10/21 – Digital Disconnect: Chapters 1, 2, & 3

In this session, we begin discussing our second assigned book of the quarter: Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy by Robert W. McChesney. Prof. McChesney is also visiting Stanford for a talk in the Communication Department on Wednesday, October 23, at 12:15 pm.

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8 responses to “10/21 – Digital Disconnect: Chapters 1, 2, & 3

  1. McChesney examines many of the extreme skeptical and celebratory analyses of the Internet, and proposes that they fail to examine the crucial relationship between the Internet and political economy. He writes that “the skeptics provide a dash of realism and raise important deep-seated concerns, but…their values are unclear and they generally offer no credible alternative course….[And] celebrants often believe digital technology has superpowers over political economy” (12, 15). Since he believes that political economy provides an “indispensable context and insight” (19) for understanding the role of the Internet in society, I wanted to outline his arguments in Chapter 3 where he introduces PEC (political economy of communication), specifically his thesis that we are approaching a new critical juncture in media.

    Chapter 3 introduces the catechism of the commercial media system in the US of a vision of a free press and the “rise of independent professional reporters committed to unbiased, objective views” (63). While most people tend to accept this vision of a free press, McChesney is critical of how it is adapted to digital technology. In fact, he finds that the catechism hinders effective understanding with regard to both the Internet and all media. Therefore, he introduces a subfield of political economy (PEC) to intertwine communication with his discussion of capitalism and democracy presented in Chapter 2. One line of inquiry that the PEC pursues is the “foundational role of government policies in establishing media systems, even commercial profit-driven systems” (64). McChesney is quick to note that while “governments have the capacity to change policies and media systems…they do so only on rare historical occasions” (66). Here the notion of “critical junctures” is imperative. Critical junctures are rare events in institutional development in which dramatic changes are debated and enacted. In fact, during these times, ideas that “were once verboten or unthinkable are suddenly on the table” (67).

    Critical junctures take place when there is a revolutionary new communication technology that undermines the current system, the content of the media system (e.g. journalism) is discredited, and/or there is a major political crisis where dominant institutions are increasingly challenged. What is key here is McChesney points out that the first two conditions have already been met: “the digital revolution is overturning all existing media industries and business models, and journalism is at its lowest ebb since the Progressive Era” (68). It remains that the third condition be satisfied. We already see in his argumentation in Chapter 2 that some of the groundwork for the instability of the political system has been laid. Namely, contrary to the catechism that the United States is the epitome of a democracy, it is in fact a rather weak democracy due to the effects of capitalism on inequality, corporate oligopolies, and economic growth. However, what remains to be seen is whether the working class will actively engage with these crises or leave matters to the elite. Already the Occupy movement (fueled largely by the Internet) provides some promise of the working class’ involvement.

  2. A. To

    In Chapter 2 of Digital Disconnect, McChesney continues to introduce his reader to Capitalism and capitalist economies. As someone who has never studied Politics or Economics, I found this particularly informative and fascinating. In particular, McChesney highlights three prevailing characteristics of capitalism: class and inequality, tendency towards monopoly, and an endless drive to develop new technologies. Given my interest in technology and location in Silicon Valley, I would like to explore this particular facet of capitalism.

    Given that I am still an undergraduate student and someone who does research at a major university, I tend to frame my thought on the development of new technologies around an academic and “for discovery!” mindset. However, being in a commercial capital for technology, I am constantly reminded of the need to monetize technology. I have never considered this monetization a pillar by which our economy is held up by. McChesney writes that “technology is central to growth, and growth is central to capitalism” (47). He frames technology (in its many forms), as a driving force behind economic stimulation, and that “stagnation” can lead to our destruction in such forms as the Great Depression. He poses that “one of the great political economic questions concerning the Internet” has been whether it would propel us into an era of growth and investment like some of its predecessors – the railroad and the automobile.

    Given, depending on what you measure by, that the Internet is at least 30 years old, I am puzzled that this is still a question. McChesney notes “investment has flooded the Internet and information technologies,” but also warns that any economic growth surge to date is “underwhelming.” In a country where Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Microsoft are such large and visible corporations, and on campus where venture capitalists meet constantly with students to fund the next big startup, I see evidence everyday that the Internet is a large contributor to our economy, but by the same token, my upbringing in the age of the Internet and location in the heart of SV may be putting on blinders. Thinking more critically, I can imagine McChesney admonishing that I am in the very same “filter bubble” that our personalized search engines create. This investment circulates within a particular populous and is not affecting the country at large in the way that we need it to in order to stimulate economic growth.

  3. McChesney introduces the audience to many disconnects between the ideal role of the Internet in democracy and the current state of democracy in the United States. He describes how the previous expectations of the Internet were high in a positive way. Free information and Internet voting were predicted to be major factors in a revolutionary time. Instead, the façade of democracy in the United States has only improved its disguise.

    McChesney states that despite the implicit bargaining power of the Internet, there has been no major threat to corporate order since its introduction. He then raises the question “why as organized labor been incapable of being more effective politically?” (58). In order to reach a solution to this question, the problem must be broken down. McChesney slices the issue two-faced: the public relations face, and the depoliticization face.

    Throughout the text, McChesney provides an extremely negative view of PR. While the general understanding of “public relations” is that of corporate-employed journalists providing those outside of companies with necessary knowledge from within the company, McChesney describes PR as “extolling the virtues of business and capitalism and denigrating labor and government social programs”(58).

    The second aspect of why organized labor cannot make change is obvious. The depolicitization of low-income citizens should not come as a surprise given the nature of the Internet. With unlimited potential to explore interests, socialize, create worlds, and enjoy random content, citizens in the United States are becoming increasingly polarized to their instantaneous interests. McChesney states “Americans simply are less interested in politics, at least if most measures, including voter turnout, are consulted” (59). Americans are less likely to be interested in everything that they do no encounter regularly. Depolicitization has a direct relationship with human polarization.

    What I would like to discuss and figure out is how we can strengthen our citizens’ minds to overpower the distractions and focus on what is important. It is no surprise that the goal of corporations is to consume our minds with trivial matters, but how do we teach discernment of PR and advertising campaigns from real news.? Solving these two questions will ultimately lead us to more unified movements towards equality.

    McChesney states that American is currently “a toxic environment for democracy, and it fans the flames of cynicism” (59). I’d like to know how we put out the fire.

  4. In Chapter 1, McChesney lays the foundation for understanding not just the extraordinary complexity of the Internet but also the different lens through which we can analyze its impact. McChesney begins by putting the omnipresence of the Internet in perspective, noting that “signs point to its being a globally defining feature of human civilization going forward, until it eventually becomes so natural, so much a part of the social central nervous system, as to defy recognition as something new or distinct to our being” (1). This prediction is fleshed out with examples of how the Internet has grown quickly, exponentially, and pervasively. A site like YouTube generates in less than a week “more content than all the films and television programs Hollywood has produced in its entire history” (1). With much more access and exposure to the Internet through social media, through laptops and cell phones and other media devices, “the average American consumes ‘information’ for 11.4 hours per day” (1-2). Perhaps most poignantly, the Internet itself might be described as having experienced several lifetimes already in its short span of existence, “from Usenet days to the World Wide Web and AOL and then broadband followed by Google and now wifi, iPads, smartphones, and social media” (2-3). Given its rate of change and its multi-dimensional reach into the lives of individuals and societies, the Internet is certainly a subject worth investigating.

    Yet that same complexity makes investigating the Internet especially difficult, and as McChesney wisely observes, with all of these changes and moving parts, some taking place at this very moment, “how can we even begin to make sense of what is taking place?” (3). McChesney first categorizes the attempts that people have made to investigate it, observing two camps of researchers: celebrants and skeptics. Celebrants “reaffirm one of the most important original arguments from the 1990s, that the Internet will be a force for democracy and good worldwide, ending monopolies of information and centralized control over communication” (8). Instances like the Twitter revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, in their mind, give fuel to the idea that the Internet empowers individuals more “than ever before to create the world [they] want” (8). Skeptics take a more cautionary view, believing that “technology is as capable of being destructive as it is progressive” (10). We’ve already seen one such perspective from Turkle, who proposes that technology exacerbates our need for attention, creates a ruse of companionship, and might make us less likely to give care to other people in the first place. Carr sees the Internet affecting our ability to think in the first place, proposing that “research demonstrates that with the rise of the Web and the decline in traditional reading, humans are losing their ‘linear thought process’…preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively” (11-12). Each camp has its champions and examples that cast the Internet in a wide range of lights. McChesney believes that these different perspectives are all valuable, but that they overlook one essential component of understanding the role of the Internet in contemporary society.

    That component is capitalism. McChesney argues that “Political economy – an understanding of capitalism and its relationship to democracy – can provide a rudder as we make sense of the Internet” (13), pointing out that with all of the Internet’s complexity and fragmentation in its research, establishing a foundation that affects all the sides of the issue can be both unifying and productive. McChesney points out that “the profit motive, commercialism, public relations, marketing, and advertising – all defining features of contemporary corporate capitalism – are foundational to any assessment of how the Internet has developed and is likely to develop” (13), and notes that systems of economic privilege and power not only builds the commercial face of the Internet but determines how people can access it in the first place. I think McChesney does a fantastic job putting the debate on the Internet into perspective, explaining both its various sides and its societal importance. Applying critical capitalist theory to the Internet is a departure from the more psychology-oriented approach that we saw in Turkle, but one that has much potential for importance, since it can help us understand the more subtle impacts of the Internet on society and how those impacts came to exist. With this knowledge, our critical understanding of the Internet and technology itself gains an entire new level of significance.

  5. Throughout the introduction and first chapters of Digital Disconnect, I have some concern for the platform upon which Robert McChesney is setting up his entire argument. It is not necessarily that the platform is invalid or that his claims are unable to be corroborated, but rather that he relies on bold claims with little empirical study to ground his discourse. It should be noted, however, that this disconnect could potentially be attributed to the novel as a form of expressing academic dispositions, where most readership would be lost within or bored by overuse of academic citation. My concern stems from a few passages of bold claims where McChesney builds his overriding thesis for the book.

    In the first chapter, McChesney even writes, “Obviously I am making broad generalizations that in a more detailed study would demand all sorts of elaboration and qualification,” (24). However, since the majority of his claims are built on overarching technical and scientific claims, the lack of elaboration and qualification discredits his argumentation.

    This is exemplified at the start of chapter 2, where McChesney writes what he equates as the “official catechism of the United States” (23). However, a heated and emotional description of social science seems to be a biased and unsubstantiated manner in which to build an argument

    Similarly McChesney will make an overarchingly bold claim about human affect supported by one article about a study. For example, on page 28, he writes, “Recent research indicates that upper-class people are less likely to feel compassion toward others and much more likely to feel their greed is justified by their station in life.” He then uses this claim to assert that “There is little evidence that today’s capitalists are more charitable or socially conscious than yesterday’s.” (28).

    Another example of this is on page 28 where McChesney claims that, “as a rule the digital erahas seen a continued, arguably accelerating, rate of monopoly in the economy.” (38). However, the only evidence used to back this up is some statistics on the number and percent of manufacturing industries.

    Another concern I have had since the beginning of the book is that the internet is global while capitalism is not. Many of McChesney’s initial claims are built on discussions of the capitalist nature of the United States. McChesney will develop his sentiments prefaced by a note such as, “What governments do will determine not just whether a society has a capitalist economy, but also what type of capitalism a society will have.” (51). He then relates this government regulation of capitalism to advertising in the physical world and then bridges to effects proposed or mirrored on the Internet. McChesney also writes, “The ways capitalism works and does not work determine the role that the Internet might play in society.” (13). This claim reduces the many forms of government, regulation, and capacities of networking to one type of governance and evidence from one nation. This is not to say the McChesney’s argumentation is incorrect, it just seems limited to base a large claim on a small sample size.

  6. One of the most interesting and relatable sections for me this week was on advertising. I have not considered advertising’s relation to economic and political systems before. I wanted to focus my comment this week on analyzing the role the internet has played on advertising. In particular, I want to look out how individually-targeted advertising fits into McChesney’s political and economic views. With the vast amounts of information companies have access to today, advertising has taken a deeper role in people’s lives.

    McChesney describes that one of advertising’s role in an oligopoly is to differentiate one product from the rest, when often the products often differ very little. He talks about how advertising is focused on associating brands with athletes, stars, and sexual allure (44). Targeted advertising is able to take this approach another step and associate products with your favorite things. We see companies like Facebook using your friends as spokesmen for products they “like.” Ads can be tailored to fit the people you admire most. The associations can be strengthened by being more personalized to your needs.

    Another purpose of advertising in a capitalistic society is “to create wants which will generate the demand for [the] product” (42). This works opposite of how one would think in a free market where the demand dictates output from firms. Here we see firms trying to stimulate demand. Now with large data mining of personal information, companies are able to use probabilistic models to calculate what you’re most likely looking to buy. If you surf online, you can see how your ads on websites change based on what websites you visit. Now, we live in an era were companies have the increasing ability to predict what products we have a predisposition to buy.

    It’s hard to say if an individually-targeted advertising online world is bad or not. It seems to me that most people prefer free ad-based vs. paid models, so why not make the ads relevant to you? I think McChesney’s strongest point against advertising, in general, is that its purpose “is to increase people’s dissatisfaction with any current state of affairs” (45). Therefore, the more websites and apps depend on advertising models for revenue, the more they promote the discontent with the status quo for no real reason other than to drive profits. Targeted advertising had the potential to really influence people’s buying decisions, and I think this is what McChesney would argue is the most problematic aspect.

  7. hramesh2013

    In the second chapter of his book, Digital Disconnect, McChesney argues that the notion of capitalism at least in America is not one and the same as democracy.
    He cites various problems with the system such as the inequality stemming from the “downward pressure in wages” due to “the changing role (and power) of organized labor” and “new trade policies that made it easier for U.S. firms to “offshore” manufacturing jobs to extremely low-wage locales” and inefficiency and unfairness that results from the monopoly perpetuated by megacorporations (31). These flaws, the realities of capitalism in America today, are severely incongruous to the rosy views of capitalism: the idea that it involves “free exchange” where “there is no coercion” and leads to a higher standard to living (23). McChesney shows that the argument used to tie capitalism, as it is practiced, and democracy together is inherently flawed. His discussion of capitalism and democracy stays true to his promise in the first chapter that he will not ignore the political economy in his assessment of the effects of the Internet on society.
    He goes on to indirectly address the celebrants who hail the Internet as a democratizing force that alters capitalism by pointing out that “corporations enter the public sphere, even high-tech ones,[…] to advance their commercial interests directly or indirectly” (29). McChesney here says that “netrepreneurs” are no different than off-line capitalists in that they both have the same greedy mentality. Elsewhere, he also remarks about corporations “using “cause-related marketing” linking their brands to some socially worthy project to “tug at consumer heartstrings”” and the irony, if not hypocrisy, in “denud[ing] the public sector of the resources it needs to tackle social problems” only to “offer to address the same problems as part of marketing campaigns” (45). McChesney through these two points brings attention to the fact that corporations, regardless of whether they seem to promote social good, because of their greedy practices, threaten democracy. More importantly, since this is much more relevant to the technological revolution in the past decades, even corporations that occupy spheres on the Internet are not exempt; as McChesney seems to hint at, these corporations probably use the internet to hypercommercialize and not respect it as celebrants do as a medium to spread democracy.
    McChesney establishes his credibility to discuss the political economy of the Internet in the second chapter and not take capitalism for granted as some of his peers do and sets up for a sobering assessment for the impact of technology on democracy through this lens.

  8. In Chapter 3 of Digital Disconnect, McChesney attempts to dispel the catechism that commercial media “gives the people what they want,” and shows that this is especially true today despite the revolution new technology seemed to promise. The premise of most of McChesney’s argument is that content is still restricted. Consumption is determined by oligopolies with necessarily high amounts of capital to begin large-scale creative endeavors. Consequently, McChesney claims, the content audiences receive is not what they demand, but rather a version of their wants, filtered “through the commercial requirements of media conglomerates and advertisers” (75).

    While I can accept McChesney’s claims with regard to traditional forms of media, I contend that his observation does not hold up in light of new avenues of media consumption made available through new technology, most significantly the Internet. Today, a tweet with rich videos or photos will reach more people more quickly than a traditional news story would. A 6-second video on Vine will entertain more people than any other cable TV show tonight. To constrict one’s view of media to that which has only evolved naturally from their traditional counterparts obscures innovation which is on its way to solving, or at least disrupting, many of the problems McChesney identifies (which he later, rightfully, says should also be tackled with a focus on policy).

    Above all, the Internet is empowering, and a large part of that power takes the form of content creation and distribution. A good example of this audience empowerment takes the form of a Fallout live action TV-show. Fallout is a series of role-playing games with a common universe, and there has long since been fan support for a live action video or show to complement the game series. While not financially promising enough to be picked up for a cable TV show, fans with some production background have created a series of non-profit fan films called “Nuka Break.”

    Informal media consumption can be raw and unfiltered, but platforms are beginning to allow it to monetize and gain legitimacy. Twitter and Facebook now verify users with large followings, granting their virtual thoughts more authenticity. Additionally, blogging and video platforms such as tumblr and Youtube permit advertisements, enabling artists and creators to make money off their content, which can itself now be created and edited with. This negates McChesney’s argument that economies of scale are a prerequisite for content creation. Consequently, media content industries are only oligopolistic if one ignores every new media platform this past decade has produced. An audience with a computer and an Internet connection has more choices than ever before in human history.

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