Herbert Schiller is a critic with a clear,
political and social view on media matters. He has been Professor of Communication
at the University of California at San Diego and is well known for his
Mass Communications and American Empire and other writings on American
cultural imperialism. One could position Schiller as a mediator between
the US-foreign policy type of media analysis done by Noam Chomsky and
the more conservative, moral critiques of Neil Postman. Schiller has elements
of both. Like Chomsky, his lack of knowledge about the history of the
Soviet Union, Stalinism and the destruction of people's lives, cities,
countries and nature by Soviet communism is highly disturbing. But this
counts for many of the old leftists, who are themselves a product of the
Cold War (both in Europe, the US and in the 'Third World').
Net criticism is a movement from '89' and therefor celebrates the fall
of the Wall and the end of these dictatorships, from my point of view.
All anti-US-imperialism, which rejects to study the tremendous tragedies,
caused by 'socialism,' is condemned to history and will itself become
another fundamentalism. But this was not the topic of our conversation.
Fortunately, the materialist critiques on large corporations are always
true and so is Schiller's latest book Information Inequality. It deals
with topics like selection mechanisms in the culture industry, the sell
out of public properties like school, libraries and elections, 'data deprivation',
special effects for capturing viewers, the global rule of American pop
culture and last but on least, the infobahn, being the 'latest blind alley'.
Lately, Herbert Schiller wrote an updated critique on internet and social
exclusion in the French magazine Le Monde Diplomatique. This interview
was conducted in Munich, during the conference 'Internet & Politics',
on February 20, 1997.
Geert Lovnik: Could you tell us something about the
pre-history of cyberspace? When did you encounter the cyber ideology for
the first time?
Herbert Schiller: One of the earliest was Daniel Bell,
who wrote about 'the end of ideology' and 'the post-industrial society'.
Production didn't amount too much, in his view, and everything was services,
mostly in various kinds of informational fields. He did not start discussion
of cyberspace. But others started there and began to talk about the 'information
society', being the post-industrial society. The other was Alvin Toffler,
a popular writer, who wrote about these tendencies in the early seventies.
Bell and Toffler became the unquestioned basis and there was no remarkable
criticism at the time. The elite criticized Toffler for writing in such
a popular manner, but that was nothing serious. So these writers had the
field to themselves. The electronic basis of these writings is much more
recent. ARPANET and the Internet as an academic communication network
proceeded without a great deal of attention. It is only less than 10 years
that it has burst out into a much more generalized public. My view is
that this development has been very carefully cultivated by the standard
forces. Like governmental bureaus such as the National Science Foundation,
which gave significant grants to individuals for the development of software.
There was a very delibirate promotion and encouragement. It was not all
so random and accidental or unplanned.
GL: How does Marshall McLuhan fit into this picture?
HS: McLuhan was taken up and given a lot of attention
by the media itself. They liked it that he emphasized the media issue,
out of an narcissistic interest. They found somebody who was making them
appear very significant. But I don't see him as a prophet of cyberspace
or in any direct line with the current business. In his early works, like
The Mechanical Bride, he was somewhat of a materialist, a social critic.
But then he got off into esoteric areas.
GL: George Gilder believes that the old, mass media monopolies will
soon crumble because of the empowering possibilities of individuals by
the so-called interactive, many-to-many media. There is a certain similarity
to your critique on the big media corporations. Could you comment on that?
HS: All what one could do is look around. Do you see
any indications? The monopolies are stronger than ever and the concentration
continues. It now embraces a wide area, it is not just 'media.' All forms
of communication are brought together in these unified corporate conGLomorates.
You have Time-Warner, which has assets of about 20 billion dollar and
is operating radio stations, recording studios, film studios, television
programming and increasingly, also, retail stores, where they sell the
apparels that they produce in their movies. Disney is of course an enormous
conglomorate. Then there is Viacom, which owns MTV and does a great job
in selling pop culture and making these kids less and less capable of
doing any thinking. But it also includes computer companies, telephone
companies. The television networks are all owned by super conglomerates.
CBS is owned by Westinghouse, NBC by General Electric. ABC was just bought
by Disney and Fox is owned by Murdoch. To think that these are crumbling,
is like being in a fantasyland. We have to be careful in using the word
'globalization' in this context. It may to seem that everybody is participating
in it and that you will have to, and if you don't you will fall behind
and lose, we have to be competitive -- that kind of thing. GLobalization
is a direction of super corporations. They are using the globe to market
their products and penetrate every part of the world. But there is a big
difference between what they are doing and the whole world population.
GL: It might not be enough anymore to just practice ideology criticism.
The understanding of this expanding branch might also need an economical
HS: You have to examine how things proceed. You might want to focus on
the commodification of information. What was free, is now owned -- proprietary
information. What has to be looked at, is to what extent the Net itself
has become a privatized operation. Another area will be how they are going
to put television and broadcasting onto the Internet. That also is going
to bring commercial advertisement. It will no longer be open, available
GL: How do the broadcasting media relate to the rapidly growing, but
still small cyber media? Noam Chomsky does not seem be very interested
in the Net. Perhaps he does not see its strategic importance.
HS: You have to examine this as things develop. It is an area of continuous
scrutiny and monitoring. Everything you will discover in the areas of
television and film will come back in the Net. The patterns are going
to be very similar. We are nowhere near to what they like to call an information
society. This term serves to camouflage what the current reality is. The
talk about the 'new' keeps the present level left aside. We are living
in a period of innocence and bankruptcy of values. People are desperately
looking for meaning, identity, ethnicity, gender. All of which are legitimate,
but when they get to be obsessional, they make it less possible to recognize
what the underlying, fundamental forces are. There is a lot of escapism
in the talking about 'are we now in the information society?' But many
of those people are sincere, so you can't make them seem as if they are
GL: What is your view on the role of cultural studies in all this?
HS: For me it is very ironic because I have tried always to include the
cultural component. I was aware about it from the very beginning when
I wrote about the role of cultural imperialism. And along comes cultural
studies which attacks the political economy approach as being too narrow
and too exclusive. At least in the United States, the main current of
cultural studies is to deny the legitimacy of the political economy of
mass communication. I do not mean it intentionally, but it has served
the dominant ideology as I see it. They do not want to see the underlying
reality of the images and messages they are looking at. 'The act of the
audience' puts people like myself in a curious situation. I am not saying
that everybody is a cultural dope. But I do have to recognize where the
cultural power is. I cannot accept it when they talk about the opposition
and resistance of viewers. If they are reading women's books, romances,
they are showing their resistance to their way of life... This might be
the case, but I don't regard that as the type of resistance that will
take us very far.
GL: Where do you see the roots of such a political economy of the
HS: It has not such a long history, a few decades. I am trying to indicate
that the fundamentals of a materialist philosophy are crucial to an understanding.
Students should have some sense of the social forms that have evolved,
from early capitalism until now, in terms of labor and wage labor. These
forms do not disappear. There is a great deal of materiality that can
be pointed to, even in the case of the Internet. I don't think it is so
remote. You can show how those big companies get involved in all these
different activities. People themselves can recognize some relationships.
You can show the connections to organized sports, to the apparel industry,
which is producing baseball hats, football uniforms and the rest. The
cultural industry is so overt, so visible.
GL: Do you see a massification of the Internet taking place?
HS: That might be the case. But this concept was mainly an oppositional
idea of what was happening in the media industry in the late thirties
and early forties. It was an elitist view, which looked down on the masses.
So the term itself has to be looked at as an ideological outlook. Persuasion,
for example, was a big issue in the thirties, but when mass communication
became a formal discipline, they dropped it, because persuasion would
come too close to the nervous system. So they switched the topic to the
effects of communication. But that is a very different question.
GL: What do you think of the equation of the Internet with American
imperialism? Certain forms of anti-Americanism in Europe are not very
progressive... How do you look at this dilemma?
HS: I have looked on the phenomena of cultural imperialism for a long
time. This is not something of the nineties. It even preceded the American,
there was French, British and Dutch imperialism. It is not a new set of
relationships. But we do have to ask overselves: does the Internet undermine
the old relationships or does it reinforce them? I am only trying to suggest
that there are key people, key levels in the United States who see a very
practical utilization for imperialistic purposes. That could be an alert
signal. If the Internet is becoming a major vehicle for transnational
corporate advertising, you are quite justified in talking about the extension
of cultural imperialism into the Internet.