Monday, September 21, 2009

I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Western Society Gets Nerfed

In multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, the word Nerf is a verb meaning “to make weaker or less dangerous.” The idea being that all things made by NERF, a division of Hasbro, are soft and reasonably harmless. Even the name NERF stands for Non-Expanding Recreational Foam. So when I say that Western Society has been Nerfed, I’m drawing a comparison between the level of consumer protection and the idea of wrapping something in soft foam.

To wit: my Scrubbing Bubbles automatic shower cleaner. It’s fairly innocuous – it’s a battery-operated unit that hangs from your shower head and, at the push of a button, sprays shower cleaner all over the inside of your tub or stall. The unit and its instructions contain some helpful warnings for users, such as admonitions not to get the batteries wet or to immerse the portion of the unit that contains the motor. It doesn’t warn you to be sure that the well under where the bottle sits is completely empty before inserting a fresh bottle, but the first time I got a face-full of cleaner while installing a new bottle I learned my lesson.

But one message that’s printed right on the front of each bottle of cleaner struck me as symbolic of the Nerfing of western society. It clearly states that the product is “Not a body wash.” That’s right, the bottle of shower cleaner warns users that it should not be used in lieu of soap. And I wonder – why is such a warning necessary? Possibly because somebody at the manufacturer tried to think of all possible problems and develop suitable warnings as part of an aggressive risk-management campaign. Possibly, but I suspect that a simpler answer is more likely – somebody was discovered to have been (mis)using the product in this fashion and the warning was added. Because we’re used to having somebody hold us by the hand at every possible step throughout our day. We’re used to having all of our sharp and pointies wrapped in foam so we don’t get pinched. We’re used to having warnings on everything, including “Coffee may be HOT” just in case it had somehow eluded the average consumer that hot coffee is, indeed, hot. We’ve even begun to drive small hand-crafted toy manufacturers out of business by subjecting their products to destructive testing. That’s to insure that they’re not lead-infused garbage like the stuff we get from China.

I think the “politically-correct” movement is an offshoot of this, as well. Let’s be sure that everything we say is so innocuous and harmless that nobody could possibly be offended by it.

On Friday, the new Bruce Willis movie Surrogates is released, and while the premise is a bit far-fetched, I’m convinced that people would really go for it if it were possible. In Surrogates, everybody stays at home in special chairs that connect them to their mechanical counterparts. They send their surrogate alter-egos out into the world to experience life for them, relaying every sensation back to them as they sit safe and sound in their chairs. The result – all the fun, none of the risk. Part of the premise is that no serious harm done to a surrogate is transmitted to its human owner. If a surrogate is dismembered or killed, the human just has it repaired or gets a new one – no harm done. The ultimate Nerf, if you will. I’m anxious to see the movie, but I’m not quite as anxious to see to what further extent our society will be padded and cushioned and de-toothed in an effort to protect everyone from anything that they might find harmful. And I wonder, too, what the result will be? Will the pendulum swing back to a less risk-averse, daring society, or will we continue to insulate ourselves and inoculate ourselves against every physical and mental trauma that we’re likely to experience, all in the interest of either fostering a sense of true and unswerving safety, or avoiding any potential for litigation? I don’t know, but don’t taze me, bro.

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