Radiohead’s OK Computer is turning 21 this year. The album has enjoyed a renaissance of late, finding more relevance in a tech addicted society. It was ostensibly about travel, and the alienation of transportation modes that take you far away from home. But what started as a rock band’s tour bus angst has become a vivid landscape of our lives, constantly connected, disconcertingly illuminated in bed, at night, by the eerie blue light of our smartphones.
OK Computer is one of my favorite albums. To my young millennial mind, it is an all-time great, because it has stood the test of time for most of my sentient years. It has withstood a generational shift, and tectonic movements in communication technology. Yet like all truly great works of art, it has found relevance well beyond its years. As great as other seminal-late-90s-albums like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and Loveless are, I don’t think they match prescience of OK Computer. As Pitchfork said, Radiohead predicted the future, before Microsoft acquired Hotmail, before the internet was mainstream, and decades before smartphones.
My favorite song on the album isn’t really a song though. It’s a spoken word poem, called Fitter, Happier, More Productive. The poem is recited a machine transpiled voice, that of an Apple 2. The Apple 2’s machine narration didn’t have Siri’s sassy personality. Fitter, Happier is robotic, monotonous, desensitized.
The disaffected words are an anthem to the impossibility of better living standards. Radiohead’s lead singer, Thom Yorke, said that the song was inspired by all the ways that people were supposed to live in the 1990s. “An informed and upstanding member of society”, “not drinking too much”, “no saturated fats”, “regular exercises at the gym”, and so on. The words are read to a dissonant electric drone in the background sound in the background, sounding a little like one of those white noise machines that people use to fall asleep. A haunting piano plays as well, deep in the mix, making these warm and fuzzy slogans to a better life (“Still cries at a good film”) sound hollow, far away, and alone.
How many people can live their lives this way? What happens when you try to live your life by those dictums? Indeed, who is asking you to? What self-help guru’s religion should you follow to become a fitter, happier, more productive version of yourself?
The 2018 manifestation of this seems to be blogs like Lifehacker, or books like Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. These books, blogs, and podcasts, have inundated us with ways to hack our lives. The Four Hour work week promises to release you from the burden of the 9–5. Ramit Sethi promises to make you rich, giving you the freedom to do what you want. The Rock’s alarm clock will wake you up at 3:30 AM, the optimal time to get your candy ass to the gym so you can begin clangin’ and bangin’, and presumably start to look a little bit like him if you don’t herniate every disc in your back before then. Even the New York Times has gotten in on the act with its Smarter Living section.
Productivity porn sells. But why are we all buying?
I went through a long phase where I gobbled up every one of these books. And I oscillated from one routine to the other, trying to optimize my life. I read that most great CEOs wake up at 4:30 AM, hit the gym, meditate, and somehow get more done before breakfast than most of us do during an entire day. “I’m a CEO!”, I thought to myself, with a self-congratulatory pat on the back. “I should probably be doing that too.”
And so I tried. I set an alarm for 4:30 AM, slept in my workout clothes… did everything to change my external environment to set me up for optimal success. And on day 1, I snoozed my alarm for 3 hours, woke up feeling anxious and frustrated, and was grumpy all day long because I hadn’t slept well, and I had failed. I tried again the next day, and just got even more grumpy. Through the day, grumpy me played an endless narrative in my head — that I’m not good enough. I’m supposed to be a CEO damnit, how can a CEO not wake up at 4:30 AM!
All the productivity pornographers will argue that I didn’t do it right, and that these life changes should happen gradually. They’re correct. I probably should have eased into it — made these changes over one month, should have started small, gotten small wins and all of that. But I had failed somehow, and I was failing at living my life better.
So I read a few more books, tried to optimize my night time routine with the sleep masks, blue light glasses, a warm glass of apple cider vinegar with honey(1)… and then the damned snooze button, the devil, the shaitan, tempted me again. My routine wasn’t getting any better, and I wasn’t making my life more productive.
All I was really doing to myself was feeding my own inadequacy. Those feelings of inadequacy are what led me towards consuming all of this productivity content in the first place. And I think that’s why it sells — productivity porn preys on our constant insecurity. It induced in me a sense of 24×7 performance anxiety, performance anxiety that wasn’t helped by the occasional social media post from a friend who successfully ran a marathon or climbed Everest or something equally amazing.
I’m not the first person to call this productivity porn, but I use the words very deliberately. Pornography creates unrealistic fantasies of sex — men with 8 inch penises, stamina to satisfy an entire harem of women, all of whom are literally dripping all over him(2). This isn’t real life. But for the generation whose sex-ed was primarily Pornhub, this is our normal. It’s what we think average sex should be like.
For my part, when I see luminaries like Tim Ferriss supposedly performing optimally all day long, I look at my average days, and my average performance at tasks, and I feel like I’m failing.
Stepping back from it all, the underlying consumerism is disgusting. One of my favorite quotes from Mad Men comes from one of the early episodes — “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”. The quest for better living is another example of how much our desires are shaped by aspirations that exist for consumerist reasons. People are just trying to sell us more stuff. We’re constantly told what we should want — Lifehacker tells us that we should have more control over our lives, and by corollary, unless we’re reading their blog everyday to find the fastest technique to skin potatoes, we’re not doing it right.
The mindfulness industrial complex is a great example of our market driven desires. Yoga and meditation, two practices rooted deeply in spiritual praxis, have become buzzwords that marketers can use to sell more stuff.
Meditation apps constantly tell us that we’re living in an era of constant distraction, and our lack of focus is causing us to be unhappy. The solution of course, is to pay for a Headspace subscription, so that your personal guru is now an app, and it’ll set you on your course for a better life. Meditation is now one of the practices that Silicon Valley has adopted into their encyclopedia of lifehacks.
At least with meditation, one can argue that there are definite benefits to the practice, regardless of how or why you start it. It’s definitely a good thing that people are meditating.
Yoga pants on the other hand — zero value! Lululemon is a brand that I dislike with a particular passion, because of the very existence of the phrase yoga pants. Why is the word yoga in there? People did (and still do) yoga for hundreds of years in pajamas, and their glute muscles survived just fine; plus they prevented their frilly underthings from being exposed to the pervy sod behind them. The only reason why the word yoga is in that phrase is because it sells. Put on those pants, and you can be a yogi, at Zen with the rest of the world, capable of using timeless words like Shambala in a sentence. It sells, because it is an aspirational lifestyle that seems to be the anodyne to our harried modern lives(3).
Advertising is designed to create aspirational desires. 1960s cigarette ads told you that lighting up one of those cancer sticks makes you cool. Axe deodorant somehow makes men sexy, women now drawn like bees to honey. Starbucks gives you a third place of belonging, away from the home and the office, with the warm smell of coffee and factory produced croissants. Productivity porn promises a better version of ourselves(4).
For all human beings, getting a sense of time and perspective on issues is difficult. It always feels like the current issue is the most important one. Or that what we’ve got right now is unique in some way. Most people attribute this to millennial self-importance; that might be true, but I think it happens because of the communication technology that we primarily use. News cycles and attention spans are much shorter, so everything must be amplified to grandiose importance just to get us to pay attention. We lack a sense of context.
Perhaps we fall into the same trap with issues on a more personal scale. I certainly do; each mistake I make somehow has grand significance to the rest of my life. Of course, by the next week, I move on to the next mistake, losing any perspective I could have gained(5).
But good art can fill in this perspective gap. Good art serves to remind us of the emotions at a certain snapshot of time, giving us the missing context that we need. Good art can remind us of the place that our emotions have in the larger scheme of the universe. And usually, that place is much smaller than we realize.
Anytime I slip into my phase of personal inadequacy, OK Computer helps me remember that these emotions are not unique. They’re a part of the human existence, and they don’t have the grandiose importance that I sometimes assign to them. And I’m not the only person to have experienced these issues. Others have felt this way in the past, others too have struggled with living by the complete keys to progress, and those people survived life just fine. Fitter, Happier, More Productive, reminds me that things will be okay, and I’m not alone.
Footnotes and bad jokes
 I realized really late in the process that you’re supposed to dilute this concoction with water.
 Literally is an interesting word to use in this context, yes.
 Yes, they’re very comfortable from what I’m told, but the point remains. Selling them as “comfortable pants” doesn’t sound very aspirational does it? Who aspires to be comfortable?
 Or we’re being told to desire; another great quote from Mad Men — “Is that true, or did that come from an ad?”
 Inevitably, I also forget the mistake I made — losing both perspective and knowledge!
 I got all these images from Pitchfork’s fantastic feature here: https://pitchfork.com/features/ok-computer-at-20/10028-twelve-visual-artists-interpret-the-12-songs-on-radioheads-ok-computer/
Further reading and sources of unconscious plagiarism
Pitchfork did a fantastic series of coverage on OK Computer’s 20th anniversary. You can read all the articles here: https://pitchfork.com/features/ok-computer-at-20/10040-the-radiohead-prophesies-how-ok-computer-predicted-the-future/
Brandon Forbes and George Reisch authored a fascinating book called Radiohead and Philosophy. The book takes its subtitle from the song that is the subject of this post! It is a little academic, but if Kant and Hegel excite you, it’s a great read. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Radiohead-Philosophy-Happier-Deductive-Popular/dp/0812696646