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…And Starring Technology as Itself!

Consumer electronics and the tech/Internet companies that make those devices perform a sort of double cultural duty in our technological society. On the surface level these companies act as forces for delivering culture to consumers as the smart phone, tablet or social networking platform becomes the medium through which other media is accessed. This role of technology as a delivery system for culture is nothing particularly new (think of the printing press or the gramophone), yet what is shifting in contemporary times may be the degree to which the technology itself is now part of the culture delivered.

Apple, Google, Facebook – these are not simply nondescript brand names but complex corporate and cultural identities that invest in their products and services a set of concepts and values that almost trump the other use of their devices and services. After all, a person can choose to “like” exclusively black metal bands with nihilistic overtones on Facebook, yet this action still takes place within the space within the culture that has been constructed by Facebook; while the friendly bouncy letters and ubiquitous search function (it has become a verb) mixed with a variety of “free” services has allowed Google to melt into the background of daily life. Though perhaps the cultural coup de grace is executed by Apple, from their identity affirming advertisements (“I’m a mac,” and “I’m a PC”) to their commanding a sort of cult like devotion amongst their loyal fans. Thus, while technology may have once been more closely associated simply with industry in our day it matches its industrial alignment with participation in the culture industry as well.

“The culture industry” is a concept that originates in the writings of the Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, and the idea is refined in the duo’s book Dialectic of Enlightenment, though Horkheimer and Adorno used the term “mass culture” in earlier drafts of the work. A simplified (or at least somewhat clearer) explanation of the culture industry is provided by Theodor Adorno in his essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (collected in The Culture Industry) wherein he writes:

“The culture industry fuses the old and familiar with a new quality. In all its branches, products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan…the culture industry intentionally integrates its consumer from above…Thus, although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object.” (Adorno, 98/99)

It is important to note that when Adorno – in the above quotation – uses the term “machinery” it is not meant in a strictly technological sense. Yet, to consider the place of consumer technologies is to recognize a certain resonance between the way in which these products are advertized and advocated for and the way in which such products have become like so many other products that are sold to consumers under the aegis of the culture industry. A smart phone may have more functionality than a pair of jeans, but the marketing behind the smart phone tries to appeal to the same desires as those targeted by the advertisement for denim. After all, if a person wants to be seen in fashionable attire, do they not also want to be seen sporting a similarly fashionable phone (or tablet)?

Granted, it can still be difficult to cleanly connect technology with the culture industry, for the world of these technology companies seems much larger in scale. Furthermore, these companies and devices are still able to present themselves as the delivery service for culture instead of part of the actual culture: a smart phone or mp3 player does not care what music you use it to listen to, it does not even care if the music was downloaded legally, but what matters still is that the device being used to listen to this music is a smart phone/mp3 player. Simultaneously the variety of brands and services (Apple’s iPhone versus a phone running Google’s Droid operating service versus a phone using Facebook Home versus etc…) further encourage a level of identification with a device even though the differences between smart phones are usually fairly negligible. The choice of one technology firm over another thus fits easily within the schema that Horkheimer and Adorno describe thusly:

“Sharp distinctions like those between A and B films, or between short stories published in magazines in different price segments, do not so much reflect real differences as assist in the classification, organization, and identification of consumers. Something is provided for everyone so that no one can escape; differences are hammered home and propagated. The hierarchy of serial qualities purveyed to the public serves only to quantify it more completely…The schematic nature of this procedure is evident from the fact that the mechanically differentiated products are ultimately all the same.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 96/97)

This is not to deny the presence of any differences between two smart phones or two tablets or two operating systems, but to note that ultimately once the choice is made to purchase a smart phone or a tablet the specific decision of which product to buy has as much to do with the ephemeral values associated with a product as its actual attributes. The sight of an Apple company logo sticker slapped onto a vehicle (or onto anything [except maybe a police car]) demonstrates the way the corporate identity has taken on a cultural sheen removed from just the product. The technological toys produced and sold are not selling merely functionality they are selling identity and this range reinforces the above quoted claim that “something is provided for everyone so that no one can escape,” a fact that is further proved by the emergence of products like the Fairphone that target a smart phone at those who are put off by the corporate identities of the larger technology firms.

Though advertising can be amusing (“I’m a mac”) and can cleverly use other culture for its own purposes (there is a current iPad advertisement that shows the cover of Camus’ book The Stranger on the iPad screen) it remains a clumsy form for disseminating the cultural values around a corporate identity.  Most people are so accustomed to advertisements that they approach them with just enough hostility to, at least, be aware that they are being advertised to, a stance that does not make one impervious to the message but which give a person a measure of protection from the message being sold. Furthermore technology/web companies are complicated culture industry entrants, and thus it seems that it falls to an older standby of the culture industry for fully delivering breaking these companies out of the technical milieu and into the broader culture. On a superficial level this takes place simply with savvy product placement across film and television (what type of phone did that cool young character use? in the café scene what are the computer brands?), but at the same time one of the outcomes of the tech firms becoming part of the culture industry is that they themselves become fodder for culture industry production; or, as Horkheimer and Adorno put it:

“The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 99)

Even as the ongoing revelations about the actions of the NSA have shaken some trust in the tech firms, this summer has seen a range of films that put the tale of tech on the screen. Though these films were not billed as total ideological advertisements their role was largely to act as propaganda. It has been a few years since The Social Network turned Facebook into a movie, but this summer featured a somewhat-sly love letter to Google in The Internship, the first of a wave of paeans to Apple’s Steve Jobs in Jobs, and the fall will feature the transformation of the tech world’s rogue agent (Wikileaks) into a thriller with The Fifth Estate (which is to say nothing of the documentary We Steal Secrets which likely did as much myth constructing as the actual fictional film will do). Beyond the specific tech company targets of each film, these cultural tales pull in a larger segment of the tech world than is necessarily seen; for example, by being a film on the origins of Apple and its renegade founder Jobs also acts as a film about Microsoft, likewise in its fawning love of Google The Internship is also a film about Yahoo! and other firms unworthy of their own star driven comedies.

The quality of these films does not particularly matter (though there is a range), what matters is that these films announce to the culture industry consuming public (which is the whole public) that beyond simply being technology firms these companies are cultural forces to be recognized as such. When a person uses Google (or one of its many services) a person is participating in the full cultural product which is Google – replete with the tech-utopian campus and vaguely libertarian ideology; when one uses an Apple product they are proving the value of Steve Jobs’ iconoclastic vision and “think different” ethos; and likewise when one uses Facebook one proves that those wily students portrayed in The Social Network were on to something. That these films may portray certain individuals (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg) as rather unappealing only allows for these films to act as more effective corporate emissaries – people may cynically reject fawning, but a film that portrays tech founders in an unflattering light can work well with some people’s skepticism towards these companies.

Film remains a very efficient way for delivering this content and for turning these tech groups into larger players in the culture industry. For these films act as advertisements for their firms – even when portraying them badly – for what these films do is establish that this is a story worthy of telling on the “silver screen.” That tech moguls can share the marquee head with superheroes and Presidents is no mistake. What these films do is play off:

“The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production…life is to be made indistinguishable from the sound film. Far more strongly than the theatre of illusion, film denies its audience any dimension in which they might roam freely in imagination—contained by the film’s framework but unsupervised by its precise actualities—without losing the thread; thus it trains those exposed to it to identify film with reality.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 99/100)

This is precisely what this slew of hagiographic films does: it takes the companies that we have been made familiar with (through interaction with their products and being exposed to advertisements) and grafts another layer of cultural values on top. Even seeing the trailer for one of these films is sufficient in this regard – but what occurs is that real life becomes altered by the film. When a person uses Google, Facebook, or an Apple product after being exposed to its culture industry reproduction that device is now an extension of the film’s myth making, whilst a certain new familiar sense greets the user. The tech company CEO may still be callously redefining the notion of privacy, but now the user understands his deep-rooted insecurity; the mega company may be devouring data at worrying speeds, but now the user understands that they (the viewer) simply was not appreciating the company’s broad vision. Even as these technological products and services become broad forces in shaping the nature of contemporary culture the companies themselves have learned that to be truly successful it isn’t enough to make the device through which the culture is disseminated, the company must be part of the culture being disseminated. That the film industry should engage with these tales is hardly surprising, and it speaks only to the culture industry’s ability to shift tastes to fit a moment’s ideology. For:

“depending on which aspect happens to be paramount at the time, ideology stresses plan or chance, technology or life, civilization or nature. As employees people are reminded of the rational organization and must fit into it as common sense requires. As customers they are regaled, whether on the screen or in the press, with human interested stories demonstrating freedom of choice and the charm of not belonging to the system. In both cases they remain objects.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 118)

If the cultural power wielded by tech firms seems to be expanding it is because these groups are colonizing ever more space – and in this capacity they are strengthened by becoming as much the culture being delivered as they are the delivering system for the culture. And despite the touch screens, pictures of old friends, and easy search functions, what steadily occurs is that people all too easily become consumers twice over: first by using the tech company’s product and second by participating in its image of itself. As technology becomes an ever more powerful force in contemporary society, its integration into the culture industry only serves to guarantee that when it comes to technology there is truly no escaping from it.

After all, there are no films praising the exploits of General Ludd currently in production…

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge, 2001.

Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

5 comments on “…And Starring Technology as Itself!

  1. anisioluiz2008
    August 19, 2013

    Republicou isso em O LADO ESCURO DA LUAe comentado:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  2. Jeff
    August 21, 2013

    They make good points about market segmentation. The online world is well shaped for attracting all kinds of consumers (or rather, individuals) through templates and their customisation. My problem with Adorno and Horkheimer is that their portrayal of individuals as a herd fitting itself into a general schema of capital mirrored the way that their critiques of this fitted that herd into those critiques. The herd is never, as it were, heard. How do we know that anyone was ever motivated by the mechanisms described without asking them some questions?
    Actual rather than supposed cultural practices aside, A&H do provide some colourful notions about the attempts of power to aggregate. The point about objectification is highly pertinent to how marketing is moving from an art to a science in the digital age.
    I like your overall thesis that the web giants are a part of culture itself. Doesn’t this have a McLuhanesque quality to it? And don’t you think though that companies like Facebook are, like any corporate, always already part of culture, only more so the more they become endemic to its invention and reproduction?

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