8 June 2012
Thoughts on Control: Hegemony and Choice in the Digital Age
After clicking on a blue lollipop on my Facebook page, a video began to play showing an eerie corridor in what seemed to be a dilapidated psychiatric ward. The camera moved down the hallway and turned into one of the rooms. In the room sat a man with a grubby, white tank top and greasy hair. He was sitting in front of a computer searching some website. As the camera moved closer to the man, I was shocked to see pictures and information from my Facebook page on the screen of his computer. He searched through my pictures and I cringed as his dirty hands stroked the mouse as a sign of crazed pleasure. After searching my photos, he input my information into a search engine and brought up directions to my home. The man then slowly turned his head from the screen and looked directly at me with crazed eyes and a wicked smirk. From outside, I heard a car door slam, and I jumped with terror thinking that I was about to die (Jameson).
Although this video’s purpose was directed to educate people about the physical dangers of putting too much information on the Internet, it raises many questions about how personal information can be used that is on the Web. Companies like Google and Facebook are able to amass hundreds of pages of personal information on users, from which items people are searching for, to even addresses and private conversations (Humphries). This control over personal information has given many technology companies the clichéd title of “Big Brother,” coined from George Orwell’s novel, 1984, where Big Brother is the political figurehead of a totalitarian government that controls almost every aspect of peoples’ lives. A great concern echoing throughout today’s digital world is over the access allowed to personal information and how this information is used.
The issue of the control of information makes people wonder how much influence technology companies have on individuals. A question that persists is: Are these companies “Big Brothers” that seek to control consumers’ lives? The argument of this paper is: not really. Although many believe that the world of digital media is being controlled by contrived ideological hegemonic systems created by technology companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Apple, this control is mostly imagined because consumers of digital media are able to control the actions of companies through acts of creation and the use of purchasing power. These acts inspire competition and disavow companies of dominance and control.
First, in order to understand how technology companies use types of hegemony to try and control consumers, it is important to understand the basics of hegemony. While in prison for 11 years, Antonio Gramsci, a member of the Italian Communist party and an intellectual, wrote volumes of criticism against the fascist regime of Mussolini through the guise of literary and cultural criticism (Burke). Gramsci’s criticism presented in his Prison Notebooks contains theories of hegemony describing how hegemonies can be enforced through two distinct ways: coercive means, usually by the “political society,” or “spontaneous” consent given by the masses in reaction to the ideology of the “dominant fundamental group” (Gramsci 145). Gramsci prefaces his description of these two forms of hegemony by putting it in the context of how intellectuals are bred and developed through educational systems. According to Gramsci, a person’s intellect is determined by how well they are educated and influenced by a school (143). Accordingly, the success of a hegemonic system is based on how well an ideology is promulgated and followed by the masses.
Although technology companies are not all powerful entities like the totalitarian regime of the Party in 1984, they exhibit aspects of the second form of hegemonic control, or ideological hegemony, as they seek to advance the holdings of their individual companies. In the novel, Orwell plays with different theories of how totalitarian regimes control their subjects: through mass presence, control of the media, social interaction, and compliant dependency. These ideas apply to any type of ideological or coercive hegemony and are applicable to today’s digital world. Massive companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple are accused to use similar means of control, as described in Orwell's book, to influence a society of consumers to place trust in their products.
In 1984, one method used by the Party’s hegemonic system to keep party members in line is through the use of mass presence. In the book, every Party member’s home has a piece of technology known as a telescreen. These screens provide a way for Party members to constantly be fed propaganda by the Party and also constantly be observed. This constant observation keeps the subjugated citizens of Orwell’s world mostly in submission to the decrees of the government.
Winston Smith, the protagonist, only finds ways to rise against the hegemonic system by being able to get away from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. He does this by finding places that are out of sight of the telescreen, such as the small alcove in his room where he writes in his journal (Orwell 9) or the room he rents above Mr. Charrington’s shop in run-down London where he rendezvous with Julia for their sexual escapades (113-116).
This idea of control by constant observation, or presence, translates to the digital world and the means by which technology companies seek to control consumers. For example, Google, by amassing rights to be the default search engine on many Internet browsers, has been able to create a vast presence on the Web that has even led to the addition of "google" as a verb in the dictionary (“Google”). Tim Wu, in a lecture about his book, The Master Switch, explained that the reason people use Google so much is because of this presence. Google being accessible almost everywhere makes it convenient to use and logically people would ask themselves, “Why not use Google” (Wu). Though this convenience makes it seem that Google is monopolizing the market as an Internet browser, their overwhelming presence does not mean they directly control which mode of consumption consumers use. The existence of competition between other search engines such as Yahoo and MSN with Google adds evidence that convenience does not equate to control (Baker). Google may remain as one of the top grossing Internet companies, but that does not show it controls individual’s ability to branch out from Google because there are no restrictions to the contrary.
The hegemony of 1984 is also continued by the Party's ability to modify the past and control the information that is consumed by individuals. Winston describes this constant flux of truth by using the Newspeak word "doublethink," which means, according to Winston, “[t]o know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…” (Orwell 23). The idea of changing or controlling what information people are privy to is part of the reality of the digital world. Google has certain algorithms that modify searches to personalize them for each of their individual customers based on their search history and perceived interests (Levy). This in effect censors the kind of information you are able to view when surfing the Internet. Though this algorithm can in theory limit the kinds of search results given according to individual preferences, Google does not have the ability to control how this information is used by each consumer. Google is unable to dominate the potential for creation of individuals who use its product, and therefore the company does not maintain complete control.
Another aspect of control that is part of the hegemony in Orwell’s book is the Party’s attempt to control individuals through social interaction. As a way to imprint their ideology on party members, the Party organizes certain club organizations for youth, like the Spies. The Spies organization is specifically organized to instill principles of loyalty to the Party in youth by teaching them how to recognize potential dissension from party policies by others. The narrator describes them as “being horrible…by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produces in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party” (Orwell 24). These clubs go on group hikes and other communal activities to create bonds of familiarity with its members that would grow into a feeling of being part of something greater than each individual alone. This social interaction used by the Party is also a method that is used to invite consumers to willingly consent to use a product.
In the digital world, and example of how social interaction is used to try and control consumers is Facebook. The company uses social interaction as one of its products and also as a way to promote itself. Facebook is a social networking site that allows individuals to create individualized profiles and share information with friends for free. This product was made popular because of the ability to easily connect with those that you know and communicate with them freely about almost anything. The popularity of Mark Zuckerberg’s product was bred on the “club” mentality of social interaction, as described with the Spies previously. This mode to establish ideological hegemony has appeared to be successful and has brought millions of users under the umbrella of Facebook, but that does not mean that Facebook is able to control these consumers’ decisions.
Facebook’s lack of control has recently been revealed with the company’s decision to go public. Many investors have tried to jump ship as the price of shares fell below the estimated $38 per share (“Facebook IPO…”). These consumers with investments in Facebook were not tethered to the company just because of the opportunity for social networking. They had personal interests in the company that were not met, and they chose to act on these interests for their personal welfare. This shows that Facebook did not have enough control over investors and consumers of its product to stop them from losing faith in the company’s direction.
One last aspect of ideological hegemonic control used in 1984 that is applicable to digital media is the process of how the Party made its members dependent upon its services for basic necessities and wants. Throughout the text, Winston uses products controlled and distributed by the party. Products like cigarettes, razors, gin, and even chocolate are produced and controlled by the direct influence of the regime and competition is nonexistent. This form of Communism creates a narrowed society where each individual’s options of consumption are limited. This compliant dependency that Party members have with the regime of Big Brother is similar to the "walled-garden" that Apple has created for hardware users (Burton).
The world of Apple products includes iMacs, iPads, iPhones, iPods, and MacBooks. These products each have the capacity to sync with one another and have software that can only be used between Apple devices. For example, iTunes limits users to how audio media can be played and shared due to copyright and certain restrictions Apple places on the sold content. Further, Apple's apps can only be purchased from the Apple store and are not freely open to users of Apple products. These forms of product control create a niche for consumers that invites them to become compliant with their dependency on the company for their products.
Even with this “walled garden” of exclusive use, Apple can be controlled depending on the actions of consumers to buy their products. Steve Jobs, the former CEO and co-founder of Apple, stated in an interview that his whole goal was “to create the best product possible for consumers” (Jobs). Because Apple has based its marketing strategy on free market principles, resistance to its ideological hegemony is simply a matter of consumers understanding their right to purchasing power. The competition that continues to exist between PCs and Apple’s Mac products shows that complete dominance of the hardware industry is currently out of Apple’s grasp.
In the digital world, there is no one dominant hegemonic system vying for complete control over the lives of consumers. Rather, there are many smaller divisions of hegemonies that seek to control only certain aspects of consumers’ lives. The examples used previously demonstrate that technology companies seeking to control consumers will use many avenues to discriminate their ideologies, as represented by their products. It is left to the consumer to choose whether they are going to be controlled or not. Greg Bayles, a student studying literature in the digital age, commented, “I feel like people DO have the power to escape the control and influence (for now) o[f] large companies like Google, etc., but it seems that most people are completely content within their walled gardens…if people are willing to hold on to (or unable to let go of) things that they hate, what is to discourage people from using services that actually help them but make them dependent upon large media corporations” (Bayles)? This dichotomy that Greg highlights is difficult to address, but the example of Winston in 1984 gives some answers.
Throughout 1984, Winston resists the Party’s ideological controls, such as the Two Minutes Hate and other propaganda of the Party, through his act of keeping a journal (Orwell 14). In the story, Winston purchases an illegal journal from a small shop outside of the Party’s constant surveillance and begins to record his thoughts and feelings about his life and his understanding of the negative influence of the Party. In reaction to the Party’s mode of oppression, Winston pens repeatedly the phrase, “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (19). In this act of creation, Winston reveals that he is not completely controlled by the domineering eye of Big Brother. The whole of act of journal writing in the novel represents humanities ability to have freedom of will no matter what modes of hegemony are used to control them. Not only does this form of creativity allow Winston to not be controlled, it gives him a voice to call known and unknown others to embrace their unalienable freedom of choice. Winston writes to these others by saying:
To the future or the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of double think—greetings! (26-27)
This statement is a symbol of how hegemony, both ideological and coercive, can be resisted and an individuals freedom be maintained through an act of creation.
Along with Winston’s resistance through acts of creation, his acts of purchasing products outside the reach of Party control correlate to a consumer’s ability to step outside the supposed brick walls of brand names and main-line technological products and individually break down the burgeoning technological monopolies. As mentioned before, Winston first stumbles upon a small shop outside the domain of the Party, and he buys a small journal. This shop, mentioned previously, is frequented by Winston throughout the novel and on another occasion, he chooses to buy a small glass paperweight with coral at its center. Winston notices the paperweight for its beauty, which drastically contrasts with the utilitarian mindset of the Party. This beauty attracts Winston’s attention, but is not the complete reason why he chooses to buy the item. According to the text, “what appealed to [Winston] about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one” (Orwell 81). His reasoning reflects a sense of rebellion in the act of purchasing the item because it represented something different from the world of Big Brother. Just like Winston, the monopolized products of corporate giants can be circumnavigated if individuals choose to walk outside the walled gardens.
In today’s digital world there are many companies that exhibit hegemonic tendencies. These companies do not represent an overpowering totalitarian regime as described in Orwell’s 1984, but do represent entities that seek to control aspects of peoples lives. Through acts of creation and also exercising purchasing power, individuals can remain untethered by the grasping hands of technology companies and maintain autonomy in the digital world. It is left to individuals to choose to bridle these companies by keeping them in check. I would invite all who read this paper to evaluate how controlled you feel and seek to liberate yourselves by following some of the ideas presented.
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