Director of Institute of Information Ecology,
Lviv Franko National
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.
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
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,
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:
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
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".
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,
So we have to look for something common behind all those kinds of
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’
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, firstname.lastname@example.org ;
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
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
technology, a clockwork-like social and economic
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
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
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.