Today’s media and technologies have taken the media revolutions to the neurons of the world brain, and this has helped this contemporary media juggernaut to dominate and to blur our perceptions. At the same time we experience a programmed world and unfolding world in a fully sensory manner. Also, this new media has the capacity and capability to affect and effect the greatest cultural and social changes in our midst; in short, the media can foster and is fomenting a revolution and is revolutionizing both technology society into a cacophony of media savvy users, analysts and public participants. In many other ways, the media is a world-wide culture-wide dance.
Through its constant barrage and consistent repetition the modern media allows a virus to multiply into our hugely self-referential media space, and has an ability to comment on the media itself. Rushkoff says that: “The viral shell permits the memes to spread before they have a chance to be marginalized. Viruses couch themselves in irony and appeal to the objective sensibilities of the viewers. Viral shells can be understood as framing devices that force us to distance ourselves from the issues within them. This objectification of the issues allows us to understand the symbols in our media as symbols and not reality. At the same time, we are made aware of the complexities beneath apparently simple representations of our world.” In this case, a society no longer merely uses technology as a support but instead is shaped by it.
Therefore, to reiterate McLuhan as stated above, “Today technologies and their consequent environments succeed each other so rapidly that one environment makes us aware of the next. Technologies begin to perform the function of art in making us aware of the psychic and social consequences of technology. … Technology gradually creates a totally new human environment.” Today, we are being rapidly transformed and depended on the memory and psychology of the embedded technique within the fast emerging interconnected gadgets and technologies.
These new environments have us hooked to our cell phones, iPods to the extent that they have become the extensions of our selves in an interconnected internet babble and new ways of human interpersonal interconnected memes; where viruses, according to media culture enthusiast “Bill Me Tuesday”: viruses can act like a logic analyzer. As the virus goes through the operating system, it stops at certain checkpoints, doing its rounds in a given amount of time. This checkpoint will report back what the condition is.
Essentially the virus will serve as a means of creating self-repairing system…. The goal is as a self repairing, crash resisting system, similar to the way our bodies repair themselves. Biologically we are the product of thousands of microorganisms cooperating together. We can apply that kind of thinking in the computer world. We are modifying the concept of a virus to serve us. In turn, technology shaped us as we are today.
It is also important to take a brief look at the impact and effect of language in our transforming the world and how that world transformed us. There are people who believe that language is what makes us human. From the beginning of language usage to using language within and with these new emerging and merging technologies, we have created some forms of different languages in the process. Neil Postman says: “As changes occurred, human beings invented surrogate languages to widen their scope: ideographs, phonetic writing, then printing, then telegraphy, photography, radio, movies television, and computers, each of which transformed the world-sliced it, framed it, enlarged it and diminished it.”
To say of all this that we are merely toolmakers is to miss the point of the story. We are the world makers, and the word weavers. That is what makes us smart, and dumb; “moral immoral; tolerant and bigoted”.(Insert mine) The new and emerging technologies are shaping our language, our behavior and creating a deep and unshakable dependency of these new and ever changing technologies, that we are barely keeping up and are about swamped by the new gadgets and the techniques, which shape obscure our view of life and spontaneity inherent in us.
As we manipulate technologies, they in turn affect and effect us in minuscule and major ways. We then have developed a language to help us cope, vary and expand our effecting technology and it in turn transforming our every being and ways and means of communicating.
Language makes us human. We use this language as a carriage in our interrogating and interacting with life and within life. We use language to talk, sing, voice our opinions, disagreement, thoughts, intention communicate, write, and so forth, in our day to day lives. It is a complex effect one mediated by each person’s psychological makeup, social status, age, and how the individual uses the media.
The Quilt of Pretentious Diction
This language issue and usage was covered by George Orwell and we will explore what he really meant and intended to make us see and understand in depth. Given that we speak English we assume we all mean the same thing or understand each other’s meaning. Meaning therefore is ‘the import of signification’. The study of the social production of meaning from sign systems is also known as Semiotics. Meaning is a largely untheorized, although debates about the meaning of meaning are well known conversation stoppers, but it is well known that it explains how people make sense of their social world.
The media nowadays uses a lot of words, metaphors and diction designed to have a certain impact, affect and effect. Words like phenomenon, element, individual(as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate are used to dress up simply statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Sometimes adjectives like epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion.
Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, status quo are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Some average writers opt to use Latin and Greek words because they are grander than Anglo Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous are gaining ground from their Anglo Saxon opposite numbers. The normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, theorize formation.
It’s easy to make words of this kind, deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth.” Orwell goes on to note about how these words have been used, he addresses meaningless words . Orwell states that: “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.
Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, sentimental, natural, vitality as used in art criticism are strictly meaningless in the sense that they do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. … Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.
In the case of a word like democracy , not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way, Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are; ‘class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality and so on.’
Most of the political words cited above has inflamed passions and great debates on all social issues in all relevant media and mediums. It seems not to matter whether people understand or know or might ever experience either socialism, fascism and so forth,they nonetheless use them. What is of concern here is the modern usage of these words in the society and media, mostly for wrong reason and their lack of understanding of them, that creates seemingly, the confusion and talking at each other, rather than with each other.
Orwell concludes this lesson on the meaning of words thus:
“I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this,but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with decay of language. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.
“You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make stupid remarks, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to anarchist-is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. George Orwell wrote the excerpt above in 1946.”
He is merely pointing out to the meaning of words and their usage in day to day life, literature and, as I see it, in the print media and digital media. If we understand what he means by meaning and how it is conveyed, we can better understand how words are used today and what their meaning is intended to be. We always think we understand what we mean to say, since we are all speaking English, it is interesting to note that meaning can be concealed and applied within words to hide the actual meaning to the one that is meant.
Culture is a form of communication and it is also formal, informal and technical. It is important to note that mass-communication media such as the press, radio,television, computers, Internet, cell phones, twitters, Internet games and so on are instruments used to extend man’s senses. It is also important to understand and know how men read meaning into what other men think and how this type of communications impacts our world and meaning-making abilities.
Hall says: “We must learn to understand the ‘out-of-awareness’ aspects of communication. We must never assume that we are fully aware of what we communicate to someone else. There exists in the world today tremendous distortions in meaning as men try to communicate with one another. The job of achieving understanding and insight into mental processes of others is much more difficult and the situation is more serious than most of us can admit.” Most of our difficulties stem from our own ignorance.
Honest and sincere men fail to grasp the significance of the fact that culture controls behavior in deep and persisting ways, many of which are outside our awareness and beyond the conscious control of the individual. Hall advises on this issue by stating: “Man’s brain has endowed him with a drive and a capacity for learning which appear to be as strong as the drive for food or sex.” This means that when a middle-aged man stops learning, he is often left with a great deal of drive and highly developed capacities.
“If he goes to live in another culture, the learning process is often reactivated. For most Americans tied down at home,this is not possible. To forestall atrophy of his intellectual powers, man can begin learning about those areas of his own culture which have been out of awareness. He can explore the new frontier.”
Therefore, to understand other cultures, it would be better to learn about those things within ones culture that one is not aware of, and has been left out of the loop about their existence and functioning patterns.
Another thing to note is how mainstream cultural studies have given scant attention to the institutional contexts in which mass communications are produced. As we seek to rectify cultural studies and their neglect of the organizational processes of the media, we must also be cognizant and consider how the context of production — whether this can be conceived as an occupational milieu, a specific organization, an industry or the wider social relations of power in society — influences what is produced.
Importantly, it would be worth it to interrogate cultural mass communication and media to see if it is possible to differentiate between contexts of production, and the multimedia packaging of cultural goods, cultural practices and whether these promote social empowerment or subordination, either foster aesthetic innovation or traditionalism, or do they or they do maybe enhance or detract from the quality that is produced.
The best reason for the layman to spend time studying culture is that he can learn something useful and enlightening about himself. It forces one to pay close attention to those issues of life which differentiate others from yourself
Ways of Seeing and Knowing the Culture of Media
The news we receive, as numerous critics point out,is the product of organizational processes and human interaction. It is shaped by the methods used by journalists in gathering the news, the sources they draw on, and the organizational requirements, resources and policies of the institutions they work for(Fishman ’80). Usable and predictable regular copies that need to be secured, makes some journalists to be assigned to certain ‘beats’, such as town hall, law courts or legislators. This pre-cues news, encouraging activity in these areas to be reported more fully(Tuchman ’78). This also locks up journalists into a complex pattern of interaction with key sources in which information is traded for publicity(Gandy ’82) .
In a nutshell, a prior decision about the allocation of personnel within a news organization can influence what new is reported, and how it is reported. Some critics also point out that information is selected and presented as news within socially constructed frameworks of meaning(Schudson ’91). The news is signified thorough the ‘symbolic system’ of society. It draws upon assumptions and premises, images and chains of association, that are embedded in cultural tradition. The news is also structured by formats and genre conventions of news reporting, which vary in different societies and evolve over time(Schudson ’94) We can therefore view news as the product of the culture of society and industry in which it is produced and processed.
There are still some other people who see the output of the media not as a reflection of raw, unmediated realty, but rather as a social index of attitudes and feelings. Sometimes our media ca be seen and portrayed as reflecting not a common culture and unified society, but a plurality of social groups and the hybridity of individual personalities. There are those who distinguish between values and normative attitudes , or between consensus and contended opinion(Alexander ’81) Here, the argument is that the media both expresses the values and beliefs that most people in society hold in common, and also give voice to those differences of opinion and orientation that characterize a pluralist democracy.
One way in which the media may reflect change, it is argued, is to register a shift in the boundaries between these two things over time(Hallin ’94). How the media functions and disseminate news, and how culture plays a role in all this meta media of contemporary merging and emerging technologies and memes, has not changed so much, but has been enhanced and upgraded because of the addition of the Internet,which has become an extension of ourselves like our nervous system in our bodies-because we experience it on the internet, in the datasphere and cyber world: like when we are surfing, texting, twittering, emailing, blogging, posting, commenting and so forth.
Under the Umbrella of Technology
Our nation is depended-on and is controlled by technology. Even as we utilize language to media application and participation, or manipulation of these technologies and techniques, we are still not aware to the extent we need them and their impact on us; but, surreptitiously, technical gadgets and their in-build techniques, by creating dependency of the efficiency, we end up being slaves to technological gadgets, technology and technique.
We are permanently in the groove of merging with emerging technologies and technological gadgets, that in the end we are unable to separate and differentiate ourselves from them. There are psychic and social consequences of technique and technology and modern technical gadgets on our persona, culture and society.
Marshall McLuhan, in this extended excerpt put it neatly:
“The medium is the message means, in terms of the electronic age, that a totally new environment has been created. The ‘content’ of this new environment is the old mechanized environment of the industrial age. The new environment preprocesses the old one as radically as TV is reprocessing the film. When machine production was new, it gradually created an environment whose content was the old environment of agrarian life and the arts and the crafts.
“This older environment was elevated to an art from by the new mechanical environment. The machine turned Nature into an art form. For the first time men began to regard nature as a source of aesthetic and spiritual values. They began to marvel that earlier ages had been so unaware of the world of Nature as Art. Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and disregarding. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form. When writing was new, Plato transformed the oral dialogue into an art form.
“When printing was new, the Middle Ages became an art form. “The Elizabethan world view” was a view of the Middle Ages. And the industrial age turned the Renaissance into an art form as seen in the work of Jacob Bruckhardt. Siegfried Giedion, in turn has in the electric age taught us how to see the entire process of mechanization as an art process.” Today we see the modern technologies turning electricity into an art form, because through the internet, we are moving through the information age and data speed and the speed of light.
“The confusion and Babel that has transpired because of these changes of technological gadgets, technology and technique, we should not be confused and be startled; we only need to accept the fact that the new era is moving us into a new environment, and the old machines and electricity are being turned into an art form; it may be our reactions that cause the cacophony in the media, and we should not view that as confusion.
But McLuhan concluded that: “We can afford to use only those portions of them that enhance the perception of our technologies and their psychic and social consequences.” As a society under the groove and roof of current technology and techniques, we need to understand it thoroughly and completely and begin to master its cybernetics and reduce entropy in the channels.
How Technology Will Obviate Learning
Recent technological advancement framed within the context of new theories about the pivotal role of language in human evolution are decreasing the value of foreign language competency. Our confidence in technology’s ability to rebuild the Tower of Babel should remain steadfast, thanks to the newly emerging scientific theories. It is now becoming clear that language was pivotal in the early development of humanity, and where such critically exists, so do markets and business opportunity ripe for exploitation.
In his recent TED TALK, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel asserts that language was a social technology(a la Ong), that emerged out of homo sapiens’ new ability to accurately mimic anything they saw. In order to prevent this “visual theft,” language was used to protect the ideas and innovations of early human cultures from those of other competing groups. In describing this theory, Pagel elucidates this language as:
“…A piece of neural-audio technology for rewiring other peoples’ minds … it allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someones else’s mind, and they can attempt to do the same to your without either of you having to perform surgery.” These “discrete pulses of sounds” allowed homo sapiens to cooperate on levels theretofore unwitnessed on Earth. Competing species like the Homo Erectus were never able to develop language like us and remained outside of our cooperative networks (cultures). Using technology to eliminate cultural barriers and thus enhance global human cooperation is a direct descendant of these early evolutionary developments.
The Tower Of Info-Babel: Cyberspace as Alternative Universe
This is Jorge Luis Borges’ remarkable vision of the ‘Library of Babel:
“The universe [which others call the Library] is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries…. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase.
“One of the free sides leads to a narrow halfway which opens into another gallery,identical to the first and to all the rest…. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upward to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances…. The Library is a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.”
We then learn and cull from Reg Whitaker this following Historical piece:
“Given the frenetic and feverish manner in which the information revolution is being hyped, it is worth pausing to ask just what is actually involved in this revolution. The initial answer is deceptively simple. Essentially there are two closely linked technological departure points: the computer and instantaneous communication systems. Both technologies have been developing in an exponential, explosive trajectory, but it is in the fusion of computing and communications (networks), that the truly revolutionary potential lies.
Just as the capacity of the human mind to store, sort, retrieve and manipulate vast amounts of information is being enormously enhanced by means of ever-smaller, ever-faster and ever-more powerful microprocessors, the reach of individuals is being immeasurably extended through fibre optic cable and satellite communication to form ‘real-time’ networking of all computers.
This technological fusion has literally created a new world, a new space — cyberspace. Cyberspace exists nowhere and everywhere, it is a tabula rasa in the sense that it is constantly being constructed and reconstructed, written and rewritten, by the simultaneous interaction of all those networking in the medium. With Virtual Reality – which eventually will shed its clumsy apparatus of goggles and gloves for something
More akin to StarTrek’s Holodeck, an all-encompassing artificial inter-active environment — cyberspace will actually become a lived space, with its own land scape and geography, into which people will ‘move’ and inside which they will ‘act’ (and be ‘acted upon’). The discovery of such a new world, and more, a world that is apparently plastic, that can be moulded (closer to our heart’s desire), unlike the intractable and often perverse real world, bound to bring out the Faustian in those who first glimpse its expansive, seemingly limitless, contours. They stand with wild surmise upon a peak in Darien.
With Faust, let us give the devil his due. The possibilities are endless, intoxicating. Space – old-fashioned physical space, distance — already shrunk by technologies like the telephone, is finally dissolved in cyber-space. People communicate with one another without regard to physical location: communities (systems of communication can transcend not only locality but the artificial constructs of the nation and political boundaries). New languages are born out of the new forms of communication, and with them, humanity reshapes its own consciousness.~
Already, not in some speculative future, but in the here and now, cyber-space is giving birth to new, ‘artificial’ life forms. In computer labs, programs have been designed to replicate particular environments (say, an ‘ocean’) and into these environments a ‘species’ (for instance, ‘fish’) has been introduced that is programmed to adapt to changing conditions. Generations pass and adaptations are made quite independent of the original program. The fish swim about, eat, reproduce and die in cyber-space.
They are not ‘real’, they have no physical materiality, yet they behave just like ‘real’ fish, they interact with their environment, and they make something of themselves in the processing~the most recent Star Trek spinoff series, Voyager, there is a brilliant creation, the Emergency Medical Hologram, a computer program containing the most advanced medical knowledge projected holographically as a ‘doctor’ who must serve as the starship’s chief medical officer in the absence of a human doctor.
This hologram behaves remarkably like a human being when interacting with ‘real’ humans; he is self-conscious, he experiences anxiety, irritation, affection5 And why not? How does ‘real life’ differ from its ‘artificial’ replication in cyberspace, presuming only that the program is complex enough?
Of course, the Library is not really the ‘Universe,’ its architecture is not the architecture of matter: It is an analogical ‘universe’. Its shelves store information in the form of texts which contain ‘data’ that mirror or reproduce the material universe. Borges advances two axioms about the nature of the Library that he considers indisputable. The first is that it exists astern. The architecture of information is too complex and elegant to have been the product of man, the ‘imperfect librarian’. Call it
God or Nature as you please, but remember that information is about something, it is not that thing itself: But this is easily obscured when the focus shifts to what is in the Library. Borges’ second axiom is that: ‘The orthographical symbols are twenty-five in number’ (the letters of the alphabet plus the period, comma and space). This has allowed the formulation of a General Theory of the library. All books tire made up of the same elements, but in the ‘vast Library there are no two identical books’.
From these premises it may be deduced that the ‘Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols [a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite]. In other words, all that it is given to express, in all languages. Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future….’
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books , the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose elegant solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimension of hope.
Thus our own era of info hype, the unlimited promise of the great Internet (the embodiment of Borges’ Library condensed into millions of individual computer screens as-[w]windows into cyberspace, a ‘sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible’). These are no small matters. The devil’s promises are enthralling, enchanting, alluring.
No wonder s o many have been drawn by the siren’s song. But wait . . . cyberspace is not another universe into which we can escape via a magic doorway. Dream worlds exist in the minds of dreamers, who live in this world, breath air, eat food when hungry and drink water when thirsty — or not, depending upon their material circumstances. Cyberspace is a dreamed world, but the dreamers dream it through the mediation of computer hardware, fibre optic cable, complex telecommunications networks, and specific social and economic systems that support and deliver these technologies.
Cybernauts are wired, in more ways than one. There is, or at least there should be, a political economy of cyberspace. Yes, even in the free-floating delirium of this new world, the old dismal science, like gravity, drags the cybernauts back toward earth.
Some uncomfortable but unavoidable facts: most of the people of the present real world not only lack computers but even lack access to telephones. To most of the world, the Information Revolution is not even a rumor. The IBM television ads that portray “solutions for a small planet” with cute clips of people in traditional and exotic settings discussing (with subtitles) various arcana relating to the latest IBM technologies perhaps tell us more about the imperial delusions of corporate power, or about the penetration by new products of Third World elites, than about any reality of ‘solutions’ for a ‘small’ planet.
The Information Highway may be opening out like a vast autobahn across North America and Europe and the hyper-developed parts of Asia, but when it reaches into Africa and Latin America and the less developed parts of Asia, it reaches as narrow fingers into privileged islands; for much of the Third World, it simply stops short altogetherN~or is there any rational reason to think that the information revolution offers a magical solution to the endemic problems of poverty and underdevelopment.
It is rather the latest name given to the enduring and ever deepening domination of the many poor by the wealthy few. Access to the Internet is as much use to a Bangladeshi peasant as hitching a ride on the Challenger space shuttle; but it is very useful to the multinational corporations that rule the global economic system that maintains Bangladesh as a ghetto of misery.
There are similar arguments against facile idealism applicable within Western societies. A reasonably up-to-date computer clone, pirated software, modem and monthly connect charge may not represent a huge investment. Yet it excludes a great many, as does the specific context of computer culture. The result is that the Information Highway has a decidedly middle-class look. Users tend as well to be disproportionately male, white, and the other familiar categories of privilege.
Of course, over time these things may change. But just as with the case for Third World development, there are overheated notions afloat in political and bureaucratic circles (viz., the frenetic mind of Newt Gingrich) that a computer in every kitchen will somehow solve the problem of unemployment and regional economic decline.
It is, of course, out of the question that rightwing neoliberal politicians (who tend to be the ones that babble most about the transformative power of the computer) can devise and execute and pay for a vast public works scheme for actually putting the hardware and software required into the hands of the poor and the unemployed.
Unfortunately, social democrats have been equally complicit, if less utopian, in talking up the computer as empowerment. Even the limited schemes undertaken by some social democratic governments to ‘retrain’ (a mantra of contemporary capitalist crisis) redundant fishermen with no fish stocks, coal miners with closed pits, or workers with skills tied to vanishing heavy industries, via the route of imparting ‘computer skills’ quickly disclose their derisory limitations.
At best, these retrained workers hunching over their consoles have instantaneous access to the intelligence that no jobs are available. At least lining up outside the unemployment office provided some minimal human contact with others of like predicament, even if the end result is the same.
The attraction of neoliberal politicians to info babble has little to do with any notions of redistribution of wealth and power. The computer as ’empowerment’ is a wonderfully ambiguous piece of rhetoric. This ’empowerment’ offers a convenient and trendy rationale for further
Slashing the public sector.
Who needs armies of public sector workers to offer support services when former state clients have the opportunity to plug in directly? Who needs expensive capital investment in physical infrastructure and maintenance when services can be accessed on the Net? Right-wing politicians in North America who are tired of seeing tax dollars going to universities and colleges have started talking about the ‘Virtual University,’ where courses are on offer to clients (formerly called students) receiving information designed by programmers (formerly called professors) and tapping in assignments and answering exam questions, without ever leaving their home computers.
In the fullness of this vision, the entire support and maintenance staffs, most of the teaching staff and the administrative apparatus can be lopped off the public rolls, and the physical plant (formerly known as the campus) can be sold to the private sector for more productive and profitable use. This is a paradigm for other such schemes for a ‘Virtual Public Sector’ or the ‘Virtual State’. Like Virtual Reality, users allow their senses to delude them into believing that they are somewhere they are not, that they are really doing things that are not happening at all. The opiate of the masses indeed.
There is an ideology among many of today’s cybernauts, especially the Americans, that can best be described as frontier capitalism, or rugged individualism. The self-image is that of the lone frontiersman out there on the cutting edge of civilization armed with his [the gendered pronoun is used advisedly] contemporary equivalent of the six-gun, the high-speed modem. It is expressed in a powerful aversion to the traditional enemy of the frontiersman, government and its attempts to regulate and domesticate his wild energies.
Thus, there have been ferocious reactions to the clumsy attempts of the Clinton administration to impose surveillance over the Internet, from the ‘Clipper Chip’ and the embargoing of exports of various encryption programs; to the FBI’s ham-handed attempt to enforce tapping of digital communication (and make the users pay for the privilege); to censorship initiatives from various levels of government against cyberspace pornography and hate mail. These are probably reasonable responses under the circumstances, but they are also classic examples of navigating via the rear view mirror.
Neither individual free enterprise nor an aggressive interventionist state are particularly relevant to the new political economy of cyberspace. Hardware and software are produced by corporate giants like IBM and Microsoft, and the infrastructure of the Internet is currently a bone of contention between the telephone and medial cable giants. The real frontier is the commodification of information by capital. To shift metaphors, cyberspace is like the commons under attack from enclosures. The relentless emphasis in recent years on ‘intellectual property’ as a crucial element in international trade agreements points us clearly in the direction
That the so-called information revolution is traveling. The architecture of cyberspace may well look very much like the dark vision of William Gibson in his 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer that first invented the very term ‘cyberspace’: vast mysterious collections of data looming like mega-fortresses fiercely guarded by giant corporations — while the ‘real world’ wallows in urban squalor, petty criminality, violence and tawdry escapism.
Information is a resource whose relation to late twentieth century capitalism is like that of oil to the capitalism of the early twentieth century. This is not to say, as some have unwisely extrapolated, that industrial capitalism is dead. Automobiles still provide the basic means of transportation for much of the world, and oil must still be tapped to feed the voracious appetite of automobiles for fuel. Information has not displaced older resources, just as postindustrialism has not displaced industrialism.
But the computer and the new communications technologies have redefined how production and distribution take place. Mass production and mass consumption have, in the process of fulfilling their promise of growth, been transmuted. Production (including services) requires fewer workers and greater ‘flexibility,’ and mass consumption of mass-marketed goods is increasingly matched by ‘niche’ marketing of specifically targeted production.
On both sides of the equation, information and high-speed communication of that information is a crucial resource. The shift from the primary to the information-intensive services sector that is evident throughout the rich industrial nations is another indicator of this same change. Command over information and its transmission will be the key to success in the capitalist world of tomorrow.
The notion that this crucial resource will be allowed to become a public good is idealism at its most inane. Thus the cyberspace commons is enclosed as rapidly as its space expands. The advocates of ‘electronic freedom’ have their hearts in the right place but their heads in the sand. More apposite to the realities are the young freelance cyberpunk hackers who for their own fun and profit break into the dark corporate information towers that loom over the wired world.
The first (anti)hero of the first cyberpunk novel was Gibson’s Case, cyberspace cowboy who had made too many powerful enemies. Yet even these latter-day information highwaymen are themselves gobbled up by the very corporations they have successfully targeted: the electronic safe-crackers are hired on as smart high-tech security guards to keep out others and, who knows, to crack their competitor’s security as well
Already we may be moving into a new era that leaves behind the individualistic hacking frontier: organized electronic warfare employing disciplined teams of corporate hackers setting about systematically to break into or to sabotage the data banks and operational software of economic competitors may become the order of the day.
Computer viruses, first transmitted by freelancers out of malice or just for the hell of it, will increasingly be utilized as weapons targeted at specific competitive information systems (the biological warfare of cyber-space attacking the synapses of the enemy’s information economy). This is a long way from the ‘promise of the Internet,’ from the limitless vistas of information laid open to each and all who wish to browse its fields and pluck its free flowers of truth. Let us be blunt: this is a vision of Never-Never-Land, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
We should consider carefully why the promise of the Internet is such a pleasing delusion. It is not because capitalists are evil persons, or because corporations are conspiring against the public interest (both propositions might be true, but still be beside the point). Information is a product. Raw, unprocessed data is not yet information — and even that requires someone to collect it in the first instance and store it in accessible form. Already there are claimants expecting compensation for their work.
Processing data into a finished product useful to potential consumers is even greater value added. All this will be reflected in the final price. Only in the for-profit private sector are there the resources both to produce sophisticated information and to purchase the finished product on a commercially viable scale. Public sector information services were once fairly widely available on a free or relatively low-cost basis, but in this neoliberal era, market principles of user-pay, cost recovery and servicing’ clients’ have led to the virtual privatization of public sector information.
Even those once-privileged bastions of state information secrecy, the security and intelligence agencies, are flogging their information services to the highest bidders in the private sector. Governments increasingly post free information on the Internet, but this is mainly for democratic legitimation of their cost-recovery supply to the private sector: the very fact that information is Freely available is generally proof of its relatively low value as commodity.
Cyberspace will be a treasure trove of information only for those who already have treasuries to spend. For the rest of us, beneath the false promise of the Internet lies an overstuffed, cluttered, anarchically disorganized jumble of info trash so worthless that it has been discarded to lie along the sidewalks of the information highway for the casual use of anyone who cares to pick the odd item up.
As time goes by, even this litter will be cleaned up and replaced by smaller business ventures selling baubles and beads: North American television viewers have already seen the future in the Shopping Channels. Information is a valuable commodity, and it is power in the form of competitive advantage. But it is crucial to understand that information is power in a deeper sense. Ever since Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison was published in 1975, we have been alerted to the importance of surveillance as a primary mechanism of social control in the modem world.
With Foucault, the Panopticon – Bentham’s plan for a prison designed in such a way that each prisoner was under constant hidden surveillance, or what amounts to the same, would believe that he might be watched at all times — became the quintessential metaphor for a modem technology of power. Others have elaborated Foucault’s insights into a concept of the ‘surveillance society.’
This technology of power rests on the accumulation of coded information used to administer the activities of individuals about whom it is gathered. In contrast to earlier political forms, the modem state lays less stress on overt coercion to sustain its rule. Instead it favors pervasive, and penetrative administrative power, primarily through the collection, storage and retrieval of information within an administrative context of regulated definitions of tasks, functions and roles that situate individuals and groups in relation to other individuals and groups in an administrative or organizational framework.
Under a surveillance regime, people disappear into abstract, bureaucratic categories: ‘client,’ ‘customer,’ ‘taxpayer,’ ‘functionary,’ ‘law enforcement officer,’ ‘supervisor,’ ‘shop steward,’ ‘teacher’. The routinized exercise of surveillance implies coercion, but overtly involves only the marshaling of information as a means of regulating behavior. The lineaments of the surveillance state have been apparent for a long time, but the explosive advances in computer and communication technologies provide a powerful and ever-expanding toolbox of surveillance.
From the workplace to the streets to the home, people are being subjected to ever more sophisticated, ever more specific, ever more invasive, scrutiny. Although many of these technologies were initially developed through the military-industrial complexes, force-fed by the national security states during the eras of world war and cold war, they are now very much central elements of contemporary capitalism, in two main ways.
First, corporations are enhancing their surveillance capacities to increase competitiveness, both in terms of the productive process and marketing distribution.Second, surveillance is increasingly relied upon by capital in general to reduce risks and provide a more stable environment for doing business, both domestically and globally. Indeed, the privatization of surveillance has proceeded to the extent that it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about the surveillance society rather than the surveillance state.
In effect, many of the aspects traditionally associated with the state’s political rule — authoritative allocation of roles and regulation of behavior, for example — are being quietly transferred to the private sector. To look first at surveillance for competitiveness: fewer workers in more automated work environments are also more closely watched workers. ‘Smart-cards’ permit controlled entry to work places and also allow supervisors to keep electronic track of where employees are at all times. Electronically encoded identification of tools and parts not only permit better inventory control but also block employee pilfering.
Increasing use of computers as an integral part of the productive process not only enhances efficiency but also provides a cumulative and precise record of the productivity of the employees operating them, as well as of the workers that the computers are tracking. None of this need be confined to individual workplaces: global corporations carry out global surveillance of operations and employees; managers are in constant electronic touch through E-Mail, teleconferencing, etc., and their performances closely monitored and evaluated.
When we turn to the marketing and distribution side, the scope of surveillance is equally impressive. Mass marketing — which still of course continues — is a very blunt instrument, a bit like the bombs dropped from air planes in World War 11: a visual or radar sighting of the target area was made from thousands of feet in the air, the doors were opened, the bombs dumped, and the crew hoped for the best. Today’s niche marketing is more like the military’s contemporary smart weapons: the targeting is precise and the delivery is monitored and guided all the way to impact.
The key to the new smart marketing is information. Consumers are identified not as mass, undifferentiated markets, but as subgroups with very specific information about purchasing patterns and purchasing power. Data banks on consumer preferences, with information gathered from myriad sources, can be cross-referenced and specific potential customers for specific products can be identified and targeted. Mass media move from broadcasting to ‘narrowcasting’: 500 channel television via direct broadcast satellites permits a proliferation of specialized programming with specific audiences whose particular buying preferences will be sensitively accommodated by the advertisers on those channels.
Most of the data gathering goes on quite unnoticed by the targets, or is seen to be facilitating consumption. For instance, electronic checkouts at video rental shops speed up the process for customers. Few realize that information on each rental becomes part of a data profile of each customer’s preferences in films. Supply and distribution have been similarly revolutionized by the new technologies. Bar codes on products can provide instant readout of sales and inventories all the way to the factory door; readjustments and resupplies can be underway within seconds of consumer decisions recorded at checkout counters.
Surveillance as ‘risk aversion’ moves the private sector closer to the traditional concerns of the state. Credit-worthiness is a crucial entrée into the consumer society. Anyone judged a credit risk cannot hold a credit card, or borrow money for a house or car, and may even be barred from renting accommodation or transportation. Once named a credit risk, on the basis of data matching from private data banks, a process which allows little recourse for the targeted person to crosscheck the validity of the sources of the negative information, an individual may find it very difficult to get off this electronic blacklist, leading to a downward spiral in personal economic circumstances.
Insurance companies, basing decisions on data banks to which they have privileged, sometimes exclusive, access, can deny people access to insurance policies, or arbitrarily set rates at prohibitively high levels. In the case of automobile drivers in most jurisdictions, this may amount to effectively preventing someone from driving — and in many cases, from making a living.
Even more ominous is the increasing use of screening for employment: drug testing, evidence of previous legal offenses, medical problems, even lack of credit-worthiness, may be reason for denying employment or sacking an existing employee, often without appeal. Information upon which such significant decisions are made are based upon immediate access to vast data banks, many of them privately held and controlled.
Even in the case of public data banks, funded by taxpayer dollars, the subjects of the information may have little or no access to data on themselves, either because they are prohibited by law, or because only corporations with a high commercial stake can afford to pay for the added value of ordering the design of the data in forms accessible for their particular purposes. Again, in the case of public data banks, citizens often feel that these are actually helpful to them in their daily lives.
For example, ‘smart’ health cards that encode personal medical information (blood type, allergies, medications, etc.) offer holders security that they will be properly handled in medical emergencies. Less obvious is that such cards may contain credit information about health insurance coverage that could lead to being turned away at hospital doors, or worse, medical information (a history of drug addiction, for instance, or having been tested positive for certain conditions such as HIV) that may have devastating consequences for the holder in various situations. DNA banks might seem to offer protection for peaceful citizens against criminals, but what of the (admittedly very small) chance of an innocent person’s DNA sequencing matching that of an offender?
The Cold War national security state pioneered the process of security screening of broad categories of people: state employees; workers in defense and other industries of national significance; immigrants and citizenship applicants. The criteria were political: membership in the Communist party or in some other left-wing groups; association with known Communists, or past membership in alleged Communist ‘front’ organizations.
The political prejudices of conservative politicians and police were given free rein under the purportedly impartial cover of security screening — as if this were like objective screening for a disease. It did not stop there. Homosexuality was targeted as an alleged character weakness that left persons vulnerable to blackmail and thus security risks. Rabid homophobia was never far from the surface, and has in the case of the American and British military outlasted the Cold War that provided the ostensible rationale.