Friday, June 5, 2009

Engineering and Freedom, Part 7

click here to read part 1 
click here to read part 2 
click here to read part 3 
click here to read part 4 
click here to read part 5 
click here to read part 6 
click here to read part 7 

It is given among most retailers (especially the large ones) that December is “break-even” month. Not only do most retailers rely on Christmas to make money; they also fail to make money at all other times of the year. 

This must mean they have to borrow money to stay afloat all year, with the promise they’ll pay it back after the buying season. The larger meaning is that a significant portion of the consumer economy could not endure, based on the "normal" patterns of consumer behaviour (i.e. purchases made for oneself, rather than gift-purchases). 

It is only through the bourgeois potlatch tradition known as Christmas, where people compete to spend more money in giving than in receiving, that the consumer sector is as broad as it is. 

This concerns also the trend toward the replacement of the term “holiday” for "Christmas" in annual displays and advertising. This is a trend that began a decade or more ago, when public schools, citing large non-Christian minorities and the separation of church from state institutions, cancelled Christmas pageants, or substituted them with “holiday” concerts in which traditional Christmas themes were absent. 

The attempt by businesses to ignore the religious basis of the “holidays” is aimed to demolish entirely what remains of Christmas as a time to practice the best of Christian values - that is alms for the less fortunate, and love of one’s kin and neighbours. It is true that, as some argue, Christmas is coincidental with some of the other major religious holidays, including of course Hanukkah, as well as the Hindu “celebration of light.” 

However, the tradition in December of gift-giving is Christian, if not in origin, then in practice. While Hanukkah, for example, involves gift-giving, it is of a far less ostentatious and sombre variety than what is seen in all but the most fundamentalist of Christian homes. 

Throughout modern times, the conspicuous consumption identified with December 25th was leavened somewhat by the regard given to Christian values, if only formally. The disuse of the term “Christmas” in “holiday” advertising serves not only to bury the religious value of gift-giving, it seeks also to co-opt the traditions of other religions, as well, by making their winter holidays consumer-oriented. 

As stated, the very construction of the mass media was dependent not on market demand, but upon the subsidy of industrial and (to some extent) state interests. The author Richard Sennett, in his book, Flesh and Stone, compares the experience of driving an automobile to that of watching television:   

It is one result of the great urban transformation now occurring, which is shifting population from densely packed urban centers to thinner and more amorphous spaces, suburban housing tracts, shopping malls, office campuses, and industrial parks ... this great geographic shift of people into fragmented spaces has had a larger effect in weakening the sense of tactile reality and pacifying the body. This is first of all because of the physical experience which made the new geography possible, the experience of speed. People travel today at speeds our forbears could not at all conceive. The technologies of motion — from automobiles to continuous poured-concrete highways — made it possible for human settlements to extend beyond tight-packed centres out into peripheral space. Space has thus become a means to the end of pure motion — we now measure urban in terms of how easy it is to drive through them, to get out of them. The look of urban space enslaved to these powers of motion is necessarily neutral: the driver can drive safely only with the minimum of idiosyncratic distractions; to drive well requires standard signs, dividers, and drain sewers, and also streets emptied of street life apart from other drivers. As urban space becomes a mere function of motion, it thus becomes less stimulating in itself; the driver wants to go through space, not to be aroused by it. The physical condition of the travelling body reinforces this sense of disconnection from space. Sheer velocity makes it hard to focus one’s attention on the passing scene. Complementing the sheath of speed, the actions needs to drive a car, the slight touch on the gas pedal and the brake, the flickering of the eyes to and form the rearview mirror, are micro-notions compared to the arduous physical movements involved in driving a horse-drawn coach. Navigating the geography of modern society requires very little physical effort, hence engagement; indeed, as roads become straightened and regularized, the voyager need account less and less for the people and the buildings on the street in order to move, making minute motions in an ever less complex environment. Thus the geography reinforces the mass media. The traveler, like the television viewer, experiences the world in narcotic terms; the body moves passively, desensitized to space, to destinations set in a fragmented and discontinuous urban geography. (Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, New York and London ,W.W. Norton and Company, 1994, pp. 17-18.) 

No artefact has done more to effect social estrangement than the automobile. That is why it is not only sold, but actually designed, as a corporate technology. Automakers create cars as much as statements of their users’ status and character, as for any strict engineering purpose. 

The automobile industry could never sustain its great capital, promotional and labour expenses simply by making a product affordable to the everyman. To pay for itself, the automobile industry has used every avenue of persuasion, from the traditional (the used-car salesman) to the ultra- modern (broadcast advertising and constant “improvements” in makes and models), to keep sales growing year after year. 

The ad industry grew with the auto sector in a mutually reinforcing curve. Modern advertising’s reliance on the iconic and the irrational suited perfectly the auto industry’s use of visual and superficial styling to sell new cars by making older models appear prematurely obsolete. 

The marketing industry would not have achieved its present economic status without the billions spent on advertising by the auto industry. The auto-makers’ promotion of the car was not restricted to the commercials, either. 

Car companies have always provided, free of charge or at low expense, their products to commercial television producers. The relatively meagre losses this incurred were worth, literally, millions of dollars in free publicity to auto firms when some well-known fictional character was seen driving around in their respective makes and models each week. 

The extent and identity of the thorough reformation of society as wrought by motor transport remains undocumented because advertiser-subsidized broadcast and periodical media are an integral part of these vast changes. 

Beyond the fact that the commercial mass media were from the start substantially underwritten by auto companies (not to mention oil-refiners), the media industry would be greatly diminished were it not, for example, for the easy availability of motor vehicles to transport personnel and equipment from studio to location and back again. 

The utility and legitimacy of the motorcar itself is not questioned by the mass media, only the efficiency and “safety” of motor vehicles as a consumer product. The media are unconcerned with the inherent lack of safety of the automobile — that there is no way to avoid the thousands of deaths and injuries caused by car accidents each year — not because of their active complicity with auto or oil companies to censor these facts. 

Rather, it is that the automobile is so essential to the media industry itself, that the machine’s full effects remain invisible even to the people who are supposed to portray or report on society. The public at large thus never has had the chance to get the “big picture” of the car. 

Broadcast technology is thus crucial to the operation of the modern engineered city. Radio listeners are never more numerous than during so-called “drive-time,” when people are looking to be apprised of weather and traffic problems that could be disruptive to a smooth journey to and from work. 

Television sets have only recently started to be placed in automobiles, but broadcast TV has always played a key role in allowing people to overcome feelings of alienation that inevitably arise in the low-population-density settlement of modern urban areas. Since World War II, city-dwellers have adopted “virtual” relationships with their favourite TV actors and hosts as a substitute for real interaction with friends, neighbours and relations. 

To the engineers of the modern city, people without cars are a problem to be dealt with, like dirt in the parts of the machine which must be regularly cleansed to keep the system working. 

Large groups of people collected together, whether for protest demonstration or community festival, stops road traffic from moving entirely. Urban planners have designed the buildings, chiefly shopping centres and the like, which serve the automobile-city by keeping pedestrians away not only from automobiles, but also to prevent them from enjoying any spontaneous contact with one another entirely. 

That today’s urban-dwellers are then forced to find counterfeit social contact through broadcast media such as radio or television, only reinforces the means of social estrangement in the first place. The mass media are technologically complementary to the automobile. 

The car is a means of public conveyance that is also a powerful extension of the private sphere. In his Psychology of the Car, author Peter Marsh noted that people have built rooms for their cars — garages and car ports, and while driving, they pick their noses or apply lipstick, as though they were at home. For millennia, the private has been a space in which people disrobe from their public personae and try to “be themselves.” If this involves the indulgence of baser, “naked” emotions, so be it, so long as normal decorum is replaced once the private goes the public. The cabin for an automobile’s driver and passengers is also a private space, one which encourages analogous behaviour. Normal inhibitions against reacting to public misbehaviour, as occurs with people on the street or in a public building, are minimized within the motorcar. 

Graphic and audio technologies, on the other hand, are public media which are (usually) experienced privately. In the engineered society, as Marsh notes, an individual can live, work, shop without ever stepping onto public property. 

Electronic media ensure that what is public is consumed privately. The lynchpin holding together machine-engineering with electronic-media is advertising and marketing. In fact, the apparent differences between the private and public interest have been obscured through marketing and advertising. 

Government bureaucracies, traditionally drab and unbending, have taken to market research as a way of targeting their “real clientele.” Communications between governments and citizens increasingly take the form of advertising, just as elected politicians never really cease to campaign. 

Big business, on the other hand, has sought to remake itself as a purely altruistic player, through selective, highly-publicized charitable donations, by plastering their brand names on worthy initiatives for the underprivileged, and by paying big bucks for the advertising which employs a folksy and stirring score over beautiful imagery to dull the audience to the realities of the commercial world. 

However, commercial broadcasting has always been a vast, on-going market research survey. The livelihoods of those in the industry depend on the word of a thousand or so households carefully chosen to reflect the demographic makeup of much larger populations. The job of the “representative sample” is to simply and tediously fill out market surveys every few hours or so, giving answer as to which programmes they’re tuned to, which commercials they’ve seen, how many and who are in the room, what are their age groupings (15-24, 25-34...), and so on. 

This is in turn is the make-work for many more people than most might suppose. It was when the decisions were made to commercialize broadcasting media that the information economy was conceived. The owners of mass media had no other choice but to make it happen, if they wanted to know which of their offerings the audience actually listened to, and thus what fee could they charge their customers, the sponsor, to pay for its production. 

For radio or TV, the audience could never be something that was seen or heard, and instead became packets of data passed back and forth for profit. The audience became literally the object or “entertainment” of the mass-media industry, the great crowd whose tastes had to be partially-divined. The value of market research became apparent in short order, and public-relations grew around figures and firms associated with the mass media, like politicians, the media companies and, of course, the industries that use broadcasting to hawk their stuff. The computer industry in the 1960s got a big boost from public and private bureaucracies seeking to crunch all the data they’d been collecting from their market research. A greater proportion of the people in Occidental countries likely have more private information on file with marketers than did the Stasi have of the population of East Germany. 

Part 8 of Engineering and Freedom 

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