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nettime: Information Inequality/Interview with Herbert I. Schiller

Information Inequality
An interview with Herbert I. Schiller
By 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 Sovjet Union, stalinism and the destruction of people's lives,
cities, countries and nature by sovjet 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 therefor celebrates
the fall of the Wall and the end of these dictatorships, from my point
of view. All anti-US-imperialism, which rejects to 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 on least, the inforbahn,
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
Muenich, during the conference 'Internet & Politics', on february 20,

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

HS: One of the earliest was Daniel Bell, who wrote about 'the end of
ideology' and 'the post-industrial society'. Production didn't ammount
too 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 preceded without a
great deal of attention. It is only less then 10 years that it has
brusted 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.

GL: How does Marshall McLuhan fit into this picture?

HS: 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 an
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.

GL: 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?

HS: All what 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 dollar and is operating radio stations, recording studios, film
studios, television programming and increasingly also retail stores,
where they sell the apparels that 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, 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 crumbeling, is like being in a
We have to be carefull 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.

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

HS: 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 extend
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 advertisement. It will no longer
be open, available and free.

GL: 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.

HS: 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, etnicity,
gender. All of which are legitimate, but when they get to be
obsessional, 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

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

HS: 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. All 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 it 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.

GL: Where do you see the roots of such a political economy of the

HS: 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.

GL: Do you see a massification of the internet taking place?

HS: 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.

GL: 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?

HS: I have looked on the phenomena of cultural imperialism for a long
time. This is not someting of the nineties. It even preceded the
American, there was the French, the Brittish 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 do 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

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