May 11, 2005

Can people be enslaved if they don't know they're enslaved?


Well, even though some say that the 'sledgehammer critique of media and managerialism' in last Saturday's Doctor Who might have been 'written by k-punk for k-kids', I'm actually quite ambivalent about Rupert Murdoch (the clear object of the episode's satire). Murdoch at least shook up the militantly complacent British media. The Times is infinitely preferable to the loathsome Guardian (the Guardian, like filter coffee, is a test of class affiliation: if you encounter it without feeling faintly nauseous, you must have at least some sympathy for middle mass values) and Sky, for all its crassness, is better than ITV and doesn't, unlike the BBC, have the ability to raise a ludicrous tax simply for existing.

Belying his image as a 'Jagrafess' (the voracious monster which hung from the ceiling of the top floor in Saturday's episode), Murdoch recently told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that young readers 'don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important.' Murdoch warned that 'as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably, complacent' with too many media professional thinking (get this) 'that their readers are stupid'. News provision has to evolve, Murdoch claimed, into a place of 'conversation' in which bloggers, 'podcasters' and 'readers' can participate.

In its follow-up piece on Murdoch's speech, The Economist claimed that 44% of online Americans aged 18-29 read blogs 'often'. The Economist was keen to refute two 'myths' about this kind of development: first, the idea that weblogs are necessarily inferior to mainstream media. On the contrary. It cited the research of Matthew Hindman, a political scientist at Arizona Sate University, who 'found that the top bloggers are more likely than top newspaper columnists to have gone to a top university [whatever that is - k-p], and far more likely to have an advanced degree, such as a doctorate.' The second myth The Economist wanted do dispel was the misapprehension that blogs are essentially parasitic on other media. Many of the more established current affairs blogs do original reporting, with many having 'correspondents' in the original sense of the term, who file reports from all over the world.

All of which is the beginnings of an answer posed by Matt Woebot on this thread on Dissensus. 'Is the internet good enough?' Well, certainly. The web removes gatekeepers in a way that is unprecedented for any other mass cultural development on the planet thus far.

Some might say that gatekeepers such as editors guarantee a certain level of quality among print publications that is lacking on the web. Reading the print media now, you quickly come to doubt this - it seems overcrowded and predictable, with writers barely having the space to explore any ideas, let alone ideas that might be unpalatable to their demographic. More importantly, though, the web DOES have quality control, but it operates subtly, distributively and immanently, via the NETWORK, not the whims of an individual subject. The network is very precisely not a demographic (the idea that there was a pre-existing k-punk 'demographic' waiting to have its needs met by the site is preposterous, for instance); nor is it a community (there are no strictly defined boundaries delimiting either what membership would entail or even how it might be defined). At the same time, it is ruthless if only by omission; sites of limited interest are unlikely to be linked to much.

It is imperative that we lose what McLuhan called our tendency to 'rear view mirrorism', that is, to see new technocultural developments in the light of existing paradigms. One of the reasons that 1978-84 was better than now (in terms of Pop, if nothing else) was that it believed it was. Postpunk was about the execution of punk will: the conviction that the importance of what you are doing does not await ratification by authorities of any kind. When I asked the panel at Simon's book event, how it was that expectations had been lowered so spectacularly in the two decades after 1984, Jon King's answer was simple: money. 'It was like bands had an extra member, the accountant.' We are all familiar with the way in which money and 'success' (in that crass post-Pop Idol celebreality sense) operate now as ends-in-themselves: not merely as symbols of worth, but as the only possible measure of value. The supposed 'democraticization' of celebrity brought about by celebreality actually still leaves people dependent upon the gatekeepers of Spectacle; the technology in their own house, meanwhile, would allow them to produce blogs, films, music, and as yet unforetold combinations of all of these things. 'The way out is through the door, how come nobody uses it?,' as Mark Stewart sang on 'Where There's a Will'.

The answer is that one of capitalism's most pernicious effects is the insidious way in which it imposes its mediocrity on our fantasies and desires.

Which is why my favourite exchange from last Saturday's Dr Who was, 'Can people be enslaved if they don't know they're enslaved?'


Posted by mark at May 11, 2005 02:00 PM | TrackBack