Corey Recvlohe

The Culture Industry in a New Media Age

In Theodor Adorno’s polemic titled The Culture Industry Reconsidered, the critical theorist confronts the real power of industrial communication and its effects. By interrogating the processes of production, manipulation, and commodification present in the manifestation of our technological era, there is a rigorous mapping of something altogether in-human inherent in capitalism’s ability to cavort with mass society. Cultural products, forged from the elements of contemporary technical innovations working alongside concentrated economic and administrative centers of power, creates a fusing of both the old and the new, high and low, but all together devoid of the humanness so often appreciated in times prior. Instead, the master’s voice is modulated, tailored, and transmuted into a kind of soft-weapon, to curtail the possibilities available for anything culturally emancipatory.

This profit-centered radicalization of human values are not made to create harmoniousness, to in a sense make the world a better place, but instead to stratify and reformulate the intellectual plane from which civic and political life emerges. This deep rationalizing of the arts, standardization of practices, and techniques of distribution conform to create a dominating coercion that does not confront physically, but wraps itself around the minds of its subjects, whose subjectivities are themselves subjectified to the will of the industrial cultural machine.

How does this fit the context of new media in the age of social algorithms, automated bots, and the pervasive intrusion of the digital into everyday lives? Are we experiencing freedom when we upload our intimate details to the cloud? The culture industry, as Adorno terms it, has taken a far more sinister detour than perhaps he might have imagined. This new space of industrial production has been professionalized, reified, computerized, and fueled with the power of algorithmic engineering. The culture industry has not made us any freer, nor reflective, or even remotely capable of recognizing the chains of manipulation that now sweep through the cables of telecoms and wireless phones unabated. Its commodification did not end with simple stories, movies, or trinkets of art; the human itself has become the commodity, from personalities to appearances, to spiritual transcendence. The mass society is no longer the audience, it is the product itself.

The Power of Free

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The customer is not king, as the culture industry would like to have us belief, not its subject but its object.

Theodor Adorno.

No other statement by Adorno exemplifies the economics of our new media landscape. Perhaps the scale at which we now experience this could not have been imagined in the 1940s, but in today’s environment, where every phone by its nature is necessarily linked across interconnected networks, global masses are crowded into the data-centers of new institutions. These behemoths, formed only in the last 15 years, are entities famously free of charge and function to give away their features. They don’t build products per se, their users are the products, generating a massive pool of advertising targets — each profiled according to their physical attributes, age, sexuality, race, gender, and past browsing histories. An entire universe of tracked, traced, cataloged, achieved, and studied populations, generating the core of a maturing culture industry and its insatiable appetite for data.

The power of free cannot be understated. Due to newer forms of technical innovation and the speed at which information travels, the center is no longer film as Adorno says in his essay. Even in the form of games that consume large amounts of time — such as widely popular titles Fortnite and Apex Legends — , greater opportunities lie ahead for those willing to innovate. Already newly dominate media firms like Google and others have begun programs to offer gaming as a de facto free service, using the power of data to lure software engineers into the promise of creating their works of art on distributive networks with immense advertising potential.

Additionally, the realm of social conversation has upended traditional forms of storytelling. The cinematic movie, once relegated to the viewing seats of homes and theatres, is now a meta-subject accessible in real-time across tweets and facebook posts. These vectors of leverage are not merely exploited solely by the culture industry; instead the visible discussions held in facebook groups, twitter threads, and ephemeral snapchats are areas wherein not just the culture industry itself performs emergent forms of ideological manipulation, but extremists and other mercenaries hack the system from within (e.g., foreign states, political groups, religious zealots). Free allows the culture industry to penetrate more broadly global mass society, but simultaneously it leaves open its doors to savvy and shrewd actors, independent interests, and others that wish to manipulate not in the name of profit, but power for power’s sake. This weakness becomes all the more critical in the face of democratic elections, where freedom of speech takes on a mace like quality, used to attack the most fragile parts of the whole.

Cultural Production

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Cultural narratives are a central theme in Adorno’s critique. Stories are the casing through which society and its constituents live their lives. Origin tales, love and loss, victory and triumph, death and sorrow, all pieces of human experience captured by written and oral histories — most of which have faded from memory or succumbed to age. The culture industry takes these elemental components of artistic expression and rings them of any substantive meaning.

What parades as progress in the culture industry, as the incessantly new which it offers up, remains the disguise for an eternal sameness; everywhere the changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the profit motive itself since the time it first gained its predominance over culture.

Theodor Adorno.

Reality Television, formulated since the advent of broadcasting itself, exemplifies the mark of sameness with its run-on franchises, interchanging characters, and identically scripted challenges capturing viewing resonance, interrupted every fifteen minutes by a squadron of advertisements for car financing and pharmaceuticals. New media has taken this process to levels never before seen, allowing anyone to become known for nothing, and like graffiti, tag the mass consciousness with a sleight-of-hand that commingles the intimately personal bedroom vidstream with that of a sales pitch for neon lipstick. No longer is the mass consumer an idle prospect who may only encounter the culture industry’s products sparingly, but now is followed throughout the whole of their lives by digital tethers. Every location they’ve visited, every conversation said in quiet company, all used as raw input to form the ideal consumer profile whose ideal needs are analyzed ad infinitum.

The parasitic nature of the “extra-artistic technique,” as Adorno puts it, perfectly describes how the process of creativity is subsumed by sterile streamlining, or “photographic hardness.” Where new media is concerned, this mechanization of facts has blossomed an environment of fake news masquerading as professional journalism. The aesthetic of appropriated graphics and delivery mediums — whether labeled InfoWars or otherwise — creates for the vast viewing audience the simulation of news. Supported by emerging business models and crafty rhetoric, the culture industry proper faces disruption as its methods are mimicked with precision. Upstart entrepreneurs now run parallel to the movie studios, prime time organizations, and papers of record, creating a synthesis of entertainment and reporting with the gritty veneer of underdogs beset against-all-odds.

The implications for freedom appear to have no definite upside. It would seem that the traditional culture industry could have the upper hand in a more regulated environment, with their resources and influence guiding the creation of laws and restricted forms of speech. However, we find ourselves in a situation where online automated avatars respond, reply, and propagate the wildest of fairy tales. The leverage gained through algorithmic innovation exists without armies of stage handlers, accountants, or office workers to put into effect its productions, but rather only the will and skill of a single person. This dominance of the mass consciousness on the one hand by extreme wealth, and a shortage of legitimacy on the other, presents no space for authentic emancipatory action unless through the prism of a false choice; a choice marked by “false conflicts.”

The Sense of Self

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The new media landscape can be confusing, arguably more so as complexity increases. With many modes of delivery available to the mass market of possible consumers. Netflix, Facebook, Hulu, YouTube, Twitter, Twitch, and so on, representing billions of hours of uploaded monthly content, offering a wholly artificial sense of referential selfness. Not unlike a hall of mirrors showing every false angle and exaggerated feature, these platforms produce reasons to loathe and escape the relatively uninteresting, bland, and unpalatable realness of actual lives.

The phrase ‘the world wants to be deceived’ has become truer than had ever been intended. People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification, they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in the kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured.

Theodor Adorno.

Nothing is more believable than the big lie, manufactured to an almost unimaginable degree. These sorts of cultural products, put together from the remnants of rehashings, recycled productions, and tweaked techniques, produce a mist of novelty. The false choice between the many TV shows, movies, and bite-size social media clips, engineers a self but to what extent? The totems of culture’s past do not become shared, but instead, are divided and custom tailored into bespoke adornments who share no communicative purpose other than to signal one’s own uniquely branded persona. The richness that could prevail between selves, and indeed among the mass society, melts away into token individuality, stripped clean of any meaningful solidarity.

The formulas generated by the old culture industry developed during a period of discovery, instituting the same kinds of production procedures found on any manufacturing floor — armies of human cogs doing the necessary functions to create the mediums and messages required. Today, aided by machines of a different kind, farms of electronics comprise the vast infrastructure of new media; and on top of that base are the instruments of engagement, apps, services, and other components of attention, driving to keep ever-present users locked to their screens.

The scientific perfection of a once crude art is now subjecting all society to a new form of cultural manipulation, one that learns their every desire and predicts their wants and needs. This new media culture industry is not just grasping in the dark, it’s beginning to understand the very essence of what motivates the human spirit. What makes people do what they do? What types of User Interfaces are the warmest and the most inviting? What kinds of questions create the most responses? How does this feature experimentally compare against another, and what are the statistical properties of the comparison?

In a few short years the new media segment of the culture industry, coming up during a time of tremendous disruption and innovation, has figured a way to burrow itself into the minds of its users. To mold their wants such that the very idea of wanting is a pattern for survival. No longer can we live without our phones and followerships, nor the targeted advertising that embraces those channels of consumption. A merging has formed between the mass society and the new culture industry itself, a two-way relationship where one cannot live without the other. More importantly, a transmogrification of popular consciousness into faddish hashtags and signals of virtue. A new human for a new time; omniscient, omnipresent, and more lost than ever.