Irresistibly enchanted by a seeming grassroots cornucopia, many cybertarian technophiles in the Global North attribute magical properties to today’s communications and cultural technologies, which are said to obliterate geography, sovereignty, and hierarchy in an alchemy of truth and beauty. Cybertarians are not so much struck dumb as made garrulous by the digital sublime.
A deregulated, individuated media world supposedly makes consumers into producers, frees the disabled from confinement, encourages new subjectivities, rewards intellect and competitiveness, links people across cultures, and allows billions of flowers to bloom in a post-political parthenon.
In this Marxist/Godardian wet dream, people fish, film, fornicate, and finance from morning to midnight. The mass scale of the culture industries is overrun by consumer-led production, wounds caused by the division of labor from the industrial age are bathed in the balm of internet love.
Cybertarianism fantasies are fueled—and sometimes created—by multinational marketers, coin-operated think tanks, and gullible journalists who are only too keen to stoke the fires of aesthetic and autotelic desire.
The Magna Carta for the Information Age, for instance, proposes that political-economic transformations have been eclipsed by technological ones: ‘The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter. In technology, economics, and the politics of nations, wealth—in the form of physical resources—has been losing value and significance. The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things’ (https://www.pff.org/issues-pubs/futureinsights/fi1.2magnacarta.html).
Time magazine exemplified the supposed sovereignty of consumption in choosing its 2006 “Person of the Year.” The magazine famously announced the winner as: ‘You. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world’ (https://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570810,00.html). The Guardian newspaper is prey to the same touching magic: someone called ‘You’ headed its 2013 list of the hundred most important folks in the media (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/sep/01/you-them-mediaguardian-100-2013).
Cybertarianism dovetails with three utopias: the free-cable, free-video social movements of the 1960s and ’70s; the neoclassical, deregulatory intellectual and corporate movements of the 1970s and ’80s; and the post-Protestant, anti-accumulative hacker ethos of the 1990s and today.
Porta-pak equipment, localism, a disinterested, non-corporate approach to newness, and unrestrained markets supposedly provide an alternative to the numbing nationwide commercialism of mainstream media. Social-movement visions saw this occurring overnight. Technocratic ones imagined it in the “long run.” Each claimed it in the name of diversity, and they even merged in the depoliticized ideology of community media, which quickly embraced market forms.
Cybertarian discourse takes one or several of the following tacks:
• because of new technology and inventive practices of consumption, concentration of media ownership and control no longer matters—information is finally free, thanks to multi-point distribution and destabilized hierarchies
• consumers are sovereign and can transcend class and other categories
• young people are liberated from media control
• journalism is dying as everyone and their owl become sources of both news and reporting
• creative destruction is an accurate and desirable description of economic innovation
• when scholars observe media workers and audiences, they discover that ideology critique is inappropriate
• Marxist political economy denies the power of audiences and users and the irrelevance of boundaries—it is pessimistic and hidebound
• cultural imperialism critiques miss the creativity and resilience of national and sub-national forms of life against industrial products; and
• media effects studies are inconsequential—audiences outwit corporate plans and psy-function norms
What is left out of these seemingly dynamic and innovative but in fact tired and venerable lines?
• the ecological impact of the media
• questions of labor and life in the cognitariat
• those who essentially live outside consumption, beyond multinational markets—beyond an electricity grid and potable water, for example
• concentrated ownership and obedient regulation
• cultural imperialism’s resonance with populations and activists
• the supposedly new vulnerability of media organizations to the power of the young, the rebelliousness of consumers, and the force of new technology is as old as these organizations themselves
• the expansion of newspapers outside the Global North—people still line up in Barranquilla by the dozen each morning to place classified advertisements in the local paper, for instance; and
• the use of new technologies—for example, people citing one another’s sexting or F- and T-Word activity in family courts to undermine claims to parental responsibility, leading to judgements that deny people custody of their children (https://maleyinvestigations.com/child-custody.asp?tip=45)
Oh, something else: two-thirds of the world’s population is not linked to the internet (https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-07-13-where-do-most-internet-users-live#).
The lesson I draw from cybertarianism for sociology is this: to turn dreams into realities, we must distinguish between the two things—something that doesn’t happen when a rampant cybertarianism is so infested with the technological sublime that it forgets fundamentals of evidence and materiality.
Toby Miller is Emeritus Distinguished Professor, University of California, Riverside; Sir Walter Murdoch Professor of Cultural Policy Studies, Murdoch University (40%); Profesor Invitado, Escuela de Comunicación Social, Universidad del Norte (25%); Professor of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University/Prifysgol Caerdydd (20%); and Director of the Institute of Media and Creative Industries, Loughborough University in London (20%). The author and editor of over forty books, his work has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Turkish, German, Italian, Farsi, and Swedish. His most recent volumes are The Sage Companion to Television Studies (co-ed. 2015), The Routledge Companion to Global Popular Culture (ed., 2015), Greening the Media (with Richard Maxwell, 2012), and Blow Up the Humanities (2012). He can be contacted at email@example.com and his adventures scrutinized at www.tobymiller.org.
Banner image: Discarded computer keyboard; artwork based on a photo taken by Toby Miller in Valparaiso, Chile, 2014.Add to favorite