The Magnificent Bribe

Why has our age surrendered so easily to the controllers, the manipulators, the conditioners of an authoritarian technics? …The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. Once one opts for the system no further choice remains. In a word, if one surrenders one’s life at source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.

— Lewis Mumford in “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics” via The Convivial Society

The Media Shaped Memory

In his recent newsletter, Michael Sacasas re-articulated Marshall McCluhan's argument that new technology/media reconfigure society. Reconfiguration takes place, not by an ex nihilo big bang, but by rearranging the pre-existent material. New media rearranges "the public" culture (Kierkegaard). Sacasas gives the example inviting us to:

consider the effect of digital media on memory. If collective memory is a crucial element of a cohesive, well-functioning society, if, as Ivan Illich has observed, what we call different cultures are merely the manifestations of different means of remembering—then what are the consequences of the radical re-ordering of how we remember occasioned by digital media?

Cultures, as shared-memory communities (Ivan Illich), might be radically disrupted by this media re-arrangement of shared memory. Cultures are shaped by memory and memory is the story of the past. In other words, Media has the power to reshape the stories we tell about our past.

Some examples of media and what they've reshaped:

  • Cable news, entrenched two-party system
  • Social media, fundamentalist religious and ideological terrorism.
  • The digital scroll-feed, what an individual sees as most important (no temporal bandwidth).

A follow up:

Another instance of media shaping memory came to mind, when I watched the documentary "13th." The film begins with an extended discussion of the film "Birth of A Nation" and it's shaping of the race imagination in the US. Towards the end of the documentary, after a lengthy and sad discussion of disproportional incarceration, the interviews return to a discussion of how media shapes the telling and remembering of black history.

Remember, "The Danger of A Single Story?"