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Can the Internet challenge today's informational and cultural monopoly?

By Mark Wegierski
web posted September 27, 2004

The Internet arose as a truly mass phenomenon in the mid-1990s. It arrived, however, after three to four decades of some of the most intense, unidirectional mass media and mass educational conditioning in human history.

It is a vitally important question whether the Internet will offer the possibilities of enhancing serious social, political, cultural, and truly philosophical debate, or if the various "news" and entertainment imageries so widely and readily transmissible through it, will simply intensify American consumerism, political-correctness, and mindless, ersatz patriotism.

It may be noted that a situation now exists, where it appears that little more than one percent of the population -- termed variously "the knowledge elite," the "symbolic analysts", or "the New Class" -- endeavors to thoroughly condition the rest of the population -- through the mass media and mass education system -- in what to think, feel, and believe, and in how to act. This system has been described as the managerial-therapeutic regime, the melding of big business and big government, a social environment of total administration and near-total media immersion.

It may be noted than any more honest challenges to the system, whether from the anti-consumerist, ecological Left or from antiwar, localist, paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives, are simply being edited out of "approved", media- and administratively-constructed social reality.

It is an open question whether simply making some good ideas available on the Internet, can have a major social, cultural, and political impact. Although some may not wish to admit it, there is a clear hierarchy of information on the Internet. It ranges -- roughly -- from the mostly unmoderated, self-posting forum, or purely personal website or blog (unless the person running it has already achieved major success outside the Web); to the widely-read, conscientiously-edited, but not income-generating e-zine; to major web-magazines like Salon and Slate; to the websites of major media entities such as CNN and The New York Times -- who are simply reinforcing their massive presence in the world outside the Web. It seems that there can be, in the media world, only a comparative handful of "exceptions that prove the rule" -- such as the vast success of The Drudge Report, and the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project -- and, now, of course, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- funded almost entirely from his personal funds, obtained over more than two decades of blockbuster Hollywood movie roles. Gibson should receive respect for his many long years of self-renunciation and perseverance in the Hollywood environment which sometimes seems about as friendly to sincere Christians as Lenin's and Stalin's Soviet Union.

Also, while there now exists the possibility of easy book-printing - along with a greater hope than previously that the book can reach a wider audience (for example, through placement on Amazon.com) - the obvious "authority" and "imprimatur" of a book appearing with a major commercial, literary, or academic publisher - constitutes a very tight barrier indeed to the intellectual transmission of "unapproved" ideas. And among many so-called "alternative" or small publishers - or such putatively non-commercial forums like public television and National Public Radio -- the taboos and dogmas of "political correctness" are indeed often held with even greater fervor.

As for the subgenre of talk-radio (typified by Rush Limbaugh) there is arguably little there apart from a jingoistic, meaningless, ersatz patriotism -- whose main purpose appears to be to drive the United States into endless foreign wars -- as well as stupid levels of vitriol against environmentalists (typically derided as "tree-huggers"), and against serious critics of consumerism and capitalism. It also does not appear to have occurred to many people that allowing members of the public to rant freely on the radio (or, more accurately, being given the illusion that anyone can rant freely on the radio) tends to simply work as a safety-valve that might actually diminish initiatives of constructive political engagement. The modus operandi of virtually all talk-radio hosts (of whatever persuasion) has also been well-described by critics -- deride and cut off the air anyone you disagree with, and then spend the next fifteen minutes or so laughing at him or her as your fans call in "to offer their support."

It could also be argued that the Internet tends to accentuate a "hyper-fragmentation" of social, cultural, and political interests, which means that broadly-based public and political debate becomes ever more difficult.

Also, in the case of a very large number of people, the Internet is used simply for access to various entertainment and pop-culture imageries and "news," existing in various subgenres like "porn", celebrity-cults, rock- and rap-music, and sports, movie, and television show fandom.

Today, there are also many "displacement syndromes" in a public discourse where consideration of many serious matters is mostly proscribed. These displacement syndromes include, for example, the viewing of tobacco products, guns in private hands, fast food, and soft drinks as inherently and unquestionably evil -- and as targets for massive government intervention and class-action lawsuits.

The displacement syndrome is at its most acute when people express such overbearing concern about the purely physical health of individuals (especially children), while paying virtually no attention to the cultural and spiritual aspects of what might constitute a "healthier" social setting and society.

Ironically, physical health itself has been undermined (especially in the United States), by the increasing division between an overweight, spectator public, and a handful of "beautiful people" and sport-stars.

Another obvious point is that overeating often arises from deep personal and social frustrations -- and many persons' sense of inadequacy is reinforced by media advertising, programs, and films that push the most excessive consumerism and celebrity-worship. It could also be argued that, in most cases, the more men imbibe readily-available erotic imagery, the less they have of real sex, and still less of prospects of actually getting married and real intimacy.

It makes more sense to examine the deeper social and cultural reasons why people are, for example, over-eating or looking at "porn", rather than blaming the fast food companies or Internet sites for catering to those needs.

Other vehicles for the diminution of serious criticism of the current-day regime are those "escapisms" that are offered to the more manifestly bright, inquisitive, and comparatively decent among the youth and children today (some of which were indeed offered to young people growing up in two or three previous decades). These include things like "properly-steered" volunteer work -- and such deeply engrossing endeavors as role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons); various video, computer, and electronic games (including the so-called "massively multi-player online role-playing games" such as Everquest); the popular study of dinosaurs or astronomy; science fiction, fantasy, and "serious comic-book" fandom (such as, most prominently, Star Trek); and so forth.

Most of these could be (to a large extent) characterized as "geek subgenres" -- and what "geek" does not desire to somehow "transcend" his or (in deference to this possible new type) her "geekhood." Instead of awaiting the next "dark future" electronic game (however intelligently designed) -- such as Deus Ex: Invisible War -- or arguing about the philosophies of The Matrix movies -- young people might seek to inquire about the lineaments of the world they actually inhabit, and how it might be changed for the better.

It is an open question whether the provision of good ideas through the Internet will be sufficient to challenge today's informational and cultural monopoly. It is possible that the Internet simply does not (and perhaps cannot, for the foreseeable future) provide enough "authority" and financial, administrative, and infrastructural weight to dissenting ideas.

One may indeed note in today's society the virtual disappearance of "middle-level" commentators. There appears to have emerged a situation with a division between a tiny handful of very comfortably-funded, mostly "court" academics, intellectuals, media-people, and commentators -- and a broad mass of powerless wannabe pundits, usually with little financial resources, who appear mostly in various eclectic small publications and comparatively little-known websites. They can all too often be simply written off by the establishment media as "extremists" or "whackos" -- regardless of the possible perceptiveness and clarity of their views.

Indeed, it is entirely in the interests of the media and academic elite to permit the promulgation of the wildest conspiracy-theories and vitriol on the Web -- since it tends to discredit those who try to make their way as serious critics and commentators there.

Those among the masses with little intellectual curiosity and engagement (whom the media-elite probably privately consider little better than "cattle" or "sheeple") are given what George Orwell characterized as "prole-feed" in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Today, this consists mostly of endless, stupefying, consumption-driving advertising, "reality-shows", and celebrity-gossip "news" -- combined with rock- and rap-music, the fashion-industry, the massive excitement of sports, the titillation of various kinds of "porn", the sneering cynicism of today's comedy (especially stand-up comedy), and the extra jolt of horror and violence.

Most of these kinds of emotional engagements are also delivered frequently enough through the regular evening newscasts. Most of the 24-7 "news-junkies" and financial/business news followers probably operate at only a slightly higher level of political awareness.

Freedom of speech appears to exist today only for those who are massively independently wealthy, or manifestly willing to accept a rather immiserated existence as the price for writing or saying what they honestly feel. Nearly all government agencies and institutions, universities and colleges, and private corporations, including media enterprises, are very likely to fire their "offending" employees upon the slightest infractions of "political correctness." An acerbic opinion columnist can often be fired after one, especially pointed column. An independent businessperson may be ruined by a variety of tactics, whereas there may be continual pressure on major newspapers to withdraw the columns of controversial syndicated columnists. Only a professor with tenure is (more-or-less) safe from most of these pressures.

In today's society, there are still admittedly some professors and political columnists of dissenting views with some putative "authority" in the media -- but how long can this be expected to persist, in the face of a full-spectrum, media- and educational-system "shutdown" of many important ideas and discussions? What is occurring might be called "ideocide."

It could be argued that challenging the managerial-therapeutic regime requires the persistence or creation of major social, cultural, and political infrastructures (such as, for example, various publishing enterprises, institutes, think-tanks, and foundations) that can, to a large extent, be free of the current-day system's informational, cultural -- and indeed -- financial chokehold on free thinking.

Whether the Internet can indeed become significantly enabling toward the creation of such infrastructures, remains to be seen.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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