By Daniel Margrain
During the height of the anti-capitalist movement in 2002, I wrote a paper as part of my MA in which I said:
“The growth of new (physical) technologies allied with the development of the (virtual) media, is resulting in the revival and reworking of the classical ideal of an actively engaged and responsible citizenship. It is my contention that established media and virtual media will increasingly contest for spheres of influence in ‘cyberspace’. The extent to which one or the other establishes spatial dominance is likely to shape the nature of politics in the new century and therefore determine a new set of socio-political relationships.”
The development of new media corresponded to what Marxist geographer, David Harvey, referred to as “time-space compression” brought about by the growth in global communication networks which has its genesis as part of a concept of what became known as the “global village” – a term first coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1962. Having since become a cliche of global communications, it describes, in the loose sense, how citizens of the world who have communication tools at their command, can communicate and share interests across the world, just as they might across a village street.
More importantly, however, McLuhan claimed that the dominant mode of communication in the earlier part of the century had been written and printed. Even modes like the telegraph message and air letter were communication in print. This was formal communication typical of the hierarchical and procedurally bound societies of the time.
Conversely, in the global village, television, telephone and other electronic communication restored a formal oral culture in which informality and impermanence were the characteristics. This cut across the formal structures of existing political organisations.
The significance of McLuhan was that he anticipated the phenomena of virtuality and interactivity, the dissolving of traditional structures and patterns and the compression of time and space. One of the main technological manifestations that facilitate the latter is the growth of telecommunications infrastructure.
It is the integration of global communication networks – telecommunications, computing and media technologies – that forms the basis of the internet and ISDN traffic. From its small military beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, the former has opened up the possibility of a genuine new form of community. Over twenty years ago, John Allen and Chris Hamnett even went as far as to argue that the internet would bring about the “death of geography.”
But what McLuhan and Allen and Hamnett overestimated was the extent to which the global village would remove old hierarchies and social gradients. Correspondingly, they underestimated the ability of the new technology to reinforce existing socioeconomic patterns of inequality and structures of power.
Not only has the the new technology installed a new form of communicative apartheid as evidenced by the uneven global spread of internet hosts and web users, but the nature of this trend also gives the illusion of empowerment. In their 1997 book, The Global Media, Edward Herman and Robert McChesney are rightly critical of the notion that the growth in internet use results in the ability of humanity to leapfrog over existing forms of corporate communication, citing the internet’s rapid commercialization which functions in sharp contrast to it.
While in theory, the development of the internet is the potential catalyst for an active, responsible and informed citizenship to grow, the reconciling of technology with a democratic utopianism presupposes that those who control communications technology are politically and ideologically impartial in a way that the British state broadcaster, for example, is not.
The notion that BBC news journalists are impartial and that their role is to bring power to account, is based on a collective delusion. In Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, political scientist, Michael Parenti argues that these kinds of journalists:
“Rarely doubt their own objectivity even as they faithfully echo the established political vocabularies and the prevailing politico-economic orthodoxy. Since they do not cross any forbidden lines, they are not reined in. So they are likely to have no awareness they are on an ideological leash” (1986, p.25).
But surely establishment journalists are free to say what they want in a democracy?
In 1996, Noam Chomsky challenged the assertion made by the BBCs Andrew Marr that his views were not the product of a form of self-censorship. Chomsky said:
“I’m sure you believe everything you are saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you [Marr] wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting.”
In other words, as Michael Parenti commenting on how media bias manifests, said of establishment journalists like Marr: “[Journalists] say what [they] like because they [their proprietors] like what [they] say.”
If the internet is to successfully leapfrog over what John Pilger describes as “the best, most sophisticated propaganda service in the world”, it must free itself from the forms of control indicative of its traditional counterparts.
Launched in February, 2004, the on-line social media site, Facebook, looked like it offered a genuine avenue for alternative forms of information to flourish freely. But recent evidence uncovered by the website Vox Political points to attempts by the corporation to suppress this free flow of information (see graphic below):
According to another popular left-wing site, Skawkbox, statistics for its blog “show a ratio of around four or five visitors via Facebook for every one via Twitter. Over the last few days that has dropped to around one and a half Facebook referrals to every Twitter visitor.”
This is in line with additional analysis which suggests that new Google algorithm’s are restricting access to other left-wing progressive web sites.
The question of whether the cultural globalization of virtual space will result in the homogenization and neutralization of public and political discourse in similar ways that have befallen the traditional media, is likely to depend on the extent to which it is subject to the same distorted relations of economic power. For a liberal democracy like the UK that boasts about its plurality, the signs do not appear to be encouraging:
“Frank Beacham who enthused about the internet as a public sphere outside of corporate or government control in early 1995, lamented one year later that the internet was shifting ‘from being a participatory medium that serves the interests of the public to being a broadcast media where corporations deliver consumer-orientated information. Interactivity would be reduced to little more than sales transactions and e mail.” (Herman, E. & McChesney, R. (1997) ‘The Global Media’, p.135).
The implication is that the nature of the new, as with old, media content is implicitly and explicitly determined or influenced by advertising and commercial values. A key issue relates to whether information that is not influenced by the above factors is freely accessible in other forms. The main problem with liberal democracies is not necessarily that information is unavailable to the public, or that voting procedures, for example, are too cumbersome, rather it is the public’s lack of scepticism and desire to root out the facts (See for example, Hirschkop, K. in Capitalism and the Information Age, 2000).
The spread of the internet in such a situation, therefore, increases the access to far more information that would otherwise be the case with traditional forms of media. But access by itself is not the principal problem. Knowledge is not the base of its authority but its instrument. It is within this context that new media is unlikely to prove qualitatively different from the old. However, it is by its nature, likely to alter our perceptions of political space, relations to power and historical forms of rule.
In terms of production networks, global media output and global multinational capital both need technology in order to expand, just as much as technology needs multinationals and governments to globalize spaces of capital and new media through economic liberalization. Thus, globalization, technology, new media and the dominant relations of economic power are inter-connected. Moreover, as Robert McChesney asserts, these factors are reinforced by an uneven balance of power for the benefit of corporate-media political culture:
“A market dominated political economy tends to produce exactly such a political culture, to some extent because commercial penetration tends to undermine the autonomous social organisations that can bring meaning to public life…A capitalist society works most efficiently when the bulk of the population is demoralized and effectively depoliticised…As the Financial Times put it, ‘capitalist democracy can best succeed to the extent that it is about ‘the process of depoliticising the economy.’ The global commercial media are integral to this depoliticization process” (1997, pp.16-17).
Whether virtual space can bring about a new democratic polity based upon notions of social, economic and political justice, will depend on whether networked technologies are able to break free from the grip of the distortions that reflect the overriding interests associated with traditional forms of media proprietorship.
Ultimately, new media is shaped by the ideology of power, not democracy. In the context in which a Guardian editorial recently argued that “censoring the internet is necessary”, and a mainstream media which historian Mark Curtis contends, “keeps the public in the dark about virtually every important current and historical policy”, the stakes could hardly be higher.
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The film works as a satire because the community in which Truman lives his fake existence is very much tied into a corporate dominated world in which the notion of illusion and reality are often blurred. ‘Product placement’ and testimonials for this emerging system of entertainment-marketing capitalism are being seamlessly woven into our lives.
Truman’s quest for freedom can be interpreted as the aspiration for authenticity and meaning within a world in which the increasing commodification of all things is a feature of modern life. Was Weir on to something? Is the world in which Truman inhabits more than just a piece of science fiction allegory?
Molded into a desired pattern
Every institution provides the people who are members of it with a social role – that’s as true to the role played by say, the church, as it is to the corporation whose goal it is to maximize profit and market share. Capitalism could not function if it were not for the fact that individuals are disassociated from both the products of their labour and from one another. Just like the God figure, Christof, public relations and advertising industries facilitate the process of disassociation by molding people from a very early age into a desired pattern.
To achieve this, corporations don’t necessarily advertise products, but advertise a way of life and a narrative of who we are as people. The aim is to persuade the masses that the corporation is virtuous, responsible for the good life and the belief that the future can only be better than the present; that modernity itself means human improvement. However, the contradictions inherent to capitalism are such that progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life. The function of corporate branding is to persuade us that the ideology of progress will offset the decline in societal and environmental well-being.
Many corporations have already recreated their branded visions as three dimensional representations of real life with this aim in mind. A company like Disney, for example, have taken this logic to the next level by building a “town” in the image of their brand – Celebration Florida – which it describes as a “unincorporated community of almost 8,000 people, situated on 11 square miles of carefully engineered Floridian swamp.” The brand image of Celebration Florida is a themed all-American family friendly privatized branded cocoon set within a bygone era – the real life Seahaven.
Given that relations mediated between human beings increasingly appear to be the function of the commercial world, could the Utopian Celebration Florida model become a commonplace vision elsewhere? Moreover, can civilization survive on this narrow definition of how humans interact with one another?
The real-life experiences many of us engage in on a day-to-day basis, embodied in atomized living and the increasing engagement with virtual reality and robotics, is arguably closer to the allegorical fantasy of the Truman Show than many people are perhaps prepared to admit. Just as Christof wove product placements into dialogue and scenes as part of Truman’s constructed reality, the same processes form part of the marketing tools available to professional marketeers who weave product-placements into our everyday real lives.
Professional marketeer, Jonathan Ressler CEO of Big Fat Inc. concedes that “real life product placement is just that – placing stuff in movies but the movie is actually your life.” In other words, it’s already the case that people are being subliminally targeted with branding by undercover marketeers on a daily basis. Ressler elaborates on these themes in the documentary film, The Corporation. He claims that the public are subject to an average of eight or nine subliminal marketing messages a day and they therefore effectively act as brand bait and soundbites of knowledge for corporations.
According to Ressler, it’s fine if the masses want to be critical by cynically challenging the motive behind every human exchange, but adds that if the corporations “show you something that fits and something that works that makes your life better in some way, who cares?…Just say, thanks!” The implication seems to be that if an uncritical and undemanding public are happy with the commercial ‘comforts’ that the corporation is able to provide them and their families with, then logically there is no reason for people to want to absolve themselves of these comforts.
Familiarity and reassurance appears in some way to be hard-wired into the human psyche. This probably explains why, for example, many people who travel or settle in foreign lands tend to congregate and surround themselves with others of similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds.The corporate marketeers are thus able to exploit this situation for their own commercial ends.
Just as Christof sought to discourage Truman from leaving his inauthentic existence in Seahaven by warning him of the dangers that exist in the real world compared to the life of safety constructed for him, so it is that Celebration Florida spokesperson, Andrea Finger, is able to promote a highly successful Disney brand predicated on the notion that it “speaks of reassurance, tradition and quality.”
There’s an interesting Truman site by Ken Sanes who says the Truman Show tells us that “if we want to be free and have a chance at an authentic life, we will have to distance ourselves from the safety and comforts of our media-saturated culture and be willing to live in the world as it is”. This brings into sharp focus the contesting nature of authenticity; of identity and representation and what constitutes democratic urban space and its relation to forms of state power. I discuss these issues in more detail here and here.
Authentic spaces or corporate landscapes of power?
More broadly, the public’s perception of what constitutes an authentic space is often tied to what use the state puts them to. The line between private and public spaces in which large parts of towns and cities have been hollowed out, is becoming increasingly blurred. London’s Canary Wharf, Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City, for example, are public places now governed by the rules of the corporations who own them. Other privatized public zones in Britain include Birmingham’s Brindley place, a significant canal-side development, and Princesshay in Exeter, described as a “shopping destination featuring over 60 shops set in a series of interconnecting open streets and squares”.
Ultimately, corporations are shaping elements from the landscape of cities and towns and re-packaging them under the banner ‘urban renaissance’ predicated on place promotion and development with culture, heritage and conspicuous consumption in mind. The real life Disney Celebration Florida model that literally could have been borrowed from the fictional Truman Show, represents the apex of this concept. In her book Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin quotes a Disneyland planner:
“We carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements…Disney succeeded on the basis of this totalitarian image-making, projecting the collective desires of the powerless into a corporate landscape of power.”
Is this kind of privatized and sanitized Disney- Truman Show-type environment the kind of model for society we ought to be encouraging planners to move towards?
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