Media Freedom by richard barbrook

The Post-Industrial Utopians

After the failure of traditional reflationary remedies, many politicians and intellectuals were convinced that Fordism had reached its inherent social, organisational and technological limits. However, unlike the New Left, they didn't accept that a social revolution was needed to transcend the crisis of the system. Instead, they believed that a new form of society would spontaneously emerge from the growing convergence of computer, media and communications technologies. Back in the early-1960s, Marshall McLuhan had been the first prophet of a new post- industrial age. According to this guru, the development of human societies was solely determined by their technologies, especially the different forms of media. For example, he claimed that Fordist industrialisation had been caused by the invention of printing, which brought about discipline, individuality and rationality. However, with the introduction of radio and television broadcasting, this industrial society had begun to break down. Because the electronic media were supposed to encourage participation and involvement, the younger generation would no longer accept hierarchies imposed by Fordism.

For McLuhan, the student revolts and the cultural rebellion of the hippies were simply symptoms of a clash between two rival forms of media. In his view, this crisis could only be overcome by the final triumph of the new information technologies. With the spread of computer automation, Fordist manufacturing would be replaced by information processing. As a consequence, alienating and boring factory labour would be transformed into participatory and enjoyable intellectual work. Similarly, the spread of the electronic media would also overcome national and social divisions among people. When everyone was watching the same television programmes, McLuhan believed that old hatreds and misunderstandings would disappear. As a devout Catholic, this prophet of the information age hoped that the whole world would be united in a mystical version of the electronic agora: the 'global village'. Inspired by McLuhan's celebrity status, other intellectuals also started predicting the replacement of Fordism by a post-industrial society. According to these futurologists, the introduction of information technologies would shift employment from the manufacturing and extractive industries towards the service sector, especially its media and high- technology companies. As a consequence, assembly-line workers would be replaced by white-collar professionals. In parallel, bureaucrats and industrialists would lose their political and economic power to scientists and academics, who had the skills to invent the new information technologies. For the futurologists, the crisis of Fordism was proof of the correctness of their analysis. For example, they claimed that the reemergence of mass unemployment was caused by the failure to train workers for the new information age, rather than the loss of control over national economies to the global financial markets. As technological determinists, these prophets believed that the profound economic crisis of the early-1970s was solely caused by the invention of new types of machinery.

Because of their technological determinism, the futurologists were fascinated by the electronic media. As the personal computer hadn't yet been invented, radio and television sets were the most important information technologies in daily use. According to these gurus, the electronic media were already pioneering the future information society within the present. For example, with their ever-changing fashions, stars and advertising slogans, radio and television stations demonstrated the obsolescence of the rigid production methods of Fordism. In the future, the futurologists believed that the introduction of satellite and cable television technologies would greatly increase the influence of the electronic media. Crucially, they forecast that the construction of an interactive cable television network would inevitably lead to the development of direct democracy. In the post-industrial utopia, viewers would be able to register their opinions on issues of public concern by simply pressing their remote controls. Thus, without the need for a social revolution led by the New Left, the futurologists believed that the spread of the new information technologies would automatically create the electronic agora.


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