The impact of television is at the centre of McLuhan's analysis of the media which had such a large influence on artists during the 60s and 70s. McLuhan's analysis of the impact of media technologies on sense ratios, human experience and social life concluded that a transition was taking place from a mechanical age to a new electronic and organic age. Unlike the mechanical technologies of the industrial society, which were typified by a division of labour and specialisation of function, work in the electronic age consisted of the movement and processing of information. Thus information became the crucial commodity. For McLuhan the transaction of this commodity was starting to erode national boundaries and precipitated an 'organic structuring of the global economy', which in turn was starting to shape the 'uniformly trained homogenised citizenry.' (McLuhan 1973: 377) [Figure 8]
Figure 8: Marshall McLuhan, 1970.
(Molinaro 1987: 378)
The new electronic technologies have transformed the scale, structure, and pattern of human activity and relationships through an extension and amplification of sense and capacity bringing 'all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion' (McLuhan 1973: 13). At issue then, was the subliminal impact of technological transformation on social and psychic life as the mechanical age started to be overshadowed by the momentum of a micro-electronic age. It has been argued that the medium itself becomes the message, rather than the medium being the bearer and conveyor of content.
In exploring post-industrial or cybernetic capitalism and information society, Jean Baudrillard develops a number of themes relating to those put forward by McLuhan. [Figure 9] Sharing McLuhan's fascination with technological change, Baudrillard's writing projects the reification of power and social control in the existing configuration of the media. McLuhan's proposition that it is the medium that carries the message has led Baudrillard to argue that attempts to democratise content and control the information process, are bound to have little effect, because they leave the form of the medium unchanged. These elements 'inexorably connect them with the system of power'. (Baudrillard 1981: 173) A transition has occurred from a capitalist-productivist society to a 'neocapitalist cybernetic order'. (Baudrillard 1983: 111) Baudrillard takes McLuhan's dictum of an implosion of the message and its meaning in the medium a step further, arguing that there has been an implosion of the medium itself in the real world.
Figure 9: Jean Baudrillard.
(Kellner 1994: 208)
A hyper-reality emerges where the distinction between medium and reality can no longer be sustained. Reality has become a fiction. Television, the axiomatic form of electronic simulation because of its mass audience, does not present an image or 'mirror' of reality, but instead creates its own edited 'new' reality. Subsequently, society, the arena of supposed real existence, increasingly becomes the 'mirror of television'. (Jameson 1991: ix)
A bizarre example of hyper-reality was the coverage of the Gulf War by global television networks. [Figure 10] Television audiences across the world seemed to have had a similar view of the battle as the participants. Commenting on the war Baudrillard stated: 'Our strategic site is the television screen, from which we are bombarded'. He argued that there was no 'thing itself','no real war depicted in the images', but only a simulation of it. (Woolley 1993: 196)
Figure 10: An attack on a hydro electric plant,
Iraq, broadcast on CNN, 21 January 1991.
(Wombell 1991: 101)
Correspondents for the Independent on Sunday wrote: 'The exact moment a 2,000 lb bomb disappeared down the ventilator shaft at the Air Ministry in Baghdad was caught perfectly on the video in the nose of a F-117A stealth fighter-bomber and was soon available for replay on television'. (Barnaby 1990: 10) The situation concerning media coverage of the violence in the black townships of South Africa and elsewhere, is comparable to that of the Gulf War. Although as a television viewer, one is confronted by images and statistics, they remain a 'looked at reality' (felt only by the victims and societies directly involved in the violence).
An analogy can be drawn between Baudrillard's phrase 'neo-capitalist cybernetic order', and the 'panoptican' principle as explained by Foucault in Discipline and Punish . The panoptican is an architectural device conceptualised by Jeremy Bentham towards the end of the 18th century. The rational behind this design is that no prisoner can be certain that he / she is being watched and this effectively results in prisoners policing their own behaviour. [Figure 11] The concept of the panopticon is adapted by Foucault as metaphor for the anonymous centralisation of power, which accumulates in today's technological, global, communication networks.
Figure 11: 'Foucault's Panoptican.'
A modern example of Bentham's design at work;
the interior of the penitentiary at Stateville,
United States of America.
(Foucault 1977: iv)
Baudrillard's neo-capitalist cybernetic order can thus be described as an 'electronic panoptican', in which the cybernetic communication systems of modern society play a double role. On the one hand, global satellite communication adheres to utopian visions of crossing international borders and bridging enormous cultural gaps. On the other hand, this crossing of borders ensures that everyone is aware, at all times, of everyone else. It also leads to the question of who controls the flood of information being circulated between nations. Whose culture is passed on? Will the beliefs and values of all the cultures that interact via global satellite be accepted on the same grounds? History has taught us that hierarchies develop when people interact, and through this interaction hierarchical power relationships develop. Subsequently, the political party controlling advanced technology and the mass media retains the power to decide what beliefs and values are deemed appropriate. It is of little use to a Utopian vision of television representing the spirit of democracy, that the central 'broadcasting station / watchtower' is situated in Hollywood, Pretoria or the Pentagon. [Figure 12]
Figure 12: From the book 'The Hollywood Film Industry.'
(Kerr 1986: cover)
It is my argument that, for artists working in the electronic era, the present crisis parallels that created by the industrial revolution. While the industrial revolution led to the modern movement via cubism, and the industrialisation of Europe was reflected in the anxieties of the modernist movement, so the attendant anxieties which arise out of the post-industrial society can be reflected upon through the concept of cybernetics.