Thursday, April 17, 1997
An intelligent young man sits in front of the TV, clutching a PlayStation controller and screaming in horror as his alter ego crashes to his death off a pixellated cliff. He bitterly shakes his head and mumbles, ‘just one more go’.
He doesn’t want another go. He knows he should be doing creative and positive things, but instead he feels about nine years old, and part of him wants his Mum to come in and tell him to get up those stairs and tidy his room.
Hitting the Start button again is a crucial modern experience. It’s the pivotal point between enjoyment that comes from wanting to continue and enjoyment that comes from not wanting to stop. From here on, the buzz he gets is from the knowledge that he’s wasting his time and spoiling himself. You tell yourself you’ll play till you get another hi-score but you know that even if you stop then you’ll still get annoyed with yourself for not stopping earlier.
This ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’ attitude applies equally well to another 90’s phenomenon, Pringles potato snacks. Like computer games, Pringles are fine when diluted by company, but if it’s just you and the tube, you’re in trouble.
The first third of them are genuinely lovely, and you can try and decide which way round you prefer to eat them. Eat them like an ‘n’ and they fit round your tongue in a satisfying way – harmony and balance; eat them like a ‘u’ for that feeling of crushing them against the roof of your mouth – domination and conflict.
Half-way through the tube, you really don’t want any more but you imagine the licentiousness of letting yourself just finish them all anyway. Doing something so obviously unnecessary affirms, in a ridiculously tiny way, that you don’t always do sensible – you can also do reckless and spontaneous.
MTV works in the same way. You’ve enjoyed a few videos, and now it’s time to watch some real television, but you’re still there four songs later, saying ‘let’s just see if the next video’s any good’.
It might seem pathetic that much of our enjoyment from these wonderful new things comes from getting to the stage where we hate ourselves. Either we should enjoy them till we’ve had enough and then stop, or do something really spectacular if we want gluttonous overindulgence. Finishing a tube of Pringles isn’t exactly a Bacchanalian orgy.
People have always enjoyed being bad, and the ‘just one more’ syndrome has been around as long as chocolate, but the real lesson to be learned from Pringles and PlayStations is that the overindulgence they demand from us is impersonal, fleeting and mass-produced.
These epiphanies of consumerism are just shadows of real excess. Like rollercoasters, they offer cheap thrills in complete safety. We risk nothing in eating a few too many potato snacks, or playing an extra game of FIFA football, and yet we feel like we’re bold transgressors. To be really rebellious, you have to eat Pringles only until you’ve had enough. Once you pop, you can stop.
(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 17 April 1997)