An interview with Herbert I. Schiller
By Geert Lovink
Herbert Schiller is a critic with a clear, political and social view on
media matters. He has been Professor of Communication at the
Net criticism is a movement from '89' and therefor celebrates the fall of the Wall and the end of these dictatorships, from my point of view. All anti-US-imperialism, which rejects to study the tremendous tragedies, caused by 'socialism,' is condemned to history and will itself become another fundamentalism. But this was not the topic of our conversation.
Fortunately, the materialist critiques on large corporations are always true and so is Schiller's latest book Information Inequality. It deals with topics like selection mechanisms in the culture industry, the sell out of public properties like school, libraries and elections, 'data deprivation', special effects for capturing viewers, the global rule of American pop culture and last but on least, the infobahn, being the 'latest blind alley'.
Lately, Herbert Schiller wrote an updated critique on internet and social
exclusion in the French magazine Le Monde
Diplomatique. This interview was conducted in
Geert Lovnik: Could you tell us something about the pre-history of cyberspace? When did you encounter the cyber ideology for the first time?
Herbert Schiller: One of the earliest was Daniel Bell, who wrote about 'the
end of ideology' and 'the post-industrial society'. Production didn't amount
too much, in his view, and everything was services, mostly in various kinds of
informational fields. He did not start discussion of cyberspace. But
others started there and began to talk about the 'information society', being
the post-industrial society. The other was Alvin Toffler, a popular writer, who
wrote about these tendencies in the early seventies.
GL: How does Marshall McLuhan fit into this picture?
HS: McLuhan was taken up and given a lot of attention by the media itself. They liked it that he emphasized the media issue, out of an narcissistic interest. They found somebody who was making them appear very significant. But I don't see him as a prophet of cyberspace or in any direct line with the current business. In his early works, like The Mechanical Bride, he was somewhat of a materialist, a social critic. But then he got off into esoteric areas.
GL: George Gilder believes that the old, mass media monopolies will soon crumble because of the empowering possibilities of individuals by the so-called interactive, many-to-many media. There is a certain similarity to your critique on the big media corporations. Could you comment on that?
HS: All what one could do is look around. Do you see any indications? The monopolies are stronger than ever and the concentration continues. It now embraces a wide area, it is not just 'media.' All forms of communication are brought together in these unified corporate conglomorates. You have Time-Warner, which has assets of about 20 billion dollar and is operating radio stations, recording studios, film studios, television programming and increasingly, also, retail stores, where they sell the apparels that they produce in their movies. Disney is of course an enormous conglomorate. Then there is Viacom, which owns MTV and does a great job in selling pop culture and making these kids less and less capable of doing any thinking. But it also includes computer companies, telephone companies. The television networks are all owned by super conglomerates. CBS is owned by Westinghouse, NBC by General Electric. ABC was just bought by Disney and Fox is owned by Murdoch. To think that these are crumbling, is like being in a fantasyland. We have to be careful in using the word 'globalization' in this context. It may to seem that everybody is participating in it and that you will have to, and if you don't you will fall behind and lose, we have to be competitive -- that kind of thing. Globalization is a direction of super corporations. They are using the globe to market their products and penetrate every part of the world. But there is a big difference between what they are doing and the whole world population.
GL: It might not be enough anymore to just practice ideology criticism. The understanding of this expanding branch might also need an economical analysis.
HS: You have to examine how things proceed. You might want to focus on the commodification of information. What was free, is now owned -- proprietary information. What has to be looked at, is to what extent the Net itself has become a privatized operation. Another area will be how they are going to put television and broadcasting onto the Internet. That also is going to bring commercial advertisement. It will no longer be open, available and free.
GL: How do the broadcasting media relate to the rapidly growing, but still small cyber media? Noam Chomsky does not seem be very interested in the Net. Perhaps he does not see its strategic importance.
HS: You have to examine this as things develop. It is an area of continuous scrutiny and monitoring. Everything you will discover in the areas of television and film will come back in the Net. The patterns are going to be very similar. We are nowhere near to what they like to call an information society. This term serves to camouflage what the current reality is. The talk about the 'new' keeps the present level left aside. We are living in a period of innocence and bankruptcy of values. People are desperately looking for meaning, identity, ethnicity, gender. All of which are legitimate, but when they get to be obsessional, they make it less possible to recognize what the underlying, fundamental forces are. There is a lot of escapism in the talking about 'are we now in the information society?' But many of those people are sincere, so you can't make them seem as if they are fools.
GL: What is your view on the role of cultural studies in all this?
HS: For me it is very ironic because I have tried always to include the
cultural component. I was aware about it from the very beginning when I wrote
about the role of cultural imperialism. And along comes cultural
studies which attacks the political economy approach as being too narrow
and too exclusive. At least in the
GL: Where do you see the roots of such a political economy of the media?
HS: It has not such a long history, a few decades. I am trying to indicate that the fundamentals of a materialist philosophy are crucial to an understanding. Students should have some sense of the social forms that have evolved, from early capitalism until now, in terms of labor and wage labor. These forms do not disappear. There is a great deal of materiality that can be pointed to, even in the case of the Internet. I don't think it is so remote. You can show how those big companies get involved in all these different activities. People themselves can recognize some relationships. You can show the connections to organized sports, to the apparel industry, which is producing baseball hats, football uniforms and the rest. The cultural industry is so overt, so visible.
GL: Do you see a massification of the Internet taking place?
HS: That might be the case. But this concept was mainly an oppositional idea of what was happening in the media industry in the late thirties and early forties. It was an elitist view, which looked down on the masses. So the term itself has to be looked at as an ideological outlook. Persuasion, for example, was a big issue in the thirties, but when mass communication became a formal discipline, they dropped it, because persuasion would come too close to the nervous system. So they switched the topic to the effects of communication. But that is a very different question.
GL: What do you think of the equation of the Internet with American
imperialism? Certain forms of anti-Americanism in
HS: I have looked on the phenomena of cultural imperialism for a long time. This is not something of the nineties. It even preceded the American, there was French, British and Dutch imperialism. It is not a new set of relationships. But we do have to ask overselves: does the Internet undermine the old relationships or does it reinforce them? I am only trying to suggest that there are key people, key levels in the United States who see a very practical utilization for imperialistic purposes. That could be an alert signal. If the Internet is becoming a major vehicle for transnational corporate advertising, you are quite justified in talking about the extension of cultural imperialism into the Internet.
Herbert I. Schiller, Information Inequality, The deepening social crisis in America, Routledge, New York/London, 1996 ISBN 0-415-90765-9
From: "Cyber Society" <CyberSocietyfirstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Cyber Society" <CyberSociety@listbot.com>
Subject: Herb Schiller: A Select Bibliography
[Hi folks, for anyone interested in following up the late Herb Schiller's
numerous critical works, here is a select bibliography - adapted from one found
circulating on the Net before Christmas. Schiller also has a piece called
'Striving for communication dominance: a half century review' in D K Thussu (ed.) (1998) Electronic Empires: Global Media and
Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in
Culture, Inc. : The Corporate Takeover of Public
Information and the Crisis Economy.
Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500.
Communication and Cultural Domination.
The Mind Managers.
Mass Communications and American Empire.
With William Preston.
Hope and Folly: The
The Ideology of International Communication.
With George Gerbner and Hamid Mowland.
Invisible Crisis: What Conglomerate Control of Media Means for
Triumph of the Image: The Media’s War in the Persian
Gulf, A Global Perspective.
With Kaarle Nordenstreng.
Beyond National Sovereignty: International Communication in the 1990s.
National Sovereignty and International Communication.
With Joseph Dexter Phillips.
Book Chapters and Articles
“Highway Robbers.” (editorial) The Nation 257(21) 1993. 753
“Not Yet the Post-Imperialist Era.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication vol 8 (1) 1991. 13-28.
“Public Information Goes Corporate.” Library Journal vol 116 (6) 1991. 42-45.
"Television is a Social - Not a Biological or Technological - Problem.” Texas Law Review vol 68 (6) 1990. 1169-1178.
“The Library as Emporium: Commercializing Information” (with Anita R. Schiller) The Nation 243(10) 1986. 306-309.
“Information: A Shrinking Resource." The Nation 241 (22) 1986. 708-710.
“World Information Cartel: Behind the Media Merger Movement.” The Nation 240 (22) 1985. 696-698.
"The UN and Information: Breaking the Wests Media Monopoly." The Nation 241 (8) 1985. 248.
“Libraries, Public Access to Information, and Commerce.” (with Anita R. Schiller) The Political Economy of Information. Ed. Vincent Mosco and Janet Wasko. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. 146-166.
“Pritivatizing the Public Sector: The Information Connection.” Information and Behavior. Ed. Brent D. Ruben. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1985. 387-405.
“Informatics and Information Flows: The Underpinnings of Transnational Capitalism.” Critical Communication Review, Ed. Vincent Mosco and Janet Wasko. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1984.
“Critical Research in the Information Age.” Journal of Communication 33 (3) 1983. 249-257.
“The Communication Revolution: Who Benefits.” Media Development 3 (4) 1983. 1821.
“The World Crisis and the New Information Technologies.”
“The Privatizing of Information: Who Can Own What America Knows?” (with Anita Schiller) The Nation 234
(15) 1982. 461-463. Awarded Gold Pen prize, best
magazine article for 1982 on freedom of information, Los Angeles PEN,
“Genesis of the Free Flow of Information Principles.”
Crisis in International News: Policies and Perspectives. Ed. J. Richstad and M.H. Anderson.
“Information for What Kind of Society.” Edward R. Murrow Symposium,