Read an Excerpt
THE NATURE OF INFECTION
The average American home has more media-gathering technology than a state-of-the-art newsroom did ten years ago. Satellite dishes spot the plains of Nebraska, personal computers equipped with modems are standard equipment in a teenager’s bedroom, cable boxes linking families to seventy or more choices of programming are a suburban necessity, and camcorders, Xerox machines, and faxes have become as accessible and easy to operate as public pay phones. Household television-top interactive multimedia centers are already available, promising easy access to the coming “data superhighway.” Like it or not, we have become an information-based society.
We live in an age when the value of data, images, and ideologies has surpassed that of material acquisitions and physical territory. Gone are the days when a person’s social stature could be measured by the distance he had to walk to see smoke from his neighbor’s campfire. We’ve finally reached the limits of our continental landmasses; we’ve viewed the earth from space over national broadcast television. The illusion of boundless territorial frontiers has been destroyed forever. There’s simply no more room, nothing left to colonize. While this may keep real-estate prices high, it also demands that real growth—and the associated accumulation of wealth and power—occur on some other level.
The only place left for our civilization to expand—our only real frontier—is the ether itself: the media. As a result, power today has little to do with how much property a person owns or commands; it is instead determined by how many minutes of prime-time television or pages of newsmedia attention she can access or occupy. The ever-expanding media has become a true region—a place as real and seemingly open as the globe was five hundred years ago. This new space is called the datasphere.
The datasphere, or “mediaspace,” is the new territory for human interaction, economic expansion, and especially social and political machination. It has become our electronic social hall: Issues that were formerly reserved for hushed conversations on walks home from church choir practice are now debated openly on afternoon talk shows, in front of live audiences composed of people “just like us.” Good old-fashioned local gossip has been replaced by nationwide coverage of particularly resonant sex scandals. The mediaspace has also developed into our electronic town meeting (to use Ross Perot’s expression). Traditional political debate and decisions have been absorbed by the ever-expanding forums of call-in radio and late-night variety shows. Today’s most media-savvy politicians announce their candidacies on Larry King and explain their positions on Rush Limbaugh or, better yet, prime-time “infomercials.”
It has become fashionable to bemoan the fact that “Saturday Night Live’s” Dana Carvey’s latest impersonation of a political celebrity means as much to the American voter as the candidate’s official platform or that kids today can get passionate about the styles and attitudes depicted in the latest MTV video but may never have watched an evening news broadcast. We worry that our media industry has developed a generation of couch potatoes who are incapable of making an intelligent decision and too passive to act on one if they did.
That’s not what is going on. True, the construction of the American media machine may have been fostered by those hoping to market products and develop a consumer mindset in our population. As media analysts from Marshall McLuhan to Noam Chomsky have shown, television and printed news cater to the corporate and political entities who created them and keep them in business. You don’t need a conspiracy theory to figure out the basic operating principles of Madison or Pennsylvania Avenues. But even if the original intentions of the media were to manipulate the American psyche by deadening our senses and winning over our hearts and minds to prepackaged ideologies, this strategy has finally backfired.
Nielsen “peoplemeters” may indicate which channels we’re watching, but they tell little about our relationship to the media as a whole. Just because a family is “tuned in” doesn’t mean it hasn’t turned on and dropped out, too. No, the media web has neither captured nor paralyzed the American individual. It has provided her with the ability to chart and control the course of her culture. She’s been empowered.
The first step toward empowerment is to realize that no one takes the mainstream media any more seriously than you do. Having been raised on a diet of media manipulation, we are all becoming aware of the ingredients that go into these machinations. Children raised hearing and speaking a language always understand it better than adults who attempt to learn its rules. This is why, educators believe, our kids understand computers and their programming languages better than the people who designed them. Likewise, people weaned on media understand its set of symbols better than its creators and see through the carefully camouflaged attempts at mind control. And now Americans feel free to talk back to their TV sets with their mouths, their remote controls, their joysticks, their telephones, and even their dollars. Television has become an interactive experience.
The advent of do-it-yourself (DIY) technology makes direct feedback even more far-reaching. Today, homemade camcorder cassettes are as likely to find their way onto CNN as professionally produced segments. Tapes ranging from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” to the world-famous Rodney King beating are more widely distributed through the datasphere than syndicated reruns of “I Love Lucy.” Alternative media channels like the computer networks or even telephone and fax “trees” (distribution lists) permit the dissemination of information unacceptable to or censored by mainstream channels and have been heralded as the new tools of revolution in countries as “un-American” as Romania and Communist China. Pirate media, like illegal radio broadcasts and cable or satellite jamming, are even more blatant assertions of the power of individuals to hack the data network.
To appreciate the media as facilitator rather than hypnotizer, we must learn to decode the information coming into our homes through mainstream, commercial channels. We, the television audience, have already been trained as media theorists. We must acknowledge this education if we ever hope to gain command over the language being used to influence us. The first chapters of this book will examine some of our most popular cultural icons in the context of the mediaspace in which they live and the agendas they hope to promote.
In doing so, we’ll come to know a new generation of media activists, whose techniques demonstrate a keen awareness of psychology, conditioning, sociology, and marketing. These children of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were willing participants in a great social experiment in which the world behind the television screen was presented as a depiction of reality—or at least a reality to which they should aspire. This was a dangerous perception to instill. Spending most of their energy trying to conform to media representations, these kids eventually determined that the easiest way to change the world is to change the television image. Now that these kids have grown up, we find our most imaginatively influential programming developed, written, and produced by people who were themselves products of the media age. They are in command of the most sophisticated techniques of thought control, pattern recognition, and neurolinguistic programming and use them to create television that changes the way we view reality and thus reality itself.
This mainstream media subversion is accomplished through careful and clever packaging. Commercial television activism means hiding subversive agendas in palatable candy shells. Most of us do not suspect that children’s programs like “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” or “The Ren & Stimpy Show” comment on gay lifestyles or that “The Simpsons” and “Liquid Television” express a psychedelic world-view. Children’s television and MTV, in fact, are the easiest places to launch countercultural missiles. The more harmless or inane the forum, the more unsuspecting the audience.
The messages in our media come to us packaged as Trojan horses. They enter our homes in one form, but behave in a very different way than we expect once they are inside. This is not so much a conspiracy against the viewing public as it is a method for getting the mainstream media to unwittingly promote countercultural agendas that can actually empower the individuals who are exposed to them. The people who run network television or popular magazines, for example, are understandably unwilling to run stories or images that directly criticize the operating principles of the society that its sponsors are seeking to maintain. Clever young media strategists with new, usually threatening ideas need to invent new nonthreatening forms that are capable of safely housing these dangerous concepts until they have been successfully delivered to the American public as part of our daily diet of mainstream media.
This requires tremendous insight into the way media works. Today’s activists understand the media as an extension of a living organism. Just as ecologists now understand the life on this planet to be part of a single biological organism, media activists see the datasphere as the circulatory system for today’s information, ideas, and images. The datasphere was created over the past two or three decades as the households and businesses of America were hard-wired together through devices like cable television, telephone systems, and personal computer modems. As individuals we are each exposed to the datasphere whenever we come into contact with communications technology such as television, computer networks, magazines, video games, fax machines, radio shows, CDs, or videocassettes.
People who lack traditional political power but still seek to influence the direction of our culture do so by infusing new ideas into this ever-expanding datasphere. These information “bombs” spread throughout the entire information net in a matter of seconds. For instance, a black man is beaten by white cops in Los Angeles. The event is captured on a home camcorder and within hours the beating is replayed on the televisions of millions. Within days it’s the topic of an afternoon talk show; within weeks it’s a court case on the fictional “L.A. Law”; within months it’s a TV movie; before the end of the year it’s the basis of a new video game, a comic book, and set of trading cards. Finally, what began as a thirty-second video clip emerges as the battle cry for full-scale urban rioting. This riot, in turn, is amplified on more talk shows, radio call-ins, and new episodes of “L.A. Law”! A provocative image or idea—like Rodney King getting beaten or even Pee-Wee Herman masturbating in a porno theater—spreads like wildfire. The event attracts our attention and generates media for several seconds, minutes, or even months … but its influence on us doesn’t stop there.