The Media Ecosystem
This article is excerpted from The Media Ecosystem: What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice, recently released by Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books.
Media as Environmental Education
All worldviews are environmental worldviews, whether they are based on exploitation or sustainability. Thus, our ecological emergency is primarily a cultural crisis. Within this context, then, media must be seen as a kind of environmental education. They teach us how to act upon the world, encouraging a particular attitude toward living systems. Media practitioners have a tremendous responsibility to incorporate a more holistic and ecologically intelligent perspective into how they mediate the world. Just as media makers increasingly have become sensitive to the stereotyping of genders, cultures, nationalities, and sexual orientation, we now have to make a turn toward planetary ecology to become aware of how our forms of mediation impact living systems.
Minimarts of the Mind
Our current world system has made the production and reproduction of a certain form of passive, consumerist consciousness its primary product. Subsequently, the world system has colonized the collective unconscious as it preys upon the living world. Following the brilliant Indian theorist and activist Vandana Shiva, we can understand this system as a mental model, a "monoculture of the mind." Monoculture is an agricultural term for single crop farming, such as corn, palm oil, or soya, that requires external inputs, like chemical pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, and genetically altered seedlings. According to Shiva, monoculture is a "cognitive space," one that sees food or agriculture for what it offers for the market. Whereas a local knowledge-based perspective looks at the nurturing characteristics of a given ecosystem, such as nutrition, soil, water, and life, by contrast a monocultural knowledge system sees ecosystems as resources that can be commoditized, privatized, and controlled. The monocultural approach views life from a rational, scientific perspective. As agriculture, monoculture is not designed for local use or consumption, but for export and transport across the globe. It's mass produced and generic to the point of being without context-it can grow anywhere and be done by anyone who buys into the system (sometimes by choice, others as enforced policy). The monocultural mind has a totalizing effect that extends beyond food systems to larger forms of social and economic organization that expand to the implementation of technology and media. Monoculture has a way of crowding out alternatives in order to promote standardization, masking itself in the rhetoric of development. We categorize nations and people according to whether or not they conform to this "development" scheme. Mass marketed media are designed to work within this standardized system to the extent that multinational media corporations promote and lobby for laws that favor their products in the global marketplace, protecting their interests against unauthorized uses and competition. They then use media to advocate for their particular position in the marketplace.
To see this phenomenon at work as a coherent system, one only needs to go to a random "convenience" minimart that populates North American highways. These are access points to the monocultural mindset and embody in an extreme way the volatility of the system. Minimarts service the various addictions of our society: oil, alcohol, tobacco, polyunsaturated fats, caffeine, empty carbs, sugar, porn, and packaged media. Some also incorporate fast food kiosks. Here the totalizing spectacle of the world system masks its severe volatility: a breakdown in one key ingredient-oil, either in terms of scarcity or price-then the whole system crashes. These portals do not depend on a single local input except for labor and utilities, and even these are often imported. In many poor and rural communities food markets no longer exist, just these vortices of cultural toxins, and as such, they represent monoculture's ideal dream space. Constructed in meadows, clear-cut forest tracts, and on fragile desert soil, each minimart island becomes a desolate outpost of the dominator complex. The misnaming of these portals as "convenient" reveals the anthropocentric and selfish character of unsustainable economic patterns that encourage personal satisfaction over planetary health. Likewise, if global media corporations have their way, the internet and other media distribution channels will become of minimarts of the mind.
Goddess of Light
Advertising is the dream life of corporations. And Pepsi has dreamt up Shakira, a high priestesses of the world system. A Colombian-born singer of Lebanese descent, her name means "goddess of light," an appropriate name for someone who is primarily experienced through electricity. Her function became apparent to me around ten years ago when I was working on a media literacy project in northern New Mexico. I was given the task of finding ads for a Spanish language media and health curriculum that would use media samples to tackle issues like body image, tobacco and alcohol abuse, gender identity, and violence. I taped hours of Spanish language TV from satellite, hunting for concrete examples of nefarious media to teach with. It wasn't difficult. From underage girls cage dancing on a children's show to mass murdering gangsters strangling women with ropes, Mexican TV is an open laboratory of ritual abuse. But nothing prepared me for what I eventually found.
I missed it on the first run through the tapes. But as I rewatched them, the bleached blonde goddess of the Latin Pop Matrix reasserted herself in a thirty-second spot for Pepsi. Believing at first that this was just a Rorschach test for the litany of social ills I had set out to find, I rewound the commercial over and over again to make sure my senses weren't deceiving me.
The ad opens with a glowing, indigo hued hall exaggerated by linear perspective, as if we are peering beyond the guts of a television set. Along the frame's edges are circular portal-like windows as if it were the hull of a spacecraft. A concert stage forms the horizon line. Above it hovers a bulbous red, white, and blue sphere. Below the sphere Shakira emerges to face concertgoers. She belts a jingle devoted to global freedom, stalking along a cat walk, slithering, cooing, teasing her way toward the camera. Then a long shot reveals the stage's actual shape: a crucifix. The portal windows now resemble stained glass windows, and long columns look eerily like the pillars of a great cathedral. If you are Latin American and Roman Catholic, the allusion is unmistakable. Shakira is performing Mass.
As the concert progresses, her moves are ritualistically mirrored by an audience of clean-cut, adoring youth. In the final shot a Pepsi bottle materializes in Shakira's hand, appearing from a flash of light. Shakira, and then the crowd of teen followers, together imbibe the Black Water of Imperialism. In sync they perform a transubstantiation of the world system: the indigenous colonized are transformed and purified by the Blood of Capitalism in order to go to Heaven to become White People.
As a spiritual sermon, here the world system represents itself as the dominant planetary religion. The advertisement is a mini-ritual designed to educate Latin Americans that in order to better their lives, they must transform themselves into what Shakira has become. Already she'd altered her identity to join the planetary cult: she transitioned from her once dark-haired and distinct Latina identity to a blonde angelic archetype typical of world system media: an incubus. Like her predecessors Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Madonna, she is a leather-clad, blonde vixen set out to train youths to become proper aliens. Her divinity is bequeathed by the red, white, and blue sphere. Like the pied piper, she beckons youth to leave behind their traditions in order to board her fun-filled spacecraft. To transform ourselves from the old world into the new, the magical, transformative elixir is, of course, Pepsi.
Where's the Beef?
In addition to soda, corporate media and hamburgers have a lot in common. They succeed because they stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains. As an example of how they converge, in 2008 Burger King launched a viral marketing campaign called "Whopper Virgins." The idea was to take the Whopper burger to remote regions of the world and to film how people reacted to it in a taste "test" against the McDonald's Big Mac.
To create the campaign, Burger King enlisted skater/filmmaker Stacy Peralta, director of Dogtown and Z Boys, which documented the skater counterculture in LA during the 1970s. He took a crew to Thailand, Romania, and Greenland where he filmed in mockumentary style. It has all the signs of a legitimate documentary by using shaky cameras, interviews, and "realism," but to any keen-eyed, mediate literate observer it was clearly a farce. It portrayed the North American film crew as "normal" in order to make the regional cultures appear absurd and strange, a technique going back to early circuses. The crew addresses us as if the hamburger is a kind of religious article of faith, and that of course anyone should like it and adapt their culture to it. Not only that, it should be Burger King that provides the access point to this product.
In terms of promoting green consciousness, hamburgers are one of the least ecologically sustainable food products. Making them requires an obscene amount of natural resources, from water to clear-cutting forests for ranch lands. Moreover, hamburger production is highly automated, technological, and centralized. For these reasons the hamburger is closely tied to climate change and symbolizes perfectly the monocultural mindset.
In order to propagate the hamburger, the ad campaign needs to scramble our common sense. It does this through its pseudo claim to authenticity by incorporating Peralta's street cred and fake documentary style to give it a sense of verisimilitude-a feeling of "reality." The growth of reality TV techniques is not confined to TV programming, but also extends to marketing and viral media. This demonstrates how corporate media survive by eating reality: whenever possible they have to harvest shreds of the real to claim legitimacy. It's a very sketchy, sneaky, and unethical game. But that is what is afoot.
Monoculture succeeds in post-traditional societies where identities are flexible commodities that have to adapt to consumption and constant change. In this respect, we think of ourselves as "free"- freed from tradition, free to choose who we want to be. On the surface this seems like a good thing-we are always told that the past is oppressive-but in practice the kinds of traditions that are eliminated by capitalist enclosure could also contribute to our well-being, helping us reconnect with our living systems. Eliminating traditional knowledge is a dangerous game, and though people in rich countries deride and expel immigrants based on a fantasy of cultural and racial purity, they depend on imported laborers that are still skilled in farming and ranching to maintain their food systems. Traditional knowledge also enables us to remain autonomous from the world system. Yes, we have the choice of being skaters, hip-hoppers, ravers, preppies, etc., but increasingly many in the world don't have the luxury to shop for identities at the mall or on the internet. They are being displaced from the cultures, languages, and lands that have shaped their identities, and are being forced into permanent migration. And media provide the selling points to justify this disruptive process.
Traditions are broken so that we become dependent on external forces for all our needs. In some cases laws are written and lives are brokered through trade agreements. In others we are seduced by cheap consumer goods. Eventually we are sucked into a kind of spiritual dependency in which the corporation, as evidenced in the Pepsi ad, becomes the mediator between us and the cosmos. The vision that advertising offers us is that we cannot understand ourselves or our place in the universe-or with nature for that matter-without the intervention and mediation of the world system. So though Shakira croons about the virtues of freedom, the system is designed to turn us into serfs.
(Re)Mediating Ecological Worldviews
A mixture of carbonated water and high fructose corn syrup sweetener produced through monocultural crop production, Pepsi is not just an innocuous soft drink: it's the world system in a disposable plastic container, a holon of a monocultural system of food production and consumption that includes genetically modified corn and its syrupy by-product. Pepsi is not in the business of traditional diets or healthy lifestyle choices. For many indigenous people, it's a recipe for diabetes. Soda is liquid candy, and typically Americans drink over fifty gallons of it a year.
Not to overstate the obvious, but by the time we consume products from companies like Pepsi, they are so far removed from their source of production that they might as well have been delivered by spacecraft (piloted by Shakira, of course). Like the smartphone, Pepsi's marketing image is pure and whatever toxic by-products or health effects come from its production process and waste remain out of view to the average consumer. The Shakira ad, then, in fact propagates an ecological worldview, a mental model for how we engage (or not, as is most often the case) our living systems. As stated previously, all worldviews are environmental, because they determine how we act upon Earth. Consequently, the world system is primarily an ecological worldview first, and all its other affects are symptoms of this fact.
A Hierarchy of Needs
As stalkers and hunters of our attention, advertisers and marketers are scientists of human emotions. One way to understand how marketers and propagandists appeal to us on a primal level is by identifying our essential human needs. The psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a model of human motivation that looks like a pyramid. Starting at the base and moving up to the pyramid's apex, our needs are physiological (breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion), safety (security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health, property), love and belonging (family, friendship, sexual intimacy), esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of and by others), and self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of fact). This model is not infallible and can be critiqued from the perspective of ecopsychology (it lacks any mention of our need to connect with the natural world) or the yogic chakra system (it lacks a model of cosmology). Nonetheless, we can bounce off of Maslow to discuss how marketers hook our attention.
Media literacy activists argue that there are over thirty known "persuasion techniques." I prefer the term "attention-getting hook," because I believe that it better represents what they do. Essentially, a hook is a technique that grabs our awareness by working on us either emotionally or physiologically. The top three are sex, fear, and humor. These respectively draw on the first three levels of the pyramid of needs. Sex, of course, is a primary need for our species to procreate and experience deep intimacy, connection, and pleasure. Fear is what drives us to protect and secure ourselves. Humor is a form of connecting with others-jokes don't work unless we have shared understanding. It is a kind of inclusion. Once these emotions are generated, they are associated with the brand, a process called "emotional transfer."
For the average person, the cause of overconsumption is fairly obvious: to compensate for a lack of well-being, we shop. Some argue that our ancient brains are responsible. True enough. An innate need to hunt and gather gets translated from the ancient bush into the modern marketplace. Just as buying goods in the mall or through the shopping network gives people thrills, we also get small highs from purchasing gadgets and downloading apps to our smartphones. Additionally, a tendency to hoard and gorge comes from an unconscious fear that there may not be enough to eat tomorrow. To our primitive brains, starvation may be just beyond the horizon.
But these facts don't explain our overriding capacity to also moderate behavior, as difficult as it is for most of us to do. After all, cultural norms can change. Just look at the shift in attitude toward smoking over the past thirty years. There are plenty of examples of cultures that have balanced their biological needs with the spiritual and cultural well-being of their people. Through evolved cultural practices, they know not to overhunt and when conservation is an appropriate response to the limits of a given ecosystem. Throughout time, some cultures have succeeded while others have failed miserably at living within the parameters of their given ecosystems. However, unlike many ancient civilizations that did fail, an advantage we have is the knowledge of how past and current cultures have responded to their environments. It is fundamentally unethical that current colonial media practices deny the consequences of overshooting the carrying capacity of our living systems by masking this dangerous behavior with utopian images of growth and prosperity.
Whether people choose to attend to this knowledge is another matter. Media certainly play their part. Educationally, documentaries are excellent tools for conveying lessons from the past, though audiences for such fare are relatively small. By contrast, when the majority of media play up the growth and progress discourse above a conservation ethic, most people will identify with the hollow view that consumerism and technology can magically fix any problem, be it spiritual, cultural, or environmental.
If we are to transform ourselves toward a sustainable culture, then we need to take seriously the spiritual orientation of our society in which a sense of "lack" is filled by consumption. Overeating is a good example of how this plays out. Due to a convergence of politics, economics, and marketing, we have an overabundance of cheap calories in the daily American diet. This is why when you travel through the heartland of the United States you will get two plates of food whenever you order a meal at a restaurant or will be asked to "super size" at the fast food joint. A consequence is that obesity and diabetes have become endemic and normalized. But it's not just a matter of the system shoveling food into our faces. Many of us overeat because of spiritual malaise.
Sustainability is literally living within our means, whether it's maintaining a positive balance sheet in our checking accounts or with our carbon account in the atmosphere. Just as we cannot continue to live in debt, we also can't keep borrowing against the biosphere of the future. The reason we can consume at a rate of three Earths today is because we are bankrupting and impoverishing the future lives of our grandchildren and all their relations. The current moment calls for a sense of sufficiency that not only translates more broadly into our economics, but more importantly becomes an integral aspect of our personal sense of well-being. The persistent theme of alienation, self-hatred, and fear of not fitting in propagated by marketing is designed to shatter our sense of wellness and autonomy in order to make us dependent on corporations to fulfill our psychological and spiritual needs. Sustainable media practice should uplift and educate in order to help us feel whole rather than fragmented.
It's time for marketing professionals to stop producing what ecoliteracy advocate Arran Stibbe identifies as "pseudo-satisfier," "dissatisfaction-manufacturing," and "convenience-constructing discourses." In response to consumerism, we can advocate a steady state of contentment through connection (with people, places, ideas, animals, the cosmos), activity (physical, creative), curiosity (attention), learning, giving (volunteering, sharing), and understanding the difference between temporary and authentic happiness. Such would be the ultimate function of remediation: media as remedy.
Prior to the Spanish invasion, the diverse cultural landscapes of the Americas, including the Hopi, utilized traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Many of these practices survive today because of the cultural commons. TEK proves to be very adaptable to local environments, because it's the product of thousands of years of research and development. For example, before the Spanish invasion and destruction of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), the Mexica's (Aztec) sophisticated mosaic of canals and terraced gardens were incredibly productive and efficient. In typical brute fashion, one of the first projects of Spanish engineers was to destroy these sophisticated gardens and replace them with their own system. The period of colonization was a systematic dismantling of bioregional food systems and agricultural practices in order to be replaced with those familiar to the Spanish: ranching, deforestation, and mining. However, not everything the Spanish did was bad. Some of their best agricultural practices were adapted from North Africa, including dry land farming techniques and irrigation, and the introduction of fruit and nut trees. In New Mexico the acequia irrigation system brought by the Spanish is one of the earliest post-contact forms of democracy and sustainable agricultural practice in North America. Nonetheless, colonization was a process of supplanting one energy system for another. Ultimately it was a horrific, net loss for pre-contact Americans.
Currently the dominant paradigm of globalization favors a third system, one based on techno-scientific agriculture, such as petroleum-based monocrops and genetically modified seed. However, this monocultural wave is contested by an opposite movement based on revising traditional agricultural practices: permaculture, bioregionalism, farmers' markets, and slow food. These are a few examples of how the dominator complex is being challenged in people's daily practices. Alternative media play an important role helping these movements share and disseminate information. Through websites promoting open design (Open Source Ecology), grassroots activism, books, and documentaries, the food movement gets its planetary legs through online networks. Such efforts are necessary to buttress the massive propaganda system at the disposal of the monocultural food system, as evidenced by the daily barrage of fast food and junk food marketing.
What's Your Feed?
The link between media and agriculture is not random. Many media related metaphors originally derive from food-growing practices: culture stems from the process of cultivation; broadcast comes from the act of seed casting; a signal's reception field corresponds with places that we grow things. Videos stream and we set up news feeds. Now we upload our data into clouds running in server farms. The precursor of the modern alphabet came from the record-keeping practices of farmers. Even the earliest DIY phone systems in the United States were strung through rural fences by ranchers who needed to communicate with each other.
But ultimately the link between food and media relates to the old saying, you are what you eat. We may use media to feed our minds with entertainment and information, but corporations also see us as food. The world system survives by consuming energy flows-material, mental, and spiritual. Our media habits require that we "spend" time, time being a currency of energy consumption and waste. The channeling of this energy is done via the medium of money. When corporations map the world-and by extension the business model for those media companies that serve the interests of the world system-the so-called bottom line is about determining who eats whose energy, and whose culture gets digested and whose doesn't.
Consider the primary financial model for the majority of media we use: advertising. The only way free media can make money is to sell your attention to advertisers. If you don't watch or click, they don't make money. The inventory they are selling is our mental vitality, creativity, and interests. Subsequently, these media corporations and their advertisers are parasitic slime molds that can only thrive by harvesting the solar energy we collect from plant chemicals. Through the food we eat and the energy we expend, whenever we spend our money and time, these corporate entities gorge our stored solar energy. We work for them without pay.
The food system, like other institutional structures of the world system such as education or health care, reflects the mental models of the prevailing monocultural paradigm. To counter it we can repurpose the most ancient cultural knowledge we have-food-in order to foreground living systems into our thinking about a realm normally considered insulated from the natural world. In this sense, by tying media with food, we are re-mediating. Remediation is the technical term for restoring landscapes and habitats. It also has a health implication. In Spanish, remedeos are traditional herbal remedies. If we want to restore the balance of human affairs and living systems through our communication models, then we can borrow and reappropriate from the most essential activity of human culture: eating. Tied to eating are culture, economics, and ecology. It's no wonder that many of the world's leading proponents of sustainability see food as the primary access point for changing the world system. Indeed, as chaos theory argues, all systemic change is local. What is more local than the decision of what kind of food to put in your mouth? To extend that to media, we can also consider the implications of how we choose to feed our minds.
It's critical that we deal with interlocking colonial practices of the world system and its manipulation of media to shore up the existing system. For example, the average consumer is likely unaware that consolidated food empires-among the largest Monsanto and Cargill-quietly monopolize planetary agricultural food systems with little to no discussion in the mainstream media. Inattention to these facts enables monocultural systems to maintain their hegemonic grip on the cultural commons and global trade policy. Moreover, we can see a parallel in how megacorporations like Monsanto use patenting as a form of colonial control and the manner in which media companies use copyright and the threat of piracy as a way of manipulating the cultural commons. Critically, alternative media in the form of documentaries and activist networks on the net educate and coordinate opposition to these powers.
We can think of the Pepsi ad as a boundary object, an artifact with commonly understood symbols but different levels of meaning depending on who comes into contact with it. Like a blueprint, it both describes and proscribes a worldview. As a boundary object, it has objective properties (thirty-second TV ad, featuring Shakira, etc.) but depending on who encounters it, its meaning and intention will vary. For example, Shakira and her management will view the ad as a vehicle for her career and part of developing her brand as an artist crossing over into the global market. The ad agency that produced it wants to make the most effective and powerful form of communication they can. Pepsi's shareholders want to see progress and growth in the Latin American market. Coca-Cola executives counter the campaign with their own message of unity and transformation. Univision ad sales executives are eager to sell the space for the ad. All these various intentions then come to fruition in the commercial, which becomes a microcosm of the whole system. It becomes a world system holon: a nodal expression within a complex network of power that reflects the system's properties like a knot in Indra's Net.
This is why advertisements are excellent objects to think with. As holons of the world system, despite their ubiquity, we barely notice them at all. Yet three thousand times a day, there they are comprising the greatest ambient myth-making machine in the history of the human race. They are so influential that we say they have no influence. But like pressing a tuning fork onto the body of a guitar, through media mindfulness we can apply our intelligence to get inside the mentality of the world system and grok its true essence. Such knowledge diminishes its power: it can only successfully operate under opaque conditions. It's like how insight meditation leads to understanding how our minds respond to our environment. Once we learn its secrets and tricks, its ability to continue business as useful becomes weakened. We break its spell.
Decolonizing Energy Systems
It has been argued that our modern economic paradigm derived from the co-evolution of communications technology and energy systems. In the modern age we have moved from the coupling of the printing press with the steam engine to radio/TV/satellite's interdependence with electricity. The rise of networked media intersects with the paradigm of distributed forms of renewable energy sources, because they both rely on decentralized systems. This evolutionary trajectory of media and energy coincides with systems theorist Ervin Laszlo's argument that our global system is transitioning from one based on conquest, colonization, and consumption to one motivated by connection, communication, and consciousness.
The world system at its core is biological and requires energy to run. Until now it has thrived in a relatively stable climate that has enabled a steady diet of nutrients and proteins to expand our species across the planet. The exponential growth of population in the past fifty years has a direct relationship with the consumption of cheap oil. But pirated solar energy in the form of oil comes with a price tag. We borrow against our children's future in order to compensate for overshooting our planet's current carrying capacity. Through advertising and the propagation of market ideology, media do their part by promoting the economic practices that enable the carbon economy.
Consequently the central energy paradigm of the past century, which is based on the carbon economy, has yet to give way to the kind of distributed systems inherent to communications based on the internet. The parallels are crucial. Fossil fuels depend heavily on centralized power and the national security state. Nuclear power, dependence on crude oil, and coal extraction require a massive industrial infrastructure and coordinated military operations. Such a convergence can be summarized by one of the Republican's leading demagogues, Newt Gingrich, who said, "You cannot put a gun rack in a Volt." Moreover, major corporate media stakeholders, such as GE and Westinghouse, emerged from the energy monopolies of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the hegemonic model of mass media that emerges from such a system is co-dependent on the command and control paradigm: it reinforces the ideology that justifies resource wars (i.e., the Iraq War is never referred to as an "oil" war by the mainstream press) and media's economic model depends on ad revenue based on the carbon economy. Car manufacturers, for example, sponsor much of our media programming. Next time you watch TV, count the number of car or fossil fuel related services and products that are advertised. The internet is not immune. In fact, one of the scarier developments of the internet is the manner in which traditional energy companies have gamed the system so that their message is foregrounded in search engine requests for alternative energy and the environment or as contextual ads for sustainability themed news stories. Many news websites that feature environmentally themed stories have contextual ads that greenwash the major energy corporations of the world, such as Shell and Exxon.
The codependence between traditional mass media and the carbon economy can be seen in British Petroleum (BP)'s response to the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. By using chemical oil disbursements to eliminate the visual scourge of oil slicks, it was more an act of performative media than a cleanup operation. BP, likely in cooperation with the U.S. government, spun this event in ways that did not enable people to properly prepare for the consequences of what "really" happened to their local living systems. "Really" is put into quotes because the event had the opacity of oil itself through the censoring and blocking of the press from damaged ecosystems, and of course the strategic deployment of public relations. The use of the highly toxic Corexit 9500A to disperse ugly oil patches was like trying to use Photoshop to contain an oil spill, except far deadlier.
BP was also linked to a dubious website, the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, which appeared to be an official clearinghouse for response information. Every day images on the site's splash page changed, but none of them had oil in them. One day it featured a turtle being cleaned, which was in stark contrast to a video elsewhere on the web that featured the testimony of a boat captain who claimed that turtles were being incinerated by BP's oil burn. Meanwhile BP's PR people, masquerading themselves as journalists, reported from helicopters ridiculous statements like, "It's strangely peaceful up here-just right for surrendering to some meditation... I'm filled with the wonderment of what's happening below our chopper only moments after it lifts off from an airport in Houma, Louisiana."
Recall that BP had already spent millions of dollars re-branding itself as "Beyond Petroleum," so managing the Gulf disaster became a kind of military-style disinformation campaign designed to control spin around the event so as to not tarnish its well-oiled public image. It appears to have been successful. The Gulf incident has disappeared from national discourse and business as usual seems to have gone on unabated. Oil drill permits and regulation proposals have given way to scare tactics of job loss and economic depression.
What the BP case shows is that media decolonization requires decoupling our media from the carbon economy. For those of us who use computers and networks, this will mean a transitional period, since currently our consumption of electronics and energy use are increasingly large sources of C02 emissions. In fact, computer networks now produce more carbon emissions than the airlines industry. A Google server farm will use as much electricity as a city of 250,000 people, so efforts by companies like Google to transition to renewable energy is absolutely necessary. But with the exponential growth of the information economy, we may be drowning in data anyway. For example, some communications scholars argue that data clouds, bloated software, redundant archiving, and media rich data centers are pushing the overall planetary impact of physical data storage to unsustainable levels ("The Internet Begins with Coal" titles one report about network power consumption.). They suggest that it will become increasingly necessary to ration data, meaning that people should be sharing copies of media rather than having to access them from multiple clouds. Unfortunately, the current push towards cloud computing by dominant corporate providers Balkanizes the net into data fiefdoms, leading to less compatibility and sharing. As long as we perpetuate the current fossil fuel regime, the belief that unlimited data is harmless to the biosphere will remain intrinsically bound to the creed that information is weightless and immaterial. This situation, the researchers argue, parallels our treatment of the oceans, which are being pushed to the brink of ecological collapse because people have assumed their capacity for producing food and absorbing pollution is limitless. Not only is linking computer and network usage directly to their impact on the environment a crucial step toward green cultural citizenship, it's a radical challenge to a status quo predicated on tightly restricted intellectual property. Proprietary control of data is the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Ultimately, only a culture based on a cultural commons that values sharing resources would ensure that the next wave of computing doesn't result in black clouds in our atmosphere.
We also need to rethink what we mean by energy. To reiterate, media driven by the colonial paradigm consume energy in the material sense, such as through physical transportation (books, magazines, DVDs, and media gadgets all have be moved through space on boats, planes, trains, and trucks); resource use and waste (materials used to build sets for TV and film); power needed to operate media technology gadget production; and consumerism (product tie-ins, toys, clothing, etc. associated with big brands like Disney and Warner Bros.). All of these are tightly connected with a globalized system of distribution and production dependent on fossil fuels. But none of this is possible without the primary form of energy it needs to survive: our attention. Again, the world system is ultimately an energy parasite and thrives under two conditions. First is the general lack of awareness of its real nature. The magician is successful through diversion: we look at one hand while the illusion is carried out by the other. The second is that when our attention is transfixed in a channeled direction, our energy gets harvested. Our desires, interests, passions, survival instincts, and connectivity become "marketized" while our time gets "spent" to support a planet-destroying, consumptive lifestyle. Our attention is guided to ensure that we are dependent on the parasite, when ultimately the opposite is true: without us it cannot survive. Ultimately, the only entity that can directly address your consciousness is you. You are a key node in this system of relations. And as chaos theory argues, all systemic change is local. It is the everyday practices of ordinary people like us that ultimately perpetuate the system. So though a decolonized media means literally transitioning to alternative energy systems, the first step begins with our personal energy system in the form of attention.
Is it possible to create stories, engage in new cultural practices, and build appropriately scaled technology that no longer leaches the planet's finite resources and toxifies the biosphere? Ultimately the answer will come from our collective imagination. But to get started we can at least dispel the magic that interferes with our ability to see more clearly. Mapping the world system paradigm, looking at its evolution, and deconstructing its control strategies is part of the solution. Attention to our own dependency and inattention can help break previously existing cultural patterning. Social action and politics represents another level of response.
Ghost of Consciousness Past
Returning to the Shakira Pepsi ad, it is not without cosmic irony that she appears with a crucifix. The version of globalization offered by Pepsi extends the mentality of the cross critiqued by the Hopi. Yet, maybe we also see hints of something emerging, as if a ghost in the machine is reaching out to us. In the ad a circle in the shape of the spherical Pepsi logo accompanies the cross. But they are still separate. While it's certainly true that the form of globalization transferring control from the Church to the corporatocracy is undesirable, let's suppose for a moment that the world system is gestating the symbolic zeitgeist to give birth to something new, that the various humans making media have some innate connection to Earth reaching through them.
It would be a "success" of hegemony if we could no longer imagine anything outside or beyond it. Seeing transglobal capitalism as transient and impermanent is a necessary step to dissolve its spell. Moreover, concerts and church gatherings can be positive ritual spaces. Art and music have the power to heal and disseminate ideas. In a postcolonial mediasphere, these kinds of encounters happen simultaneously as local and planetary experiences. By removing Pepsi and Shakira from the equation, we reoccupy these ritual spaces. We also have a template for successful storytelling. The world system can tell effective stories, but cues exist within its dreaming mind that an Earth consciousness is waiting to be born among its planetary inhabitants.
Image by Fillmore Photography, couresty of Creative Commons licensing.