A few thoughts on culture industry

Social Control

Communication theorists and advertiser experts (Lazarsfield & Merton, 1969; Schramm, 1954) explain mass communication effect based on consumers’ needs, and for that reason culture were accepted with so little resistance. This produces a positive feedback, a circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger. However, Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) pointed out that “no mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself” (p. 2?).

Losing agency

For Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) the shift from telephone to radio remove the possibility of exchange and response: instead of playing the role of subject in the former, participants were turned into passive audience of a homogenized program broadcast to all. same. Without any chance to reply or freedom to transmit their own message, people are now “confined to the apocryphal field of the “amateur,” and also have to accept organisation from above” (p. 3). Benjamin (1936) also noticed that radio had been used by totalitarian regimes as a form of propaganda, and by liberal economies as way to maintain intact social and production relations.

Enzensberger (1970) proposed that the proletarian could repurpose mass media, especially the radio, in order to become free from the mediated oppression, but Baudrillard (1972) quickly refutes his ideas arguing that every aspect of our lives is mediated, or, as McLuhan (1964) claims, the content of every medium is another medium, which make us completely unaware that we are being mediated.

Reclaiming agency

All this debate about media and mass culture have a historical background that gravitates around totalitarian regimes and ideological differences on WWII and cold war, and a certain fear and excitement with the powerful effects of mass communication instruments. However, technological evolution might have disturbed the direction and dimensions of mass communication. Digital media —Internet and social media — brought back the possibility of response and enable participatory construction of broadcast messages. With the tools available today, participants can be subjects and have their own audience: apocryphal amateurs and the crowd might have regained their voices — the message comes from all direction not only from above.

Delusional influences

But again, we might ask ourselves who control the channels of new media? Access to tools of production and possibility to broadcast are enough to make it a participatory media? For Adorno and Horkheimer (1944), mass media producers had mastered their way to our brain — to our soul. We become just passive receptacles of information: “There is nothing left for the consumer to classify. Producers have done it for him” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944, p. 5). Ergo, even though new media gave us the ability to create and classify our own experiences, today it is not so much the producers that choose what we going to consume next: it is the machine. Powerful algorithms and artificial intelligence tailor recommendation lists, trend topics, wish lists, upcoming albums, related news and even emotional relationship match based on our profile. It is private, unique, designed to fit user’s need, and yet, a massive and homogenized cultural scheme to drive economic growth.


References

Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (1944). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

Baudrillard, J. (2003). Requiem for the Media. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & N. Montfort (Eds.), The New Media Reader (1st ed., pp. 277–288). The MIT Press. (Original work published 1972)

Enzensberger, H. M. (2003). Constituents of a Theory of the Media. In Wardrip-Fruin & N. Montfort (Eds.), The New Media Reader (1st ed., pp. 259–276). Cambridge, Mass.; London: The MIT Press. (Original work published 1970)

Lazarsfield, P. F., & Merton, R. K. (1969). Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Actions. In Mass Communication (pp. 492–512). Urbana: The University of Illinois Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (REV.). The MIT Press.

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