George Orwell is rolling in his grave. The telescreens from 1984 seem benign in comparison to the present day domination of life by screen. Even as you read this you are staring at one. Above it is a webcam which various government agencies can access at will, just as he predicted.
Through these screens pour an endless river of shit, manipulating us in ways that Orwell at his most pessimistic could simply never have imagined. The algorithms deciding which results we see when we make a Google search, or which of our friend’s posts we are fed on Facebook are among the most closely guarded corporate secrets in the world. Just through a process of re-ordering content, Facebook and Google have the power to influence our emotions, change our opinions, and even to flip elections, entirely without risk of detection.
Should we be worried that Google have quietly dropped their slogan “Don’t be evil?” I would have killed to be at the board room meeting for that one:
CEO: You know this “Don’t be evil” slogan is really tying our hands.
NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Yes, I can see that. What about, “Only occasionally be evil”?
CEO: Hmm, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: “Evil is relative”?
CEO: Maybe we could just fiddle the online dictionary definition of “evil?”
It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary. In the end they settled on: “Do the right thing”. It’s Animal Farm par excellence: “Don’t worry, all animals are still equal, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS”.
Woe is us:
There is something circular about watching a film in which we are told not to watch films. The film is telling us that films do not tell us the truth. Which means that the film itself is not telling us the truth. Which means that the film was right all along.
The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves is prophetic indeed. His warning rings as true as ever in the age of the internet:
“The next revolution—World War III—will be waged inside your head. It will be a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or even around the scarce resources of the earth, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV, and in ‘cyberspace’… It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda war of competing worldviews and alternative visions of the future.”
Cyberspace, a term which no longer needs inverted commas, has become the most fiercely contested of these. Fake news and viral videos battle for our attention. TV may have been disputed territory in the 70’s, but this has long ago ceased to be the case. TV isn’t a battleground, it is a procession, a consumerist parade. Anything genuinely insurgent has been relegated to brief slots on the Beeb, and a cult classic film every now and again.
Whether we are aware of this or not, we continue to watch all the same. How many of you did turn off The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves in the middle of his sentence? We are simply powerless to resist television’s glitz. As in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest we are transfixed, compelled to keep watching even as it kills us. The average American watches over 5 hours of TV a day. We switch on the TV so that we can switch ourselves off. Our guard is down. We are at our most suggestible.
Advertising campaigns now use neuro-linguistic programming and fMRI scans to measure the brain’s responses to various triggers. No wonder our mouths water at the sight of soft drink cans glistening with condensation in the summer sun.
But my concern is not so much adverts. However shamelessly they may play on our hopes and fears, you know what you are getting with an advert. You know you are being manipulated and to what end. The agenda is out in the open.
The same cannot be said of films and TV shows, which sell us ideology under the guise of art and entertainment.
Examples are rife but here are a couple of more blatant examples:
Here we have a psychopathic mass murderer espousing the political philosophy of anarchy, along with a hint of Zen Buddhism suggested by the words “I just do things” before blowing up a hospital. You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to see what’s going on: associate these powerfully liberating concepts with madness, violence and terror, and you prime impressionable young minds against them. The take-home message is clear: “Be afraid, let us control everything, or look what happens.”
The cumulative effect of constant indoctrination of this kind is that most people can’t even think about a concept like anarchy. Just the mention of the word is enough to make most people’s rational minds shut down and automatically regurgitate a stream of negative associations. Anarchy may indeed be a flawed political ideal, but it is downright dangerous that most people have never had the chance to think freely about it.
I don’t wish to impugn Christopher Nolan. Whether these clips are what I think they are is not really the point. I just want people to be more guarded against the terrifying shadow that media casts over our worldviews. Every day we are being bombarded by largely unchallenged ideological assumptions. If this happens under our watch then fine, that is what healthy debate is all about. But that is not remotely the case. And just as with the search engine manipulation effect, the startling realisation is that if this power were being wielded maliciously, we would have absolutely no way of knowing.
A formula is starting to emerge. Step 1: present a spine-chilling psychopath. Step 2: have him espouse any idea considered a threat to the establishment.
Again the intended effect of the scene is obvious. We are supposed to empathise with Nicholas Cage and block our ears against Steve Buscemi’s dangerous madness. But take away his preamble about murdering people for pleasure and Buscemi’s sentiments about the relativity of insanity have been articulated by some of the most respected thinkers throughout history.
Still, better not question the status quo or the next thing you know you’ll be chopping up families for fun.
 This is known as the Search Engine Manipulation Effect: https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-internet-flips-elections-and-alters-our-thoughts
 Marshall McLuhan (1970) Culture is Our Business (New York: McGraw-Hill)