Mar 10, 2014
The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear
Posted on Apr 23, 2012
By Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly
McLuhan regarded the medium of television as better suited to the sale of a product than to the expression of a thought. The voice of the first person singular becomes incorporated into the collective surges of emotion housed within an artificial kingdom of wish and dream; the viewer’s participation in the insistent and ever-present promise of paradise regained greatly strengthens what McLuhan identified as “the huge educational enterprise that we call advertising.” By which he didn’t mean the education of a competently democratic citizenry—“Mosaic news is neither narrative, nor point of view, nor explanation, nor comment”—but rather as “the gathering and processing of exploitable social data” by “Madison Avenue frogmen of the mind” intent on retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of human credulity and desire.
McLuhan died on New Year’s Eve 1979, 15 years before the weaving of the World Wide Web, but his concerns over the dehumanized extensions of man (a society in which it is the machine that thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing) are consistent with those more recently noted by computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who suggests that the data-mining genius of the computer reduces individual human expression to “a primitive, retrograde activity.” Among the framers of the digital constitution, Lanier in the mid-1980s was a California computer engineer engaged in the early programming of virtual reality.
In the same way that McLuhan in his more optimistic projections of the electronic future had envisioned unified networks of communication restoring mankind to a state of freedom not unlike the one said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, so too Lanier had entertained the hope of limitless good news. Writing in 2010 in his book You Are Not a Gadget, he finds that the ideology promoting radical freedom on the surface of the Web is “more for machines than people”—machines that place advertising at the “center of the human universe… the only form of expression meriting general commercial protection in the new world to come. Any other form of expression to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to the point of meaninglessness.”
The reduction of individual human expression to a “primitive, retrograde activity” accounts for the product currently being sold under the labels of “election” and “democracy.” The candidates stand and serve as farm equipment meant to cultivate an opinion poll, their value measured by the cost of their manufacture; the news media’s expensive collection of talking heads bundles the derivatives into the commodity of market share. The steadily higher cost of floating the fiction of democracy—the sale of political television advertising up from nearly $200 million in the presidential election of 1996 to $2 billion in the election of 2008—reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact.
Ritual becomes the form of applied knowledge that both McLuhan and Lanier define as pattern recognition—Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Miller beer is wet, Paris Hilton is not a golf ball. The making of countless connections in the course of a morning’s googling, an afternoon’s shopping, an evening’s tweeting constitutes the guarantee of being in the know. Among people who worship the objects of their own invention—money, cloud computing, the Super Bowl—the technology can be understood, in Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s phrase, as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” Better to consume it, best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified (as corporate logo, designer dress, politician custom-fitted to a super PAC) the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the labeling of things rather than from the making of them.
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