Borys Potyatynyk,

Director of Institute of Information Ecology,

Lviv  Franko National University, Ukraine.


Mass Media as a Self-Expanding  Megamachine: Is It Possible  To Stop It?’

 That human activity is moving towards more mechanization is common knowledge. I will be dwelling on the mechanization in the sphere informational activity, in particular.  

I am inclined to interpret the trend in terms of the expansion of the megamachine, which, consequently, makes me investigate the possibilities of curbing the expansion. The megamachine, according to Lewis Mumford, is nothing else than the organization of people. It is presumably made up of ‘human parts’ and, modifying his interpretation a little, of mechanical, electronic and other kinds of devices. The megamachine, in view of the sphere of its ‘application’, is supposedly a body of a number of mechanisms (judicial, military, media etc.)

A rebellion against the megamachine would seem somewhat ludicrous in view of the fact that the present civilization, and to a certain extent, the mindset of a modern man, are largely the result of what the megamachine has done. Therefore, we can only speak of a tendency. Which, in this case, is a tendency toward a total mechanization. This tendency, however, set us off thinking about the possibilities of restraining it and, indeed, reversing it, like, for example, by researching the  untapped resources of intuition.  

There has never been a shortage of criticisms in reference to machines. Let me just remind you of Nedd Ludd and his followers, - the Luddites. And Douglas Rushkoff, whom we will be citing shortly, might also, in a way, be regarded as one. Although,  truth be told, he does not sail into weaving machines. Instead, he comes down rather hard on electronic machines in the sphere of mass communicaiotion.  

“America's Descent Into Computer-Aided Unconsciousness And Consumer  Fascism… We have taught our machines to conduct propaganda. Web sites and  other media are designed to be "sticky," using any means necessary to  maintain our attention. Computers are `programmed to stimulate  Pavlovian responses from human beings, using techniques like  one-to-one marketing, collaborative filtering, and hypnotic  information architecture. Computers then record our responses in order to refine these techniques, automatically and without the need for human  intervention. The only metrics used to measure the success of banner  ads and web sites is the amount of economic activity - consumption  and production - they are able to stimulate in their human  user/subjects. As a result, the future content and structure of media  will be designed by machines with no priority other than to induce  spending.  It amounts to a closed feedback loop between us and our computers,  where - after their initial programming - the machines take the active role and human beings behave automatically. Programs adjust themselves in real time, based on their moment to moment success in  generating the proper, mindless responses from us. In fact, computers and software are already charged with the design of their own successors. They are encouraged to evolve, while we are encouraged to devolve into impulsive, thoughtless passivity." (The Thing that I Call Doug. A Talk with Douglas Rushkoff. EDGE. October 25, 1999).  

Although we could not agree more with some of his observations, we, nevertheless, prefer to dig deeper. And when we do, what we see is the banal truth that electronic automation in the sphere of the media is nothing more than a tiny branch on the gigantic tree of rationalization, mechanization, and, finally, civilization.  

Man has been moving this way for centuries now. Lewis Mumford talks about the social megamachine of ancient kingdoms as a forerunner/prototype of today’s mechanical and electronic devices.The authors of the megamachines, according to Mumford, were inspired by the order and regularity with which celestial bodies moved around the sky. That seems to make sense in a way. What we tend to see at work here, though, is a somewhat innate factor, which is an archetype of the machine that is, very possibly, deep-rooted in our mind.  

It looks like this archetype brought to life not only the megamachine of the ancient kingdoms, but also another forerunner of the present-day machinery, and that is logics. The syllogisms of mechanical logic, which were to be laid out later by Aristotle and which, in all evidence, had been in people’s minds long before this great thinker of antiquity  came along, perform the function identical, in fact, to what the toothed gear wheel used in transmission does. Ths logic of the primeval man, expressed through language, was, in our view, the primary source of both the social megamachines and the mechanical and electronic devices that followed much later.  

Now back to Rushkoff, whose concern is the ubiquity of computer machinery and Internet industry, which, albeit the product of our own making, often acts against its own creators, and, moreover, turns us into insignificant cogs of  one gigantic megamachine.  

While sharing his concern here we would like, however, to shift the focus a little. However much we might rant about the domination of the machine, this is not going to change things in the slightest. Whereas an in-depth analysis will enable us to make an impact on the underlying processes which, ultimately, shape the surface, i.e. what we see. Of those invisible underlying processes we are most interested in the two  touched on above; they are the ones which, in our view, have been most responsible for the machine civilization we have today, with its good and bad sides. Let us term them in the following way:  

a) functioning of the megamachine

b) machine-like thinking  

We will touch on point (a) for now.  

Our previous history was marked by the development of mechanization, which was  to reach its ultimate form  in the 20th  century with the advent of  all kinds of machines. I mean small appliances that fill our houses, our streets and our lives. But I also mean big megamachines here. Lewis Mumford used this word to denote a social mechanism, made up of human parts, for example ancient kingdoms. But, as a matter of fact, most of today’s  social institution are megamechanisms (let us call them ‘megas’), including, of course, the media mega, which tends to automatically expand its audience and profits.  

In my view, it is very important to differentiate between mechanical and electronic devices (small machines)  on the one hand, and megas, on the other. Shortly in this paper we shall see how small machines can become our allies against the megas.  

The ‘clockworklike’ organization of our life and everything in it  is the ideal we seem to strive for. Let us consider, for example,  law. There have always been complaints about the subjectivity and partiality of the courts interfering with the fairness of their judgement.  But if that is the case,  the computer would make a perfect judge. It would  automatically scan through all articles of law and come up with a verdict that would be just and fair.  

By the same token, we might invent an automatic journalist in the nearest future. It would certainly help  reach the ultimate in  journalistic  objectivity. To say nothing of   covering  hot spots, like Chechnya.  

Automation and mechanization  tend to penetrate everywhere. Our own  thinking may be no exception here (intellectual machine). There is a fable that I borrowed from an ancient Chinese philosopher. A traveler walking in a desert meets a recluse, who is climbing down  a well to get a bucket of water. On seeing this the traveler suggests  the man  make the task easier for himself by using some simple mechanism like a crane or a spindle to spare himself the trouble of going down the well each time he needs water. ‘But  I don't want it’, -- came an answer,-- ‘because man using a machine turns into a machine  himself’.  

There may be some truth to it. By the same logic, it is easy to imagine to what extent each one of us resembles a machine. On the eve of the new, 2000 year I read about expectations of  some American children for the new century. An eight-year-old boy said  he expected even more machinery yet  in his home. He would sometimes spill drinks on a carpet and his parents would make him  clean it up, which he hated to do. That is why  he expected a new gadget to be developed to clean up automatically. The attitude described here is still  very common. Machines are, as they have ever been, an obsession.  We love our machines and our megas. Not only because they save our time and effort. We love  the very  idea of  a machine  just because it makes up for the mess,  chaos inside us.  

The only trouble is the megas that were meant as our aids very often function in spite of  our real needs. As Neil Postmen wrote, "what we love will ruin us". Let us just take the problem of a pathogenic (harmful)  influence of the media (most recent  incidents of  school shootings were induced, at least in part, according to one investigation, by violent and horror movies).  

The traditional view of the pathogenic text assumes the existence of some identifiable pathogenic flows such as  pornography, violence, propaganda, commercials. The nontraditional approach assumes that any text, even the Bible, may have a harmful impact on the human mind (let us just consider a couple of  episodes from the history of crusades or mediaeval inquisition). It also works the other way. Even the obviously pathogenic text may have no harmful impact on a mind. As Dionysius Areopag put it "to the pure all things are pure". Even for the same person at different times the pathogenic impact of the media will vary considerably. At one time it may be violence that does more harm, at other times -- propaganda, for example, communist ideology.  

So we have to look for something common behind all those kinds of pathogenic text.  

Besides,  any text, including pornography, violence etc. seems to be quite harmless when taken in small quantities. Commercialism is what seems really harmful.  In other words,  megamachines behind the text are dangerous. Thus, it is very important to learn how to resist their power. Machines, once  created by people and for people,  begin to grind people instead. A new Don Quixote  is needed. The old one used to fight imagined giants that were, in fact,  windmills. The new one would  have to fight windmills that are, actually, giant dragons. They are dragons in essence and machines in form.  

The media mechanism   has trained us to rely on automatically disseminated and ready-to-use information packages, like informational ‘big Macs’. So we live in the age of fast information and fast food, and what is the next stage to look like? Are we headed toward even faster informational ‘fast-food’ or  will there be a new opportunity for ‘home-made food’  informationwise?  

There has been evidence of hostility  toward machines ever since they started  playing  such a crucial role in people’s lives. Rene Dobbs put it  this way: "The World is being run by and for machines now, and no human or crowd can alter that  fact" (Rene  Dobbs. Media Ecology Online Discussion, ;  11, 25, 99.)  

It seems to be true, except for one word. I would rather use “has been run” instead of “is being run”. Meaning that  the world, in the sense of the human civilization,   has always been run by machines. Technology   makes this  more obvious with the small mechanical and electronic machines which, as a matter of fact,   look puny against their ’big brothers’, i.e, the  social, commercial, media megas.  

A group of megas (military, economic, judicial etc.) are responsible for the rise and maintaining of the modern civilization. Different mechanisms dominate at different times. The media mega has become the leading one  at this age of information.

Now we can say, maybe exaggerating a little bit, that the virtual equivalent of reality has become more important than the real thing.  

I would define this tendency in the following  way: the real thing without the virtual back-up tends to lose its reality. The reverse is true,  too: a nonexistent thing with a strong virtual image  becomes reality (it reminds a hyper- realism of Umberto Eko).  

Let us return to the machines, though. There is a growing reliance on ready-to-use products and  automatic operations without a manual back-up (I think the  Y2K scare is still fresh in everybody’s mind) that evokes ambiguous feelings.  

A few days ago I had a funny incident with my car. Accidentally I had  left a light on in the trunk. It made the battery  run down over the night. I became aware of it  the next morning just 15 minutes prior to an appointment. So I decided to push my car down a hill to help my engine start. I did not know it was not going to work for a car with an automatic transmission. Eventually, I had to leave my car down the street as the car without any sort of manual back-up is completely disabled when the battery runs out. You can’t do anything, even roll up the windows. And as I was in a hurry I left the car and called a taxi.  

If I were asked what I like most in the USA I would say technology, a clockwork-like social and economic organization, especially compared to the social and economic chaos in my home country. And if asked what I dislike most I would say exactly  the same: technology, a clockwork-like social and economic organization.  

As one Children's Encyclopedia put it "a machine is stronger than a person. It uses a greater force"  (The Kingfisher Children's Encyclopedia. Kingfisher Books. N.Y. 1992). Ironically it seems to be true. The message meant for children, that, say, a tractor or a crane is stronger than man, may carry another meaning: man is incapable of coping with megamachines, which are far stronger and dangerous than a harmless tractor or computer.  

I know it from my own experience. The totalitarian society of the former Soviet Union used to be much more machine-like than the American society.   "The mega-machine  expects the individual to be subordinate, it wants you to be a passive cog in the overall scheme of its activity. What did we end up with when the Soviet Union collapsed? The result was that, after the break-up of the Soviet megamashine, the people appeared  to be so well  brought-up in the desired spirit of complete passivity that it is still making it hard to switch to a democracy and free-market economy.

So much so that it is not uncommon to see rocket scientists in Ukraine raising potatoes in their backyard, using most primitive tools, just to survive. Indeed, Paul Valery’s comment that, "a civilization is as fragile as a life” seems to have a much deeper meaning than it first appears.  

A similar tendency of a growing passivity (although not quite to the same extent)  can be observed in the USA, where less than half of the population bother to vote.

Thus, one of the ways to resist the influence of megas I see is encouraging  a spontaneous activity and avoiding overreliance on machinery in general.  

We cherish an illusion that the relations between man and machine are at least reciprocal: we own machines, and machines own us. However, the most recent  events in Yugoslavia and Chechnya are self-evident examples of how difficult or, indeed, impossible it is to stop, for example, a military mechanism of a warfare.  

Megas very often tend to function in spite of us, like a virus. It’s not that they are opposed to us, they are just intrinsically programmed to multiply and expand. The expansion of pornography, media violence and commercials are good examples.  

So the future content and future development of the media depend, from my point of view, on how successful  our efforts to keep the megas in check  will be.  I do not think this is so much about an issue of managing them. We are dealing with a much more serious problem here, as megas are deeply entrenched in our minds. What  I mean here is  not just the exploitation of some egocentric desires related to popularity or wealth. The daily activity of the megas nurtures certain qualities inside us to meet  their demands and needs for expansion and proliferation. This resembles in a way domestic animals or pets adjusting to our needs to the point that it makes them incapable of living in the  wild any more. Meanwhile, everything from vaccination to sterilization is claimed  to be done for the benefit of those animals. Poodles and Pekinese undergo, from a certain point of view, completely senseless cosmetic operations to meet the above-said demands.  

This brings me to our media-related habits, like the desire to watch the Screen nearly anyplace and anytime, including on quite  intimate occasions. Those habits are kind of ‘dog-collars’ with locking mechanisms.  We are accustomed both to these ‘collars’ and also the special signals meaning that we are required to come over to the master to be put on a Leash.  

The advent  of the internet was marked by a truly free spirit of the academic and student community. Unlike the TV viewers, the internet users were originally  willing to be independent and active in the new electronic ocean. However, it was not to happen when millions of people brought up by TV, came to join the internet. They came there with a sense of the ‘dog-collar’, with a habit of being conducted and fed. They needed a “leash”. Which was duly provided for. Actually a lot of it. I am sure you know all the big internet “leash-providers”, and the biggest of them all is probably AOL.  

The megas entered the internet and virtually conquered it, and I don't see any real way to handle it as long as the majority of us are used to wearing dog-collars on our necks. The  internet example is a good illustration of how difficult the task of becoming "collar-free" is.  

In the case of a success we might anticipate a rise of the so-called ‘small forms of  communication’, i.e., the kind of mass communication based on the efforts of individuals and small media groups who would launch their informational products into  cyber space. Having powerful searching tools or browsers we might be able to do without the huge media corporations. The little you  need to do  is just type in or  tell (what I mean here is advanced speech-recognizing software) your  computer something like this: Africa,  hot spots. In this  way, you will be able to collect news yourself even to a greater degree than today, in order to produce  home-made information round-ups for home use, for  family and friends, and the whole thing can be done by just drawing from a variety of independent sources. Having finished your today's news round-up you can print  or forward it to friends'  computer screens  (getting  similar things from them, instead). By so doing, your complete  "picture" of the world news will be shaped not only by newspapers and TV, but, to a much greater degree than now, with the help of people you know personally. In a way, it reminds me of the kind of communication in the predominately oral  world before the era of newspapers arrived.  

Actually, it would be a whole new stage of  the old oral communication mode, in the non-oral cyber-world. This might  shape a basically new decentralized infrastructure of news communication. Thus, from my point of view, the new world information order, unlike the one which is being promoted by the UNESCO  will consist in not largely futile efforts to create  African or Asian equivalents of AP, Reuter or UPI, but rather  in a dramatic diminishing of influence on the part of today’s gigantic news corporations. Of course, there will be a call for new kinds of  software tools for this. I believe  future browsers will be able to automatically compare messages from various sources and identify differences between them. This is bound to be in a sharp contrast to the news industry of today, where even different news organizations usually offer the " hamburger" kind of news packages, which  often  bear a dull similarity to each other.

'Less uniformity and more diversity'-- might become a motto for the new media tendency.  

Thus, the  quality of future news services, and  the road the media development takes, from my point of view, depend not at all on the building-up of the newest and biggest media monopolies. Nor do they even seem to depend on the  new computer hard- and software to maintain these home-made news services as much as they rely on the willingness of the tangible number of people to become  "leash-free", and to carry out  an independent news search.   

In the way of conclusion,  it is worth pointing out that the  small forms of communication are based on new internet network technologies, on the one hand, and a more active and creative role of the individual, on the other. Of course, megas, in certain cases could encourage creativity, say, in designing a new car, new commercials, or a new talk show.  But that is  the creativity for profit that is encouraged. In contrast with this kind,  we are talking about a non-for-profit creativity and cultivating it. The sort of "childish" creativity, which we try to eliminate as early on  as possible in our kids, in an effort  to subordinate them to megas of  the “real world”. I think we should not be so fast in eliminating that often bothersome, sometimes weirdly  creative behavior. And its not at all accidental that I  mentioned creativity here. Psychologically speaking, more creativity is likely to carry more independence, more freedom. If  the need for creativity is not satisfied with our inner flow of images then the outside compensation comes in the form of   TV  screen images.  

Incidentally, in case with the internet we can observe how small electronic machines, i.e., computer networks  can help us  escape the overdependence on megas.  

Ironically, small electronic devices can  be viewed, at least at a certain point, as our allies. Thus, the early Internet gave us a hope of breaking this monopoly of  invisible megas through a really free and unrestricted self-expression and of reaching, at least, theoretically, an  unlimited number of people by any  single person. And, very importantly,  without any  kind of supervision  or censorship from the outside.  

I even believe that a new kind of software will be made to help us avoid commercials. I would be among the first to get one for myself  and get the screen of my computer rid of the omnipresent  commercials.  Paradoxically  enough,  this kind  of anti-commercial software might have a huge commercial success (this is another example of the invisible warfare of small machines versus  megas).  

Looking around  in search of something else opposing  the world of the machines (you will not find many things that are not machines themselves, come to think of it) I see  intuition and paradox as definitely at odds with them. A machine of any kind, with its underlying structure of a formal logic, refutes the very idea of the paradox. Even some computer viruses are designed as a logical paradox to get the machine into a state of infinite oscillation, or hanging up the computer.  There also exist ways to stimulate intuition by encouraging paradoxical thinking. It might be, however, a topic for another talk.