College Quarterly
Spring 2007 - Volume 10 Number 2
Reviews The Empire of Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement
Michael Strangelove
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Organizational innovations and technological novelties have captured the attention of creative writers for over two centuries. Whether it was Adam Smith’s recognition of the potential for increased productivity in the making of pins or Mary Shelley’s consideration of the moral dilemmas implicit in the ingenuity of Dr. Frankenstein, the hopes and fears of the Enlightenment have been reproduced in fact, fiction and fantasy for all to witness.

As the dark satanic mills of early industrialism gave way to the button-down world of 1950s organization men, the shape and substance of discussion about the relationships among technology, culture and political economy have swayed to and fro over issues of economic efficiency, psychological anxiety, philosophical authenticity and social justice.

The current vogue is inescapably with the discussion of communications technology and its implications for global capitalism. Especially since analysts and visionaries such as Canadian scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan helped make the study of the mass media both academically respectable and broadly popular in the late twentieth-century-field of Cultural Studies, attention has been turned away from what we say and toward how we say it. The ways in which electronic machinery mediates and, some add, determines our conversations has become a serious and important topic in business, industry, governance and education. Politicians speak in sound-bites; so do the characters on Sesame Street.

Predictions about the impact of new means of communication throughout society and especially in the domain of formal education are, of course, nothing new. In 1922, Thomas Edison told anyone who would listen that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system … in a few years,” he continued, “it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” In 1945, William Levenson wrote that “a portable radio will be integrated into school life as an accepted educational medium.” In the early 1970s, the University of Texas marketed perfectly terrible videotapes that tried to teach student a version of English in what was then deemed a “cutting edge” delivery system in the form of a woman in a bee-hive hairdo, speaking in an unfathomable drawl. The only thing more laughable was the eagerness of customers gleeful to replace expensive classroom teachers at any educational price. In 1998, Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives and intense Alvin Toffler aficionado, promised: “We’ll replace textbooks with computers,” and added “I hope that within five years [we] will have no more textbooks.” Well, almost a decade has passed, and the best bit of news is that, for the time being, we have no more Newt.

What we do have are textbooks – with four-colour glossy pages, web links, prefabricated test banks and obscene prices. The publishing industry has so far been successful in fending off the computer revolution in education largely by appropriating what is salable within the new gadgetry and dispensing with the rest. In commercialized education, the focus group has come to replace the expert scholar in the determination of curriculum and “delivery systems.” Prominent in the field, the publishing-software industry complex has consequently gone some way toward both the vertical and horizontal integration of the education market. Commercialized, commodified and thoroughly third-rate curriculum products have amassed an ever greater proportion of the “edbiz,” and have thus generated greater profitability for its suppliers than ever before.

Students, of course, have also transformed themselves from book readers into Internet dabblers, and few college essays or research papers contain more than sporadic “hard copy” references. Unless actively discouraged, college men and women seem fixated on “Wikipedia” and corporate websites to the exclusion of more serious sources.

It could be worse. According to a number of top corporate futurists, the traditional teaching jig could be completely up.

One monstrous example among management guru Peter Drucker’s many bizarre formulations was that “universities are finished.” Shortly before his death, the nonagenarian neophiliac prophesied the end of higher education as we know it. The hideous old nostrum that a teacher should be “a guide on the side, not a stage on the stage” was replaced by the admonition that college professors should constitute no more than an ethereal “presence” – mere spectres of their former selves. In the near future they would be reduced to observing respectfully as self-directed students wandered aimlessly amidst the savants of cyberspace. What knowledge would be pursued, who would monitor students’ self-defined progress, who would accredit such rambling explorations (and why anyone would take any of this process seriously) would become a matter for the market to address. Popularity polls, (already the bane of principled educators, would overtake professional credentials, and college life would become even more of an infotainment industry than its critics already think it has become.

Can colleges and universities survive? For most fatuous futurists, the answer for both is a tentative “yes”; but only, we are told, by going on-line, awaiting e-mails and encouraging our “customers” to collect student-centred certificates, diplomas and degrees “in their jammies.” For the rest who may be allowed an occasional lecture, the answer involves developing a sophomoric sense of humour, wearing cool clothes, passing everyone and distributing “A” grades like candy kisses, and never questioning authority – whether those in putative control of society, the educational institution or the ebb and flow of student opinion. Above all, education must become unrelenting “fun.”

All available evidence, of course, suggests that these scenarios are nonsense. They are politically unacceptable, pedagogically useless and professionally irresponsible. Borrowing the language of social theorist Arthur Kroker, high-tech learning is disembodied education traveling at warp speed. It is panic scholarship in a postmodern spasm. It is made from recombinant nanothoughts in digitized delirium. It is really no more than the old children’s game of cat’s cradle. As Kurt Vonnegut hinted in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, technologically driven education can provide clever mechanical exhibitions. Classrooms of students can answer pop-up, multiple-choice quizzes in over-crowded classrooms with hand-held clickers; cyber-addicted students can have virtual seminars – sometimes in “real time.” In the end, however the promise is broken: “no damn cat and no damn cradle.”

Even the best of the new modes of technological mediation are marketed by product managers who reckon themselves exempt from any serious discussion of pedagogy. They merely repeat the mantra that education must be “fun” and, above all, “up-to-date” and “state-of-the-art.” There are, we are assured, oodles of software out there and we are promised that more is forthcoming. It is there to be used, and used quickly and painlessly, with no discernible results other than the awarding of academic credits.

The store of infinitely replaceable “teachware” is coming at us quick as a bunny on a laser beam. “Experts,” we are assured, “predict that we will see significant new technologies/products for e-learning being introduced every ninety days.” Now, setting aside the likelihood that these experts are a few fish shy of a school, and that their predictions are worth no more than the ether in which they float, we should ask what value there is in educational “products” with a shelf-life shorter than a genetically modified muffin.

Each new wave of information technology will have its hyperbolic hucksters, and each will be incorporated into the “tool-box” of teacher tricks, or unrepentantly jettisoned in its turn. The technophiles insist that we will lurch along in a nonlinear path toward the day when infochips can be embedded in our brains at birth, and no one will need to undertake the sometimes difficult and occasionally hazardous task of learning. We will need merely to download the social, economic and health information that we need to live fulfilling virtual lives.

They have a point. We are careening down the information highway, blinders on and oblivious to the technocrash at the end of the journey. We no longer use quill pens, and some of our students – trained on keyboards since early childhood – already demonstrate their adaptation to postmodernity by displaying a remarkably childish hand when compelled to regress to “cursive” writing. Of course, some of them do continue to write with obsolete instruments, and some of us still read through media unplugged, unnetworked and unconnected to a screen – large or tiny. I suspect, as well, that such recalcitrant exercises in practical antiquarianism will endure for some time.

Nonetheless, whether as obsessive technology-boosters or reluctant fellow travelers who see no practical future for conventional Luddism and, consequently, none for themselves, we speed along – either loving the abstract adrenaline rush or suppressing motion sickness. Those in thrall to technofantasy thrive on the velocity; those being unwillingly captive and unable to escape, merely hope for relief or at least someone who can sensibly explain where we are and where we are headed. With that precious information, we might also be able to find out who we are, and that (to complete the famous phrase from the immaculately hip aristocrat, Lord Buckley) would help a little bit.

Michael Strangelove has provided superficially appealing answers. The Empire of Mind is a highly praised book. It was a Canadian Governor-General’s Award finalist in the category of non-fiction. It contains Strangelove’s intellectual map of the contested territory of technology, culture and political economy. He tries to help us locate ourselves, and to find our balance in the symbolic maelström of postmodern, technodiscourse. He acknowledges the transformative influence of communications technology on education; but, he has bigger fish to fry. He wants to take on the entire technotransformation as it reconfigures all aspects of human communication, and hence all of human society. He deals with momentous issues, but he is also very, very prudent in his analyses and assessments.

Addressing the virtual world of the Internet, Strangelove understands that veering too far in one direction leads to the composition of a vapid exercise in cheerleading for Bill Gates and an almost millenarian confidence in the capacity of silicon to ratchet up the hope for (and the reality of) a virtual utopia. It produces the preposterous conclusion that “the present Information Age has the potential to unleash the power of the mind, thereby dramatically increasing productivity, which will in turn foster greater leisure, which will be used to achieve greater spiritual depth and more environmental consciousness, all without sacrificing the material well-being of future generations.” This is pretty much what Marx had to say in the Grundrisse, published 150 years ago. It was the subtext of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Marx was full of hope. So where the hippies. Those who have never read Marx now mainly dismiss him. He may one day become fashionable again. The hippies will have to forage in the dustbin of history all by themselves.

Strangelove does not entirely dismiss Marx; but, as he laconically relates: “My interpretation of the trajectory of capitalism is far less optimistic.” He therefore goes steadfastly about the task of belittling critics (mainly) of the left while undermining enthusiasts (mainly) of the right. He seeks a middle way. He wishes to resolve a paradox that is sometimes defiantly resistant to “unpacking.”

The question of digital piracy gives Strangelove his entrée into the world of communication and control. Personal downloading of text, images and sound from Internet sources was deemed a very serious issue for owners of copyrights to books, photographs, films, music and other forms of recording. Private pilfering was quickly rendered superfluous by entities such as Napster, which offered infinite opportunities to “share” works of art and entertainment for a modest fee, or for no charge at all.

Artists and producers alike went apoplectic. They were terrified that their revenues would be reduced by the illegal copying of material. They were pushed into the same paranoia that swept through publishing houses when Marshall McLuhan advised that the photocopier had made everyone their own publisher (but books and magazines continue).

Audio and visual artists feared that their tunes and films would be distributed at no cost and that no one would buy their CDs or go to their movies.

It was a considerable tempest in a significant tea-pot; but, now the ruckus has largely died down due to innovative business practices and equally innovative legislation. Still, Strangelove sees in digital piracy the emerging cracks in the corporate dike.

Audiences and artistic content, he says, are out of control and uncontrollable. Undeterred by evidence of corporate integration in the production of information, Strangelove clings to the idea that the “logic of capitalism” requires that gigantic conglomerates will be dissolved by “market forces,” and that we will emerge from this considerable bump on the info highway with no discernible damage. In fact, both the arts and capitalism itself will be stronger, for the market will decide. It is just another instance (albeit a spectacularly impressive one) of capitalism’s relentless revolutionizing of production. In the end, the market will prove itself superior to all claims to privilege.

Paradoxically, among his several themes is the capacity of the Internet to open and sustain an “anti-capitalist movement” without the encumbrance of a militant proletariat or the necessity of developing class consciousness among the exploited masses. It can all be done at the keyboard. He cites a number of examples of this potential for a virtual revolution. They involve Barbie dolls and McDonalds.

Barbie, he tells us, is the epitome of pink mass marketing. Who could deny it? She (and her plastic paramour, Ken) have insinuated themselves into the lives of pre-pubescent female children to the extent that over two billion units have been sold. “The average American girl aged between three and 11 owns a staggering ten Barbie dolls … An Italian or British girl owns seven; a French or German girl, five.” Barbie, he need hardly have added, is “the most valuable toy brand in the world.”

But, is Barbie’s world invincible? Not for a moment! Barbie’s ample bosom is the site of what Strangelove calls “online cultural resistance.” Illegal Barbies are everywhere. Web sites offer unauthorized naughty Barbies, including “Sorority Slut Barbie, Hacker Barbie, Tourette Syndrome Barbie, Lesbian Bondage Barbie, Gangsta Bitch Barbie, Exotic Dancer Barbie, Transgendered Barbie, and Barbie on a Cross.” The revolution is Wednesday; bring your illicit Barbie!

McDonalds presents another opportunity for resistance. McDonalds, Strangelove insists, is under “sustained assault” by environmentalists, nutritionists and activists of all sorts. It is “an example of corporate impotence in the face of online criticism.” Really? I recall when the golden arches boast fifty or sixty million sold; now they just say “billions” – it is too hard to count that high and that fast.

What is more: the high point of this innovative cultural resistance seems to have come in an extraordinarily traditional form. In 1990, McDonalds filed suit for libel against five members of Greenpeace in Great Britain for distributing leaflets accusing McDonalds of various sorts of mischief including “exploiting children with advertising, promoting an unhealthy diet, poor labour practice, environmental negligence, and the ill treatment of animals.” During six years of litigation, 40,000 pages of evidence and 20,000 pages of transcript testimony had been amassed. Three of the five cultural critics apologized, and two others were assessed ₤30,000 in damages. McDonalds, having won in court but having already been ridiculed for beating up on these little guys, dropped their claim. Leaflets? Law suits? If this is the “moral critique of capitalism” at its postmodern best and a prime example of “culture jamming,” the corporations have little to fear. The revolution is Thursday; bring your leaflets … and your barrister!

From the other side of the ideological divide, Strangelove has some nasty things to say about people who criticize novel communications media. He singles out critical theorists such as Robert McChesney, Herbert I. Schiller, Lawrence Lessig, Geert Lovink, Arthur Kroker, Michael A. Weinstein and others who have described the Internet as “having succumbed or as imminently succumbing to corporate control.” These latter-day Marxists, Strangelove intones, “have prematurely thrown in the towel.” They fail to appreciate the anarchistic and revolutionary potential of information technology. Kroker and Weinstein come off especially badly for their views in their book, Data Trash. It is, says Strangelove, a “hysterical polemic against the growth of ‘cyber-authoritarianism’ [and] a diatribe [that] reeks of disdain for the common man.”

In his world, Strangelove thinks that the masses can bring down big business, but he disdains anyone who thinks that the technological system is fundamentally authoritarian. He is for anarchy and against class conflict. He is against corporations and in favour of the free market. His message is mixed or, rather, very, very prudent.

He does have a supportable argument concerning the organizational and political potential of the Internet. Anti-globalization protests have certainly been enhanced by the global communications network. So have the membership lists of white supremacists. Funds have been collected and members recruited for official political parties – Conservatives and Socialists, Republicans and Democrats alike. Alternative news sites such as Zmag, CounterPunch, Alternet, rabble.ca and innumerable others around the shrinking world provide ideas and information that are generally unavailable in the largely supine corporate print and broadcast media. These are all good things insofar as they provide a platform for debate. To suppose, however, that such vehicles of budding dissent are about to triumph over corporate capitalism when over 50% of Internet use is dedicated to the production and distribution of pornography (variously defined) tests the credibility of the proselytizers (and the credulity of the skeptics) of the virtual insurrection.

The revolution is Friday; bring your BlackBerry!

I will, of course, take all of this more seriously when political blogs compete with Facebook for the attention of teenagers. In the meantime, negotiating a path between the Scylla of conservative talk radio hosts and the Charybdis of lefty Luddites is an excellent strategy for Strangelove, it is enough to win praise as an articulate, nuanced and provocative analyst of the diverse political cacophony and the ubiquitous technological mediations now available to Osama bin Laden, Howard Dean, Lou Dobbs and James Dobson.

Michael Strangelove seems to have achieved a position of sensible moderation, an attitude toward the driving force of postmodern culture that allows it to be redeemed, rather than replaced. He embraces the liberal virtues of humanistic reformism. While supporting an attack on authoritarianism, sexism and fast food through new communications techniques, he avoids the logocentrism and the allegedly false promises of nineteenth and twentieth-century revolutionary thinkers. Inhumane and unethical companies are bad, he admits; but, Marx and Mao are probably worse. So, what will save the world from capitalism? Why, more capitalism!

Back to education. The real problem with Strangelove’s approach is not that he seeks the golden mean. In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad ethical position. It served the ancient Greeks well – or, at least those who honoured it. It won Albert Camus a Nobel Prize in 1957, for speaking truth to divided powers. Not fervently endorsed by zealots on all sides, its refusal to allow visions – utopian or dystopian – to keep us from tending to reality has proven wise council. Those committed to the “clash of civilizations” today could certainly use a healthy dose of it.

The real problem is that Strangelove seems to regard technology as being value-neutral. It can be used for good or evil. This is the logic of the National Rifle Association which unapologetically tells us that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” when the truth is that guns make us all into targets. Applying NRA logic to Internet campaigns, we discover that an engaging website can attract unreconstructed communists and neo-Nazis; but, they can also promote democracy by giving ordinary citizens a place to give voice to their aspirations and their frustrations. It depends of who is saying what.

Looking to the past, we can remind ourselves that wandering mistrals, paperback books and internet blogs are neither good nor evil. So, it all depends on whether they carry truthful or fallacious messages. It depends on whether they are used for good or ill.

Likewise, technology and education can be addressed from the volitional, idealist perspective in defiance of any hint of materialist thought.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong with PowerPoint, CD-ROMs or distance education. They can be used well or badly. The proof is in the pudding. Tests can be administered to discover whether students have mastered the content of the course. And so on.

But now we can see precisely that the medium carries its own message. Speaking is different from writing. Essays are different from True-False questions. Each mode of ideological reproduction structures the implicit message being transmitted. Each brings its own ontological, epistemological and pedagogical assumptions and the particular relationships between knowledge and the human interests they serve. The Empire of Mind is ruled by the idea, and especially the idea that technology is benign, but human beings are not. Human beings can use machines to help or to harm; but, the machines are not neutral. The serve some groups of people and not others. Understanding this is not a contemptuous condemnation of the “common man”; it is an insightful recognition of the reality that envelopes all people. Freedom does not come from denying reality; it comes, if its comes at all, by recognizing and transforming it – not the other way around.

Strangelove appears to think that leafleting McDonalds is tantamount to an assault on the capitalist order. It is not. It is just a stimulus for a modest marketing adjustment. How to defuse the revolution? Stop making French fries with trans-fats. The revolutionaries will eat them up!

In colleges, technological changes are harder to undo. Once we have graduated an entire generation of functional illiterates, it may be too late for them (and their children) to learn to read and write. Once we have raised an entire generation of teachers who are so comfortable with visual learning that they can no longer concentrate on written words, it may be too late.

Of course, we have experienced wholesale shifts before. The invention of the alphabet betokened the end of epic poetry recited by those with the skill and the will to memorize it. The printing press put an end to traditional scholarship. The telephone all but ruined the art of conversation. E-mail has sabotaged personal correspondence.

Strangelove’s supporters would no doubt argue that, although every change involves a loss, the benefits have on balance outweighed the losses. At least in the contemporary Western world almost everyone can read The Odyssey, or play Beethoven on their home entertainment units. The fact that more prefer to watch “reality” television or professional sports must, I admit, be balanced against the fact that far more people can hear his symphonies in a day than heard them in his lifetime. Travel is easier, housing is better, food is cheaper and, of course, education is more accessible. The promise of the Enlightenment was and remains that democracy, the free market and increasingly advanced technology will usher in an unprecedented and unending era of individual liberty, prosperity and knowledge. These triumphs have, however, come at a largely unacknowledged cost to Western civilization – to say nothing of their implications for the billions of people who live with poverty, ignorance and disease around the world, which is also arguably a consequence of the political economy of the Enlightenment.

Strangelove offers us “cautious optimism” and tells us to “stay the course.” Like Mary Shelley, the poet who may have worried that poetry might be made the product of machines, my “interpretation of the trajectory of [technology] is far less optimistic.”


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology