This pronouncement about a certain not too distant future comes from an interview made in 1985 with the French author and experimental film-maker Marguerite Duras. Some 35 years later, and the vision is quite accurate – the information society in full swing drowning in its own output. If you change the word “TV sets” to screens you have a very realistic picture of our current landscape.

The perverse part is that we are made to think that all these technologies free ourselves, when in fact we could say it’s quite the opposite. Information is power indeed. Only it depends on who owns the information and is empowered by it. Ask Mark Zuckerberg. Freedom requires independent thinking and for sure it is not about control. The medium of course is always neutral; it’s what we humans do with it. At the beginning (like all inventions) it’s not so much about control but accessibility of information (think about the internet, how it started and what we have turned it into). Scientists have very different agendas than politicians. After all, radio brought Hitler to the masses and today we could almost say that it’s social media that puts entertainment politicians in power.

The Information Society emerging after World War II could be also called The Society of War and Control. All the communication technologies civilians use today were first developed for and by the military. After radio, television comes next! The American idealised vision of suburbia spreading after World War II is intimately enmeshed with the rise of the car industry and television. And let’s not forget that General Motors was an integral part of the German war effort.

Cities are the birthplace of democracy and as sociologist Saskia Sassen theorised (DAMN°66) the last redoubt of freedom. Isolate and segregate people outside of them and you can better control what they think and of course what they buy. I heard someone say one day that television was commercials with some programmes in between. That’s pretty accurate. At the end it is all about consumerism, we are turning all those communications technologies in instruments of corporations to sell us things. Zuckerberg sells them our information so they know what to sells us better. It’s quite pathetic if you think about it. The best part is when they talk about freedom and democracy.

World War II narratives invented the concept of the United States as saviours of freedom and democracy when it is exactly the opposite. That war was such a ‘success’ for the US economy that they adopted it as a business model. Since then, they have been destabilising government after government to get a hold of others national resources on the cheap, first in Latin America and then moving on to the Middle East and its oil.

This model is reflected by artist Farsad Labbauf as he wrote about ‘'The myth of the modern day Superhero” in explaining his artwork The Unwritten History of Stains, which was published on @dailytrumpet on 27 December last year. The painting is centred on the removal of Dr. Mosaddegh, the Iranian prime minister, from power in 1953 by the CIA. Among his many achievements, during his short term as prime minister, was the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry and putting a stop to the British control and exploitation of the Iranian oil resources.

Two interesting reads by John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004) and The Secret History of the American Empire (Dutton edition, 2007), give real insight into these narratives.  Perkins describes what he calls a system of corporatocracy and greed as the driving force behind establishing the US as a global empire, in which he took a role as an ‘economic hit man’ to expand its influence.

“Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign ‘aid’ organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet's natural resources. Their tools included fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as empire, but one that has taken on new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization.”

According to his first book, Perkins' outlines how his function was to convince the political and financial leadership of underdeveloped countries to accept enormous development loans from institutions like the World Bank and USAID. Saddled with debts they could not hope to pay, those countries were forced to acquiesce to political pressure from the US on a variety of issues. If the governments were not willing to cooperate, he writes, a ‘jackal’ was sent to murder the head of state to put someone more cooperative in its place (that’s how president and dictator Omar Torrijos of Panama was murdered according to him. He writes he actually warned him). If that didn’t’ work either then they would send the military and a war would start. That’s what happened with Saddam Hussein and the Iraq War. Hussein was put there by the Americans. When he stopped collaborating with them, George W. Bush told the world that invented story about the weapons of mass destruction (never to be found) and started a war with Iraq and they got him and killed him.

Why do you think his own party unfairly discarded Bernie Sanders of the presidential nomination in 2016? Maybe because of his political agenda, which four years later and on the campaign trail again, he is still saying things like this:

“Today we say to the military-industrial complex that we will not continue to spend 700 billion dollars a year on the military, more than the top 10 nations combined. We’re gonna invest in affordable housing, we’re gonna invest in public education, and we’re going to invest in our crumbling infrastructure. No more major investments in never-ending wars.”

First time around, the Democrats stole his presidential nomination and gave it to Hillary Clinton despite Democratic voters wanting Bernie and not her. They were backing that same system, and so we now have a fascist in the White House, a result that in Michel Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) he gives ‘thanks’ to the Democratic Party for. In the upcoming elections, where all the Democratic candidates are incredibly forward- thinking in their social views and really trying to change this corrupted system, they just announced that millionaire Mike Bloomberg, who switched to Republican to run for the New York Mayor’s office, is entering the race as a Democrat (Trump’s party affiliations have meandered from Democrat to Independence Party to Republican, leaving the latter, and finally returning back to Republican J). God forbid the US gets a president that has in mind the American people and not the 1% of the super rich. But as Bloomberg said, he had entered the Democratic primary because he no longer believed that any of the other candidates could defeat Trump. After the recent UK elections results where another entertainer politician like Boris Johnson won with a large majority against the Labour Party, it could be true.

In 2018 we witnessed a very interesting trial (or in official lingo, the acceptance of an invitation to testify) where Facebook founder Zuckerberg – the richest American under 40 – was accused of having done too little to stop the spread of fake news and extremist propaganda, and that it unwittingly enabled Russian meddling in America’s election and Britain’s Brexit vote in 2016. The latest scandal, involving the sharing of Facebook data with third parties by Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, sparked an acute corporate crisis, as well as a political reckoning. (Not surprisingly, the Cambridge Analytica story is a convoluted one and very much ongoing, but for the initial breach Facebook was fined the pocket-money amount of £500,000 by the UK’s data protection watchdog and paid up last October.)

As The New York Times reported, “Over two days, nearly 100 lawmakers in the House and Senate interrogated Mr. Zuckerberg about the company’s handling of user information.” Other news outlets, such as The Guardian, questioned how much grilling you can do when each senator had roughly five minutes, but questions about data ownership were asked:

Sen. Brian Schatz (Democrat, Hawaii): “I can't imagine that it's true as a legal matter that I actually own my Facebook data, because you're the one monetizing it (…) it doesn't seem to me that we own our own data, otherwise we'd be getting a cut.”

Zuckerberg: “Well, senator, you own it in the sense that you chose to put it there, you could take it down anytime, and you completely control the terms under which it's used. When you put it on Facebook, you are granting us a license to be able to show it to other people. I mean, that's necessary in order for the service to operate.”

Sen. Jon Tester (Democrat, Montana): “You’re making about $40 billion bucks a year on the data, I’m not making any money on it. It feels like you own the data.”

The work of writer and artist James Bridle presses on that precisely; it deals with the ways in which the digital networked world reaches into the physical, offline one. In a talk he gave in 2018 entitled What Is Real, he said:

“If you look at a map of where the internet’s fibre optic maps go you’ll see that they actually trace out completely the routes of former empires. So all the fibre optic cables from Africa still route back to their former colonial powers (…) This is because in many ways imperialism didn’t stop with decolonisation, it just moved up to the infrastructure level. So if you are capable of seeing some of these technologies you can work out where the power still lies and start to address them.”

At the end, as Bridle says, it is about awareness, a simple but powerful word. Awareness is consciousness, and it is the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings. Actually in all eastern and western philosophies there is a strong link between consciousness and freedom. Questions relating to human freedom cannot be separated from questions relating to human consciousness. The two are intricately entwined, and neither can be understood apart from the other.

If one is not educated and aware of what new technologies and the way their systems operate, then one is vulnerable to all types of manipulation, which is what they are doing to us, to the extreme of manipulating voters in political elections. To quote Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution: “The secret of liberty is to enlighten men, as that of tyranny is to keep them in ignorance.”

At the Senate hearings, Zuckerberg was asked by Senator Dan Sullivan (Republican, Alaska) whether Facebook was a tech company, platform or publisher. Zuckerberg’s response was that it was tech company and although it doesn’t produce it, does feel responsible for the content on its platform – but does feeling equate to being? Sullivan voiced one of the most contentious and often asked question about Facebook. If Facebook is the biggest publishers in history and they don’t care about what’s true or false, but about who pays more money, we are really in a very dangerous situation.

Returning to Bridle, in that same talk he gave in 2018 he addresses exactly this problem: “I am thinking a lot about this thing that Trump said in a press conference the other day. He says varieties of these kinds of things a lot: ‘What you are seeing and what you are reading is not happening.’

This is the kind of mood we are in and we know it. We live in deeply strange times when the president of the United States has to qualify himself with the word real. Just in case we completely loose faith in consensus reality. And I mention this because sometimes I think we don’t pay enough attention to the things that our technological systems are trying to tell us even when they are right there in front of us.”

Bridle stressed that he didn’t want to just focus on “Trumpian fake news” and highlighted a quote from Obama: “‘Everything is true and nothing is true.’ This is something that Obama said about things that were happening online just in the very last days of the last US election (…) And unlike Trump’s quote, which was kind of an accusation, Obama’s is a critique and it points towards something that goes deeper than fake news – deeper than this is all untrue – to a kind of confusion and fear, and uncertainty, that is really at the heart of a lot of our technological and thus political processes right now.”

No invention is good or bad, it’s what we make of it, how we use it. Those technologies are actually terrific if in good hands and if properly regulated. They are also connecting and giving voice at a global scale to so many social movements that couldn’t happen without it. And guess what? The majority of humans are not evil monsters consumed by power and greed. It’s time to overtake them. But for that we have to understand their manipulation strategies and get control of our lives and information. Awareness is impossible without education. Teach people how to think for themselves and they’ll be free.

There is an old saying, "The pen is mightier than the sword," but it seems that the technologies that flow beyond the keyboard are a double-edged weapon. Ideas written down have changed the destiny of nations and their people. The flow of ideas cannot be stopped. We need to read and research to build on the good ideas and expose the bad ideas before they bring destruction. Only by reading can we be armed in this never-ending, life-and-death struggle.

According to UNESCO in 2017, worldwide literacy rates are rising but data shows “that 750 million adults – two-thirds of whom are women – still lack basic reading and writing skills”. If freedom requires independent thinking, then reading is paramount to freedom.

The fact of the power of written ideas communicated through reading is a foundational reason why some governments oppose free and honest communication. Illiterate people are even easier to control and manipulate. They cannot do their own research and thinking. They must rely on what they are told and how their emotions are swayed.

And if what they are told is mediated by companies like Facebook then we are at risk – and that’s where we are right now – of destroying our democracies; as Bridle’s book New Dark Age (Verso Books, 2018) is trying to explain to us and which, not by chance, goes back to meet Duras’ 1985 statement on drowning in information.

Bridle’s writes: “In reality, we are lost in a sea of information, increasingly divided by fundamentalism, simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. Meanwhile, those in power use our lack of understanding to further their own interests. Despite the apparent accessibility of information, we’re living in a new Dark Age.”

by Cristina Guadalupe Galvan

This article appeared in DAM75. Order your personal copy.