We Thought for Ourselves

We’ve lived through a time period of unprecedented information centralization.  Never in the history of humanity has such a small group of people controlled the content consumed by so many.  This centralization is characterized by three factors: ownership, control and penetration.

In the early 20th century, there were hundreds of media companies.  Now, five global media conglomerates own 90% of the ‘mainstream media’ Americans consume.  All of the media properties owned by these conglomerates operate serve the same few hundred clients (corporate advertisers) for the same benefactors (large shareholders.)  This enables a few thousand corporate managers and shareholders to determine, consciously or unconsciously, the frame through which news and information is delivered.  These people, directly and indirectly, determine the taboos that hundreds of thousands of employees work hard to pass on to hundreds of millions of consumers.  This process is  subtle – indeed it’s become institutionalized – but it’s results are spectacular.  Corporate media has constructed an entire worldview around the concept of limitless consumption by piping it directly into the average American for over four hours a day.  This unprecedented degree of penetration by a group of organizations who’s primary motive is to trick Americans into watching more TV advertisements explains why so many in the US are obese, in debt and ignorant of their nation’s history.

It’s easy to forget that until a century ago, a million people had never been ‘informed’ of events in a standardized way.  News from far away places came through many mediated layers – whether it was written, pronounces or socially spread – and often fell on suspicious ears. The concept that humans could ‘know’ that something was happening outside their reality did not exist like it does today.  Without the glare of highly produced media, Americans relied on family knowledge, ancient wisdom and their own experiences to develop an understanding of the world.  They could make  informed decisions because they trusted their experiences, understanding that core principles of human interaction aren’t dependent on time, space or scale.  What is true for a village is true for a nation and an empire.

Americans naturally understood that violence enables theft and war was immoral.  They didn’t need their newspapers to explain how a general could get rich from war: they intuitively knew war profiteering always takes place.  Americans naturally understood that food with unknown origins could very easily be unsafe.   They didn’t need a reporter  to inform them of the danger of food processed by mysterious factories.  With common sense gleaned from everyday experiences, humanity not only survived the dark days before TV and centralized media, they thrived.

In 2009, our media has never been more advanced.  One would imagine that advanced media would create a more harmonious and intelligent public but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Our economy has problems no one can grasp.  Our military is embroiled in a war that started with a reverberated lie.  Our food system is unsustainable and dangerous.  Our stores are filled with products of low quality made in places we’d like to pretend don’t exist.  Our population is increasingly addicted to prescription (read: corporate produced) drugs and imprison millions of Americans for distributing and consuming illegal (read: non corporate) ones.  Then we ask the same media companies that crafted our current insanity to explain why we’re all so crazy.  Of course, they can’t address that question. How could they?

After thousands of years of human civilization and amazing technological advancement, why are we still so easily hoodwinked by the magician behind the curtains?

There is good news and that good news is that you’re reading this, which means that after a lifetime as an unwilling consumer of centralized news and information, you’ve found yourself consuming media from decentralized sources.  The internet is fundamentally changing the way we receive news and information and thus, it is changing our perspective and freeing us from the chains of homogeneous, standardized, centralized media.  It is freeing us from the media that is financed by corporations that are financed by our consumption based economy.  On the web, there is media from CNN and NBC written by people who ultimately have to answer to their advertisers, but there is also media written by us: and the only people we have to answer to are ourselves (and our audience.)

More good news: while the mainstream media cries that centuries old news institutions are crumbling, decentralized networks of local blogs and reputable source are stepping into the void.  The marketplace loves this new form of media: the faster, better, cheaper of independent journalism can’t be stopped.

7 thoughts on “We Thought for Ourselves”

  1. As much as I believe we are on the brink of a new type of media, one whose underlying foundation resembles “crowd sourcing” (http://www.economist.com/science/tq/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11999251)
    my gut feeling tells me that either the revolution will be gradually toward centralization or further conglomerated.
    Both roads have similarities, but there is one stark difference–control. The more progressive approach will allow users to communicate news while avoiding the filters. For example, as I watched CNNinternational in France last week, CNN relied heavily on Twitter for their information. Another example was when the Minister of Transportation in a province in China was caught on Camera assaulting a child. (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article5077899.ece)
    However, there are also new endeavors to conglomerate media. The Associate Press, a collection of 1500+ news papers, was created in 1846 by American newspapers to help relay news. They created the first communication wires used outside the government to relay news. This conglomeration allowed news sources a supply-china like advantage much like an economics of scale. They could touch on more places and disseminate more quickly. These advantages cannot be matched by “crowd sourcing.” Even if news is outsourced or more heavily distributed via the internet (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/opinion/30dowd.html?scp=1&sq=Pennies%20for%20thoughts&st=cse) as Maureen Dowd mentions in her article, the majority of the real news still comes from reporters and journalists. In fact, CNN has clearly acknowledged the power of aggregation. The news is still in their hands. They are actually planning on creating their own “AP.” With higher revenue from the presidential season they plan to be the focal point for the news, nationally and internationally. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/01/business/media/01cnn.html?scp=2&sq=CNN&st=cse) While, they may use Twitter or slate.com, they still own the communication channels.

  2. Decentralized news doesn’t mean unorganized but it does mean that the vast majority of journalism isn’t financed by corporations with an inherent interest in keeping Americans obsessed with consumption.

    Decentralized media means more journalism financed by non profits and more writing (and content creation) done by individuals without a profit motive. This is the decentralization that the internet can facilitate.

  3. Would you say the advent of the centralized media was a positive or negative development in the lives of human beings over the last 100 years? That is, in comparison to the older system of getting your knews from one or two people.

    Do you have any evidence (nationwide evidence, not anecdotal health scares that get picked up in the media) that food today is less safe than food from 100 years ago?

    Factory farming, for all its downsides, has made food incredibly cheap and abundant. Almost all segments of society have a variety of food options that would be available only to the richest 0.001% of people 100 years ago. The increase in calorie intake over the last several hundred years has also enabled us to live much longer and work much more (more calories = more energy).

    I’m down with Michael Pollan on a lot of issues but I still think it’s worth pointing out that, on net, the changes in our food system from the 19th century were highly beneficial.

  4. Chubby: I don’t like the premise of your first paragraph. I assume when you say ‘centralized media in the last 100 year’ you’re talking about the proliferation of newspapers, broadcast TV, radio and magazines and their subsequent conglomeration under the 6 multinational media corporations that control 90% of the media you and I consume.

    First, I’d like to note that the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan and Nazism all used the centralization of media to control their populations. A college of corporations finance the media that the developed world interacts with on a daily basis. That media has created an environment in which the developed nations exploit the undeveloped ones.

    On the flip side, the increasingly sophisticated media has been an integral player in the pacification of the world. While we read about conflicts throughout the world on a day to day basis, the fact of the matter is that, on a per capita basis, there have been fewer and fewer people involved in wars every decade this century. Centralized media has certainly contributed to thais pacification: uniting disparate people under a single ‘mainstream’ culture powered by the publishing film production and music industries and distributed via TV, radio, print, etc. This shared culture has, in my view, allowed nationalism to get expressed via soccer matches instead of armed conflict, it has educated masses of people in ways that have produced amazing humanitarian benefit. Positive or negative? It’s hard to tell without knowing how the whole story ends.

    Individuals have more choices in the supermarket but society has less choices about what we eat. Americans can buy 100 differently colors packages containing wheat + high fructose corn syrup but they can’t buy locally baked breads. I can get blueberries from Argentina in the winter but I can’t get blueberries grown within 50 miles in summer. (An exaggeration but you get the point.)
    The corporate takeover of farming in the 1980s and the horrific practices of Monsanto who have systemically destroyed the natural variety of crops so they could corner the market on seeds is not discussed in the media; nor are the potential dangers of trusting a few crop varieties (and corporations) to feed the entire globe. What a more important story than how we get our food? The media is silent on the issue.

    Is food safer? I don’t know what that means. Is it healthier? For individuals there are healthier choices now than before WWI but we’re a nation of diabetics. Coca Cola, McDonalds produce stunningly unhealthy products but have the loudest voice because they have the advertising dollars.

    We can do better (more local, more natural, more nutritious) if we use the same ingenuity that brought us last century’s agricultural revolution instead of heaping praise (or implying praise) on a system that is now outdated.

    Simple: I agree with the implication of your comment. Ron Paul, AdBusters and many many others have been warning about this financial crisis for years but the centralized, corporate media did not give their voices the platform they deserved. A more decentralized media would have kept us better informed.

  5. This is my first post. I’m a little scared, but you seem like a nice discussion board. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much…

    I’m a little baffled by the idea that the internet intrinsically supports a decentralized, free media (the so-called “good news”). Look at Google and China. A few years ago, China’s media watchdogs automatically rerouted users from Google (the American site, which does not filter content) to “safe,” government-censored sites, especially during times of political turmoil. In 2005, Google China was founded and, despite Google’s staunch support of network neutrality, it agreed to comply with China’s strict internet censorship laws. Today, Chinese users can google like the rest of us with one glaring exception: if they search PRC-interdicted words, their results will be blocked. So much for “don’t be evil.”

    Sure this is an extreme case of government kowtowing, but it still stands as evidence that information disseminated via the internet is not necessarily decentralized or free.

    Wheeww. That wasn’t so bad. And it was over so fast. Hopefully, it gets better the more I do it.

  6. You’re very right. Just as the internet has the potential to decentralize media and free humanity from ignorance, it also has the potential to be the most dangerous and oppressive force ever created by man. With the proliferation of small cameras and face recognition technology, it would already be extremely easy to track the movements of everyone. With web ip addresses and language analysis, it’s easy to see who is socializing with whom, who is saying what, who is organizing, etc. If all that information is aggregated and made useful (weaponized) we could find ourselves in hell: an oppression we’re only loosely aware; an oppression that looks more like circumstance than conspiracy.

    That’s why understanding decentralization is so important: so we can create a structure that keeps interest groups disaggregated enough so no one can take that much power.

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