My Media, Your Media, Our Media, Their Media: Access to Quality in the Brave New World of Communications
It’s a dull Friday evening in the year 2050. The Mars shuttle crews are on strike again, so you decide to stay at home and invite a few friends to jump into that old classic “Minsky’s Meat.” You have a copy of this famous holonovel, programmed by the great cyberdramatist Manfred Atwood-Wu, Nobel Prizewinner of the year 2036. Despite its age, the piece is holding up well — all the same you have a few tricks up your sleeve. You’ve persuaded a holonovelist friend to reprogram the story and you really can’t anticipate the result. The last time you jumped into this drama, Minsky turned out to be a transvestite butcher in love with a cybercircus strongwoman. You were his psychiatrist, trying to prevent a probable suicide, and you succeeded. It was a great ending; nothing could have been more satisfying. It was hard to get back to your job at North American Telecom after that one! But tonight, tonight might be even better . .
Well, that’s not my media experience, or yours–not yet. But according to Janet Murray, author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, the above scenario may be a lot closer to reality than you think. Murray’s book is a feast of optimistic speculation, a primer on how to prepare for what she thinks is the rapidly approaching world of cyber-stories. And the coming holodeck — a Star Trek-derived black cube that enables you to enter into stories instead of reading them — is going to make it possible, Murray thinks, for new Shakespeares, new Ibsens to create a future drama that will be both participatory and profound.
We’ll get back to the possible future later on, and allude to somewhat less utopian notions of media development, but I want to begin with a mythical framework, and then recount some real experiences of mine with media in the past. Since I was born in New York City what I have to say relates quite a bit to the American media, but as a Canadian, I’d like to balance things a bit by invoking briefly our two famous media gurus, Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould.
McLuhan’s multifarious ideas can be best summed up in one of his own sentences: “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms.” McLuhan’s analysis of television contradicted the general sense that it is a passive experience, a kind of technological wallpaper. He suggested rather that it is participatory, a sensually inviting mosaic with a low-definition performance that compels involvement rather than analysis or critical attention on the part of its viewers–a thought that seems remarkably prophetic mainly of our current TV news. McLuhan pointed to television’s capacity to embrace and serve a huge diversity of tastes, and to its power to wrap each viewer in what seems a private experience, a description anticipating what Alvin Toffler asserted in 1991 about computer use and the web, and applying even more pointedly to present-day cable broadcasts. As we move closer to converging technologies and to applications of “virtual reality” McLuhan’s ideas seem more relevant than ever, as does his probing question, viz., “might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?”
Glenn Gould shared McLuhan’s positive evaluation of communications technology. He wrote that “by far the most important electronic contribution to the arts is the creation of a new and paradoxical condition of privacy. . . Electronic transmission. . . [encourages the audience] “to react not as captives and automatons but as individuals capable of an unprecedented spontaneity of judgement.” As some recent scholarship asserts, Gould saw technology as a vehicle to enrich and deepen perception. Divorcing himself from “the public,” he used Bach’s fugues to redefine the significance of ambiguity in music, embraced “process” over dualism, urged a new aesthetic morality, and articulated a concept of ecstasy almost parallel to that of traditional mysticism.
Both thinkers had seriously flawed perspectives. Gould underrated face-to-face or unmediated experience, while elevating his own inhibitions and aesthetic preferences to the level of universals; McLuhan wallowed in contradiction and “became for many a vulgarizer, a charlatan, an enthusiast for pop trash . . .” The main problem with McLuhan and Gould, however, as indeed with Janet Murray’s holodeck thesis, is a failure to take account of the overwhelming economic realities that actually shape media development, and have done so from the first.
In order to make this clear, I’d like to take you on a brief media tour, beginning with my own rich childhood experiences in America and coming up to the present. To quote Thomas Hardy: “If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” And we might paraphrase that, and add: “If a way to the future there be, it exacts a full look at the past.”
My media life began in childhood, with an echo of the famous opening of Marcel Proust’s great non-electronic novel, The Remembrance of Things Past. “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” the narrator tells us, and how right that sounds to a kid who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in a fairly strict American household. Ah yes, The Lone Ranger at 7:30, and lights out at eight, for we’re talking about a childhood time that– as David Gelernter expresses it– was both overshadowed and supported by Authority (Authority with a capital A). To an American kid of those days the parents were primary Authorities, but the chief authority was the President of the United States, the energetic and dignified Franklin Roosevelt, whose televised speech at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 ushered in the era of TV special events coverage. Regular television broadcasting in the States was just beginning. You can still see clips of Roosevelt’s speech at the Fair, and perhaps you’ll notice that–as in all his speeches–he gestures with his head, and not usually with his hands and arms. This was because the polio that had crippled him early on forced him, when standing to give a speech, to hold onto special handles hidden on the podium.
I remember hearing a senior news correspondent tell of his astonishment when he learned that the President of the United States was what–in those harsh days–would have been called “a cripple,” something the reporter had not even suspected until he gained access to the White House reporting circle. The American news media discreetly concealed Roosevelt’s profile in courage to such an extent that it could be called news manipulation, just as the media in England during the same era mostly shut out the British Public from the maneuvers and manipulations connected with the otherwise fairly public love affair of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson.
As a curious-minded little boy who had attended the New York World’s Fair of 1939, I naturally didn’t quite acquiesce in the decree of sleep at eight. I don’t want to excite anyone’s erotic imagination, but when I went to bed early I had an electronic (or pseudo-electronic) companion. It was called a crystal set, a wonderful name for a great toy that seemed to jump right out of the futuristic science fiction world I was reading about in the pulp magazines. For those of you who don’t know, a crystal set is simply a radio wave detector constructed from an inexpensive or homemade galena crystal and a safety pin. You connected the set usually to steel bedsprings (which doubled as an antenna) and grounded it to household cold-water pipes. Then, bliss, you could lie in bed and listen to AM radio by means of really primitive earphones. The signals were very low-grade and could not possibly have made you deaf, and as for the programs–they were more or less guaranteed to put you to sleep.
During early evening prime time, as it were, between six and eight, the whole family usually listened to the “real” radio set, but things were not too exciting. To take a few actual examples from the broadcasts of May 28, 1935–at 6 P. M. you could hear “The First Birthday Celebration of the Dionne Quintuplets from Callander, Ontario” (Americans were oddly intrigued by the Dionnes, if not by Canada itself). At 6:45 you could listen to Lowell Thomas–the discoverer or Lawrence of Arabia– pontificate on the news; at 7 take in the famous black-face (or perhaps it should be called “black voice”) comedy of Amos and Andy. By the time the crystal set was hauled out from under your bed–as the programming lists of 1935 show–kids had nothing very exciting to listen to. There was a choice of Bing Crosby, or Phil Spitalney and his All-Girl Orchestra; you could tune in to comics like Ed Wynn, and various western and romance dramas that the stations didn’t otherwise know what to do with. Nonetheless, it was liberating to have the power to contact the great world out there when your parents thought you were asleep.
The truth is that the most common thrills for a younger kid of that era were the late afternoon shows, serials like Jack Armstrong, Dick Tracy, Uncle Don, Terry and the Pirates, Captain Midnight, and others, which you took in, often with eyes closed, lying on the floor beside a large Philco or Motorola console radio.
But make no mistake. The great radio years deserve to be remembered as something much more than retrospectively amusing camp listening experiences for those of us who grew up with them. On the contrary, young listeners of the thirties and forties were treated to superb drama, including excellent adaptations of stories by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and a host of others; original plays by wonderful talents like Orson Welles, Norman Corwin. Lucille Fletcher, Wyllis Cooper, Arch Oboler, and William N. Robson, whose adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s famous story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is actually better than the original. We had superb serials, a great range of comedy, and original music by Bernard Herrmann, who was later to become the greatest and most inventive composer of film music, with scores ranging from “Psycho ” to “Taxi Driver.” We had Toscanini and Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra and Spike Jones, Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid. Television couldn’t hold a candle to this, and– to paraphrase Murrow–has been mostly used to amuse, distract, delude and insulate us.
Although we often heard the prime time shows with our parents, we kids listened to most of our favourite shows with the lights out (there was even a famous production by that name), or with eyes closed. If we talked about them at all, it happened later. When you listen alone or at night, as McLuhan says “all those gestural qualities that the printed page strips from language come back in the dark, and on the radio.” Although Americans are reputedly obsessed with “know-how” and simple expertise, as kids we didn’t really want to know how the “special effects” of our favourite radio shows were created. We wanted to experience those galloping horses as real, and to forget that they were just blocks of wood manipulated by clever sound-men; we wanted to believe that the crackling sound of the electric chair was really some poor guy being fried, not sizzling bacon held up close to the microphone. In other words, we valued the imaginative space created by the radio medium and wanted to project ourselves into it and enlarge our experience of it. The terror and mass panic of Orson Welles’ famous Martian broadcast of 1938 began as a number of personal radio experiences that listeners wanted to believe in, and was amplified almost immediately into a collective phenomenon by word of mouth and the nearly instant sharing of what was taken to be a factual report.
Early radio was enormously influential, partially because it fostered an intimate listening style and worked through the imagination rather than by means of expensive productions. To take a homely example, if you compare sports broadcasts of the 1940s with what came later you might be astounded at the bare coverage that was thought adequate to convey what was happening on the playing fields. No background, no colour commentary, no inside stories, no hype–just a straightforward description of the game, interspersed with what resembles tongue-tied silences between each play: it was up to the audience to imagine the rest. To today’s listener it sounds very strange–like dialogue from a Pinter play or some weird post-modern minimalism.
But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that listeners back then were more easily satisfied or necessarily more naïve than audiences are today. Thoughtful listeners of that era, including many young ones, not only developed the power to imagine–they conducted an ongoing critical dialogue with what they heard; many listeners, including us kids, developed an ear for the phony; we were often able to hear past the script and to draw very different conclusions than those the broadcasters intended.
Perceptive as we might have become, however, there were aspects of radio we didn’t suspect as kids, a number of hidden variables, and central to these, were the economic factors that shaped the growth of broadcasting in the United States. I refer you to Paul Starr’s magisterial study of the creation of the media, which may be briefly summarized as follows.
Broadcasting began in 1920 when it was perceived that a market for radio sets might be created if there were regular public broadcasts–as opposed to random amateur sendings. The United States made the choice of keeping the airwaves public, while licensing their use to private interests. In 1923, Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, organized the radio band spectrum and created various classes of broadcast stations. This government regulation was successfully challenged legally, but the resulting chaos of stations and frequencies led to passage of the Radio Act of 1927. Since the radio spectrum was “a scarce resource, allocated by the state,” radio, unlike newspapers, developed an inter-dependent relation with those who held power. During the years following the passage of the Radio Act, the U.S. federal government, through the Federal Radio Commission promoted commercial stations financed by advertising and disapproved of what they called “stations serving private or selfish interests.” The latter, surprisingly, referred to colleges, religious groups and other non-profit broadcasters. Given such encouragement of commercialism, the first large companies, NBC and CBS, quite quickly set up elaborate networks to serve the hugely expanded AM radio audience. Radio quickly approached total coverage of American households, and radio listening was soon averaging four hours a day. Advertisers, completely absent from early radio, eagerly jumped in, and ad agencies became the creators of radio programming, while they, the sponsors and the broadcasting executives, were locked into a symbiosis that shaped the character of broadcasting for the next couple of decades. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, which might have been expected to modify this blatantly commercial system, did not touch broadcasting, because the Democratic president, alienated from newspaper publishers, relied on radio broadcasting to get his message across.
The conclusion one must draw from Starr’s account is that radio’s proven power to inspire and inform the listener was achieved against a background of crass commercialism and social repression that makes today’s television content look anarchic. The American way of doing radio, besides wiping out most not-for-profit broadcasting, introduced an incredibly minute and effective censorship, one that affected content in general, and was particularly repressive in the case of comedy shows, news and political commentary. Satirical comedians, such as Fred Allen and Henry Morgan, for example, had to deal with a barrage of restrictions, corrections and excisions that make the radio executives and advertisers of those days seem like overseers in some mad, manic universe presided over not by the Prince of Darkness, but by the Crown Princes of Blandness. Although in our time so-called “family values” are still being marketed, in the early days of radio they were not simply an ideological option, they were the orthodoxy that could not be questioned. Nothing critical of established institutions, nothing risqué, could be broadcast; there could be no questioning of established religions, of the sanctity of marriage, the greatness of America, or of the quality of the sponsor’s product. The audience the networks had in view was composed of conventionally-minded white working-class or middle-class men and women. I myself recall many violations of these taboos, and they always had consequences–either the performer was forced to crawl and apologize, or he was fired, or the show’s sponsorship was dropped or cancelled, or parts of the broadcast were instantly cut off.
On the other hand, in 1931, when a black editor of the Pittsburgh Courier succeeded in stirring up the Afro-American public against in the very popular Amos and Andy show, in which two white actors portrayed various odd black characters, the sponsor, Pepsodent, and the NBC network, refused to change the show, which continued up through the 1950s. Blacks had little power to affect radio broadcasting. Radio did not employ blacks in any capacity during the 1930s; even Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima was played by a white actress. In comparison with white households few black families even owned radios.
From all this, one might conclude, that although the socially-focused commercial censorship was severe, the “free enterprise” nature of commercial radio would armor it against outright government manipulation. Surely American broadcasting, for all its sins, would never be a vehicle for government propaganda.
This is not so. During World War II, in 1942-43, at the height of the Nazi threat, a blatantly propagandistic radio show called “Treasury Star Parade” was broadcast. A close study of this series by J. Fred MacDonald points to six key themes or approaches that enable us to see it as what he calls a “powerful instrument of domestic propaganda.” These include: 1) an appeal to what were called “basic American values”; 2) a plea for domestic unity in the face of the enemy; 3) intimidation by exaggerating the direct threat from the enemy; 4) the portrayal of the enemy as one-sidedly evil and even actually “demonic”; 5) the insistence of the intrinsic nobility of the allies; 6) an admixture of ordinary entertainment uplift to offset the fear-mongering of the rest. All of this was put across with the help of some of the most famous entertainers of that era.
This program was a turning point. As MacDonald says: “nothing like it had ever been heard on American radio.” While we might have some sympathy for propaganda directed against the Nazis, the show paved the way for similar efforts at the time of the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts and during the Cold War. And, I need hardly point out, the principles developed then are still being put to use by the Bush administration and its supporters in their (much more subtle) attempts to manipulate the media after 9-11, and during the occupation of Iraq.
By the 1950s, of course, the old radio world had sunk into oblivion. Accompanying the rise of the post-war suburbs came universal television. Right from the start there were doubts about the new medium, some of them sounding a bit like Joseph Cotton’s (or rather Orson Welles’) warning about the automobile expressed in a famous scene in The Magnificent Ambersons . In Science for the World of Tomorrow , published in 1939, in the infancy of broadcast TV, Gerald Wendt suggested that, if censorship could be avoided, future wars might be shown on television, to the horror and dismay of viewers, precisely what we got with the Viet-Nam conflict and precisely what the Bush administration made sure we didn’t get with Iraq. Wendt also quite prophetically suggested that the educational effects of television might be few, given what would probably be a state of induced passivity in the viewer. He also pointed out that politics would be changed by television, and that personality, meaning TV charisma, would become a more important quality in public figures. He concluded that under the influence of television, democracy “is likely to pay inordinate attention to the performer and interpreter rather than to the planner and thinker.” That very prescient observation was made some years before the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick in his novel The Simulacra (1964 ) , imagined an American presidential pair who were essentially TV images, a fiction that (some might argue) became reality when Ronald Reagan, the so-called “great communicator” finally took office, and proceeded to try to win a few “for the Gipper.”
Television was not something that greatly excited the kids of my generation, partially because our early viewing experiences were nothing to shout about. Many of the first sets had screens barely larger than oversized postcards; the reception was often poor, the cameras static, and the content unexciting.
A little later things got better, both technically, and in terms of content. As a young person, no longer a kid, I found my curiosity about the arts fed by what was retrospectively dubbed “the golden age of television,” that is, live television that was often improvised and un-sponsored. To take one famous example: hosting a show called “Omnibus,” the British journalist Alistair Cooke provided a very compelling window on serious culture, hosting telecasts that included Orson Welles playing King Lear, Peter Ustinov as Dr. Samuel Johnson, conversations with Frank Lloyd Wright, musical moments with Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski, choreographers of the stature of Agnes de Mille, not to mention curious special treats such as Gene Kelly doing dance steps with the great boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson.
Such broadcasts were exciting even to a young person who had all the arts and entertainment facilities of a great city at his doorstep, so you can imagine how revealing they were to receptive viewers in the heart of the countryside.
When television came along, what I had often experienced as the relatively private medium of radio became the living room ritual of television prime time. There was of course only one television set per family to begin with, and the great hulking thing was enshrined in the center of the house, increasingly dispiriting to watch, but somehow retaining the compelling aura of a Roman lar familiaris , or protective deity, tucked away in the corner of some ancient atrium. The concept of family entertainment and ritualized watching was born. My medium, radio, where my experiences were mostly private, became our medium, television, more of a shared experience. And over the past few years we’ve been painfully reminded to what extent television (network television in particular) is really their medium, that is, an instrument controlled by advertisers and owners whose economic and political interests shape most of what we see.
You may say, “so what!”–since television broadcasts are only occasionally focal experiences. TV broadcasts function, one might argue, as a background presence, a kind of wallpaper, for most human activity on the planet. Those confounded screens–often minus sound– are everywhere, in bars and shop windows in London and Buenos Aires, in the backstreets of Mexican villages, on launches in the Caribbean, all over in the Middle East and Asia. But who takes it in?
The answer is: all of us. As we know from biological and evolutionary study, human sight is the primary vehicle of human relationship to the environment. That homo sapiens survived and created high culture is in no small measure due to the efficiency of our binocular stereoscopic technicolour vision, a situation the poet Shelley rendered mythopoeically in his great “Hymn of Apollo,” the sun god who represents the human power of assimilating reality through things seen. And recent studies of the brain’s mirror neurons suggest that the act of watching creates an involuntary empathy, so that the beholder is drawn into instant inner mimicry of the action witnessed. Although this effect works better in person, it works on television as well, thus giving some credence to the reiterated notion from many quarters that violence on the screen inculcates violence in the viewer.
It may be easy to dismiss TV because our viewing is associated with no real texture of event in our lives; it takes place in a limbo of non-time and non-event. This litter of “entertainment” and “information” piled up in our memories, unmemorable and diffuse, seems to work against television’s power to affect us; it seems to contradict McLuhan’s idea of TV’s ability to recapture the oral directness and power of experience at its most primal.
Yet sociologists tell us that TV is hugely influential. As one research team puts it, “most Americans do not believe in the reality of any event or emotion they have not seen, at one time or another, on television.” And the same researchers add: “if people believe that an event has occurred, then they will decide that they have seen it on television.” After the Kennedy assassination, we’re told, 70 per cent of Americans believed that they had witnessed the shooting on their home screens, whereas the general public didn’t see it (even on film) until 1976, and then only in an edited version.
What we should have realized, from our experience of radio, was that television content–although it would broaden in scope as society changed– would still be controlled to a great extent by advertising. The first television ad–a very brief one– ran on July 1, 1941, during a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball broadcast and cost ten dollars. Today half- hour program blocks may have up to 12 minutes of advertising, and the average cost of a single 30-second TV spot during the Super Bowl is $2 million dollars.
The “dumbing down” associated in particular with network television naturally has a lot to do with the desire of advertisers to sell products. If the audience turns off, so does the sponsor. And how do you appeal to an audience that has seldom been intellectually challenged in the school or at home anyway? We all know that the new specialty channels and public television attempt to bring more substantial and focused content to TV, yet I find that the medium varies greatly in its power to present such things. Nature, science and historical shows, for example, do well, while the arts are usually very dull and limited on TV. It’s hard to imagine anyone being converted to ballet or opera by watching it on television, because the medium faces such severe limitations in attempting to capture these.
When we kids of the radio era first experienced television, we naively took it to be yet another technological milestone on what we had been taught was the steady forward march of human progress. We underestimated its ubiquity, its relentless action, its power to hook us on whatever imagery it chooses to deal out.
Nor did we have any inkling–who did?–of the complexities that would emerge in broadcasting by the early 21 st century. Yes, we still have major networks, four of them, some of them with the old call letters but with radically changed structures and facades, but takeovers, acquisitions, amalgamations–not to mention further leaps in technology–have created a crazy patchwork of possibilities for the home viewer.
The multi-channel universe, and the possibility of using your television to play movies, or games, or to connect with your computer or camera, have fragmented broadcasting. Indeed one could go further and say developments like cable fractilized broadcasting, in the sense that it didn’t merely divide it into small units, but created a complex set of surfaces that are themselves relatively unboundaried. For example, not only does cable create niche audiences designated by interest groups (sports, decorating, books, performing arts, news)–it allows for the shuffling of material among these groups, and sometimes for web-based interaction with audiences. A sports station may do biography, news, drama, and critiques, and engage various audiences in web-based dialogue on some of these things. Also, programs tend to circulate among differing niche stations and often break the boundaries set by the niche interest groups, for example a film on Leni Riefenstahl that is played on a sports, news, biography, or the women’s channel.
At this point we can see far more point in McLuhan’s principle of “pattern recognition,” his campaign to break down linearity, than in his mythical proposition of a media global village that might re-create the virtues of direct communication on key issues. The “audience as anthologist” is the real fact emerging from the new broadcast media alignments. The most dynamic part of this is the new possibility of audience participation and dialogue, since the web, with its discussion groups and web pages, can turn anyone with the requisite (and very inexpensive) technology into a commentator and reporter, able to “piggy back” into a world-discussion via the thematic listings of the present-day web search instruments.
American broadcaster Ted Koppel made this very point in an interview with Larry King (March 11, 2002), conducted during the period when Koppel’s news analysis show was apparently slated to be shut down by ABC in favour of entertainer David Letterman. Both Koppel and King showed an awareness that they themselves are–in terms of audience–only among the most accessible voices in a new Babel in which almost everyone is crying out to be heard–and can be heard. True, in the new Babel the myriad voices often seem to cancel each other out–but not quite. For with the audience fully participating as anthologists (and possibly as Grail questers looking for the one true healing fact), it is possible to find one’s way out of the labyrinth and use the new communications media to gain perspective on a given problem, to collect information, and even–in rare cases–to achieve enlightenment as to the relevant processes of whatever it is that one is interested in. Calling linked web conversations “threaded” is an effective way of evoking the very applicable underlying myth of Ariadne and Theseus. But who is the Minotaur?
Clearly it is the profit-making corporations, upholders of the concept of the everlasting “bull” market. In this light the issue of nationalism and ownership and the well-known movement toward “synergy” among the media business empires comes into play. The international media conglomerates, having bought into cable, film, the world wide web and other media–sometimes to the detriment of their business plans– are more than ever driven by the profit motive. They want to devour everything. The older networks had similar ambitions but were at least limited in scope and highly visible; the cable owners are less so. Once again, to use a mythical analogy, cable is a kind of Tarnhelm of broadcasting that allows invisibility, but it should not mask the essential fact of the rapid incursion of private profit-making enterprises into what might be public spaces, or in more objective terms, the fact that material and not spiritual, intellectual or aesthetic treasure is what is at stake.
In this sense, the concept of “international” media fits well with the neoliberal agenda of infinite expansion and control by the private sector, and leads to the casting off of notions of the public good, often espoused by public broadcasters or national services. To devour is to reduce to nothing, and the principle of the conglomerates is -for a price–to allow the audience everything -convenience, contentment, an excellent self-image manufactured especially for them by the advertisers–everything but real identity. Real identity occurs in terms of family, community and nation, and is ensured by control of language, including metaphor, myth, and by the deconstructive power of coherent argument. A critique of society can only exist where true identity is given voice; it can never be generated in the context of the spurious values, or the brainwashed citizens, mostly promoted by the advertisers.
In this light, the important buttresses against the detrimental effects of internationalism can be seen to include, first, national public broadcasting systems, such as the BBC, National Public Radio and the PBS stations in the U.S.A. and the CBC in Canada. (Although all of these entities have often been severely criticized and often disappointing–CBC and PBS badly need to refocus their priorities– what else have we got to work with?) Second, local radio and television with a community grounding. Third, the web when it is used creatively by individuals to further self-development apart from a collectivity imposed by advertisers and commercially generated fads.
The real threat to individuality, freedom and creativity and to all integral national and local cultures, including the Canadian, is not the existence of new technologies and media, although those media make it impossible to set up artificial national or local barriers and screen out messages. The enemy is the uniformity imposed on world cultures by international (American-dominated) media that take it as their mission to provide all people and nations with entertainment and news. Far from being value-free, such entertainment and news is often loaded with messages traditionally associated with a specifically American mythos. When the world accepts news and entertainment from such a source it also gets messages specific to the United States, images of the “perfect” society, guilt-free and threatened only by “evil” outside forces, a society whose prime function is to further the notion of “improvement” based on consumer values and a secular religion of “feeling good.” The way the American media, especially Fox and CNN, reported the September 11 tragedy and the ensuing American crusade against terrorism offers unimpeachable proof of this bias. There was almost no attempt to analyze the roots of terrorism, and an immediate acceptance of the unexamined catchwords of “freedom” and “liberty,” combined with the adoption of President Bush’s cowboy western sloganeering. “Osama bin Laden: wanted, dead or alive.” Here, notions of media objectivity were submerged in the rhetoric of a wounded imperium. The White House and the Pentagon did not need to mount a strong anti-terrorist propaganda campaign; their work was done for them by United States television networks that saw their chief post-September 11 mission as the restoration of wounded American national pride and the upholding of the unexamined values of Bush’s “crusader” ethics. The propaganda that began in the U.S. media in the 1940s and continued during later decades became, post 9-11, often subtle but sometimes brazen manipulation, that made those earlier deceptions connected with Roosevelt and Edward VIII look paternal. The tide only turned when isolated critics, and whistle-blowers spoke up–Edward R. Murrow in 1954, or (before he was suppressed) Bill Moyers in 2003-2004 on PBS –the latter joined and hugely amplified by the comedians, with Jon Stewart leading the pack. Things improved also when audiences began to turn to websites like Truthout, Foreign Policy in Perspective, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, and in Canada, Straight Goods (places where in the future web surfers may not be able to go very easily, if at all, assuming the telephone and cable giants get their way).
None of this seeks to deny that commercial broadcasting and even the American assumption of the role of planetary policeman may have their good points. The problem is that while American values speak constantly of “freedom,” this freedom often turns out to be limited to those who are willing to accept the corporate messages and absolve themselves from concerns about free enterprise’s “fallout” of poverty and social injustice. This devil’s bargain in the name of “prosperity” often involves the abandonment of the values of soul and spirit and the shedding of responsibility for others less fortunate, values traditionally taught by wise thinkers and authentic religious traditions. The American privately-owned media have a strong vested interest in promoting the most obvious collective values, an unexamined consumerism, over the deeper insights generated by the perspectives of the most profoundly original American thinkers, Henry David Thoreau, William James, John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others, while also ignoring the creative alternatives visible at many levels in the other world cultures.
The opportunities for real freedom and creativity that writers like McLuhan, Gould, Toffler, and others, found in the new media are very likely to be offset by limitations imposed by the free enterprise ethic of the emerging American-dominated world monoculture which is even now transforming some of the key media, e.g. cable television and the world wide web, in dubious ways. These include: creating selective and biased “news”; saturating the world with American-style entertainment; excluding many potential audiences from the information revolution by pricing and fee practices (e.g., we already have to pay more for interactive cable and may soon have to pay extra for web access and searches); and favouring advertising revenue over content. As a white paper from Cisco Systems, a leading network hardware-software provider puts it, the new networking technology will offer the cable providers “captive portals” and provide them with “the ability to advertise services, build its brand, and own the user experience.” Own the user experience . There’s the Minotaur again, the great devourer.
In the light of these trends it ‘s hard to agree with the view of some analysts that the new interactive media offer wonderful prospects for audiences. I’m afraid the viewers of Janet Murray’s holodeck, if they come into existence at all in the far future, will be watching something much less substantial than Shakespeare and Ibsen, and will be charged high fees for their pleasure, assaulted with advertising, monitored by a state eager to control their opinions, and permitted to be creative only within certain carefully boundaried limits.
Yegeny Zamyatin, the great Russian writer who influenced George Orwell, suggested, years before Orwell, that society is constantly in danger of falling into a state of entropy, a situation in which individual freedom is submerged by an all-powerful state, which sinisterly exercises the narrowest kind of social control. The answer to entropy, whether it originates from private interests, or from a government acting on behalf of powerful interests, is a reassertion of the values of individuality, community, creativity, and freedom. These are values that sometimes have been, and should always be, furthered by the development of media, but often aren’t. Power and money have in the past too often turned promising technologies into oppressive or mind-deadening instruments of social entropy. And if we don’t fight the new corporate giants, especially the phone and cable companies that are lobbying right now to change the internet for the worse, such restrictions will apply to all of us web-surfers in the very near future. Radio–despite recent technological and programming changes– remains a secondary medium, television is mostly mediocre, but the golden age of the web is happening right NOW; let’s try to keep it in existence a little longer.