Tag Archives: “Brave New World”

the unreal thing

The following article is Chapter Eight of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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Advertising is the rattling stick inside a swill bucket”

George Orwell

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“Take a card, any card, it’s your choice… but don’t let me see what it is.” The magician fans the cards flamboyantly. We know it’s a trick of course. “Three of Clubs,” he tells us. We shake our heads dismissively – after all, we’re part of the act. The magician seems momentarily perplexed. “Do you have anything in your jacket pocket?” he asks as if desperately trying to turn our attention away from his apparent failure. We feel inside and find a sealed envelope. It’s the one we’d signed earlier in the performance. “Is the seal broken?” he asks, knowingly. “Open it – what’s inside?” We scratch our heads and quietly applaud. Somehow the magician has diverted our attention just long enough to construct the illusion of an altered reality. In truth his method was to “force” the card, and so his illusion relied on the simple fact that we really hadn’t a free choice at any stage. But we applaud because we admire his harmless deception. It amuses us to be deceived once in a while.

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I saw an advert the other day. It read “Say No to No” which is the kind of quasi-Zen mumbo-jumbo that advertising executives get paid a small fortune to write. What was the effect of that advertisement? Well, it had suddenly interrupted my original train of thought. I’d probably been looking for the cigarette lighter or wondering how the living room table was so heaped up in junk again, but now I was reading on about how negativity gets in the way of progress. And which company, I kept wondering as I’d read down, would attach themselves to such a manifestly new age positive-thinking banner? I read on and came to examples of human achievements that left to the nay-sayers could never have happened:

“Yes, continents have been found…”, it read.

Found? By Columbus in 1492, presumably, and then Australia by James Cook. And no human had set eyes on them before? Obviously this is a rhetorical question. I read on…

“Yes, men have played golf on the moon…”

American men to be more precise. And it was indeed an incredible and truly awesome achievement – not the golf, but the travelling to the moon. When it comes to golf, there are obviously far superior facilities a lot closer to home. I read on…

“Yes, straw is being turned into biofuel to power cars…”

Well, hardly in the same league as exploration to such distant lands, but finally some inkling to where they were leading me…

I studied the picture more carefully. The words “Say no to no” are in thick capitals near the top of a blackboard already filled with images of progress and science – molecular structures, conical sections, a diagram showing a spherical co-ordinate system, graphs, line drawings of electron orbits and DNA, of animals and a ship and of course the ubiquitous pie-chart. A girl, her long straw-blond hair tied back into a pony-tail, and wearing a bright red tank top, has her back turned toward to us. She is reaching high, almost on tip-toe, into the black and white and adding the upward flourish of a spiral. Perhaps I was looking at one of those recruitment adverts for teaching, yet something told me otherwise…

And there it was – I’d found it at last – deliberately placed outside the main frame of the picture; a small, emblematic containment for all that progress: a remote, red and yellow scollop shell. The message was far from loud, but that was the point. And once spotted it was very clear, yet it had been intentionally delivered at a subliminal level – out of picture, unobtrusive, easily missed. Its instruction surreptitious and beyond the margins. Why? Because they wanted me to attach the ideas of positivity and progress to the symbol of a multinational oil corporation just as surely as Pavlov’s dogs associated lunch with the ringing of their owner’s bell. They wanted me to feel good things the next time I saw the scollop and to never even think about why.1

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Advertising is simply another act of illusion and as with the performing stage magician, the audience is well aware that they are being tricked. But in advertising the illusion runs deeper, so that aside from the obvious aim of persuading us to buy Coke instead of Pepsi or whatever, it very often constructs a host of other frauds. Take again the advert mentioned above as an example, with the girl reaching up on tip-toe. Here nothing is accidental, with all parts and relationships operating together to reinforce our idea of progress as a constant striving toward a better world, whilst in the background, it only quietly dismisses any “nay-sayers” who disagree. Like many predators, advertisers work by stealth, often, as here, offering glimpses of Utopia, or of wonderful and perpetual advancement, to draw us on and in. The carrot on a stick swinging endlessly before the eyes of the befuddled donkey.

But then, on other occasions, they will take a different tack, and get out a proper stick. They’ll make us uneasy about our looks, or our lack of social status, before offering a quick fix for these problems so frequently of their own devising. There are many ways to ring our bells: both carrots and sticks are equally effective.

And then everyone says this: “Adverts don’t work on me.” So these companies spend literally billions of pounds and dollars on refining their illusions, posting them up all across our cities and towns, filling our airwaves with their jingles and sound-bites, not to mention the ever-widening device of corporate sponsorship, and yet still this remains as our self-deluding armour against such unending and ever more sophisticated assaults. I’ll bet you could find more people who’d say David Copperfield can really fly than would actually admit to being significantly influenced by advertising.

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There probably never was a time when advertising was just that: a way to make products and services more widely or publicly known about. In such a time, adverts would have just showed pictures of the product and a simple description of its uses and/or advantages. “This is the night mail crossing the border…” – that sort of thing.

Though, of course, here immediately is a bad example, because the famous post office film is not only reminding us of what a jolly useful and efficient service our mail delivery is, but how wonderfully hard the GPO work whilst the rest of us are asleep. So on this different level Auden’s famous homage is a feel good thing, encouraging us to connect our good feelings to the postal service; it is an early example of public relations although still harmless enough in its quiet way.

But audiences get wise, or so we like to imagine, and so today’s advertisers have had to up the ante too. Gone are the days of telling you how to have “whiter whites” or advising everyone (with only a hint of surrealism) to “go to work on an egg”. Nowadays you’re far more likely to choose to eat a certain chewy stick because “it’s a bit of an animal” (without even noticing the entirely subliminal reference to your feelings about being carnivorous) or drink a can of soft drink because “image is nothing” (which presumes a ridiculous double-think on the part of the targeted purchaser). And where once a famous Irish beverage was just “good for you”, now it’s better because it comes “to those who wait”. Here you’re asked to make an investment in the form of time; an investment that is intended to add personal value to the brand.

Adverts are loaded with these and other sorts of psychological devices – cunningly latent messages or else entertaining ways of forging brand loyalty. They prey on the fact that we are emotional beings. They use tricks to bypass our rational centres, intending to hard-wire the image of their products to our feelings of well-being, happiness, contentment, success, or more simply, the image we have of ourselves. They use special words. LOVE for instance. Just see how many adverts say “you’ll love it”, “kids love it”, “dogs love it”, “we love it”, and so on and so on…. one I saw recently for condoms said simply “love sex” – talk about a double whammy!

Advertisers also like to scare us. When they are not showing us washing lines drying over the Fields of Elysium, or happy pals sharing time with packets of corn snacks, or elegant cars effortlessly gliding down open highways; they are constructing worlds of sinister dangers. Germs on every surface, and even in “those hard to reach places”. Threats from every direction, from falling trees to falling interest rates. I once saw an TV advert that showed a man desperately running from a massive and menacing fracture. It was a crack that seemed to be ripping through the very fabric of space and time, an existential terror relentlessly chasing after him through some post-apocalyptic nightmare. After a minute or so the threat abated and a solution was offered. Get your windscreen checked, it calmly advised.

And the government get in on this too. Watch out, watch out, there a thief about! Just say no to drugs! Sex is fun, but take precautions and don’t die of ignorance! In these ways, they ramp up fears of the real dangers we face, whilst also inculcating a sense of trust in the powers that be. The world is a perilous and unjust place, they say (which is true); fortunately, we are here to help you. Trust us to guide you. Obey our instructions. To protect you and your loved ones. To help you to realise your dreams. Together, we will make the world a fairer place. The constant PR refrains: “Believe”, “Belong”, “Trust”, and more recently, “Hope and Change”. O, ring out those bells!

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Right now, there’s something refreshingly honest about smoking. Those of us who refuse or are unable to quit are left under absolutely no illusions about our little cancer sticks. We know perfectly well that each drag is bringing the grave that little bit closer. And it’s certainly not cool to smoke. Our clothes stink, our breath stinks, and stinking, we huddle outdoors, rain or shine, cluttering up the office doorways with our toxic fumes and heaps of fag-ends. But it wasn’t always so. Smoking had its golden age. A time when cigarettes were an accoutrement to style and when sharing a fag with a dame was nearly as great as sex.2 During this period, the tobacco industry invested a small fortune in maintaining their myth. They paid to lobby politicians, they made funds available for favourable medical research, and perhaps most significantly of all, they hired the best PR man in the business.

It can be fun to speculate on who were the most influential figures in history. Who would we wish to include? Great statesmen, formidable warriors, innovators, engineers, scientists and artists, when lists are polled for, the public generally take their pick from these, chucking in the odd saint or celebrity just for good measure. They choose between Churchill, Washington, Alexander the Great, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein, and if the criteria are widened to include villains as well as heroes, plump for Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tong, and Joseph Stalin. A selection, if you like, of the stars of the show. But what about people whose work involves them behind the scenes? What of those whose greater skill was to remain invisible or simply unnoticed? Edward Bernays was just such a man.

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To say that Bernays was a great PR man is to do him a considerable disservice, for Bernays, who happened to also be a nephew of no lesser light than Sigmund Freud, is nowadays regarded as the father of modern PR. He wrote the book. Rather candidly he entitled it simply Propaganda – the word deriving from the Latin for “propagation” was less sullied back in 1928. In the opening chapter Bernays lays out the situation as he sees it:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

But Bernays is not warning us here, far from it. This is merely the way the world works, spinning along in a fashion that Bernays regards are both inevitable and to a great extent desirable. Better an orderly world of unseen manipulation than a world of ungovernable chaos. And it’s this point which he makes perfectly explicit in the very next paragraph:

“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”3

We should perhaps not be surprised to learn then that Bernays’ book was one that didn’t make it onto the bonfires of the Third Reich. Instead, Joseph Goebbels publicly praised Bernays’ work as especially influential, saying that it had formed the blueprint for his own Nazi propaganda machine. Certainly, it is a very practical guide. It delves into a great many areas and asks important questions. One of the most significant questions it asks goes as follows:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?”4

And the answer, as Bernays went on to prove with his amazing success in promoting everything from bacon and eggs to soap powder and political candidates, was HELL YES!

Working for the American Tobacco Company, Bernays had even piggy-backed a ride on the women’s rights movement. Offering encouragement to the fairer sex, for whom smoking in public was still very much a taboo, to keep on lighting their “Torches of Freedom.” Not that any similar strategy could work today obviously… well, not unless those torches were organically-grown by fair-trade tobacco farmers and rolled in chlorine-free paper supplied by sustainable forests, or whatever.

Bernays was the great promoter, perhaps the greatest, and he was keen to promote his own product, modern advertising, or as he called it propaganda, above all else. For Bernays, just as for his acolyte Joseph Goebbels, the future was propaganda:

“Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.”5

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Following Bernays, advertising no longer stops at breakfast cereals, toothpaste and petrochemical companies, having extended its parasitic tendrils throughout all areas of life, so that image becomes everything. Newspapers and magazines are glossier than ever. They radiate forth into the empty void of secular consumerist existence, visions of earthly fulfilment that can be bought (at preferential interest rates) – holidays, home improvements, house moves (especially abroad), fast cars, and millionaire lifestyles.

They tell us what is right to think about: beauty, health, fashion and that oh-so elusive of attributes, style. They tell us “how to get on”. They tell us what’s worth worrying about. DO worry about your wrinkles. DO worry about your waistline. DO worry about your split-ends. DO WORRY – because you’re worth it! Just as importantly we get to learn what is worth thinking about: success, fame and glamour, which when multiplied together make celebrity. Celebrity: from the Latin celebrare meaning to celebrate, or to honour. So whereas the ancients believed that the fixed and eternal heavenly stars were gods, we instead are sold a parallel myth revolving around “the stars of today”.

But newspapers and magazines are nothing, for their influence pales into insignificance when set in comparison to that flickering blue screen in the corner of the living room. It is our gateway to another world, a parallel dimension, where we are welcomed back each day by our virtual friends. It is a fire to warm us. A shadow-play of mesmerising potency. And here, the ever-tantalising jam of tomorrow has finally slopped over from its earlier containment within commercial breaks, to become what is now a mainstay for entire broadcasting schedules. Carrots and sticks for us to nod along to, 24/7, and three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.

It’s not even that all television is bad. Some is excellent. I would cite as an exemplar the consistently superior content of BBC wildlife documentaries, which far exceed any comparable alternative whether offered by books, radio, or at the cinema. Here is television at the very pinnacle of its achievement.

A great deal on television is produced just to amuse us, or amaze us, and occasionally, actually to inform us, and much of this merits credit too, but I do not feel it necessary to waste time pushing an open door. We all know that television can sometimes be marvellous. But we also know that most of it is junk. Junk that, with the influx of multiple digital channels, is spread ever more thinly and widely. In a modern world television certainly has its place, but we will do well never to forget its unprecedented powers:

“Right now there is an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break president’s hopes… This tube is the most awesome God-damn force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if ever it falls in the hands of the wrong people…

And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome God-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network. So you listen to me – Listen to me – Television is not the truth. Television’s a god-damned amusement park…

We’re in the boredom killing business… But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colours, creeds – We’re all you know – You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You’ll do whatever the tube tells you. You’ll dress like the tube, you’ll eat like the tube, you’ll raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing – we are the illusion.”

Of course, if you’ve seen the film Network, from which this extraordinary rant is taken, then you’ll also be aware that these are the words of a madman!6

At the top of the chapter I quoted Orwell’s no-nonsense assessment of advertising, and advertising is indeed as he describes it: the rattling stick eliciting the same Pavlovian response in the pigs, as advertising executives wish to implant in our human minds. Their main intent to push their client’s products by making us salivate with desire. This was no different in Orwell’s time. Whilst advertising’s still more ugly parent, propaganda, has always aimed to change minds more fundamentally. It treats ideas as products and sells them to us. But the techniques in both advertising and propaganda have come a long way since Orwell’s time.

This power to propagandise has grown in large part because of television. The blue screen softly flickering away in the corner of every living room having opened up a possibility for thousands of ‘messages’ each day to be implanted and reinforced over and over. Unconsciously absorbed instructions to think in preformed patterns being precisely what Aldous Huxley thought would be needed if ever the seething and disorderly masses of any ordinary human population might be replaced by the zombie castes of his futuristic vision Brave New World. “Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth”, he wrote.7

Which is a joke, but like so much in Huxley’s work, a joke with very serious intent. Huxley’s vision of a future dystopia being subtler in ways to Orwell’s own masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, not least because the mechanisms of mind control are wholly insidious. Huxley showing how you don’t have to beat people into submission in order to make them submit. Yet even Huxley never envisaged a propaganda system as pervasive and powerful as television has eventually turned out to be.

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Advertising involves “the art of deception” and it has never been more artful than it is today… sly, crafty, cunning, scheming, devious, sneaky, and totally calculating. However, it is increasingly artful in that other sense too: being achieved with ever greater creative skill. Indeed, the top commercials now cost more than many feature films, and, aside from paying small fortunes for celebrity endorsement, the makers of our grandest and most epic commercials take extraordinary pains to get the details right.

Engineered to push the buttons of a meticulously studied segment of the population, niche marketing techniques ensure precise targeting with optimum impact. Every image, sound and edit honed, because time is money when you’re condensing your ‘message’ into thirty seconds. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that these commercial ‘haikus’ as regarded by some as the works of art of our own times. A view Andy Warhol (himself a former ‘commercial artist’) espoused and helped promote – though mostly he made his fortune espousing and promoting his own brand: a brand called Andy Warhol.

Warhol wrote that:

“The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.”8

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky is credited with a far better joke, having once remarked that “lesser artists borrow, but great artists steal”. As with Warhol’s quip, it fits its author well. Stravinsky here downplaying his unrivalled talent for pastiche, whereas Warhol could never resist hiding his gift for nihilism in plain sight.

But actually, advertising isn’t art at all, of course. Do I need to continue? It is a bloodless imitation that neither borrows nor steals, to go back to Stravinsky’s aphorism, but directly counterfeits. Feigning beauty and faking truth is all it knows, with a passing interest in the first in so far as it is saleable, and a pathological aversion to the second, since truth is its mortal enemy.

For if selling us what we least require and never thought we desired is advertising’s everyday achievement (and it is), then pushing products and ideas that will in reality make our lives more miserable or do us harm is its finest accomplishment. And the real thing? Like the stage magician, this is what the admen assiduously divert your attention away from.

Which brings me a story. A real story. Something that happened as I was driving to work one dark, dank February morning. A small thing but one that briefly thrilled and delighted me.

It was at the end of Corporation Street, fittingly enough I thought, where someone had summoned the courage to take direct action. Across the glowing portrait of a diligently air-brushed model were the words: “She’s not real. You are beautiful.”

That some anonymous stranger had dared to write such a defiant and generous disclaimer touched me. But it didn’t end there. This person, or persons unknown, had systematically defaced all three of the facing billboards, saving the best for last. It was for one of those ‘messages’ that is determined to scare some back into line, whilst making others feel smug with a glow of compliant superiority. It read: “14 households on Primrose Street do not have a TV licence” (or words to that effect).

The threat, though implicit, was hardly veiled. In Britain, more than a hundred thousand people ever year are tried and convicted for not having a TV licence. Some are actually jailed.9 But now this message had a graffiti-ed punchline which again brought home the hidden ‘message’ perpetuated by all of advertising. The spray-canned response read simply: “perhaps they’ve got a life instead.” A genuine choice the admen wouldn’t want you to consider. Not buying into things isn’t an option they can ever promote.

To add my own disclaimer, I in no way wish to encourage and nor do I endorse further acts of criminal damage – that said, here is a different piece of graffiti (or street art – you decide) that I happen to walk past on my way into work. In a less confrontational way, it too has taken advantage of an old billboard space:

the best things in life

Next chapter…

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Addendum: a modest proposal

We are all living under a persistent and dense smog of propaganda (to give advertising and PR its unadorned and original name). Not only our product preferences and brand loyalties, but our entire Weltanschauung10 fashioned and refashioned thanks to a perpetual barrage of lies. Fun-sized lies. Lies that amuse and entertain. Lies that ingratiate themselves with fake smiles and seductive whispers. And lies that hector and pester us, re-enforcing our old neuroses and generating brand new ones. These lies play over and over ad nauseam.

Ad nauseam, the sickness of advertising, is a man-made pandemic, with modern commercials selling not simply products per se, but “lifestyles”. And think about that for a moment. Off-the-shelf ideals and coffee table opinions that are likewise custom-made. Beliefs to complement your colour-coordinated upholstery, your sensible life insurance policy, your zesty soap and fresh-tasting, stripy toothpaste.

Thanks to television, we inhale this new opium of the people all day long and few (if any) are immune to its intoxication, but then advertising operates at a societal level too – since by disorientating individuals, society as a whole becomes more vulnerable to the predatory needs of corporations. So cuddling up to the box and laughing along to the latest blockbuster commercial on the grounds that “adverts don’t affect me” just makes our own delusion complete.

I might have ended on a lighter note, but instead I’ll hand over to the late Bill Hicks at his acrimonious best (and apologises for his foul and abusive language, but unfortunately here it is fully warranted):

“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising kill yourselves…”

Bill pauses to absorb any cautious laughter, then quietly continues: “Just a thought… I’m just trying to plant some seeds. Maybe, maybe one day they’ll take root… I don’t know, you try, you do what you can…”

Still scattering handfuls of imaginary seeds, but now sotto voce for suggestive effect: “Kill yourselves…”

Another pause and then completely matter of fact. “Seriously though – if you are – do!”

And now Bill gets properly down to business: “Ahhh – No really – There’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers okay… Kill yourselves. Seriously. You are the ruiners of all things good. Seriously. No, No, this is not a joke… Ha,ha, there’s going to be a joke coming… There’s no fucking joke coming! You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us – Kill yourselves – It’s the only way to save your fucking soul – kill yourself…”

Then he comes to the crux of the matter: “I know what all you marketing people are thinking right now too: ‘Oh, you know what Bill’s doing. He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. He’s smart…’ – Oh Man! I’m not doing that! You fucking evil scumbags! – ‘You know what Bill’s doing now. He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. Lot of people are feeling that indignation. We’ve done research – huge market! He’s doing a good thing.’ – God damn it! I’m not doing that you scumbags…! Quit putting the dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!”

If we are ever to break free from the mind-forged manacles of the advertising industry then we might consider the option of broadcasting Bill Hicks’ rant unabridged during every commercial break on every TV channel on earth for at least a year – the obscenities bleeped out in broadcasts before the watershed!

While we’re about it, we will need a screening prior to every movie (during the commercial slots obviously) as well as key phrases rehashed into jingles and those same sound bites written up in boldface and plastered across every available billboard. Now, if you think this would be altogether too much of an assault on our delicate senses then please remember that is precisely what the dear old advertising industry does day-in and day-out. So wouldn’t it would fun to turn the tables on those in the business of deceit? And not simply to give them a dose of their own snake oil, but to shock us all with repeated jolts of truth instead.

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Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

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1 Incidentally, my young nephew had added a few scribbles of his own to this advertisement and it is interesting to note where he directed his pen marks, five places in all: one over each of the girls hands, one on the back of her head and another on her ponytail. And his only scribble that was not on the girl was on top of the scollop. Bullseye!

2 Of course in Hollywood films of a bygone age when censorship was strict, sharing a fag was also used as a metaphor for sex itself.

3 Taken from the opening to Chapter 1 entitled “Organising Chaos” of Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (1928).

4 Ibid. Chapter 4, “The psychology of Public Relations”

5 Ibid. Chapter 11, “The mechanics of propaganda”

6 “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” These are the words of anti-corporate evangelist Howard Beale, taken from the film Network (1976). A satire about a fictional television network called Union Broadcasting System (UBS), with its unscrupulous approach to raising the ratings, Network was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. Most memorably, it features an Oscar-winning performance by actor the Peter Finch, playing the part of disaffected news anchor Howard Beale. Beale, having threatened to commit suicide live on air, is given his own show. Billed as “the mad prophet”, he steals the opportunity to angrily preach against what he sees as the corporate takeover of the world, and steadily his show gathers the largest audience on television. The consequences are, of course, inevitable.

7 “One hundred repetitions three nights a week for four years, thought Bernard Marx, who was a specialist on hypnopædia. Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” From Chapter 3 of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932. 

8 Quote taken from Chapter 4 “Beauty” of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), published in 1975. 

9 “According to the most recent figures, about 70 people a year are jailed for TV licence fee offences. But the scale of prosecutions for licence fee evasion is far higher and now accounts for one in nine of all Magistrates Court cases. More than 180,000 people – almost 3,500 a week – appeared before the Magistrates Courts in 2012, accused of watching television without a valid licence in, with 155,000 being convicted and fined.”

From an article entitled ‘Dodging TV licence will not be a crime’ written by Tim Ross, published in The Telegraph on March 7, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/10684639/Dodging-TV-licence-will-not-be-a-crime.html

10 Weltanschauung: a particular philosophy or view of life; the world view of an individual or group.

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welcome to the Panopticon: a potted history of mass surveillance

Two centuries ago:

In 1791, the Father of Utilitarianism and ardent social reformer Jeremy Bentham published blueprints for a wholly new design of prisons. Called the Panopticon, from observe (-opticon) all (pan-), the design, which involved a circular annulus of cells surrounding a central lodge, allowed the guards to keep an eye on all of the inmates, and importantly, without them, in turn, being aware of when they were being watched.

Bentham had big plans for his design, suggesting that aspects of the concept might usefully be applied to the construction of hospitals, schools and workhouses.

One century ago:

H.G. Wells was the father of a good many utopias. He spent the greater part of his creative life planning the shape of future societies. One of his most complete visions is laid out in a novel entitled simply A Modern Utopia (and published 1905). The story goes that two travellers walking in the Swiss Alps suddenly discover themselves in a parallel world. A new world that is Earth (at least geographically and biologically speaking) but one where civilisation has been reconstructed on altogether more Wellsian principles.

The inhabitants of this world are guaranteed housing, food and basic essentials. Even the unemployed are provided with a minimum wage, this safety net granted as “workfare” rather than “welfare”, with its recipients being coerced into work for the greater good of the state. In this vision of Wellsian meritocracy, the total measure of individual status depends solely upon earned income: the citizens of the new society regarding being broke as “clear evidence of unworthiness”.

Meanwhile criminal types and drug-users are given very short shrift. Removed from the main body of society and placed on high security prison islands, they are also sexually segregated to ensure that such poor genetic stock can never again pollute the otherwise healthy gene-pool.

Central to this alternative civilisation, the two explorers learn, there is a world-government (Wells never can resist the idea) made possible by a monumental database, with information stored on a card-index system housed in Paris. And Wells says that “Such a record is inevitable if a Modern Utopia is to be achieved.” But of course, what Wells could not foretell was how quickly technology would render the card-index system obsolete and make the establishment of such a global database entirely achievable.

Half a century ago:

It was 1948 when George Orwell settled into seclusion on the Isle of Jura, and there began to work on his most lasting contribution to literature and language. A little over a year passed before his terrifying vision of a future dystopia would be published, entitled simply Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t merely gloomy, it is hellish in altogether more Orwellian ways. A one-party state, in which every member of Ingsoc (the Party) lives under close and constant scrutiny, watched on two-way telescreens, which are highly sensitive devices that can never be turned off. Casual conversations are eavesdropped, by friends just as surely as by strangers, and children are actively encouraged to snoop on their parents; enrolling with the juvenile troops of Spies rather than Scouts (often to the delight and pride of their own brainwashed parents).

There is absolutely no place for privacy in Nineteen Eighty-Four, certainly not for anyone in the Party, with the telescreens monitoring indoors, whilst outside, and aside from the hidden microphones, it is safe to presume that everyone is probably an informant. The Party has, however, less concern for minor dissent that may flare up within the lower ranks of ‘the proles’; the masses that it regards as so ignorant and intent on self-preservation as to pose no serious counter-revolutionary threat. Although even amongst the proles there stalks the ever-present menace of the Thought Police.

Orwell’s new world of dread was forged from the same ideological foundations as the just defeated axis of Fascism. It was a world divided by class, hatred and perpetual war. A world riven and driven by Power. And undoubtedly Orwell was in part presenting his critique of the post-war Soviet Union reconstructed under that other great dictator, Joseph Stalin, with his all-new formula for Communism. Indeed, on the basis of Orwell’s images of Big Brother, it’s fair to judge that this all-powerful leader of Ingsoc (the single party governing the new alliance of Oceania1) was a caricature of Stalin.

Aldous Huxley was Orwell’s old teacher, and in his own futurist satire Brave New World (published in 1932), had envisaged a world of shopping and leisure, founded upon gentle Pavlovian conditioning of eugenically perfected infants, made ready for the soft bed of a world constructed in accordance with Freud’s pleasure principle. In Brave New World, everyone is Dolly the Sheep, and so more forcible means of coercion have become a thing of the forgotten past. George Orwell wrote of his old teacher Huxley’s prophesy as follows:

Mr Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a good caricature of the hedonistic Utopia, the kind of thing that seemed possible and even imminent before Hitler appeared, but it had no relation to the actual future. What we are moving towards at this moment is something more like the Spanish Inquisition, and probably far worse, thanks to the radio and the secret police. There is very little chance of escaping it unless we can reinstate the belief in human brotherhood without the need for a ‘next world’ to give it meaning.”2

Of course, it has turned out to be more complicated than that. Stalin died, and the Eastern Bloc with its many citizen spies and Stasi Thought Police was eventually overthrown by resistance within as much as without. Aldous Huxley always maintained that all forms of brutal totalitarian oppression must eventually succumb to such internal pressures, being forced to give way to a different and softer kind of centralised control, and for a short time it seemed that he was correct. But then came September 11th and how quickly in its shadows, the jackboots came back on the ground. Stomping down on the face of humanity all across the world.

Since about a decade:

In January 2002, within the months following the September 11th attacks, the US Defense Department, under the umbrella of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), began to develop a vast surveillance project, requiring a database even beyond H.G. Wells’ imagining. Set up under the direction of Admiral John Poindexter – formerly Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor3 – the Information Awareness Office (IAO) was intended to serve the interests of “National Security”. Its aim was to establish methods of collecting and collating information of all kinds. Records of what an individual purchased, where they travelled, what they watched, and so on, whilst also incorporating information from public records on education and health. More covert snooping was also proposed as a necessary means of analysing internet use, emails, and faxs.

Other plans included the development of “human identification at distance systems” based on biometrics, which would obviate the current reliance on human operators to keep their eyes peeled. Combined with the ever extending network of CCTV, such a system could conceivably keep track of movements of the entire population. In a world soon to be filled with automated face-recognition systems or more probably – given recent technological developments – whole body scanners, it will be unnecessary for government authorities to force the people to carry forms of identity (or under more extreme tyranny, to wear badges), because it will become impossible to hide.

By February 2003, the IAO had begun funding what they called the Total Information Awareness (TIA) Program, although by May 2003 the program had already been renamed the Terrorism Information Awareness Program in an attempt to allay growing public anxiety of its Orwellian spectre. Then in August 2003, Poindexter was forced to resign as TIA chief with concerns that his central role in the Iran-Contra affair had made him unfit to run a sensitive intelligence program. Soon after this the IAO closed and officially the TIA program was terminated with all funding removed, yet it is widely acknowledged that the core of the project remains and that funding was merely switched to other government agencies.4

Finally, perhaps some indication of the true intent of these surveillance projects may be gleaned from the original IAO logo. Featuring a planetary-sized pyramid capped by an all-seeing eye that is scanning the entire Earth, the message is surely loud enough, especially when captioned with the motto “scientia est potentia” (knowledge is power). For what is this pyramid and the all-seeing eye meant to represent? That Big Brother is watching you? That you are already inside the Panopticon? Here was the official explanation of its meaning:

For the record, the IAO logo was designed to convey the mission of that office; i.e., to imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate, and transition information technologies, components, and prototype, closed-loop information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for preemption, national security warning, and national security decision making. On an elemental level, the logo is the representation of the office acronym (IAO) the eye above the pyramid represents “I” the pyramid represents “A,” and the globe represents “O.” In the detail, the eye scans the globe for evidence of terrorist planning and is focused on the part of the world that was the source of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”5

Meanwhile, British governments have also brought in rafts of new legislation to extend police powers and limit personal freedom. Indeed, the first major new Terrorism Act, which was introduced in 2000 (and thus prior to the September 11th attacks), actually redefined the meaning of terrorism in order to increase the scope for police intervention. Whilst the disconcertingly titled RIP Act, which quickly followed, further extended the rights for government to intercept communications and to patrol the internet. Then, during David Blunkett’s tenure as Home Secretary, the RIP Act (or RIPA) was broadened again, becoming so extensive that almost 800 separate organisations, including more than 450 councils, have the right to invoke it. People might now be snooped on right across the country for offences no more serious than littering and under-age smoking.6

In the aftermath of the London bombings of July 7th 2005, the New Labour governments under both Blair and Brown also pressed hard for an extension of police rights to detain terrorist suspects. What had begun with seven days, quickly progressed to three weeks, and then, at least in the government’s opinion, required not less than 90 days. The justification given for these extraordinary new measures – the worst of which were thankfully rejected by Parliament – being that plots of the most diabolical kind were suddenly so widespread and complex that the ordinary course of justice had to be by-passed in order to ensure public safety. Around the same time, the introduction of national ID cards was also thwarted, in part thanks to a massive public outcry. Nevertheless, the threat of terrorism (the real risk of which is far lower than during the days of IRA attacks) is the overriding justification for ever more surveillance of our public spaces and our personal lives.7

Throughout the last decade we have all been asked to give up our privacy and other civil liberties on the grounds of enhanced security: sacrificing freedom today for the sake of freedom tomorrow, which may well be, of course, a bargain with the devil. By the end of 2006, the United Kingdom was being described by some experts as ‘the most surveilled country’ among all industrialized Western nations.8

I heard someone speaking on Radio 4 a few years ago. Wrongly convicted for a crime he was later cleared of, he had as a direct consequence spent more than ten years of his life in prison. The interviewer asked him what his first thoughts were after being released as a free man. “Well, I was horrified,” he replied, “horrified that there were just as many cameras on the outside as inside. It was like I’d never left prison.”9

Now and the foreseeable future:

Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy10.

From an article entitled “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” written by James Bamford, the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. Published in Wired magazine on March 15th, Bamford continues:

For the first time, a former NSA official has gone on the record to describe the program, codenamed Stellar Wind, in detail. William Binney was a senior NSA crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network. […]

He explains that the agency could have installed its tapping gear at the nation’s cable landing stations—the more than two dozen sites on the periphery of the US where fiber-optic cables come ashore. If it had taken that route, the NSA would have been able to limit its eavesdropping to just international communications, which at the time was all that was allowed under US law. Instead it chose to put the wiretapping rooms at key junction points throughout the country—large, windowless buildings known as switches—thus gaining access to not just international communications but also to most of the domestic traffic flowing through the US. […]

The eavesdropping on Americans doesn’t stop at the telecom switches. To capture satellite communications in and out of the US, the agency also monitors AT&T’s powerful earth stations, satellite receivers in locations that include Roaring Creek and Salt Creek. […]

Binney left the NSA in late 2001, shortly after the agency launched its warrantless-wiretapping program. “They violated the Constitution setting it up,” he says bluntly. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.” Binney says Stellar Wind was far larger than has been publicly disclosed and included not just eavesdropping on domestic phone calls but the inspection of domestic email. At the outset the program recorded 320 million calls a day, he says, which represented about 73 to 80 percent of the total volume of the agency’s worldwide intercepts. The haul only grew from there. According to Binney—who has maintained close contact with agency employees until a few years ago—the taps in the secret rooms dotting the country are actually powered by highly sophisticated software programs that conduct “deep packet inspection,” examining Internet traffic as it passes through the 10-gigabit-per-second cables at the speed of light. […]

After he left the NSA, Binney suggested a system for monitoring people’s communications according to how closely they are connected to an initial target. The further away from the target—say you’re just an acquaintance of a friend of the target—the less the surveillance. But the agency rejected the idea, and, given the massive new storage facility in Utah, Binney suspects that it now simply collects everything. “The whole idea was, how do you manage 20 terabytes of intercept a minute?” he says. “The way we proposed was to distinguish between things you want and things you don’t want.” Instead, he adds, “they’re storing everything they gather.” And the agency is gathering as much as it can.

Once the communications are intercepted and stored, the data-mining begins. “You can watch everybody all the time with data- mining,” Binney says. Everything a person does becomes charted on a graph, “financial transactions or travel or anything,” he says. Thus, as data like bookstore receipts, bank statements, and commuter toll records flow in, the NSA is able to paint a more and more detailed picture of someone’s life.

Click here to read more of James Bamford’s eye-opening article, and then, here to read a still more extraordinary article published by Wired magazine on the very same day:

More and more personal and household devices are connecting to the internet, from your television to your car navigation systems to your light switches. CIA Director David Petraeus cannot wait to spy on you through them.

Earlier this month, Petraeus mused about the emergence of an “Internet of Things” — that is, wired devices — at a summit for In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm. “‘Transformational’ is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies,” Petraeus enthused, “particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.”

All those new online devices are a treasure trove of data if you’re a “person of interest” to the spy community. Once upon a time, spies had to place a bug in your chandelier to hear your conversation. With the rise of the “smart home,” you’d be sending tagged, geolocated data that a spy agency can intercept in real time when you use the lighting app on your phone to adjust your living room’s ambiance.

Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing,”11

Orwell, for all of his profound insight and prescience, could never have imagined the sort of universal networks of surveillance being so rapidly put in place today. He didn’t see, for instance, as Huxley might have done, how people would one day almost willingly give up their privacy, and not only as the price for security, but purely for convenience and pleasure. That personal tracking devices would one day become such highly desirable commodities, in the form of mobile phones and ‘sat nav’s, that it would actually be strange not to carry one. That social networking sites would be temptation enough for many millions to divulge huge volumes of personal information, private opinions, dreams and fantasies. That others would broadcast their thoughts via emails, tweets, blogs, and all could be swept up in a worldwide web. The worldwide wiretap, as Julian Assange referred to it.

This post is another part of the immense traffic of data presumably being collected and analysed by those at the NSA (and in all probability also filtered using servers at our own GCHQ). That you are reading this is most probably being recorded too. So feel free to add a comment, although you should be cautioned that whatever you do say may later be used as evidence against you. The Panopticon is watching all of us.

Click here to read a wikipedia overview of the types of mass surveillance now used in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

*

Additional:

Here is a Russia Today report broadcast a few days later on Friday 30th March entitled: “Minority report: Era of total surveillance zooms-in on US?”

Click here to find the same report at Russia Today website.

As for Britain, and whatever the situation right now, the government is just about to announce new measures that will open the way for GCHQ to have “access to communications on demand, in real time” with the justification being, as always, “to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public”:

A new law – which may be announced in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech in May – would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant.

But it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.

Click here to read the full BBC news report from April 1st.

1 The setting is roughly as follows. Some time after the World War, the world divided up into three warring superpowers: Oceania (previously America, Australia and Airstrip One); Eurasia (Russia and the rest of Europe); and Eastasia (China and India). These states have since then been engaged in an endless three-sided conflict, fighting to gain control of the resources in a disputed zone which includes North Africa and the Middle East. Progress in this conflict is reported to the citizens of Oceania via a government controlled media, relaying information manufactured by the Ministry of Truth.

2 Taken from “Notes on the way” by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide. London, 1940.

3 Poindexter had been previously been convicted of lying to Congress and altering and destroying documents pertaining to the Iran-Contra Affair.

4 These include Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA), a part of the Disruptive Technology Office (run by to the Director of National Intelligence); and SAIC, run by former Defense and military officials and which had originally been awarded US$19 million IAO contract to build the prototype system in late 2002.

5 Statement of the Information Awareness Office regarding the meaning and use of the IAO logo. Source: Question 15 in the IAO Frequently Asked Questions – document dated February, 2003 which can be accessed at http://www.darpa.mil/iao/TIA_FAQs.pdf

6 The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP or RIPA) regulates the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation, especially with regard to the interception of communication. It can be invoked by government officials specified in the Act on the grounds of national security, and for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime, preventing disorder, public safety, protecting public health, or in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.

“Councils have used laws designed to combat terrorism to access more than 900 people’s private phone and email records in the latest example of Britain’s growing surveillance state. Town hall spies found out who residents were phoning and emailing as they investigated such misdemeanours as dog quarantine breaches and unlicensed storage of petrol. The news prompted fresh calls from civil rights groups for a reform of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which was originally brought in to combat terrorism and serious crime but is increasingly being used by councils to snoop on members of the public. In April a council in Dorset used Ripa powers to spy for weeks on a family it wrongly suspected of breaking rules on school catchment areas. Other local authorities have used covert surveillance to investigate such petty offences as dog fouling and under-age smoking.” extract from “Council snoopers access 900 phone bills” by Gordon Rayner, Chief Reporter, Daily Telegraph, 5th June 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2075026/Council-snoopers-access-900-phone-bills.html

7 “Deputy chief constable of Hampshire Ian Readhead said Britain could become a surveillance society with cameras on every street corner. He told the BBC‘s Politics Show that CCTV was being used in small towns and villages where crime rates were low… ‘If it’s in our villages, are we really moving towards an Orwellian situation where cameras are at every street corner?’

‘And I really don’t think that’s the kind of country that I want to live in.’ There are up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain – about one for every 14 people.” from BBC News, Sunday, 20th May 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6673579.stm

8 “Produced by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies Network, the [Surveillance Society] report was presented to the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in London, hosted by the Information Commissioner’s Office. […]

The report’s co-writer Dr David Murakami-Wood told BBC News that, compared to other industrialised Western states, the UK was “the most surveilled country”.

“We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection,” he said.

“We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us.”

The report coincides with the publication by the human rights group Privacy International of figures that suggest Britain is the worst Western democracy at protecting individual privacy.

The two worst countries in the 36-nation survey are Malaysia and China, and Britain is one of the bottom five with ‘endemic surveillance’.”

From a BBC news article entitled “Britain is ‘surveillance society’” published on November 2, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6108496.stm

9 Unfortunately, since I did not have pen at hand – I was driving at the time! – I can no longer recall his precise words and so I have been compelled to paraphrase what he said. I have tried to be accurate so far as memory serves me.

10 From an article entitled “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” written by James Bamford, published in Wired magazine on March 15, 2012. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1

11 From an article entitled “CIA Chief: We’ll Spy on You Through Your Dishwasher”, written by Spencer Ackerman, published by Wired magazine on March 15, 2012. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/03/petraeus-tv-remote/

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