The Atlas of False Desires: cynically saying that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Nathan Su, “The Atlas of False Desires” (2016)

By turns inspiring yet depressing, this 8-minute film puts forward a proposition that to save Planet Earth from destruction caused in part by mass consumerism encouraged by social media in the form of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram promoting (or not) so-called social media influencers – often young women paid (or not) to flaunt particular fashion trends of life-styles – activists must resort to using the same tactics of manipulation, astro-turfing, even trolling and fake news generation to appeal to emotion and subconscious desire and to shape opinion and behaviour. The film revolves around an Indian click farm called Desire Atlas that runs a devious IT operation to seed fake content and create a fake grassroots following about a new global fashion trend – undyed garments – through a collaborating vlogger (Bethany Edgoose, who also co-wrote the script with director Nathan Su) in order to save rivers in India from toxic chemical pollution caused by the use of industrial coloured dyes in fabric and to encourage Indian weavers in using and maintaining their traditional knowledge and skills to weave plain-coloured fabrics. The vlogger uses her Manic Monday vlog to promote the hashtag #undyed, a teenage influencer sees the pictures of models wearing clothing made of undyed fabric, believes they are for real and passes the message of a new fashion trend to her friends. Before long, major corporate clothing and fabric labels are up in arms about an apparent new global trend of fashion in undyed fabrics that has suddenly boomed out of nowhere; cyber-marketers and corporate IT employees are nonplussed as to how a trend they had no warning of could suddenly have so many followers in the millions around the world. The global clothing-dye industry collapses and rivers in India no longer carry dangerous toxins.

The message may be too simplistic but it does highlight the interconnected nature of the global fashion industry, how companies use and harvest social media platforms for trends that they can manipulate for profit, and how gullible people, influencers and influenced alike, with little knowledge of the outside world beyond their own immediate experience, can be exploited emotionally by marketing campaigns going for their jugulars. Fashion trends then spread through cyber-space like viruses – emphasises in the film with beautiful computer-generated imagery of clouds of coloured pixels exploding through space above city or country scenes – and create huge shifts in production and distribution in faraway lands, with enormous consequences in the way raw materials may or may not be chosen, where they are transported to and transformed through stages into the end product, and the impact that manufacturing generated by fashion trends can have on employment, people’s lives and cultures, and the natural environment.

In a mix of documentary and fictional drama, “The Atlas of False Desires” proposes that the same tactics that corporations use to entice people to make choices by appealing to their irrational instincts and desires can also be used to influence people to do good. The problem with this idea is that it does not challenge the underlying systems, values and ideologies on which global fashion and clothing manufacture are based. People are still being treated as passive consumers who can be pushed around and mentally brainwashed with ease. Consumerism as a way of life – and a destructive one at that – remains unquestioned. Major environmental issues are not always amenable to simplistic solutions: the health of rivers in India may depend on many factors as well as on whatever industry spews into them. And what will happen when consumers around the world tire of wearing plain clothing with no dyes? Is another trend, perhaps based on the use of natural dyes, ready to sell with the same tactics of manipulation? Suppose the target audience realises it is being manipulated – what do the well-meaning activists at Desire Atlas do then?