The Shape of Truth to Come: New Media & Knowledge

Chris Carlsson on new media and networking technology, in 1994.

Everything we know about entertainment and the forms it takes as "product" is up for grabs. The categories that seem so "natural" to us like TV, radio, albums, books, magazines, movies, videos, are rapidly converging into one large digital data stream. Those earlier forms won't completely disappear, but all will be altered by their new interchangeability as data, and new combinations will become common. Central to this process is the convergence of changes in form and delivery system, from the much-touted arrival of "interactive" media to the frenzy of corporate and legal deal-making regarding the delivery of digital signals to your home or business via phone and/or cable.

Beneath the media world lies our perceptual framework, and with the new media may come new ways of knowing what we know. How did our sense of life and society change at earlier times of upheaval in "communications technology," like in the transition from oral to literate cultures? Literacy certainly contributed to the downfall of many a dictator and monarch, but it also brought with it certain assumptions that strongly influence our imaginations. Marshall McLuhan argued that the subtle effects of the medium of knowing influences what we can know. Knowledge, when constructed from "straight rows of exactly repeatable, individually meaningless units of type, is an amazingly close analogue of, and perhaps the model for, the specialized industrial society in which an entire economy is assembled out of small bits of individually owned private property --including intellectual property."1

Any metaphor can be taken too literally, but clearly something as invisibly "natural" as the alphabet imparts deep assumptions about how the world around us is structured, or more accurately, how we humans structure that world. Anyway, the subversive possibilities of literacy per se have long ago exhausted themselves. Seeing the world through literate eyes, as a large part of the world's population does, has not in itself led to a richly engaged and informed public, even though books and information are relatively easy to acquire. Literacy provided the "operating system" and the logic for the advanced developments in communications technology by establishing the basis for a technologized culture and by shaping our conception of knowledge. The simple truth no longer holds the same weight as it once did, and it never seems "simple."

The critical consciousness of an active literate (still pretty rare, after all) has been outflanked by the active shaping of "reality" by mass media. Of course there could be no TV without literacy, but the represented world of television, reinforced by radio and newspapers, establishes and shapes reality in ways that the printed word only aspired to, but could never achieve alone. After centuries of gradually expanding literacy and nearly a hundred years of public schooling, our minds have been shaped to believe what we see. As photography, film and TV became commonplace, our "natural" instinct to believe what we see created a society perfectly suited to "blind" allegiance to a carefully manufactured "reality" of images. The roots of this manipulability are clearly visible in the successes of yellow (print) journalism around the turn of the century before the arrival of the "more real" radio or TV.

If the demise of the Soviet empire heralds the end of the 20th century, it also marks the victory of the system of order advanced in the U.S. and pockets throughout the world, a system called the "integrated spectacle" by the French Situationist writer Guy Debord:

"The society whose modernization has reached the stage of the integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal features: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present... Once one controls the mechanism which operates the only form of social verification to be fully and universally recognized, one can say what one likes. The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed, and believed, precisely because that is the only thing to which everyone is witness. Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once, or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte, in its own space or any other."2

PREDATORY PRUNING IN THE CORPORATE GARDEN

Corporate giants have recently been observed tying the knot in frenzied cross-industry deals, getting married to stake a claim in the much-anticipated "new media universe" (I'll just call it media-verse). The old TV networks, Microsoft, IBM and Apple, TCI and Time Warner, the New York Times and USA Today, the baby Bells and AT&T, QVC and the Home Shopping Network, not to mention all the smaller local interests, have all joined the battle. Vast fortunes will be wasted and a few will survive and grow. And when the dust clears there should be, according to all the analysts, a media industry straddling the globe comparable to the mid-20th century auto and oil giants.3

As media giants compete across the planet to control the airwaves, the univocal, self-referential spectacular society will have to change its spots. While we watch and throw an occasional stone, the system will try to exploit regional differences even while promoting a new less Euro- or Yankee-centric "objectivity". CNN against ABC against BBC against TV GLOBO against NHK, etc. will supposedly demonstrate the "freedom of the airwaves." Competition will be emphasized to obscure the essential sameness and increasingly homogenized package of modern life, a package which is paradoxically very different from the lives of most people.

We can expect the approaching international network television system to promote a new global citizenship. How shall we counter this bogus citizenship, this pathetic acquiescence to a corporate agenda? What would an anti-capitalist, positive and humane version of such "citizenship" consist of in the post-modern world? Can "global citizen," or "international proletarian," or any new global identity arise to undermine the untrammeled power of multinational capital? Multinational corporations will spend billions to define a "desirable" way of life, ideologically reinforcing "globalism" the same way national capital has historically reinforced nationalism. Global broadcasting will surely intensify the already advanced process of creeping monoculture, leading to the final airport-ization and enclave-ization of reality for the haves, while the have-nots remain unseen and unnoticed, except as panhandlers and occasional rioters.

They'll try to get us to pay for this new media-verse, too. Unless we can revolutionize how we use these technologies_along with the society we create together_they'll invent yet another payment scheme: by the minute, by the product, by the digital size (KBs), subscriptions and access fees, TV-shopping taxes, there are so many possibilities! We can't play unless we pay, as usual, unless the easy duplicability of digital information finally destroys all attempts at ownership and payment schemes.

It is possible that our certainty of the private origin and rightful ownership of ideas will erode as we freely access bits of many writings through new electronic libraries. Someday we'll know that the global reservoir of scientific and technical knowledge belongs to everyone equally, since it is a product of the complex web of human history. Doug Brent argues that:

"The metaphorical meaning of print technology is isolation, not communality. In particular, the ability to claim one's particular share of the intertextual web, and stamp it with one's own name_an ability made possible by the same printing press that made widespread cumulation of knowledge possible as well_suggests that knowledge is individually owned. I believe that computer mediated communication provides a totally different metaphorical message...that takes theories of collaborative knowledge and ... stamps them indelibly in the consciousness of the entire society... With electronic communication the notion of the static and individually owned text dissolves back into the communally performed fluidity of the oral culture... Document assembly becomes analogous to the oral poet boilerplating stock phrases and epithets into familiar plots... it becomes obvious that originality lies not so much in the individual creation of elements as in the performance of the whole composition."4

ORALITY & LITERACY

"Oral, non-literate cultures are 'verbomotor' cultures in which, by contrast with high-technology cultures, courses of action and attitudes toward issues depend significantly more on effective use of words, and thus on human interaction, and significantly less on non-verbal, often largely visual input from the 'objective' world of things... Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates." --Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, (Routledge: 1982)

Imagine life without books, magazines, packaging, signs, TV, radio, boomboxes, et al. Kind of hard, isn't it? What was "in" the pre-literate mind? How did it construct knowledge? What did it make of time and space?

Before writing and before alphabets, human society depended entirely on speech and song to establish and maintain knowledge, often in the form of lengthy, elaborate sagas. Ong argues that in oral societies, knowledge wasn't owned, it was performed. "Without print, knowledge must be stored not as a set of abstract ideas or isolated bits of information, but as a set of concepts embedded deeply in the language and culture of the people."5 Oral cultures strive to conserve knowledge, largely through the repetition of elaborate allegorical tales with stock phrases and communally recognized characters, roles and concepts (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are examples). With no place to turn to "look something up," humans depended on wise individuals, often the elders who had years to develop and polish their story-telling skills, to maintain and transmit what was known.

Intellectual experimentation was distrusted, since the important goal was to preserve what was known rather than trying to challenge and undermine it with new ideas. The oral society maintained a heightened awareness and focus on what we call the "present." Changes in life were reflected in changing episodes in known stories. What was remembered gradually and seamlessly changed to meet new situations.

Accompanying the move from an oral to a literate human culture is the demotion of sound as the primary medium for experiencing knowledge. Sound, whether voice or ambient noise or music, surrounds you in a way visual input doesn't. As thinking about something written becomes more common, fragmentation of consciousness, specialization and complex analysis, become possible in ways that aren't in oral societies.

The "natural" separation between knowledge and the knower which permeates our literate, technologized culture, couldn't even have occurred to an intelligent, "well-educated" mind in a pre-literate society. Learning, understanding and wisdom were by definition socially developed and shared_thoughts and wisdom only existed as sound, disappearing as soon as uttered unless repeated. Oral people didn't have a sense of time like we accept today. There were seasons and weather and most cultures had holidays during the various times of year, but there weren't dates, hours, clocks, and so on.6

Literacy made it possible to record thoughts, examine, debate and revise them, which soon gave greater power to the masters of the newly technologized word. Among the earliest uses of writing was to control legal codes and to account for business. As market relations inexorably spread through imperial conquest and subjugation, literacy went along, too. Literacy, based on visual linearity, after centuries has narrowed what we value as knowledge, and hence what we experience. Even though we have more and deeper knowledge about the world than pre-literate, oral cultures, our civilization is astonishingly barbaric. The everyday communality and ability to live much more cooperatively, present in many oral societies, would be a welcome antidote to the isolation and anomie of modern daily life.

INTERACTIVITY TO THE RESCUE?

Interactive entertainment is a glorified system of multiple choice. The new hype about interactivity suggests certain appetites or consumer demands are being felt. Now, all-new interactive entertainment comes along to assuage the loneliness of modern life, but actually ends up reinforcing it! Capitalist society brutalizes itself with the fear and doubt of "economic necessity." People react by becoming more machine-like. Interactivity promises to give you what you've lost as you found your place in society. You and those around you are bored and boring, but interactive entertainment will let you control beautiful people doing beautiful things, with no backtalk or guff.

I admit I was intrigued at first. But it was hard to imagine a finely-tuned, labor-intensive creative product with gaping holes left for a naive user to come in and add whatever they wanted. Sure enough, existing interactive CD-ROM products are either encyclopedic databases with photos, text and occasional videoclips, or they are elaborate games with numerous hidden clues and buttons that you must overcome to get to the next level or scene. Todd Rundgren is among a smattering of musicians who are publishing music CDs with uses from straight-ahead listening to mix-and-match your own tune with provided elements.

Will the rise of "interactive" TV mean more toggling, more pulp fiction, more brain-dead hours of "entertainment?" Are there really a bunch of people out there who want to do a lot more than just switch channels until they find something they can "veg out" in front of? Interactive programming will have to be able to deliver specific consumer market segments to advertisers, of course. Interactivity and artificial environments ("virtual reality") will attract a share of the entertainment consumer dollar. How much depends on what the experience can really deliver. If it ends up being a wax-museum trip through Polygon Hell, it will never catch on. But if you can "attend" various historic moments, places, events, and "be there" in true 360 degrees live animation, that could be pretty addictive.7

Some boosters argue that interactive programs can stimulate a renaissance in education, overcoming the archaic forms of learning still relied on in most schools. A great deal of public school is really awful, so it's easy to imagine a new series of techno-fixes being well-received by students and faculty. But the issues of education go a lot deeper (see Processed World 31).

Interactive entertainment is a hollow promise. Entertainment is bad enough already, but to structure it so you have to work to enjoy it_forget it! True interactivity is what can happen between human beings, genuine subjects, individuals with the unique quality of being able to find a near-infinite range of responses to any situation, as well as the ability to imagine completely new possibilities not yet anticipated. Any interactive program or game today is a closed loop in which all the possibilities have been thought of and planned for; your "job" is to try to gain access to them. With a "friendly" interface, your work seems like play, and the time computing seems really fun and just a big game after all. But the interaction, or interactivity, is the means to personalize and enhance your participation in image consumption. By providing limited choices, interactivity mimics the false control offered over work by self-management and workers' participation schemes, wherein workers decide how to accomplish the business' mission, but, crucially, not what the mission is.

The free communication spaces that we have now (e.g. Internet, public access TV, etc.) are already overwhelmingly uninteresting. Human community ("interactivity") is already extremely weak. The whole notion of public opinion has turned into an easily manipulated series of statistical non-sequiturs. "Unanswerable lies have succeeded in eliminating public opinion, which first lost the ability to make itself heard and then very quickly dissolved altogether." (Debord)

The wide expansion of channels and bandwidths along with easy, cheap two-way and conferencing capabilities could promote horizontal communication in ways that undercut the univocal, self-referential voice of the dominant society. But the Spectacle could also continue to absorb every social expression and movement into its underlying logic of buying and selling. The advent of TV shopping and online services expands the reach of market relations a notch or two further. Perhaps the loss of public space has driven the dreamers into cyberspace, with the only thriving "public" communities existing on bulletin boards, hence the enthusiasm for new media in projects of social liberation. But what about the large majority of the population that has simply been closed out of any contact with this world?

RECONNECTING THE CIRCUITS

"In this world which is officially so respectful of economic necessities, no one ever knows the real cost of anything which is produced. In fact the major part of the real cost is never calculated; and the rest is kept secret." [Debord]

Dissenting views are virtually invisible in mainstream America. Broadcast television, malls and airports comprise "public space" for most people, and have produced a life where "...images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individual's principal connection to the world he formerly observed for himself...[it is] a concrete experience of permanent submission." [Debord] This submissive way of life needs us to doubt the reality of our own experiences. It feeds on that doubt and constantly reassures us that the representation of life is "more real" than life itself.

If you doubt the existence of the Spectacular society, why is immediate, lived experience routinely dismissed by millions when it diverges too far from the official, received story? For example, the sustaining energy of the anti-Gulf War demonstrations in U.S. cities was in part drained by trivializing, limited media coverage. 100,000 San Francisco anti-war protesters were just another "opinion" alongside 300 pro-war protesters in the 'burbs. The great power of living through such a large demonstration became hard to believe when it was not reinforced in the "real" public sphere, TV.

In keeping a profligate consumer society based on increasingly sharp class divisions and falling living standards from im- or exploding, the worldmakers have a difficult task. They must allow a decentralization in spectacle maintenance. They have to assume that the principles of spectacular society (mistrust of one's own experience, suspicion of other people's motives, belief in the bald-faced lies of the rulers, loneliness, resignation, and atomization) are so thoroughly internalized that most people will go on reproducing it independently of any real central control.

New media tools like "morphing" and photo manipulation software have drastically eroded verifiability through images8. The ability to manipulate consciousness and the appearance of reality has eroded with the loss of image believability. The development of interactivity is an attempt to outflank the increasing emptiness of media consumption. More importantly, new media seek to perpetuate the form of media commodity against an exploding world of direct, horizontal, free communication.

In an echo of pre-literate times, we are must rely on our direct sense of who or what is telling us the "truth," since pictures are no longer proof of anything. Face-to-face (or perhaps node-to-node) experience and communication is the only way to arrive at an honest public sense of reality.

E-mail and electronic discussion groups are bringing together new communities around shared ideas and interests, but still very isolated. The millions of Internet users are mostly very alone as they "communicate" and it's very difficult to see how the "information" shared makes it back into a meaningful role in shaping human society. In this Solitaire Society, everyone does everything alone, even though occasionally in the company of thousands of others.

Finally, this is what we face: to take the disparate strands of knowledge, culture and meaning that we develop in our electronic activities (and elsewhere) and give them a life in the physical and political world. We must remove the constraints of isolation imposed by our "interactive solitude" and make all aspects of our lives meaningfully interactive, so that we are forevermore the subject and creator of our own destinies! The threads of subversion we weave so quietly today must find their way to smother the self-destructive, brutal and dehumanizing life we actually live when we are at work, on the go, at school, and in the streets. The trust we place in electronic links must again find a common home among our social links, until electronic "experiences" take their rightful place as occasional supplements to a rich, varied human life.

--Chris Carlsson

FOOTNOTES

1(paraphrased nicely by Doug Brent in Intertek 3.4 "Speculations on the History of Ownership," originally published in EJournal and not copywrited!)

2 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso, London: 1990

3 The maneuvering currently underway is reminiscent of the corporate conspiracy in the '40s and '50s to scuttle intracity urban rail systems when a cabal of General Motors, Firestone Tires, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Truck and Standard Oil of Ohio bought up rail systems and "modernized" city transit systems by ripping out the tracks and replacing the trains with busses. The real goal was to get people off public transit and into private cars, a plan which worked pretty well, unfortunately. But much more is now at stake. The manufacture and maintenance of the images of global reality may be even more powerful than the establishment and control of a highly profitable, carefully controlled, enormously wasteful and finally doomed transit racket.

4 Brent, op.cit.

5 Brent, op.cit.

6 As late as the 13th century, land titles were often undated in England, possibly due to uncertainty among scribes as to the proper point in the past to begin counting: the creation of the world? the birth of Christ? the Crucifiction? (M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307. 1979: Harvard U. Press, cited in Ong, op.cit.)

7 Advertisers will no doubt slip modern products anachronistically into the historic moments for added impression, as well as added revenue for the programmers.

8 "morphing" is a software process of transforming one face to another or to a made-up face by rearranging the pixels mathematically. Photo manipulation software is somewhat better known, and gives the skilled user the ability to produce a counterfeit "proof" of virtually any scene one would care to have.