The American media market is well known for its flashy, profit-oriented approach to content production and distribution. Tactics of conglomeration (concentration of ownership by a parent company), Vertical and Horizontal Integration (shared efficiencies across commonly-owned companies) help media conglomerates accomplish a kind of synergy (inter-organizational efficiency) that companies outside the “Big 6” can hardly compete with.
As a scholar and educator focused on the field of media, I know all too well that examples of this kind of market/media logic are everywhere, just waiting to be found. Practically every program produced by a major media outlet will model parts of this logic if one looks carefully enough. There may be nothing new to see, but it’s still a useful endeavor to uncover what’s behind the veil. Still, every once and a while we’re faced with such extreme examples that they render visible what is so often hidden in today’s media environment. I recently recognized NBC’s The Voice as such a specimen. (Watch the full episode below.)
The Voice is an example of corporate media logic par excellence. During its season five finale, The Voice demonstrated just how deep the synergistic waters can run. The final episode included numerous performances by popular artists seeking exposure for their individual brands, as well as their new line of products…err, albums. More importantly, the vast majority of those artists work under popular music labels previously affiliated with the conglomerate. For example, Lady Gaga (Interscope), Ne-Yo (DefJam), One Republic (Interscope), and Aloe Blacc (Interscope) are each supporting Comcast’s bottom line in their own resounding fashions. And, of course, the season five winner (SPOILER ALERT!), Tessanne Chin, was awarded a record contract with Universal Music Group, a major label with prior ties to NBC Universal/Vivendi.
But, the story doesn’t end there. Producers of the The Voice also discovered even more synergies by partnering with Kia Motors. Not only did Kia help The Voice cross-promote by creating a special model for the show, they also helped close out the season with “a few surprises” for the season’s three finalists: a private tour of Universal Studios, a visit from the Grinch himself (yes, they’re also cross-promoting a new movie), and a new Kia. In return, Kia was able to advertise their 2014 lineup to viewers around the world.
Taken together, this is the capitalist logic on steroids: a handful of powerful media companies that are incredibly well-funded, sparsely regulated, and hardly diverse. And, like it or not, the trend keeps growing stronger. After completing their merger with NBCUniversal/GE just months ago Comcast is now looking to purchase fellow conglomerate Time Warner Cable. If the plan goes through, Comcast, which is already a juggernaut in the American media market, could become one of the largest and most powerful media companies ever.
NOTE: This analysis is far from exhaustive, as The Voice exemplifies many more trends of the new media environment than can be covered in one post. For example, The Voice has been incredibly successful at engaging its audience and leveraging them to various ends. For example, members of the fan community help boost profits by purchasing songs, voting, and cross-promoting with the help of numerous social media sites.
Today, I watched this talk by Jason Silva, titled WE ARE THE GODS NOW. In it, Silva makes a persuasive—perhaps contagious—argument, and one I hadn’t encountered to date. Basically, Silva tells a bunch of overly-excited stories about the power of technology and then invites the rest of us to jump on his bandwagon of utopian, technological optimism.
I will file Silva and his work as radical, techno-optimism. I tend to take a less romantic, more realistic viewpoint than Silva, although I do share a measure of his excitement about the potential for technology to be used for good, social change. There are many reasons why I shy away from Silva’s perspective. Most important is the way he fetishizes technology and ignores the complex array of social forces from which all these magical technologies arise. (No, they do not just pop out of the replicator from Star Trek.) The other reason is his tendency to treat decontextualized quotes from influential scientists as irrevocably convincing evidence. This, latter limitation is reminiscent of the damning problems with Malcom Gladwell’s brand of intellectualism. At its worst, I’ve come to see it as little more than “enlightened delusion.”
Ironically, just after watching the video, I stumbled across (via Twitter, of course) this short video from Barbara Ehrenreich. The argument is based off Ehrenreich’s recent book Bright-Sided, in which she warns of a society where blind optimism keeps much of the public ignorant of the real problems we are facing. Hegemonic ideological forces such as nationalism and individualism, among others, popularize cultural attitudes of optimism, even in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence.
An even more polemic counter-example can be found in Evgeny Morozov’s rabid arguments in the other direction. I disagree with Morozov for similar reasons—he overplays his argument, lacks systematic analysis, and ignores counter-evidence. He also happens to be one of the most mean-spirited intellectuals I’ve ever heard of. He hurls personal insults like it’s his job. (See, for example, his review of Jeff Jarvis’s recent book, or his debate with author Steven Johnson.) Despite his infamous lack of civility, Morozov’s recent books The Net Delusion and To Save Everything, Click Here serve as a useful counterweights in balancing out the blind optimism idealized by schlock experts like Silva. Most notably, they provide countless examples how new technologies are being used to undermine the public good.
Like Ehrenreich, I am an advocate of realism over blind forms of optimism or pessimism. For example, the hard, undeniable fact of inequality—in technological access, economics, education, etc.—that spans the globe is a HUGE barrier to the kind of utopia Silva dreams of. And technology alone cannot solve it. Moreover, if technology continues to be used to replace jobs historically done by humans, it may even increase it. These considerations do not negate the powerful, disruptive potential that new technologies may hold. But they should surely temper our hopes for their revolutionary potential.
In contrast to the polemics of techno-optimism and techno-pessimism, technorealism is a perspective that seeks to balance out both irrevocable positions with a realistic consideration of both “positive” and “negative” forces. As defined by www.technorealism.org:
Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life. Integral to this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history. Looking, for example, at the history of the automobile, television, or the telephone -- not just the devices but the institutions they became -- we see profound benefits as well as substantial costs. Similarly, we anticipate mixed blessings from today's emerging technologies, and expect to forever be on guard for unexpected consequences -- which must be addressed by thoughtful design and appropriate use (quoted in Vo et al.).
So, what can technorealism do for sociological inquiry? Besides offering a healthy dose of reality, it can guide us beyond mere polemics and onto a plane of thought grounded in both logic and evidence. That is the direction I hope to head going forward. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t end up being the path less traveled.