"What is this?" Samuel Morse
Culture and Technologies of Control
Culture is not just the expression of individual interests and orientations, manifested in groups according to rules and habits but it offers identification with a system of values. The construction of cultural memory and establishing a symbolic order through setting up mental and ideological spaces is a traditional practice of cultural engineering; symbolic scenarios generate reality by mediating an implicit political narrative and logic. Maps of the world radiating an aura of objectivity and marking out the ways of life are exploited as cognitive tools. An image of the world as simulation or map of reality can be highly inductive and that explains the investment in cultural representation. From historiography to education, perception is influenced by mental scenarios that establish the symbolic order. According to Edward Bernays, a pioneer of modern public relations, the only difference between education and propaganda is the point of view. "The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don't believe is propaganda." The development in electronic communication and digital media allows for a global telepresence of values and behavioral norms and provides increasing possibilities of controlling public opinion by accelerating the flow of persuasive communication. Information is increasingly indistinguishable from propaganda, defined as "the manipulation of symbols as a means of influencing attitudes". Whoever controls the metaphors controls thought.
The ubiquitous flow of information is too fast to absorb and creating value in the economy of attention includes the artful use of directing perception to a certain area, to put some aspects in the spotlight in order to leave others in the dark. The increasing focus of attention on the spectacle makes everything disappear that is not within the predefined event horizon. Infosphere manipulation is also implemented through profound penetration of the communications landscape by agents of influence. Large scale operations to manage public opinion, to evoke psychological guiding motivations and to engineer consent or influence policy making have not been exclusive to the 20th century. Evidence of fictitious cultural reconstruction is abundant in the Middle Ages; recent findings on the magnitude of forgeries, the large scale faking of genealogies, official documents and codices attracted broad attention and media interest. In 12th century Europe in particular, pseudo historical documents were widely employed as tools of political legitimacy and psychological manipulation. According to some conservative estimates, the majority of all documents of this period were fictitious. With hindsight, whole empires could turn out to be products of cultural engineering. Moreover, writers such as Martin Bernal, author of "The Fabrication of Ancient Greece", have clearly demonstrated to what extent cultural propaganda and historical disinformation is contained in the work of European scholars. On the basis of racist ideas and a hidden political agenda historic scenarios were fabricated and cultural trajectories distorted in order to support the ideological hegemony of certain European elites.
The increasing informatization of society and economy is also the source of a growing relevance of culture, the cultural software in the psycho-political structure of influence. During the so-called cold war, too, issues of cultural hegemony were of importance. In publications such as "The Cultural Cold War" and "How America stole the Avant-garde" Frances Stonor Saunders and Serge Guilbaud offer a behind-the-scenes view of the cultural propaganda machine and provide a sense of the extravagance with which this mission was carried out. Interestingly there were specifically efforts to support progressive and liberal positions as bridgehead against the "communist threat". If one chooses to believe some contemporary investigative historical analyses, it seems that there was hardly a major western progressive cultural magazine in the Fifties and Sixties that would not have been founded or supported by a cover organization of intelligence services or infiltrated by such agencies. In the light of this, the claim made by Cuba at the UNESCO world conference in Havana 1998, according to which culture is the "weapon of the 21st century" does not seem unfounded.
Information Peacekeeping has been described as the "purest form of war" in the extensive military literature on information war. From cold war to code war, the construction of myths, with the intention of harmonizing subjective experience of the environment, is used for integration and motivation in conflict management. While "intelligence" is often characterized as the virtual substitute of violence in the information society, Information Peacekeeping, the control of the psycho-cultural parameters through the subliminal power of definition in intermediation and interpretation is considered the most modern form of warfare.
It is a boom time for intelligence agencies, not only state but private intelligence. Mass-surveillance, dataveillance, and information processing has grown into a major intelligence industry. While state intelligence is protected by secrecy in the interest of national security, prohibitive fees and large payments affordable by corporations only, guard access to economic intelligence.
Corporations, consumers of economic intelligence, routinely advance the merging of editorial information with corporate public relations in the media. The agenda of privately accumulated capital is further supported by a multitude of think tanks, which publish ideologically biased research, and hidden agendas masked as independent academic work. Unlike the billion-dollar brainware industry put into place by corporate interest, there are no Future Heritage foundations of cultural intelligence, no foresight institutes exploring the multidimensional potential of human experimental communication beyond the role as consumers. It seems as if the control of societal development is in the hands of technocratic elites, ill informed bureaucrats and a shady but aggressive lobbyism. The layout for the future of communication is decided behind closed doors.
Technologically determined environments increasingly shape society but the democratic participatory potential is more and more excluded from a public debate. Most of the early hopes of emancipatory practice in a society based on information exchange seem to have vanished and turned into gloom. Instead the potential of information and communication technologies for political control and repression seemingly has no boundaries, as its practical applications become more "normal" and manifest reality every day. The use of information technology for the deterrence of civilian dissent opens up a new dimension of political and cultural control.
By the year 2002, high resolution privacy intrusion is getting into the mainstream big time. Although 9-11 caused a landslide, this development has built up momentum for some years. The European Union's cross border communication interception project Enfopol, and the UK's Regulation of Investigative Powers (RIP) bill, which allows the police to intercept any communication using the "public communications system" were among the earlier legal frameworks paving the way for the rise of the total surveillance society. Despite being taken up by the European Parliament in 1998, the Echelon communications interception system set up in 1948 remains one of the secrets of western intelligence agencies and out of the reach of democratic accountability. Increasing proliferation of technologies of surveillance and control is not only useful for its potential to contain segments of society that fail to be integrated into the economy of machinic symbol manipulation but the long-term effects of social homogenization through the command/control structure of technology are also highly desirable for globalized markets and opinion management.
The situation is getting even more precarious due to the fact that new media are ever more dominated by a dramatic concentration of private interest capital and the absence of the protection of the public interest by political representatives for a society at large. The public sphere can best be developed independently from the state and from dominant business interests. The logic of the control over the media market is strongly opposed to the cultivation and formation of a public sphere, and the dysfunctionality of media markets generates a crucial deficiency of participatory media culture. A society shaped by technological systems and digital communication should keep a perspective where cultural freedom can be actively pursued and in which use and value are not exclusively determined by profits. Therefore it seems necessary to widen the basis of understanding to support a broad discussion on the political implications of ICT and to raise awareness on issues of conflict. Developments that need to be monitored with great awareness include the attack on privacy and the databody, the digital divide, net.slaves and the deterioration of the workplace, the vanishing of a public sphere in the digital realm, the extension of copyright benefiting the content industry and IP lobby against the public interest but also the establishment of one-sided technological standards, the militarization of cyberspace and new possibilities of disinformation.
Against this less then reassuring background there is a surprising multitude of examples of emancipatory use of ICT to be found all over the world and it has become undeniably an essential tool for political, cultural and human rights activists. These groups and individuals are the ones that keep the spirit of the social use of communication networks alive and give an example of empowerment through new technology.