Another Voice of the System

Just as Fred Taylor spoke corporate capitalism’s words about work and its control, so did Google CEO Eric Schmidt voice the system’s deepest truth about privacy in the face of marketing:

That was in December of 2009.

Dig the usefulness of the “war on terror” and its subcomponents to the marketing juggernaut. Why does the privacy of commoners not exist to Google and its customers? It’s absolutely because privacy is anathema to the basic conduct of big business in our age of two-way communications. Privacy would end the overclass’s ability to gather data on our off-the-job behavior via new media, and thereby refine and extend their sales efforts. But, thanks to the Patriot Act, Schmidt can get away without mentioning this elementary fact, and pretend he’s just a patriot doing his lawful duty.

And, as Gawker rightly remarked at the time of Schmidt’s Taylorian utterance, consider also the radical uni-directionality of the relationship in question. Privacy is nothing, a mere remnant of earlier times to be eroded and strangled as quickly as people will allow, to those looking out from the corporate boardroom. What happens in the boardroom and in the lives of the primary beneficiaries of the system? Try telling them they have no privacy rights, and that all their affairs are open to public scrutiny…

23 Replies to “Another Voice of the System”

  1. …oh dear God.

    Michael, you might appreciate the same veiled horror I felt at the way Mr. Cain artfully, cleverly, and rather brilliantly conflated marketing with Buddhism and inner peace in this article. He’s an example of the next form this is going to take: even more intelligent, even more falsely-humane, and even more difficult to dispel with rhetoric.

    If you think making people understand why Superbowl ads are stupid is difficult, wait until a hundred years later, when Mr. Cain’s justifications are the standard hegemonic arguments.

  2. Given how, as time passes, there seems to be less and less separation of state and corporation, your attention in this post to the accelerating and total assault on privacy, in whatever guise, is spot on and welcome. They are well on the way to making ‘1984’ look comparatively benign.

  3. Holy cow, Arkie, that Buddhist dude must have some very special incense burning. “Enlightened posthuman.” ROFL in three dimensions. But then again, ins’t that the open secret of Buddhism? The effort to minimize selfishness takes the form of constant, trippy-if-not-sophomoric, self-congratulatory, solipsistic navel-gazing.

    As for “what we objectively want,” perhaps if the author hadn’t so confined his mind to his own little microcosm, he might have a clue that “what we want” is pretty damned varied and big, and hardly reducible to for-profit marketing research findings.

    Also, FWIW, I actually don’t think it’s internally, inherently hard to explain why Superbowl ads are dumb. In my experience, a large percentage of people get very energized and insightful when they get the rare chance to think and talk about such things in a serious and analytical setting. The main problem is the lack of such chances, IMHO.

  4. But Michael, this is exactly the problem – the lack of “chances” to develop one’s capacities. When we are, literally since birth, the subject of relentless brainwashing (combined with unnecessary uncertainty, risks and deprivations for most people), the result is precisely the inability of people to develop their innate capacities – because the system so thoroughly ensures that they never get “the chance”.

    That is why the elites seem so confident. They may be delusional, but they also know that the system necessarily produces masses of increasingly degraded, lifeless, incapacitated humans who will not have “the chance” to understand their situation, articulate it, and organize for its betterment.

    As Joe Bageant says, the underclass is literally ground into the couch and can do little more than giggle and ingest cheap booze and food (if lucky enough to have a shitty job to enable the procurement of those items).

    And it is not easy to explain the inherent stupidity of ads – their over the top silliness, for example, enables to quickly dismiss them as “oh, they’re just being outrageous, fishing for attention”, while remaining unaware of the values and cultural norms they reinforce even as we self-consiously laugh at them

  5. It’s certain that the system affects motives and skills as well as opportunities, so I wasn’t trying to deny that. But I’m also not all that convinced that the lack of motives and withheld skills are as powerful as the paucity of opportunities for honest discussion. My students at Portland State University — not exactly ITT Tech or Bageant’s outer Virginia, but certainly not Stanford, either — come alive and show remarable skills when we try such analysis.

    And then there’s the experience of Earl Shorris, and all the volumes its speaks about what’s possible in the area of liberation schooling.

    I think people want to understand and control their own lives. I suspect the downtrodden are quite thirsty for it upon being asked and helped.

    None of which is to forget the massive dominance of the contemporary overclass or the long odds of victory. But potential openings do exist.

  6. I’ll check out the book, (and I don’t disagree in principle, but it is much easier to preach taking control of one’s life than to actually have one, when virtually all life-supporting systems are driven by assets and logic way, way, way beyond one’s milieu.)

    In the meantime, here’s more encroachement on privacy from Facebook, as usual accompanied by a celebration of precious, infantile, middle class cattle:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lep_DSmSRwE

  7. Michael, Buddhism can go either way, and as to western (or “modernized”) devotees, they’re probably more heavily oriented toward the negative way you described. The same could be said, of course, toward Christians who most loudly humble themselves before God.

    You’re right about “Superbowl ads,” although given purchasing patterns, it’s obvious that most people, while able to discuss “the issues” as to marketing, they’re not fully getting it in the sense that the ads continue working. Still, they are able to begin thinking about it. Even your average neoliberal humanities graduate student can analyze Superbowl ads.

    Once that more sophisticated viewpoint becomes the rhetoric, however–rather than mere “capitalism is good for people”–even the superficial critiques will seem to have been countered, and we’ll be that much farther away from, uhh, paradise?

  8. Zizek has a pretty decent quip on how easy it is for the systems to seamlessly absorb legitimate concerns

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=yzcfsq1_bt8

    It is fairly safe to say that to the extent some awareness exists, it causes a lot of energy to be expended in pointless endeavors.

    The idea that capitalism as such is the source of most problems is just too much to swallow, and there is no obvious way forward.

    Btw, how do you analyze ads (in a non-superficial way)? Values presented? Characters? Identification of urges/fears being stoked?

  9. I put Buddhism #1 among religions, Arkie. Nonetheless, I fail to see its attraction vis-a-vis secular explanations of its (narrow) concerns. I don’t care if I’m going to Heaven or Nirvana. I just want to do my best.

    FWIW, I think research is tending to prove that niceness and concern for the external world are the best recipe for personal happiness. See Sonia Lyubomirsky, for example.

  10. Green capitalism is certainly an oxymoron.

    And, as a Marxy sociologist and convinced Marvin-Harris-materialist, I’m certainly never going to deny that environments tend to win.

    But the victory is never complete, and the reason to study circumstances is precisely to recognize where and when to dig and push.

    As for ad analysis, I explain how marketing is really just a descendant of the hoary behavior-control elements of all class domination: threats, false promises, lies, and sheer mental conditioning. The sheriff and the priest and the purple fabrics and the St. Swithin’s Days have morphed and become the stuff of advertising. And then you ask what the marketing strategy has to be. Often as not, the business press contains some Yahoo revealing part or most of it…

  11. I think that the attraction of eastern mysticism in general has to do with being the most direct attempt to attain ‘unity with nature’. The problem is, we, the westerners cannot really understand what this really means, since we are fundamentally not capable to approach the world in a non-intellectual way and experience it directly, which is generally what the eastern religions strive for, and require a lot of discipline to accomplish.

    as with so many other things, an accurate diagnosis from Terry Pratchett 🙂

    “The path to wisdom does, in fact, begin with a single step. Where people go wrong is in ignoring all the thousands of other steps that come after it. They make the single step of deciding to become one with the universe, and for some reason forget to take the logical next step of living for seventy years on a mountain and a daily bowl of rice and yak-butter tea that would give it any kind of meaning. While evidence says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, they’re probably all on first steps”

    (Hence, the annoying yoga soccer moms)

  12. Not sure I buy that unity with nature thing, in several directions, interesting as it is. For starters, that (alleged) goal seems at least as intellectual as any other. And nature certainly doesn’t not understand itself, and we are the only animals who can and do, at least to some degree, so why not get a lobotomy or jump off a bridge? The level of unity would leap within days or weeks, depending on where they leave your body.

    I’m also very skeptical of of East v. West comparisons, for materialist reasons. I don’t see a whole lot of Buddhism in Asian behavior, other than as window dressing. If Nepal and Tibet ever got serious cash and power (and one could at least argue they wouldn’t accept it), they’d do what everybody else does, which is try to intereve in nature to maximum human advantage.

    That latter effort, btw, doesn’t necessarily mean heedlessness.

    Just as my thesis is that damned few Christians and Muslims and Jews actually believe in God and their own Holy Books, I also simply don’t believe that there are many Buddhists who want to become one with nature, whatever that means. People want to be ethical and happy and included.

  13. I gather that what they mean by unity with nature is not in some sort of cheesy harmony of the lion grazing with the lamb variety, but rather harmony with – and ostensibly a direct experience of – the deepest levels of energy in the cosmos, i.e. whatever the most fundamental force underpines it all – ‘the absolute one-ness of the universe’ that transcends all categories of thought. The buddhists are adamant that the visible nature is just a manifestation of that. Such a goal is necessarily non-intellectual, since such a fundamental ‘essence’ could not possibly be described rationally since any description would have to rely on concepts and relationships, and thus be a proxy, rather than the real thing.

    While the East/West dichotomy is problematic for many reason, it still denotes some useful differences; for example, you suggesting that nature certainly does not understand itself is a very western thing to say, btw :).
    Besides, are their non-Eastern actions and attitudes now simply the result of western hegemony? As the limits of this social experience become more and more inescapable, who knows, maybe they will surprise us (if we don’t nuke them before that)

  14. As for analysis of advertising as a form of domination, it makes sense intuitively, but most people will have hard time buying it – it seems harder to document and demonstrate than other issues; please recommend sources that pursue this specific line…

    (It is clear that most ads are based on flattery or threat, but it is really not clear to me why it works…)

  15. The classic source on the continuity of the methods of class rule is Thorstein Veblen. You can find leads on that in the TCT book. That book originally had more on this topic, but I cut it out of the final manuscript, against my own wishes.

    It’s certainly an under-explained area. But, FWIW, I think it’s on-target.

  16. Yeah, as soon as I wrote that, I went back to the TCT book which states the general principle very well, but doesn’t amass as much documentation and argument.

    But thinking about it now, the absence of “class” from most social science discussion is probably one of the best indications of how much it is wavering in the territory of ideology and pseudo-science:

    If the main function of science, among others, is to discover principles that unify complex phenomena that appear completely separate upon casual observation, then social sciences are failing miserably by avoiding the topics of how production and class power do in fact shape most aspects of life.

    No matter how many wrong things could be found with Marxist type materialism, at least the intent sounds fairly scientific to me. All refutations of Marxism that I have seen (admittedly, not many) pretty much attempt to deny such unifying key phenomena and get stuck at the level of more superficial and inconsistent models.

    (When I was back in college in the 1990s, even the most talented of my professors were apparently so traumatized by the communist regime, that were over-eager to distance themselves as much as possible: hence, a rapid turn into phenomenology, Burdieu, etc. Even the most marxist of them all, who taught “Theories of modernization” and demonstrated very sophisticated understanding of Marx succumbed, tried hard, and IMO failed to demonstrate how any of the modernization theories in the 20th century were any better than Marx.
    Incidentally, Marx never denied the progressive consequences of capitalist modernization; he just didn’t heavily discount its impact on most of humanity)

  17. “It is clear that most ads are based on flattery or threat, but it is really not clear to me why it works…”

    Marla, from a business perspective, you know that most people ultimately want what you have already, and the ads are just a way of reminding them. Most Americans, given unlimited time and funds, would eventually buy a larger TV, but even once they have that time and those funds, getting them to get off the couch, get dressed, go to the store, find the right place, think about it, tell someone what they want, get it home, get it set up…

    …and so forth. Modern advertising is repetitive, stupid, and only vaguely related to the product in question because–at least in part–it’s just a reminder of a predetermined decision, rather than an argument to make that decision.

    Think about insurance agents–they bombard people with leaflets and logos because they know that, deep down, so many people feel they “need” insurance. Enough reminders should result in more purchases, regardless of how good or bad or fun or necessary the product/service in question actually is.

  18. This explain a particularly annoying form of web advertising that I personally fall for over and over again –> once you visit certain online shop and a particular product, all of a sudden image of, and link to, that specific product (say, a pair of shoes), begins to appear on virtually any other site I go (and just for the record, most don’t directly relate to shopping per se 🙁 ). Anyhow. More times than I care to admit, what has happened is I see it and think – “Oh, i totally forgot about these shoes. I suppose i should get them”. A few mindless clicks later (thank you paypal), and here I am, wondering wtf happened.

    After that, good luck arguing that the purchase wasn’t something that I would have “done anyhow”…. – “Why were you looking at shoes anyway, eh?”

  19. Heehee. 🙂

    That brings us full circle, back to Buddhism. The concept of being “free from desire” (much like the Christian concept of being “forgiven”) is, purely transmitted, not so much about never eating, never having sex, or about announcing those things pompously to everyone else, but about attaining an inner confidence that leaves one less vulnerable to manipulation, outward or inward.

    Consider a portion of Michael’s message about consumers: if it was condensed into a religion 2,000 years from now, errant people then might talk about how it was wrong to buy food, “because of what Dawson said.” They would be wrong, and it would be easy to both ridicule them for their dangerous stupidity, as well as validate them through a selected reading of incomplete pieces of TCT data.

    If we can understand a positive and a negative approach to Buddhism, we can understand how your buying the shoes is not necessarily bad, if you did it responsibly and for the right reasons. 😉

  20. Okay, here’s a devil’s advocate inquiry. TCT doesn’t necessarily endorse it, but I will ask: Why does anybody need Buddhism to grasp such obvious life truths?

    [“TCT” admits to being somewhat concerned over its main readers’ apparent like for Buddhist dogma and practice. Yipes! Really? Please explain…]

  21. It’s no big deal, but like with all learning, it helps to have a system, and if so, why not appreciate a decent one, at least from a distance, rather than expend energy reinventing it? Moreover, what makes it such an obvious life truth? (Savage self-indulgence can make just as much sense as a ‘life truth’)

    Besides, you could ask the same type of question about virtually any reading in philosophy – for example, what’s the point of reading about, say, Socrates? Surely most people can realize that they “know nothing”?

    Also, we should not mistake the casual fans (or actual affiliates) of a religion with the disciplined/ systematic practitioners. Granted, a monk devoted to systematic study doesn’t have much in common with the average person who may light an incense/candle on a holiday and go about their business. In that sense, mysticism takes more work than simply delighting in the act of living. Seems harmless enough…

  22. One of the most positive aspects any human religion can have is a message of a gift intrinsic to life that can’t be taken away. This notion is not beloved of people who want to make you feel inadequate so they can sell you something, or who simply want to rule you. In almost all older religions, we see only traces of a lossless character in humanity, which have been scrubbed out by various elites over the years. Buddhism has managed to save more of the lossless stuff than others, ergo its greater visceral appeal to this one. The actual “dogma and practice,” though, are not in themselves attractive.

    Consider the conflict in Judaism between having a relationship with God v. being one of the Chosen (or not so being) by birth, or the conflict in Christianity between being able to seek Christ on your own v. requiring institutional support to do so.

    What makes Buddhism, and some other eastern religions, more appealing is that they saved more of the good stuff from being lost to history. There is a dangerous, genocidal take on Zen Buddhism, to be sure, which paired well with Imperial Japan, and which justified colonialism, the way Judaism and Christianity did the same for other cultures.

    However, the best of the good remaining parts of Buddhism–that reincarnations give you “another chance”–is so much more reassuring and hopeful than the western religions’ idea that you have but one chance to get life right before either vanishing forever, or ending up in Hell forever.

    In Buddhism, also, you don’t have to pledge a particular allegiance–to pick the right god or non-god the very first time–in order to win. So, it’s much harder to use it to exploit people than you can do with bibles or textbooks.

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