I was reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media the other night thinking delirious thoughts of McLuhan’s messianic enthusiasm for the new age of “cosmic wholeness” that was the global village when suddenly C-SPAN shimmered and a village chieftain of the digital kind vectored out of the RCA no-so-high-definition TV. It was Gerald Levin, CEO and Chairman of Time Warner, a strange hybrid of Ronald Reagan and Teilhard de Chardin. He had come on the air to speak about “Cyberspace and the Future of Telecommunications” to the Economic Club of Detroit, but I swear that this was only a mise-en-scene, and that he was speaking directly to me, telling me telepathically to loosen up, drop McLuhan’s phonetic alphabet from my hands. I listened intently to the digital chief as he gave me the business scope on what has actually happened to McLuhan’s “global village” as it has been appropriated by the corporate noosphere. I had private thoughts subversive, probably my inner McLuhan, telling me that no this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen, that McLuhan’s electric age with its challenge to specialization and rationalization and privatization and uniform visual culture was supposed to usher in new epiphanies of the digital age, that the ancient Catholic dream of communication as a blissful state of grace was right around the cyber-corner, but, with Levin’s image on my eyes, I zipped McLuhan back to the utopian 60s and settled back for a TV lecture on my future of telecommunications.
And a wonderful lecture it was, beginning with an easy three-step program for (multinational) business success in cyberspace. First, Levin said that “to be a major player in telecommunications,” to survive by “trading on the desire for information” in the global village, multinational players had to have “an infrastructure of creativity – to balance a steady stream of creative imaginations with reliable return on capital.” I could sort of see that – it was the old Hollywood formula, arts entertainment and finance rolled over into Net capital. Second, telecommunications of the Time Warner kind was about “brands.” As Levin so delicately put it, “Brands are logos with a difference. Memory Bites Lodged in our Brains.” Fortune, CNN, Sports Illustrated, Time, HBO: in Levin’s global village, these are “trusted sources of accurate information” – a “quality product delivered by skilled advertising.” And third, the future of telecommunications in cyberspace is about “distribution:” the Time Warners’ of the cyber-world, like the “railroads of old or Highway 66, have to deliver what consumers want.” And what they want, of course, is fortunately just what Time Warner wants: “For us, ownership of electronic networks is vital. Networks have to stand out in a horizon of endless choice.”
Now don’t think that Levin was selling us a bill of goods, he wasn’t. With a shrug of his padded shoulders and an octave-pitch downwards in his boardroom voice, Levin suddenly got maudlin, telling us that with cyberspace “we’ve crossed over into uncharted territory. Cyberspace is “not a new Eden, but messy and violent,” definitely not for the weak of digital heart. “Cyberspace can’t save us from all our faults or save us from our frailties,” but if played just right, it just might deliver us up to Jefferson’s dream of liberty and equality and happiness for all.”
A downbeat analysis and an upbeat conclusion: that’s America!
In Levin’s digital myth, Time Warner now is like the pilgrims of 17th Century America who could not “foresee the wondrous frontier of California.” While we can’t yet say that “cyberspace will take us to where the buffalo roam,” Levin could say definitely that if it does, “Time Warner will be there.”
I like that: Time Warner where the buffalo roam, which is to say, disappeared. In my third ear, I hear McLuhan’s pesky voice saying that “the specialist is the one who never makes small mistakes while moving towards the grand fallacy.”
After this easy three-step program in cyberspace domination, Levin gets back down to earth, jabbing the audience with the familiar story of American cultural imperialism. In a little business aside, he confesses that Time Warner hasn’t yet learned how to make money on the Net. Should cyberspace be advertiser-driven, subscription, or transactional? So, in the absence of cash on the table, Levin does the next best thing, he goes for the political kill – the essential precondition for the (pan-capitalist) future of telecommunications. In that smooth voice of command adopted over the centuries by all Caesars of the wilderness, he begins to speak wistfully of the “unlimited possibilities” of the global village. Asia, the Americas, and especially Eastern Europe “now [all] have some understanding of capitalism;” what Time Warner absolutely requires is the “validation of intellectual property rights” and a “global agreement on Net content.” As for charges of “American cultural imperialism,” don’t worry, Time Warner has a corporate strategy already in place. For example, “take Germany,” Levin explains that there, like in every country, Time Warner creates two companies, one local for marketing German “creative talent” in their own language and the other international, meaning English.” Two strategies of colonialism for the cyber-age: or, as McLuhan, warned again and again in Understanding Media:
Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t have any rights left.
Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing our common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.
I will stand on your eyes, your nerves, your skin, your brain, and the world will move in any tempo I choose. We have leased these places to stand to private corporations.
The rest of Levin’s lecture was a blur of techno-futurism:
– Impending war scenarios with Intel and Microsoft which will challenge Time Warner by “forward packaging” of creative talent with sound business practices.
– AOL’s paradoxical success in putting the need for digital communication under the skin like a burr – a “habit structure” – that won’t go away.
– Scenarios for broad-band cabling with feverish dreams of “faster downloading” so that multimedia is “always there” in every netted hut in the global village.
– A new “Road Warriors” cyberspace service to take Time Warner into all of the schools and libraries and minds of the nation.
As Levin concludes, we will create a “seamless web,” a “digital package” that will always reflect the “genetic history of the old journalistic tradition: accurate fact checking, balanced presentations, and integrity of journalism.”
The image fades, and my thoughts drift back to McLuhan, but not before Levin delivers one last media aphorism: “The history of media is replete with new media altering but not replacing them.” With that in mind, I flip back to McLuhan’s more haunting words: “The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics.”
That’s Time Warner’s Global Village: psychic surgery on the social body delivered with no pain-killers but with a lot of entertainment, and all this under the guise of retrieving the “genetic history of journalism.”
The story of our Future of Telecommunications.