There was a time when theme parks like Disneyland were a place you visited, leaving reality behind the front gates as you shadow-boxed Mickey and Minnie Mouse on the way in.
Today, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve all been sucked into a permanent dystopian version of the park – like Banksy’s Dismaland – where the dividing line between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy, is becoming all too blurred. Now we’re all permanently trapped in the themepark, handcuffed to a Ghost Train rollercoaster ride, looking for media signposts to guide us out but finding confusion and collusion instead.
Australians’ trust in media is at an all-time low, reflecting a time when alternative facts have become a thing and the traditional newsroom is dead. It’s not just media either – a 2017 poll by the Trust Barometer by Edelman, the world’s largest PR company, noted Australia was increasingly pessimistic, with trust in media, politics, business and NGOs at record lows.
“We’re talking about a trust crisis that is causing a systematic meltdown,” reckons Richard Edelman, head of the PR company, as reported by Fairfax. On another front, atomic scientists have moved the Doomsday Clock closer – we are now at two minutes to midnight because “international diplomacy has been reduced to name calling, giving it (my italics) a surrealistic sense of unreality that makes the world’s security situation ever more threatening,” they intoned gravely.
Or you could take less scientific reasons, such as this recent story from VICE: ‘We are truly fucked: Everyone is making AI-generated fake porn now’. Porn is at the cutting edge of tech so when an app was developed that seamlessly transplanted well-known faces onto writhing porno bodies (Princess Leia – really?), it doesn’t take much to wonder at the real-world implications of using this with politicians or other public figures. Soon we won’t just be dealing with fake news but fake people with fake voices on our screens – and we won’t be able to tell the difference.
Legacy media is bleeding while everyone now fancies themselves a publisher thanks to Facebook, Instagram and personal blogging.
We have Russia producing fake news to help get Trump elected and we have China infiltrating our politics, universities and media to obfuscate the growing surveillance state it has become (have you heard about their plans to ‘rate’ every citizen according to a social score?). Australian media, consolidated in the hands of a few owners, is dumbed down to the point where much of our once august institutions are reduced to BuzzFeed headlines and clickbait. Foreign bureaus are closing when now more than ever we’re in need of an Australian perspective on foreign affairs. And suckering us into this blue-pill world is Trump, a man-child who’s suddenly made all us inhabitants of Earth captive to his chaotic new reality TV show.
We’re all in this pea-soup of propaganda and vested interests, which prompts the question – how did our media hell-scape come to this? Who can we trust? Media observers point to the fact that Facebook and Google account for more than 80 per cent of global ad revenue, suffocating independent media and the little guys who rely on local ad revenue to stay afloat. It has resulted in mass lay-offs of journos and photographers at all our big media companies. Others point to the growing atomisation of our media diet, now delivered in Facebook scrolls and two minute videos. Nobody under 50 watches the nightly news anymore because we are jacked into the system all day – and yet we are poorer for it.
Legacy media is bleeding while everyone now fancies themselves a publisher thanks to Facebook, Instagram and personal blogging. Problem is, the idea of an editor has been devalued and everyone thinks their latest brain fart deserves equal weighting to an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal. The issue is not so much around ubiquitous fake news and disinformation, but rather we are drowning in too much actual information – much of it good – and endless personal communication.
There’s no time to stop and think anymore.
Then you have the Murdochs of the world, trying to kill off public broadcasters like the BBC and ABC so we can be fed a personal brand of Truth. And helping them is a millennial generation so absorbed in “identity politics” that it can’t see the bigger picture. For all its faults, the ABC remains a pillar of our democracy – who will keep the bastards honest without the rigour of investigative programs like Four Corners or consumer protection shows like The Checkout? You’ll never see them on a commercial network and if you think that is a good thing then I suggest you settle down in Somalia, North Korea or even the US for comparative results.
I’ve witnessed the way technology has evolved too in the 30 years I’ve been scribbling for various magazines, and it is easy to riff on McLuhan’s famed line that “the medium is the message”. So what is the message now that internet platforms have taken over? I’d say it is now less about access to information so much as all of us swimming in a sea of data we don’t know how to manage or own. We got a hint of what was to come not long after 9/11, when America’s National Security Agency (NSA) said, quite publicly, that they had created a program called Total Information Awareness whose goal was…well it’s all in the name isn’t it? Somehow “Orwellian” doesn’t quite do it justice, not to mention the occult symbolism of its logo; an all-seeing eye hovering above a pyramid that basically says, ‘Fuck you minion, we know everything you’ve said, everything you’ve done and we own you.’
Facebook and Google are hoovering all our data that winds up feeding the spooks and targeted marketing companies. We are indeed in a Big Brother age where “if the service is free, then you are the product”. If Facebook were a bank or oil company, it would have been broken up long before now by anti-competitive laws.
Over the years I’ve watched the evolution of news gathering and tech, from my early days punching out stories on an electric typewriter in the late 80s and the marvels of fax machines. I worked at Stiletto magazine in this analogue era, reliant on landlines, photos from negative film, bromides and lots of literal cut and paste to design the mag, before the term took on a new meaning. Our French Art Director wielded a scalpel, glue, typeset and poor hygiene to make each issue a real, physical object, handmade you could say: this was the DIY zine era.
On assignment in late 1989, covering Vietnam’s military withdrawal from Cambodia, I marvelled at the wire agency boys filing stories on mobile phones the size of bricks, and transmitting photos from suitcase-sized scanners with their mobile darkroom. There were times in Asia when I posted my feature stories by snail mail to magazines in Australia. I can’t say I ever used courier pigeons, but in 1992, covering the Muj takeover of Afghanistan, I found myself at the Hotel Kabul, sending out stories on an ancient telex machine that had probably been in use since the 50s.
The pace of innovation and transmission is dizzying, but has it actually improved our cognitive understanding of issues or just added to the noise and bewilderment? Sometimes you’re better off concentrating on old-world tech like, say, a book. It seems with our lowered concentration spans, we are now drowning in information and data but, ironically, without the analytical tools to make sense of it all, the context of history that previous generations found in – yes – books. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776, is arguably a better guide to guessing where Trumpius Maximus and modern America will go than our 24/7 news cycle or Breitbart News. There’s a reason why the smartest people in the world still make time to read books every day.
The pace of innovation and transmission is dizzying, but has it actually improved our cognitive understanding of issues or just added to the noise and bewilderment?
It has become commonplace for people to say, ‘You can’t trust mainstream media’ and ‘it’s too biased,’ but there is an onus on consumers to educate themselves too, using quality sources of information. Sorry, but there’s no pride in ignorance, and it’s too easy to be manipulated by an increasingly sophisticated political and media machine. Do politics and media before they do you.
Clues as to the kind of psychological space we are entering might be gleaned not from futuristic Silicon Valley, but from late stage communism, as the Soviet Union began falling apart. Everyone knew the system was ludicrous, but because they knew of no other system from decades of propaganda, everyone played along. Film-maker Adam Curtis highlights this in his excellent doco HyperNormalisation, and there are scary parallels to the age we now find ourselves in. Just as the Soviets kept their population in a constant state of uncertainty to keep them febrile and malleable, so too it seems our own masters have now upped the ‘psy-ops’, making modern life so weird you lose track of reality. When RT (formely Russia Today) seems credible and CNN propaganda, then you know things have flipped.
In his doco, Curtis narrates:
The (Soviet) plan had run out of control. But rather than reveal this, the technocrats began to pretend that everything was still going according to plan and what emerged instead was a fake version of society. The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real because they could see with their own eyes the economy was falling apart. But everyone had to play along and pretend it was real, because no-one could imagine any alternative. One Soviet writer called it HyperNormalisation: you were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it, the fakeness was “hyper normal…”
After the next financial crash, after new national internet firewalls are in place by our own authoritarian governments, when journalism is criminalised, or worse, made irrelevant, we might have to reach back to a pre-internet age to remember a time when the fourth estate was able to speak unfettered truth to power, maintaining a cogent framework of reality as history unfolds. A time when we were not swamped by cat videos, drip-fed status updates and infotainment masquerading as news. Then, if all else fails, we can always return to the one constant in 3,000 years of information sharing – books and pamphleteering. If we don’t wipe ourselves out, then next gen Siri will probably tell us what’s going on.