleep in time with this queen. There are no clocks either; your only appointment is an eternal one. The patterns in the carpets are uncomfortably geometric and their colours grotesque and clashing, designed to beguile the eye. Even this is deliberate; it keeps you looking up at the screen.

The name of this ant queen is Mammon, and her spell is the science of engineered addiction. In case you aren’t aware, attributes expressly designed to addict are likely incorporated into every social media app or program you use, every television channel you watch, every modern mall you visit, and into the very fabric, it seemed, of America. I made my first trip to the land of the free over three weeks this winter, and felt that it was hard to be just that.

It is in the food. In restaurants across the country, regardless of standing, it was difficult to find anything that wasn’t either emetically sweet or desiccatingly salty. Sugar alone creates dependency, but eating something very sweet also makes you crave something salted. And eating something salted makes you crave something sweet. Even things that weren’t supposed to be saccharine were made to be; unlike the meat in Europe with which I was familiar, everything across the pond seemed to have a sweet lardy quality of which you only get a hint in the very fattiest cuts of pork belly in France or Britain; that cloying oiliness; a slippery sweetness that seemed to run all the way through, in even the leanest parts. And the same tasted true of the other fats there; even the milk in my coffee.

The result of all of this sugar and salt was that I felt terrible all the time (no wonder one would want to gamble). This experience was no doubt amplified by the fact that I was travelling, and thus often had to eat richer restaurant food than wholesome home cooking as a large amount of my fare, but it was hard even to get a salad that wasn’t covered in cheese. When I thought it couldn’t get any worse I went to the South, where it did; my friends in Nashville had amusingly nicknamed the ten pounds one puts on in moving there the ‘Confederate Ten’.

In L.A. I began to notice – and find myself craving – an opposite extreme in terms of both diet and lifestyle. There’s a reason for the proliferation of health food shops, nutritionists, yoga studios, spinning classes, pilates workshops, supplement stores, and the like; ironically, they need the sweet and salty fast food to thrive; they need a rut people will pay to escape. Whilst I was there I started paying. I ate spirulina, drank shots of E3 Live algae, and put chlorophyll in my water. I had charcoal in the mornings, a B-vitamin complex powder drink for breakfast, and ordered bio-wines. By New York, my last destination, I found I had booked myself into a hotel with a yoga mat and block, a foam roller, an exercise ball, and a ‘workout area’ in every room; where half of the lobby was taken up by a gym; and where the other half was occupied by a restaurant called ‘Cork and Kale’ – which gives you an idea of its priorities. At the end of an exhausting trip, I was much in need of both vine and vegetation.

Tradition and addiction, both, consist of habits. America’s youth – its relative lack of the history that begets the former – is visible even from far above. The first things that astonished me about the country came before I had even landed. I had never seen as much snow and ice for myself before until coming over Greenland – and then over the Atlantic which separates it from Canada, which seemed, similarly, to be mainly a field of icebergs permitting occasional glimpses of water. Then, however, after traversing the edge of Canada and coming over the corners of North Dakota and Montana, whilst the snow continued it began to be scored by roads – roads like none I had ever seen. As though God had dropped a net over the landscape, the white was scored with a graph of perfect squares; these geometric paths connecting nothing to nothing.

The cities are drawn like this too. European cities are higgledy-piggledy, their roots having grown up organically over time. America’s hothouse habitations, made all at once, have no such intricacies; no wrinkles holding a past. Los Angeles, where I landed, has a markedly different structure to any other city I had ever seen: it has no local high streets or small local supermarkets mixed in with residential buildings; offices and shops and living areas tend to be entirely separated – or at least they were thus on the outskirts, where I was staying. You can’t really walk out to get your groceries – or walk anywhere, for that matter (perhaps one reason why Americans tend to be more friendly with their neighbours, since to see anyone else you have to get in the car). An arterial motorway – the 405 freeway – runs through the centre of the city.

The sky is bigger there too; but lower, pressing closer on you than other skies. You see much more of it – perhaps because the buildings have fewer storeys and the streets are wider – but in a way that feels deafening rather than ebullient. Space can annihilate the spirit as much as cramped closeness. The strip malls show it. In front of each façade of stores there is a large tarmac expanse for parking, then a six-lane road with traffic streaming by, across the other side of which there is another tarmac expanse and, facing those across the road, another set of near-identical stores. The shops themselves look as though they are made of clapboard – so much structure in America looks weak and impermanent; just a stand in for some solidity about to come – and I feel like I could kick a hole through the frontings. “You probably could” jokes a woman at a party when I say so.

And in this particular city where culture is business, not history – in the land of Hollywood – I felt that this desolation begat another kind of dependency. At every corner, advertised in neon lights, there was a psychic, a palm-reader, a Church of Scientology or a Christian Science Reading Room, a Baptist Church or – lest we forget its religious origins – a yoga studio. It felt as though desire – an evident, and evidently monetisable, need for satisfaction – was diffracted by the very landscape itself.

Perhaps I sound provincial; reactionary or close-minded; a naïve painter of generalisations; or perhaps all of these things. Let me make clear that I am detailing only one aspect of my observations, and not everything fell through the same lens. But I nevertheless felt I was touching on something true; in some ways my relative innocence of the country permitted a freshness that felt like a boon.

And I wonder whether, in fact, America’s new leader isn’t cut from this same cloth; whether Donald Trump, or his media persona, might be addictive by design. We refer to activities as addictive when we tend to perform them in contravention of our long-term interests or more rational desires. The attention provided to Trump by those who don’t support his policies seems to fit just that model. He had his training in television; a medium that the average American watches for five hours a day, and which is structurally addictive: in a 2009 study viewers registered higher levels of enjoyment during television programmes when those programmes are interrupted.1 And Trump, too, knows how to keep the public tuned in. He offers a monstrously powerful package of media attractions: a pre-existing celebrity profile and brand name; outrageous and contradictory claims and policies; continual gaffes, offensive statements and horrific sound-bytes; an extraordinary personal appearance; a distinctive linguistic manner; the unlikely outsider story; a genuinely memorable slogan; and much besides. His is an imago from which you cannot look away; the ultimate clickbait.

Media scientists distinguish between two types of publicity; unearned and earned. Unearned publicity concerns that which is paid for – i.e. Presidential ad spending – whilst ‘earned’ coverage is that which is not bought. In February 2016 Trump paid for $10 million dollars of unearned media coverage but earned $400 million in free coverage – according to mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of each candidate and computes a dollar value based on advertising rates. Over the twelve months until the election Trump earned $4.96 billion in media coverage; Clinton earned $3.24 – still a record, but 53% less than Trump, and much doubtless due to his magnetism. He outpaced her in every media segment, but most significantly in Twitter, where he showed 142% more media value. How?

I offer you this: in November, in an attack on CNN disputing his claims concerning voter fraud, Trump retweeted a sixteen year-old boy from Beverley Hills called Seth Morton. Enormous coverage of the event – and his defence – ensued. He has since tweeted or retweeted, deliberately or accidentally – and including an Ivanka from Brighton whose handle he supposedly misused instead of his daughter’s – several ‘normal’ people. In Las Vegas, the slot machines are engineered such that, whilst the symbols representing the jackpot themselves have a low likelihood of coming up, the symbols adjacent are rendered by the computer more likely than the others to arise, creating a sensation of ‘near misses’ designed to make you think that you keep almost winning. That the jackpot could, at any moment, be yours. Perhaps, if you keep talking about Trump, the next person he retweets might be you. The President is a star of reality television – perhaps he feels just within our reach.

 

1. “Six studies demonstrate that, although people preferred to avoid commercial interruptions, these interruptions actually made programs more enjoyable (study 1), regardless of the quality of the commercial (study 2), even when controlling for the mere presence of the ads (study 3), and regardless of the nature of the interruption (study 4).” –‘Enhancing the Television Viewing Experience Through Commercial Interruptions’, Journal of Consumer Research, 36.2, (2009).