SOLOMON: Worshipping the New Media Gods

The cover of [it[Time magazine showed Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on bended knee, holding a cell phone and telling the head man at Microsoft: "Bill, thank you. The world's a better place."Huh?The sudden Microsoft-Apple alliance was also on the Newsweek cover, which displayed a lively argument. "Bill Gates is good for Apple," said one senior editor. "No, he isn't," said another.A fierce debate -- within very narrow bounds.And so it goes. The titans of the computer industry stride the media heavens. Bill Gates is our modern-day Zeus. Other gods are overwhelmed by his amazing powers. What a story!Meanwhile, back on the ground, mortals can only imagine what it's like to move corporate mountains and build digital highways with the flick of a pen. We're encouraged to look up with awe at the colossal deal-makers.They're creating the software in our drives and the images on our screens -- and, increasingly, the dreams in our heads. They are the Providers. We are the consumers.The reverence in the air leaves an acrid smell. We may resent the Lord of Microsoft and the lesser gods, but the media culture of worship seems almost overpowering. An ultramodern theology now glorifies the quest for vast wealth and technological power.A decade ago, the advertising critic Leslie Savan noted the emergence of what she called "secular fiscalism." Television commercials were starting to tout the accumulation of capital "as an expression of inner spiritual growth."In 1986, Savan described a new MasterCard slogan -- "Master the Possibilities" -- as "apparently est-inspired." She added that a Merrill Lynch ad campaign, "Your World Should Know No Boundaries," was linking investment with traditional religious images of "God's country."By the early 1990s, such commercials were common. Savan dubbed them "spiritual ads" and observed that they "help us to simultaneously see our shallow, materialistic ways and exorcise them: We can consume the evil of excess by making every purchase into a prayer."And yet, Savan pointed out, those ads "clang with the contradiction between the abundant material life that commercial culture pushes and the more mystical injunction to shed that abundance in order to focus on what really matters." The contradiction "is readily resolved by the ads' passive spirituality -- be impressed by killer sunsets, feel awe from celestial music -- which works right into a consumer kind of spirituality."During the first years after World War II, sociologist C. Wright Mills saw the trend coming. He warned that money-driven fixations among elites were having enormous effects on the entire society -- causing people to shape themselves to fit the "higher immorality" of corporate America and "the social premiums that prevail."The process was insidious and did not provoke a sense of public crisis, Mills wrote in his 1956 book The Power Elite. He called attention to "a creeping indifference and a silent hollowing out." And he commented: "Money is the one unambiguous criterion of success, and such success is still the sovereign American value. ... It is not only that men want money; it is that their very standards are pecuniary."When such standards hold sway, even fame and fortune are not enough. The dominant concept is always "more."Maybe you've seen the new TV spot featuring one of the most acclaimed novelists alive, Kurt Vonnegut, who appears in a commercial for Discover Card. He talks about buying his own books at a store: "I presume I got a royalty as well as the bonus from Discover Card."Must all knees bend in the direction of Dollar Almighty? Of course not. Despite the intense pressures, plenty of resistance continues. But deeper values must withstand the assaults from the monetary worship that proliferates in the mass media every day.

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