The Empire of Mind. Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement
Toronto, The University of Toronto Press, 2005
Reviewed by Claude Chastagner
In his latest book, Contre-discours de mai, François Cusset, writing about the contemporary implications of mai ’68, compares yesterday’s and today’s means of organizing resistance:
This is exactly the purpose of Michael Strangelove’s The Empire of Mind: to explore the opportunities unleashed by the Net to fight back capitalism and its evils. A strange title, focusing more on the reasons to despair than on the possibilities of a brighter future: “Empire of mind” refers to the various forms of oppression and control set up by American capitalism through the economy, the state, and the military. We have to turn to the subtitle to grasp the book’s real intent, an exploration of how the world wide web can contribute to the struggle against capitalism and the establishment.
The book combines a series of in-depth case studies, particularly the use of the iconic Barbie doll and of the McDonald brand and logo by cyber activists and artists, or online news (chapters five and six), and theoretical recontextualizations (including an excellent overview of the development, limits, and dangers of capitalism), complemented by detailed, useful notes (50 pages), a very complete, 600 entry-long, bibliography (both books and articles) and two precious indices, by name and by subject. The wealth of information, facts, and references obviously serves to fend off the contested nature of M. Strangelove’s thesis, or its apparent shallowness, that despite its ubiquitous use as a purchasing tool and its attempted take-over by the State and the market, the Net is a powerful means to organize and spread the counter-offensive against capitalism. His final conclusion states it in a cogent, powerful fashion: “where commercial media has proven to be a weapon of mass distraction, the Internet may well turn into a weapon of mass insurrection” .
At the heart of M. Strangelove’s controversial, uplifting thesis is the idea that online audiences are extremely active communicators and content creators, not just consumers and collaborators, as they are too often described. As M. Strangelove contends, “anti-corporate activism is one of the most prominent features of online youth culture” . The capacity of audiences to resist by appropriating content originally designed for them by corporations and turning it into something else (the famous process of détournement advocated by the Situationists) has been hailed since the seventies by the School of Birmingham as one way popular culture could fight back capitalism. However, this argument had been regularly undermined by more recent theory, especially in the writings of corporate consultants and academics, and Strangelove himself admits to the fact that “there is no escape from the market’s co-option of individual acts of resistance” . However, it is one of this book’s accomplishments to put the argument back on the map and give it renewed credence by backing it up with recent evidence. M. Strangelove’s contention is that online consumer resistance transforms the meaning embedded in various forms of corporate speech such as brands, corporate identity, and products.
The “empire” of the title strikes a frequently heard chord, these days. The vision of the United States as an empire is probably the one most frequently brought up by its critics (cf. the 2000 Empire by Hardt & Negri). Here, Strangelove uses it to draw a contrast with democratic procedures and emphasize that “the geographical mobility of capital, its ability to relocate from nation to nation has not diminished the significance of localized reality” . He first endeavors (chapter one) to explore how capitalism is a constitutive element of this empire, enslaving not only the material lives of the citizens, through the market and the military-industrial complex, but also their minds, thoughts, dreams, and compulsions. His overview draws extensively from theoreticians such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Herbert Marcuse, Herbert I. Schiller, Noam Chomsky, Mary Douglas, and Baron Isherwood. An interesting point made by M. Strangelove that he pursues throughout the book is that capitalist economy operates through sites of symbolic productions, a fact that the Internet can effectively challenge because it also produces alternative forms of equally symbolically charged content. Strangelove then proceeds to analyze the relationship between the structure of communication systems and the structure of belief within market economies.
He also recapitulates the bitter story of how the latest scientific breakthroughs were summoned and harnessed to submit consumers without their knowledge, and lead them to behave according to the wishes of entrepreneurs and politicians. The seminal and chilling efforts of Edward Bernays could have been mentioned, for Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, used his uncle’s insight of the human brain to invent a new profession, public relations, and applied propaganda-like techniques based on psycho-analysis to manipulate consumers. Strangelove goes on to deflate the myth of consumer empowerment through customization and its promise that the micro-customization of consumer goods would lead to the end of the mass market and mass production.
The following chapters are devoted to an examination of how the Net can subvert the dominant flow of meaning, primarily through 1. Digital piracy, a form of “guerilla warfare” (Eco), mainly targeting the entertainment sector particularly in Western and Asian countries 2. Culture jamming, the politically charged distortion of corporate products, whether it be songs, films, or advertisements, and the production of alternate products, what Michel de Certeau would call textual poaching 3. Online alternative news. Indeed, perhaps one of the more socially significant aspects of the Internet, as M. Strangelove demonstrates convincingly, is that is has enabled mass participation, through blogs, Usenet, discussion groups, and non-commercial web sites, in the production and dissemination of non-commercial, non-corporate or State controlled news.
Strangelove is a hopeful writer, hopeful but cautious. His thesis is strong, though rather circumscribed, he believes in it, and gives us every reason to join him in his belief. But he also stresses repeatedly the unpredictability of the future, the resourcefulness of the market, and its capacity to wrench the Internet from the hands of its users to restrict its use to commercial purposes. On and on, he provides examples of collaboration between the audience and the corporate sector. However, despite his precautions, M. Strangelove provides a convincing demonstration that the various weapons the enemies of freedom on the Net could use to silence it would not easily work. He establishes that the various forms of control that the state or corporations try to set up, from censorship to DRM technologies, all fail to achieve their purpose; as he states page 71, the primary motive behind the use of the Internet is the experience of enhanced communicative freedom. Change the architecture, turn Web sites into pay-sties, remove new-found freedoms, and you will have eliminated the compelling motivations for Internet use anyway. The soon-to-come normalization or domestication of the Web is nothing but a myth.
A few reservations have however to be made about the overall structure of the book. M. Strangelove has a point to make, and uses all the resources he can summon to make it, but he can hardly avoid going round in circles and repeating himself. If the case studies on the Barbie doll, or McDonald do effectively sustain his demonstrations, what he describes is hardly new, and his last chapter and conclusion do little else than rephrase his one and only argument, that the Net could make a difference in the fight against capitalism, that it has eroded corporate control. Similarly, it seems that M. Strangelove, despite his lengthy bibliography, restricts his attacks or reservations to a couple of writers, namely Jenkins, Lessig, and Schiller. Useful as it is to bolster the resistance against the Man and raise the spirits of the underground activists and academic writers alike, Empire of Mind would have fared better by being a good hundred pages slimmer and by opening up to a more varied and less conventional diet of sources. It remains that Empire of the Mind convincingly presents a new, alternative, optimistic view to the regularly defeated analyses describing the Internet as no more than a corporate tool.