New Media vs. Gnostic Bureaucracies
Last week the Chicago Sun-Times became the second of the Second City’s dailies to go into bankruptcy, and the New York Times Company threatened to halt the presses forever for its Brahmin bible, the Boston Globe. A deathwatch is waiting to spot the first major metropolitan area to become bereft of even a single daily newspaper.
After department-store display advertising had shrunk in response to e-commerce and other structural changes in retailing, the surviving newspapers depended on classified advertising. Then along came a San Francisco software engineer, Craig Newmark. When his Craigslist for free classified ads ignited a conflagration that is engulfing the Chicago newspapers, he probably was no more aware of the consequences than Mrs. O’Leary’s cow when she kicked off the Great Chicago Fire of the 19th century.
The implications of the inundation of new media for political communication are huge. Up until recently, one of the doctrines of political communication and indeed most public relations was that “broadcast follows print.”
Political and corporate flacks (I was one of them) used to craft and pursue strategies like this: First, “message development,” then the “predicate” story or opinion column planted in a leading newspaper. Next, popular resonance of the message through radio and television – optimized by a strenuous effort to maintain “message control.” Finally, success (or sometimes disappointment) in the public policy contest.
Soon broadcast no longer will be able to follow print. And the broadcasting industry is not much healthier than the newspaper business. At the end of the 18th century, Edmund Burke, recalling the demise of France’s old regime and its “three estates,” is said to have coined the term “Fourth Estate” for the rising, independent power of the press. Today this Fourth Estate is being liquidated, not by Jacobins but by geeks.
Not too many years ago when I was a press secretary for a Member of Congress, on the evening of the State of the Union Address, my mission was to get coverage for my boss on network TV. In the lobby outside the House Chamber, I had to deal with reporters and producers and technicians who had sophisticated equipment connecting us with their networks, which employed thousands of people and billions of dollars in capital investment.
There was a surreal quality to President Obama’s first speech, just a few weeks ago, before a joint session of the United States Congress. While the President spoke from the podium, a number of Members of Congress employed their handheld devices to send Twitter messages to their constituents or anyone else out there in Tweetville who might have been tuning in. The commentary, whether irreverent or too reverent, was childish, undignified – to an old fuddy-duddy like me, absolutely appalling.
But as Ronald Reagan wrote in 1988 in his profoundly realistic National Security Strategy of the United States, we must “deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.”
Both the late Marshall McLuhan and his son and intellectual collaborator, Eric, saw James Joyce’s weird experimental book, Finnegans Wake, as insightful, visionary, and even prophetic as regards electronic communications media. The shadowy protagonist of the book is someone called “H.C.E.” – signifying, among other things, “Here Comes Everybody.”
The McLuhans say that electronic media dealt a devastating blow to the alphabetic, linear way of thinking and communicating that had dominated Western society since Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and printing became a mass medium. For five centuries, the Gutenberg technology was turbo-charged by Descartes’ extreme rationalist ideology of being and knowing – what the 20th-century philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen, McLuhan’s great friend, called “modern man’s myth of self-identity.”
Today, aural and even tactile ways of perception are regaining dominance, as had been the case before the visual age of print. Radio, as McLuhan said, is a “hot” medium. If you doubt this, consider how during the past two decades talk radio – mostly of the flavor of right-wing populism as distinct from intellectual conservatism -- did its part to turn the calm, linear, rationalist politics of the United States of America envisioned by Jefferson and Madison into a hot cacophony of electronic pow-wows for distinct but allied tribes.
Newly ascendant left-wing Democrats are flirting with legislation to curb the free expression of right-wing radio. But broadcast radio’s days may be numbered anyway. Now all the hierarchies for the distribution of information are breaking down.
A year ago I attended a program at the National Press Club in Washington, celebrating the centennials of both the Press Club and the world’s first School of Journalism, that of the University of Missouri. The luncheon speaker was a very intelligent and accomplished man – formerly editor of the Wall Street Journal Online and director of Yahoo! News.
I anticipated his speech as a kind of revelation of a Holy Grail, tearing away the veil to signify how the online news media were going to operate profitably. But his speech failed to indicate anything – not one single thing -- about a profitable or even coherent future for online news media. I had paid a princely sum of $28 to hear the speech and I wanted my money back. I do not mean in any way to belittle or criticize this man but instead to indicate the magnitude of the maelstrom all of us are in.
Clay Shirky of New York University, one of the keenest observers of the revolution in media, has a new book, called, wouldn’t you know, Here Comes Everybody. Last month on his blog, www.shirky.com, he noted:
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
Eric McLuhan’s latest observations are similar to Shirky’s but with the hopeful note that the media revolution has elements of a renaissance – the sort of thing that recurs in Western Civilization, like one of those over-the-top Mississippi floods, every 400 or 500 years. In a speech in Rome last month, he described several characteristics of renaissances, all in operation today:
• A renaissance is always invisible to those living through it.
• A renaissance is always a side-effect of something else, some new medium that reshapes perception: in our case, we have the spectrum of electric technologies from the motor to the MP3, from the telegraph to the satellite, the radio to the Internet. The Grand Renaissance married the printing press and the alphabet.
• A renaissance is always accompanied by a revolution in sensibility.
• A renaissance is always accompanied by a major war. In our case, we have had World Wars One and Two and the Cold War (among other wars), and now we are embroiled in the first of the Terrorist Wars. At the speed of light, the front is gone, the battleground is the outward globe, and that (much larger) paysage intérieur.”
We are at one of those crossroads in human civilization where it is scarcely possible to see any road at all. Of all people, the über-optimist and risk-taker Rupert Murdoch, should know that corporate executives come and go. About a month ago, Murdoch’s deputy at his News Corporation resigned. The world will little note nor long remember who Murdoch’s Second Banana was or what he did, but it should take note of what Murdoch said.
Instead of treating the event as a routine transition, Murdoch spoke in almost apocalyptic terms. He said, “We are in the midst of a phase of history in which nations will be redefined and their futures fundamentally altered. Many people will be under extreme pressure and many companies mortally wounded.”
That sounds a lot more like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn than the Rupert Murdoch we all have known and loved – or, as the case may be, feared.
I am betting against the pessimists and for a renaissance. Rebirths, like births, always involve bleeding and pain, but afterwards the joy of new life.
The World Wide Web provides the world’s greatest library and the platform for the world’s most complex and far-reaching, yet potentially intimate, communications. These are resources for our renaissance. The new media can help free men and women consign bureaucratic statism to the ash-heap of history.
Sixty-five years ago Marshall McLuhan in his doctoral dissertation on the classical Trivium of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, deplored the Cartesian imbalance of overemphasizing dialectics to the neglect of “grammar.” McLuhan explained, “The grammarian is concerned with connections; the dialectician with divisions.” And he said, “Grammarians distrusted abstraction; dialecticians distrusted concrete modes of language.”
In terms of politics, McLuhan said Cicero – a proponent of the natural law -- was perhaps the greatest grammarian. Machiavelli was a “consciously anti-Ciceronian” dialectician. In the intelligence profession, the grammar of the Trivium is known as pattern recognition.
News media enterprises today are subject to market forces and are facing consequences – the destruction of many recently prosperous enterprises and types of enterprises.
But the modern nation-states – and the supranational organizations like the United Nations -- are stiflingly bureaucratic. They are less subject to market forces than are businesses, and in reaction to the current economic panic – a crisis of abundance, not of scarcity – the big governmental and intergovernmental bureaucracies are opportunistically seizing more power.
The bureaucracies have a shifting parasite-host relationship with the social engineer, the “international development professional,” and the other types of soulless technocrat whom the late Samuel Huntington called “Davos Man” and Frederick Wilhelmsen called “the egomaniac, lusting gnostically to dominate all existence.” Just contemplate what has taken place in Washington the past two months, and at the Group of 20 Summit in London last week, where Chinese totalitarians, Russian authoritarians, cosmopolitan eugenicists, and Western “democratic” socialists strained to stitch together a Frankenstein monster from the jumble of formaldehyde jars holding the maimed remains of capitalism.
In 1945, C.S. Lewis wrote a novel envisioning the death-over-life power of today’s gnostic technocratic bureaucracy; he called it That Hideous Strength. It is the fictional companion to Lewis’s famous treatise, The Abolition of Man.
Marshall McLuhan’s very first published article appeared when he was a 25-year-old graduate student. The article was about a writer whom young McLuhan admired, G.K. Chesterton. The year was 1936, a moment when Big Government statism was in vogue from Washington to Berlin to Rome to London to Moscow. McLuhan praised Chesterton’s “inspiriting opposition to the spread of officialdom and bureaucracy.” He called Chesterton “a revolutionary, not because he finds everything equally detestable, but because he fears lest certain infinitely valuable things, such as the family and personal liberty, should vanish.”
The new media are on a collision course with Big Government. They are not immune from gnosticism, but they are inherently anti-bureaucratic. They will serve us and serve our freedom if we understand them, and if we understand ourselves. We can and should make the new media our instruments, our allies, in recovering and strengthening infinitely valuable things such as the family and personal liberty.