(eng) mcluhan and power

The Anarchives (tao@presence.lglobal.com)
Sat, 14 Oct 1995 16:07:23 +0000 (GMT)

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FINS: Communicating the Emerging Philosophy of The Information Age
Vol III, Issue No. 18 (116 lines) September 25, 1995


* Democratic social movements

* Do you get it?


Understanding Marshall McLuhan
By Vigdor Schreibman

In his book, "Technologies of Power" (1990), Majid Tehranian, writes:
"Technological possibilities divorced from social movements play at best a
neutral or, at worst, an antidemocratic role. To turn these technological
possibilities into democratic realities, it would take democratic social
movements and enthusiasms." Majid is a professor of communications of t
Institute for Peace at the University of Hawaii. This statement strikes
me as especially relevant precisely because in this land that invented the
very idea of democracy there exists no serious democratic social movement
connected with the technological possibilities of the day.

On the contrary, what we have, instead, are the old monopoly capitalists
converting all our technological possibilities into antidemocratic realities.
They hold an iron grip on most of the structures of power, which are at the
root of social alienation and atomization spawning like a plague on the
electronic network. How can this be, are we Americans not free?

Marshall McLuhan, the sage of culture and technology, will be remembered
for his metaphor "the medium is the message," suggesting that the content of
communications are subjected to the control of the medium itself. Some people
have trouble understanding what McLuhan meant by this statement, or they
believe that it does not apply to the electronic network, as a discussion
among journalists in the online-news list last week disclosed. Understanding
McLuhan is absolutely crucial to turn the technological possibilities of the
Information Age into democratic realities.

The "message" that McLuhan was referring to was not limited to its narrow
sense, namely, the explicit set of words or pictures built serially, block by
block, step-by-step. This is merely the concrete end of the process. In the
world of electronic communications, McLuhan understood, "we have been forced
to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern
recognition." That message pattern is derived from the whole system of
action that controls the medium.

In the context of the information and telecommunications infrastructure,
Tehranian says, "the structure is the message." The intellectual foundation
for this metaphor is found in general planning theory [Ozbekhan, 1971, 1968].
In all such systems, Ozbekhan theorizes, control is asserted: first, through
the purposes and values of the system owners and managers (normative level),
second, through the institutional goals that are derived from the latter
(strategic level), and third, through the activities that are derived from
the two higher levels of the system (operational level).

Whatever the metaphor, control over all systems is transmitted downward.
Ozbekhan concludes, "both in terms of control and in terms of meaning, it is
the highest level in the plan's structure which dictates or determines the
information content of the lower levels, whereas the contrary is not true."

For instance, business exploitation of the "message" that is conveyed, is
to secure maximum profits and maximum control. The pursuit of wealth and
power are the guiding values of the monopoly or oligopoly enterprise system.
In such a "message," the words and pictures conveyed in different formats and
in different publications may be very different but the larger pattern can be
expected to be all the same: this is a stick up, drop your pants and give me
your money, rape and plunder being the intent.

Now Congress also wants to "Privatize Public Broadcasting." The Senate
Commerce Committee held a hearing Sept. 14, to consider selling off a big
chunk of the great broadcast spectrum to provide $4 billion for a new legal
structure for public broadcasting in order to free them from the process of
annual appropriations by Congress. But without Congressional oversight,
however effective (or ineffective) that may be, whose purposes will the new
structure serve: the professional broadcasting staff that is likely to manage
the system to serve themselves, or the purposes of the American people ?

I asked Andrea Grenadier of the Association of America's Public Television
Stations, about the possibility of citizen participation in the process of
evaluating and deciding upon the policies of public broadcasting. Andrea put
the question to their general counsel, Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, who said,
"nothing was planned in this respect." Andrea added, "why should you single
us out" when no one else lets citizens have any say about their future.

Why indeed, when we live in a nation where the information revolution is
stripping the employment base of the society down to the bone, leaving
countless millions as superfluous individuals; where inequities in the
distribution of wealth and income is obscene; where the survival of the
biosphere of the Planet Earth is in doubt; and where the fastest growing
crime statistic is that of children killing each other in the streets, for
lack of a viable reason to live.

And the worst is yet to come if we don't get the "message" that McLuhan
was speaking about soon. "The structure is the message" and we must build
a democratic information and telecommunications infrastructure that serves
the public goods that industry disregards. The telecom bills soon to be
approved by Congress hardly even mentions the subject. Do you get it?

NEW Personal Subscription: $2.95 a year. Receive 24 issues of your own email
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Federal Information News Syndicate, Vigdor Schreibman, Editor & Publisher,
18 - 9th Street NE #206, Washington, DC 20002-6042. Copyright 1995 FINS.

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