Panic in the Bytes of Digital Music: Featuring Cyber-mums fed moral panic by sensationalist media in An Old Scare Gets a Brave New Update.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Your child is already dead and as a parent you’re to blame for their fatally uncontrolled behaviour in a confusing, predatory and dangerous world. Professor Ray Surette’s (1998) law of opposites, based on an analysis of the media’s reporting of crime and violence states that there is greater media coverage of events that are particularly unusual or severe against individuals over and above the percentile risks associated with actual crime. Furthermore there is a seeming social bias at play with a concentration of stories focussing on older or higher status victims and offenders. An emphasis Gregg Barak (1994) argues which ‘reinforces forms of social control’ by dictating how society should view these events in terms of right or wrong, victimhood, race, sex and class.
The ecstasy related death of Leah Betts in 1995 and those of Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith during 2010 at the hands of mephedrone in terms of the amount of coverage afforded to these three tragic occurrences can be said to have been boldly aggrandised by newsrooms in light of the public interest, or moral panic, or rank sensationalism. Mephedrone itself was unknown as miaow-miaow prior to the deaths and as Private Eye uncovered was a name concocted by the media itself (Private Eye 1259, 2010). Although the emphasis of new stories in correlating the taking of drugs as the prime cause of these fatalities was ultimately unmasked as erroneous, it helped to ensure the attention of public which in turn made the prohibition of mephedrone and ecstasy an easy political win in the UK. An act which has not stopped any further ‘drug related fatalities’ nor the use of either ecstasy or mephedrone, however it has criminalised a lot of otherwise carefree people.
Now the twist. In July 2010 we are presented with Drug Craze 2.0 in the form of iDosing, ‘A BIZARRE new craze in which youngsters get high by listening to droning MUSIC is sweeping the internet'. iDosing, or listening to Binaural music said to elicit illicit psychological responses, has been listed by US narcotic authorities as an insidious new gateway for teens to experiment with real drugs. The regularity of these hysterical panics suggest that we, the public, love them. The prurient heart pounding scares, the tang of alienation from a gloriously hedonistic society, the schadenfreude of the irresponsible in cuffs, why do we make these stories? And what makes them so good to tell?
And here lies the fundamental problem involved in this process of interpretation and re-interpretation. On the one hand, reportage of unusual events potentially affects perceptions of their probabilities. This was, in essence, the very centre of all the satire produced by Chris Morris in the Brass Eye era. Those who castigated Peadogeddon entirely confused the target of the satire (the increasingly hysterical representation of paedophilia in the media) with an affirmation of paedophilia itself. This is the equivalent of thinking that Jonathan Swift genuinely wanted English people to eat Irish babies, rather than satirically mocking the proto-Malthusianism of his age. However, rather like a variant of George Soros’s reflexivity theory in financial markets, perceptions also lead to changes in realities.
A hysterical news story might lead to a process of prohibition of a drug or, alternatively, it might lead to a massive uptake in its intake. I myself had never heard of an iDose until I read a news story which presented it as the new danger to the young, and then immediately and quite naturally rushed off to iDose (without much effect). Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe programme had a good segment on precisely this process where it argued that media representation of mass killings such as that in Columbine High School needed to be very subtle and very calm indeed in order to limit the propensity of similar events happening again.
It is constantly the case, however, that the “end of the world is nigh” message gets greater oxygen of publicity than the “things are moderately OK” communiqué. This is particularly true where journalism forgets its vocation of reporting events that have occurred or are occurring and instead speculates on future events, particularly when that speculation is based on an awareness of probability that would be intuitively understood as insane and as ludicrously fear-mongering by a primary school child (“Santa Claus not only doesn’t exist, but he is armed with a Kalashnikov and is outside your front door”).
This addled process operates in particular through the lens of the so-called ‘war on drugs’, a war unwinnable both pragmatically and in terms of nomenclature. This is not a new phenomenon: cannabis was vilified by the William Randolph Hearst media conglomerates in large part because of his extensive forestry interests, which were potentially threatened by hemp manufacture. The precise history of illegalisation is often very arbitrary. Moreover, as Thomas Szasz argued, the criminalisation of certain drugs leads to a situation where the drug-taker is infantilised; in Szasz’s typology, they are reduced to being versions of the Freudian id, desperately searching for short-termist highs, whilst the judiciary or police are institutionalised or entrenched as the ego or super-ego.
It is not the case that all drug-taking is benign, and in a subtle piece of journalism printed as part of his book Junk Mail Will Self wrote about the complexities of decriminalisation of cannabis in Amsterdam (although it does have to be said that those complexities are heightened by the existence of the Netherlands as an island of decriminalisation with the corollary of drugs tourism). Addictions of one kind or another can be hugely damaging and destructive. One can, however, become addicted to almost anything.
Whilst it is clear that crystal meth or Chris Morris’s cake have something inherently addictive in them at a physical level, it is the case that addictive behaviour is an underlying part of certain personalities, and, moreover, a form of behaviour that often arises when other problems are not being solved in the life of the addict (whether emotional, psychological, or in terms of housing and employment and so on). In so much of the depiction of addiction in the mainstream media, the focus is upon the symptom rather than the cause; on the external manifestation rather than the underlying dynamic, and on the mass production of panic.
A key question would be what effect on brain waves a hysterical news story has – does it boost alpha waves, delta waves, theta waves? Does it stimulate our natural fight or flight mechanisms and their chemical embodiments? Is it addictive? Does a diet of scare-mongering news lead one to desire experimentation with drugs – the dreaded gateway theory?
Another aspect of this rather curious story, therefore, is the very question of what drug-taking is. The brain itself is a potent chemical factory, and listening to music is only one way in which those chemical balances are changed and in which endorphins or serotonin or dopamine levels are played with. Other activities along with iDosing that involve such transmutations include cooking or having a conversation or kissing. Moreover, the targeted use of substances or of soundwaves to transform brain waves has been an element of all human societies. Isn’t music by definition sound structured for effect?
The question is, again, not so much whether a particular substance is healthy or unhealthy in itself, but rather whether the ways in which it is consumed are beneficial to the individual and the community. One of the most notable differences between Ecstasy culture and the culture of legal drugs such as Valium is that the former tends to be taken communally while the latter is taken on a more individual basis; the former is often used to ‘get high’ while the latter is often used to keep a person functioning in the everyday. Rather than simply seeing the two as the same process, there needs to be a consciousness of ‘set’ and ‘setting’ and of the end-goals of narcotic experiences. Taking Ecstasy every morning over the cornflakes in order to cope with the daily commute is not the same thing as taking it in at a music festival. Part of the discourse in some of the iDose reportage uses the term to ‘get high’ as a pejorative and as code for degenerative behaviour. But since it has happened throughout human history, what precisely is wrong with height? Again, there is the thought experiment of what a positive news story about drug taking would be like, as Bill Hicks had it.
The other subtext to this story is the fear of the internet as a place of chaos and access to the dangerous and the Dionysian. An element within that is, of course, the uneasy relationship between overwhelmingly top-down mainstream media and the overwhelmingly bottom-up world of cyberspace. These tensions are not new, since they also accompanied the development of the printing-press, the great antecedent of the internet. At times, today, there does seem to be a curious process where the top-down mainstream media and the bottom-up web 2.0 internet world create a kind of dance of short-termism. The Raoul Moat case was perhaps one of the most bizarre, with the formation of rapid pro-Moat and anti-Moat factions.
There is, of course, an immense attention deficit hyperactivity element to all this: this is today’s latest freak or outrage, to be forgotten by tomorrow morning’s caffeine intake. The danger, however, lies in the skewed perceptions of probability and reality that can accompany these fads, and the prohibitions that can follow them. As Montesquieu said, unnecessary laws weaken the necessary ones. A rule concocted out of hype is not likely to either be enforced or enforceable, let alone enlightened.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Despite the apparent Brave New World feel of the alpha waveology of the iDose, there is nothing new about moral panics and nothing new about fears over drug-taking and, on the other side of the coin, romanticisation and glamorisation and at times fetishisation. Particularly when there is a death as a result of drug-taking, we need to follow Voltaire’s argument that to the living we owe respect but to the dead nothing but the truth. One can only imagine how much excitement a death from an iDose, whether true or fictional, would cause – but, as in all these things, a sense of proportion and detachment is a healthy one. However, being hand reared for these stories all our lives, we are as a society jonesing for our next mad hit. The wildly hallucinatory accusations, the entreaties to youth, sex & music, the priapistic moral high ground culminating in climactic feelings of potent action, promises promises. In the sober light of morning declarations of the decline and fall of western civilisation as a result of iDose apathy may prove to have been premature.
Unless of course we all happen to die of boredom first, but never fear our children’s inappropriate behaviour assures our future’s destined to be outrageous.
- Technical Explanation of Binaural Beats
- Java Applet Binaural Beat Generator
- Ray Surette (1998)Media, Crime and Criminal Justice: Images and Realities (Wadsworth Contemporary Issues in Crime & Justice)
- Gregg Barak (1995)Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime: Vol 10 (Current issues in criminal justice)
(please note: we are not affiliated with the authors of these books, however we do get a bit of money if you purchase the books via the links which goes some way to offsetting our costs, thanks.)