Date: Sun, 9 Mar 1997 21:52:15 +0100 (MET)
From: Geert Lovink

Information Inequality:
an interview with Herbert Schiller

Geert Lovink

Herbert Schiller is a critic with a clear, political and social view on media matters. He has been Professor of Communication at the University of California at San Diego and is well known for his ‘Mass Communications and American Empire’ and other writings on American cultural imperialism. One could position Schiller as a mediator between the US-foreign policy type of media analysis done by Noam Chomsky and the more conservative, moral critiques of Neil Postman. Schiller has elements of both. Like Chomsky, his lack of knowledge about the history of the Soviet Union, Stalinism and the destruction of people’s lives, cities, countries and nature by Soviet communism is highly disturbing. But this counts for many of the old leftists, who are themselves a product of the Cold War (both in Europe, the US and in the ‘Third World’). Net criticism is a movement from ‘89’ and therefore celebrates the fall of the Wall and the end of these dictatorships, from my point of view. All anti-US-imperialism, which rejects the study the tremendous tragedies, caused by ‘socialism’, is condemned to history and will itself become another fundamentalism. But this was not the topic of our conversation. Fortunately, the materialist critiques on large corporations are always true and so is Schiller’s latest book ‘Information Inequality’. It deals with topics like selection mechanisms in the culture industry, the sell out of public properties like school, libraries and elections, ‘data deprivation’, special effects for capturing viewers, the global rule of American pop culture and last but not least, the infobahn, being the ‘latest blind alley’. Lately, Herbert Schiller wrote an updated critique on internet and social exclusion in the French magazine Le Monde Diplomatique. This interview was conducted in Munich, during the conference ‘Internet & Politics’, on february 20, 1997.

Could you tell us something about the pre-history of cyberspace? When did you encounter the cyber-ideology for the first time?

One of the earliest was Daniel Bell, who wrote about ‘the end of ideology’ and ‘the post-industrial society’. Production didn’t amount to much, in his view, and everything was services, mostly in various kinds of informational fields. He did not start discussing cyberspace. But others started there and began to talk about the ‘information society’, being the post-industrial society. The other was Alvin Toffler, a popular writer, who wrote about these tendencies, in the early seventies. Bell and Toffler became the unquestioned basis, and there was no remarkable criticism at the time. The elite critisized Toffler for writing in such a popular manner, but that was nothing serious. So these writers had the field to themselves. The electronic basis of these writings is much more recent. ARPANET and the Internet as an academic communication network proceeded without a great deal of attention. It is only less than 10 years that it has busted out into a much more generalized public. My view is that this development has been very carefully cultivated by the standard forces. Like governmental bureaus as the National Science Foundation, which gave significant grants to individuals for the development of software. There was a very delibirate promotion and encouragement. It was not all so random and accidental or unplanned.

How does Marshall McLuhan fit into this picture?

McLuhan was taken up and given a lot of attention by the media itself. They liked it that he emphasized the media issue, out of a narcissistic interest. They found somebody who was making them appear very significant. But I don’t see him as a prophet of cyberspace or in any direct line with the current business. In his early works, like ‘The Mechanical Bride’, he was somewhat of a materialist, a social critic. But then he got off into esoteric areas.

George Gilder believes that the old, mass media monopolies will soon crumble because of the empowering possibilities of individuals by the so-called interactive, many-to-many media. There is a certain similarity to your critique on the big media corporations. Could you comment on that?

All one could do is look around. Do you see any indications? The monopolies are stronger than ever and the concentration continues. It now embraces a wide area, it is not just ‘media’, All forms of communication are brought together in these unified corporate conglomorates. You have Time-Warner, which has assets of about 20 billion dollars and is operating radio stations, recording studios, film studios, television programming and increasingly also retail stores, where they sell the apparels they produce in their movies. Disney is of course an enormous conglomorate. Then there is Viacom, which ownes MTV and does a great job in selling pop culture and making these kids less and less capable of doing any thinking. But it also includes computer companies and telephone companies. The television networks are all owned by super conglomerates. CBS is owned by Westinghouse, NBC by General Electric. ABC was just bought by Disney and Fox is owned by Murdoch. To think that these are crumbling, is like being in a fantasyland. We have to be careful in using the word ‘globalization’ in this context. It may to seem that everybody is participating in it and you will have to, and if you don’t you will fall behind and lose; we have to be competitive—that thing. Globalization is a direction of super-corporations. They are using the globe to market their products and penetrate every part of the world. But there is a big difference between what they are doing and the whole world population.

It might not be enough anymore to just practice ideology criticism. The understanding of this expanding branch might also need an economical analysis.

You have to examine how things proceed. You might want to focus on the commodification of information. What was free, is now owned, proprietary information. What has to be looked at, is to what extent the net itself becomes a privatized operation. Another area will be how they are going to put television and broadcasting onto the internet. That also is going to bring commercial avertisement. It will no longer be open, available and free.

How do the broadcasting media relate to the rapidly growing, but still small cyber media? Noam Chomsky does not seem be very interested in the Net. Perhaps he does not see its strategic importance.

You have to examine this as things develop. It is an area of continuous scrutiny and monitoring. Everything you will discover in the areas of television and film will come back in the Net. The patterns are going to be very similar. We are nowhere near to what they like to call an information society. This term serves to camouflage what the current reality is. The talk about the ‘new’ keeps the present level left aside. We are living in a period of innocence and bankrupcy of values. People are desperately looking for meaning, identity, ethnicity, gender. All of which are legitimate, but when they get to be obsessive, they make it less possible to recognize what the underlying, fundamental forces are. There is a lot of escapism in the talking about ‘are we now in the information society?’ But many of those people are sincere, so you can’t make them seem as if they are fools.

What is your view on the role of cultural studies in all this?

For me it is very ironic because I have tried always to include the cultural component. I was aware about it from the very beginning when I wrote about the role of cultural imperialism. Along comes cultural studies and attacks the political economy approach as being too narrow and too exclusive. At least in the United States, the main current of cultural studies is to deny the legimimacy of the political economy of mass communication. I do not mean intentionally, but it has served the dominant ideology as I see it. They do not want to see the underlying reality of the images and messages they are looking at. ‘The act of the audience’ puts people like myself in a curious situation. I am not saying that everybody is a cultural dope. But I do have to recognize where the cultural power is. I cannot accept it when they talk about the opposition and resistance of viewers. If they are reading women’s books, romances, they are showing their resistance to their way of life... This might be the case, but I don’t regard that as the type of resistance that will take us very far.

Where do you see the roots of such a political economy of the media?

It has not such a long history, a few decades. I am trying to indicate that the fundaments of a materialist philosophy are crucial to an understanding. Students should have some sense of the social forms that have evolved, from early capitalism til now, in terms of labor and wage labor. These form do not disappear. There is a great deal of materiality that can be pointed to, even in the case of the internet. I don’t think it is so remote. You can show how those big companies get involved in all these different activities. People themselves can recognize some relationships. You can show the connections to organized sports, to the apparel industry, which is producing baseball hats, football uniforms and the rest. The cultural industry is so overt, so visible.

Do you see a massivication of the internet taking place?

That might be the case. But this concept was mainly an oppositional idea of what was happening in the media industry in the late thirties and early fourties. It was an elitist view, which looked down on the masses. So the term itself has to be looked at as an ideological outlook. Persuasion, for example, was a big issue in the thirties, but when mass communication became a formal discipline, they dropped it, because persuasion would come too close to the nervous system. So they switched the topic to the effects of communication. But that is a very different question.

What do you think of the equation of the internet with American imperialism? Certain forms of anti-Americanism in Europe are not very progressive... How do you look at this dilemma?

I have looked at the phenomena of cultural imperialism for a long time. This is not something of the nineties. It even preceded the American, there was the French, the British and the Dutch imperialism. It is not a new set of relationships. But we do have to ask overselves: does the internet undermine the old relationships or does it reinforce them? I am only trying to suggest that there are key people, key levels in the United States who see a very practical utilization for imperialistic purposes. That could be an alert signal. If the internet is becoming a major vehicle for transnational corporate advertising, you are quite justified in talking about the extension of cultural imperialism into the internet.

Herbert I. Schiller, Information Inequality, The deepening social crisis in America, Routledge, New York/London, 1996 ISBN 0-415-90765-9