Today, November 8, 2022, is a day of multiple significances. It is a day on which millions of American voters decide whether they want their democracy to continue. It also happens to be my birthday (I hope it won’t be ruined like it was six years ago by a triumph of the forces of darkness). And thirdly, today just so happens to be the 70th anniversary of the death of a thinker I recently became obsessed with, a man named Harold Innis (1894-1952).
The easiest pathway to describing Professor Innis is to say that he was an influence on Marshall McLuhan, with similar theories about media, though Innis came a little earlier. Innis’s greatest reputation in his home country of Canada was as an economist and historian of political economy. He was interested in systems, and his study of things like infrastructure and the movement of products eventually led him to the study of systems of information. The central idea of his communications theory is that modern civilization is threatened by a powerful, advertising-driven media obsessed by “present-mindedness” and the “continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity.” He considered that, historically, information had been transmitted through processes that involved careful deliberation: oral tradition, monumental art, words chiseled in stone, hand-copied manuscripts, etc. In such processes, the audience is small, but the content is rich, and so is the culture. He opposes to that concept mass media: printing, broadcasting, and so forth. In the modern world, the communication is quick, shallow, expedient, emotional, and linked to animal drives. It reaches more people, but a small number of powerful people control the instruments of dissemination. Innis developed these ideas in the mid-early 20th century, I remind you, long before the internet and social media made the problem he describes orders of magnitude worse. It was my search for a language to describe my concerns about social media that led me backward to Innis.
Innis’s books include Empire and Communications (1950), The Bias of Communication (1951), The Strategy of Culture (1952) and Changing Concepts of Time (1952). There are aspects of his thought that strike one as conservative in a typically Anglo way, and I attach no necessary negative implication to that, in this case. The English are preservationists. They tend things. They garden. Innis grew up on a Canadian farm. A rural background puts you in tune with a natural pace and rhythms, and with truths that are unchanging and eternal. I often recall with fondness that in Britain certain cherished cultural forms were not allowed to die out in spite of having been “superseded” by technology: things like live theatre, panto, music hall, and radio drama. Throw them away? They weren’t done with them yet! It’s culture! Yet in America, the ruthless men (and very few women) who control the media have been all too glad to bury anything that seems outmoded and likely to stand in the way of greater profit, including most of what I write about here on this blog: things like silent movies, vaudeville, radio, television variety, and so forth.
Innis appears to have hated America with a passion. It became his bete noire. He hated the hyper-capitalism, the imperialism, the militarism. Mind you, he died PRIOR to Vietnam, Reagan, and the Wars of the Bushes. Innis served bravely in the trenches in World War One and was wounded in action. It’s why I used the photo above to represent him. He knew what war was. He despised the idea of a propaganda machine that would be used to sell death, and which regarded human beings as expendable units in the service of the interests of a very few.
I pen this about a week and a half after Elon Musk acquired Twitter. I logged off Twitter a couple of days later, revolted by his plans and what he’d already set about espousing and promoting. As some know, I have taken brief leaves from Facebook as well in recent months. People say “Where did you go?”, as though the virtual world was the real place, and somehow where I actually am in physical space is…non-existence? Where am I? Here in my house! My “server”, if you will, is eating a bowl of cereal. But we don’t even have to get so paleo about it. Not only am I here in the actual, real world, I’m still on the Internet! You can go directly to Travalanche any time you want, you can even subscribe to it, and I wish you would. You don’t require social media in any way, shape or form to access this blog, that is, unless you’re some amnesiac who forgets people exist if they’re not literally getting in your face to remind you that they do. I guess there’s some danger of that.
And that’s the subject at hand. Hopefully you have some idea by now why social media is politically dangerous. The outrage machine that generates clicks, combined with America’s misguided election primary system, 24 hour news cycles, and the evils of polling, have deranged the journalistic and political processes, allowing violent, insane and unprincipled people to acquire power. Conscience has gone out of government. All issues are now essentially decided by plebiscite (evaluated and tested in terms of manipulated popularity), which has been a disastrous decision-making method since the beginning of time. Stopping all this from happening would require that the people who are profiting from it sacrifice their short term gain for the greater good. There would seem to be little likelihood of that happening, wouldn’t you say?
But politics is merely a subset of culture, and that is the theme of today’s text. One of the key maxims in not-for-profit management is “Don’t change your plans for the grant”. In other words, don’t go off mission, or diverge from what you usually do, just to bolster the bottom line. It’s short-sighted. You may have money in the bank and security, but you got it by not accomplishing what you set out to do. You jumped through someone else’s hoop. And basically social media has created a situation in which artists are compelled to do this all the time, to the great detriment of their art. I’m sure this is far from a new thought and it’s probably been expressed in just this way, or better, by others. But we’re all inundated from dawn to dusk with advice on how to be 24/7 marketers, how to “get our message out”, how to “craft” our writing so that it will attract search engines. And worst of all, we’re being trained to tack to the demands of the herd. There’s always been an element of that in art creation, but now it’s increasing with terrifying swiftness and efficiency. There is literally a worldwide machine that drives all human interaction to the common denominator. Not invariably the “lowest”, but probably inevitably so, in the end. Who in a lynch mob listens to the three people yelling “stop”? So artists are simultaneously being trained away from their original impulses while also becoming slaves whose job is to feed the beast what it wants. It necessarily leads discourse away from complexity, and communication away from beauty and nuance. It is the destruction of art and culture, and, if you will, as Ennis put it, “civilization”.
Anyone who knows me or my writing, know that I value the “permanence” of which Ennis writes, above all. I’m a lover of the classics, and of history, someone whose mission is to keep art and culture and memory alive. I’ve had friends snicker at me for posting some little tribute to some dead actor, far, far away from the day’s Twitter cycle and the vaunted Holy Ghost of the Algorithm. There is all the pressure in the world to just serve whatever obsession, whatever shiny object, is attracting the goldfish that day. Do you not see the danger of writing in order to bend to an algorithm?
Soul searching has made me realize too that the older forms I have written about are part of the same evolutionary process that gets us here. Bowery theatres and vaudeville were about populism, too, and advertising-driven radio and television even more so. They were turns of the wheel which got us here. But what we are talking about is achieving human scale and balance. (Innis was radical enough to think the balance began to be upset with the coming of the printing press). The individual voice is becoming overtaken and subsumed by a collective one, but not via an organic, folkish process (i.e. the collective unconscious), which takes centuries, but through a mechanized, robotic one, which is instant. Moreover, machines can be manipulated by the few, or even eventually by the machine itself. And worst of all, in terms of art, the process is homogenizing. In the performing arts, there is an increasing, inhuman intolerance of quirks that make us human, a pseudo-Fascist quest for physical perfection over originality of expression. Ruthless televised competitions and marketing research turn out clone-like singers, actors and comedians. In the intellectual realm, that of written expression, it is the opposite. There, the pressure is not upwards, but downwards, and the machine-made cookies all come out half-baked. The insatiable thirst for content, specifically content that will be accessible to most readers, results in a slipshod, shallow, mindless culture. Increasingly I’m seeing the language we all use to communicate break apart and degrade because writers don’t read literature, they don’t know what words mean, they don’t spend hours with noses buried in books, a prerequisite for generating substantial discourse and not alphabet soup. That great modernist scribe Fred Allen had the perfect phrase for what’s happening: We are on a “Treadmill to Oblivion”.
This blog has one foot in and one foot out of the problem I’m describing. It was originally launched for thoughtful theatre reviews. No one read those. Then I had the bright idea to harness it to promote my books, and have had a fair bit of success with that. It’s a pretty respectable resource, I think, but it is produced in haste and in quantity. This is, after all, a blog. Many people seem confused about what a blog is. It is a log, like a diary, somewhat personal, which I write strictly for my own enjoyment and for my own purposes. Which is why I get hostile when people offer suggestions, corrections, comments, and so forth. That’s not remotely why this blog exists — to travel in someone else’s direction. But even so, it is a grind, and a sausage mill. The content (how I hate that word) here is by definition “first draft” and not superlative writing, though most of the information, as far as can be checked, is accurate. There’s no time for more. In contemporary reality, actual writing is part of a workday that also involves sharing to platforms, thinking of clever tags and titles, blah, blah, blah, because “that’s what you do” if you want to get read. How interesting that so much of “what you do” is not the art that you set out to make. What’s the point of being read, if the writing is compromised?
Social media is like a cancer that strangles culture just as it’s strangling democracy. The only way to recover your humanity is to find a way to step out of that loop. When and if I manage to do so, this post contains the reasons why. Fair warning! I often picture (happily) some kind of Station Eleven like future existence, where small communities live in isolation, and the absence of machines restores a natural balance amongst scribes, actors and audiences. It would be nice if that could happen without the interposition of catastrophe.
Does this post seem completely out of left field? Then I guess you haven’t read:
This one, or
This one, or
This one, or
This one, or
This one, or
This one, or
This one, or
Many another one on this blog on topics somewhat less ephemeral than show business that you haven’t read. But I wish you would.
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