Questioning Technology: Herbert Schiller

Herbert Schiller, a leading critic of the communications industry, has written a new book. But he's not expecting much in the way of sales because as a veteran of the publishing game he knows criticism of the American corporate empire gets an author nowhere fast. So, if he's lucky, somewhere behind the tall stacks of books by the likes of Bill Gates and Colin Powell, one might find a few copies of Schiller's Information Inequity: The Deepening Social Crisis in America (Routledge, New York).Rather than celebrating the American transition toward an information economy, Schiller describes a freewheeling corporate enterprise system that dominates everything it touches. This omnipotent machine pumps a privately-owned information apparatus devoted to money-making and the avoidance of social criticism. "Every space in this society -- every little crevice -- is being filled in by the corporate presence," Schiller said. "We are absolutely inundated with this stuff. Even museums and other public places are literally being forced to accept corporate relationships. "We are experiencing the starving, cutting, slicing and denying of the public sector," he said. "Gingrich and his cronies are trying to destroy it. And unless the public says something soon the public will have no sector whatsoever." Speaking at the Learning Alliance in New York City, Schiller said corporate interests are viewing recent developments involving the interactive communications infrastructure with glee because it allows them free rein to create huge databases on individuals and then bombard those individuals with messages. "I don't say this to scare you," he said. "But you have to know what the reality it. Corporate sponsorship, advertising and influence is the name of the game in this society. Unless something occurs to create more opposition to this stuff, we are going down the drain. There are times you have to say 'NO' to these people." Schiller said the corporate titans are carrying out a successful campaign to transform the definition Americans have of themselves from being citizens to being consumers. "People are constantly being told they are consumers. Even the libraries," he said, "are beginning to refer to their 'customers.' Where the hell do they get off saying their 'customers?' The library is designed to serve the people, not customers. Customers are people who come into Barney's to go shopping." Though such semantics may seem subtle, Schiller said, they reflect the way we begin to think of ourselves and the way we accept being treated in the social environment. "Not only are they selling us goods and services but they are selling us a way to live," he said. "That's a crock!" Schiller, who is professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of California at San Diego, said the very personal message of corporate media today is "if you're not on top there's something wrong with you." He said that because "certain concepts have been defined as unthinkable" by the corporate media a vast subject area has been put off limits for public discussion in the United States. The McCarthyism of 40 years ago wasn't just a transient period, Schiller said, but one that has been carried forward to a point where young students today are afraid to sign petitions and to express themselves on controversial social issues. "You can't operate believing that the American people are more dense, more opaque, more unwilling to learn from experience than people of other countries," he said. "After our experiences begin to make it clear that something is so absolutely out of whack with the way things work, I can't believe there won't be some genuine large scale reaction." The concentration of corporate media has largely silenced the voices of those advocating change, Schiller said. "When we talk about overcoming or dealing with problems there are a lot of eloquent voices in this society," he said. "However, most of these capable, talented, creative people are scrounging to maintain their independence and not be tied to some corporation." He said even minimal amounts of $5,000 to $10,000 are not available for alternative views in books, films and other projects. "But why is it when the right wing wants to make these things the money flows into them from the biggest, most despicable and fascist organizations?" he asked. "We do not have public discussions in this society," he said. "We have McNeil-Lehrer starting somewhere over in the right center and moving, moving, moving far right. Have you ever heard a genuinely authentic rival critical voice on McNeil-Lehrer? And that's the best of them. These voices are all around but they don't get amplification. They don't get that opportunity to be in the national dialogue." Schiller said he has doubts that the Internet will become a powerful counter voice to the corporate media. "I don't want to sound like bad news all the time," he said. "I see very eloquent people expressing themselves on the Internet, but whether or not it's going to have enough of a cohesion -- enough of a mass to be able to do things -- I don't know." At best, Schiller said, even with "decent messages," electronic communications alone won't be enough to create meaningful change throughout the population. Nothing replaces the physical gathering of bodies, he said. "You've got to be together out there in the streets." Even though he feels that prominent groups now in power "are willing to see chunks of the population literally wiped out," Schiller said he holds out one hope for Americans that citizens of other counties may not have. "America does have a very large number of people with a sense of what's going on and they are not so entranced by it," Schiller said. "Right now they are not getting their voices out and they are not organized. But it's here that I find hope for change."

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