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Alternative Futures?
part 9

An "Information Culture?"

"Categorically, we need freedom, but a freedom based in our deepest spiritual needs, in our most severe and human desires of the flesh." Henri Lefebvre [69]

"It is no mean feat to imprison liberty in the name of liberty" Raoul Vaneigem [70]

We are constantly being told that we live in a post-industrial age of information. An "information culture." What kind of information? Useful information? Useless information? Does it lead to knowledge, which is the application of information? The plethora of useless "information" that constantly bombards us turns us away from knowledge, which we can only come by through critical judgement. We will soon grow tired of this novelty of "facts." The old idea that "knowledge is power" has been drowned in a deluge of "information" which must be "processed." Meaningless terms, but manipulative.

Some of this information is obviously surveillance: what you watch, what you buy, read, suffer from, believe - all quantified and stored so that you can become the specially-selected target of a marketing campaign. But for the rest, we're promised all the information we could ever dream of, all the knowledge and understanding - we'll know everything about everywhere; if we believe them, the promises of the information culture are such as to make us godlike: omniscience, omnipresence and, with "Choice"- being the key word, omnipotence.

It is true that new technology and the expansion of existing technology is making more stuff available to us than ever before. Cable and satellite channels, home video, home shopping, CD-ROM and so on have changed the way many of us use our "leisure" time and, following the existing post-war trend, have driven us further and further into the womblike privacy of the home.

None of these things are more than passive activities. Some promise to "save us time." Time for what? For more passive entertainment? The illusion of choice is just that, an illusion. What is the point of sixty or a hundred television channels if most of them are showing the same programmes? What is the point of more and wider-reaching news if it means the information is condensed into shallow sound bites, with little analysis and a predictable point of view?

Television is still a powerful medium. The viewer still has the power to choose to switch on or off, and between stations. S/he can videotape programmes and thus cut out annoying advertisements. Basic television programming using video is easy and cheap to produce.

But the freedom offered in our neoliberal spectacular society is the freedom of deregulated monopoly disguised as private enterprise, and this applies especially to media freedom. So, in the United States, the four main sources of popular information, the four main television networks, are owned by four enormous companies: Disney, Murdoch, Westinghouse and General Electric. [71] Public broadcasting is dependent on grants from companies like Mobil and Shell, which explains why they are eager to buy British costume dramas rather than John Pilger's documentary work. In Britain, we are promised an orgy of choice by Murdoch, while our government turns a blind eye to monopoly regulations, happily sees BBC services cut to the bone, and considers turning Channel Four into a completely private network. [72]

Given the domination of neo-liberalism, with its rhetoric of freedom, defence of liberty and choice, are the current structures flexible enough to allow the realisation of "alternative television?" In Britain, Channel Four's idea of "alternative" appears to be "The Girlie Show," and despite the shake-up of the television services there is no scheme to create local public-access television. A general State crackdown on all forms of alternative culture as part of an overall increasing of coercive power means that opportunities for pirate television are very remote. [73] In the United States, the radical far-right is far better funded than the radical left, and appears to dominate such alternative broadcast media production as does exist. For this reason, many are nervous to call for expanded opportunities in popular media production.

In this climate, we get the sort of information you would be likely to expect from such sources: bland, soporific paeans to the capitalist ethic. Celebrity "news" features prominently in all forms of the media: Debord called the celebrity "the spectacular representation of a living human being" who is famous for not being what s/he is. [74] He is "the enemy of the individual in himself as well as in others." [75] They are "the admirable people in which the system personifies itself," however briefly the may shine. And, in the system of planned obsolescence, their shelf-lives are not usually very long.

Digital Future

The new promise is "interactivity." This term, as it is used by media pundits and salespeople, is a toy which will be given to us to play with so we think that we are making choices and rising from our passive couch potato sloth. While the structures could be put in place for local-access DIY television, but this is either disregarded or considered dated. Instead the Internet is proposed as an interactive media with popular accessibility. Up until now, the Internet has indeed been both interactive and accessible. It is not difficult to master, to search for material and to post bulletins and set up basic websites. and a single set-up can be used by any number of people. Until recently it has not been a medium enjoyed in the private home: access was generally confined to academic and other institutions, and "cybercafes." Taking advantage of this, many radical groups have managed to get Internet access and set up websites. Examples include the Zapatista rebels in Mexico, Reclaim the Streets in Britain, and Earth First, as well as larger organisations like Amnesty International. Less "organised" forums for debate exist, so you can debate policy with anarchists and Situationists all over the world, or get the latest news on the McLibel campaign. Activist groups have discovered that the user-friendly nature of new technology of computer networks can help break through isolation and silence of mainstream media. The Internet promises the greatest tool of communication of alternative/ DIY culture for the immediate future - combining images and text, video and sound - combine the cheapness and immediacy of the newsletter/zine and the entertainment and graphics of photography, animation and video. And above all, it is not regulated - as yet. Undercurrents, for instance, hope that within the next year or two the technology will allow activist videos to be shown over the Internet, thus bypassing the broadcasting system, and allowing immediate e-mail feedback. [76]

Fear and Loathing

If we assume that attempts to regulate the Internet will fail, this is promising indeed. As with television, the Internet is accused of having a hand in the perceived corruption of society, with websites offering pornography and prostitution and the threat of paedophiles using the Internet. [77] Such sites do exist, as they would in a society that has pornography, prostitution and, regrettably, paedophiles. However, unlike television, the majority of households are not as yet linked up to the Internet. So why the outrage? Because there is fear of a medium which is accessible, popular, and unregulated. Fear of a media technology which allows people to express their ideas and tell their own stories and discuss globally ideas and practices for change. The fear comes from the spectacular coalition of governments, media corporations, military interests multinationals, companies with dubious business practices, and "moral" arbiters - who enlist in their ranks of civilian supporters people who are afraid of life, bitter that their own lives are so subjected, enslaved and curtailed by the spectacle that they will cry out to urge social control in the name of "society," and repression in the name of liberty. To paraphrase Raoul Vaneigem, perhaps the suppression of memory of what they have lost is what chains them most firmly to the pillory of submission. [78]

If attempts to control the Internet by regulation fail, there are alternate ways to undermine it. Phillips is currently marketing "Web TV." This allows you to "consume" the Internet at home, cheaply, using your television and a remote control. You can "surf" the Net to your heart's desire, but you can't put up a website, or e-mail anyone. The marketing blurb talks about accessibility and affordability, but if this venture is successful, it means that the Internet may go the way of radio: people at home with their receivers, waiting to be fed the next titbit of infotainment.

The hope though, is that video and computer technology can work toward creating a media that challenges the passivity of spectacular society. As one activist put it, "We want to create a "community of activism"- activism as a part of everyday life, a way of life, not of protest so much as of claiming what is rightfully ours. Not a "revolutionary" programme but a forum for people to tell each other their own stories, to join struggles and share pleasures."

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