I Remember Socialism
How I learned to stop worrying and love the USA

with apologies to the late Stanley Kubrick
Copyright © Paul Brown 2001
All Rights Reserved

This essay was written for CompuTerra for their May 2001 issue. http://www.computerra.ru

The Russian translation is here.

In the early 1980's I began to travel more frequently and further afield than I had before. Watching television in my hotel rooms in Europe, Asia, Australia and the USA I was surprised by how similar the programs looked. I 'm an artist and was looking at the design aspect of the television content. Turn down the volume to mask the difference in language and, no matter where in the world I was it all looked the same. The screen layout, the placement of newsreaders, the kind of graphics and screens-in-screens, the structure of commercials and teasers - it was always the same.

At that time I was head of the United Kingdom's National Centre for Computer Aided Art and Design at Middlesex Polytechnic (now a University) where we were lucky to have some of the latest digital TV technology. And so it wasn't difficult for me to recognise that it was here, in this technology itself, that the major cause of the globally homogenous television design aesthetic lay.

The equipment - things like paint systems, graphics generators, titling systems and so on - was a consequence of the great strides forward in computer graphics technology that had taken place during the 1970's and early 80's. These digital systems offered previously undreamed of levels of performance and quality to the analogue TV community. Not surprising they spread rapidly into the global television market and were adopted worldwide in just a few years.

The systems had been developed in Europe and the USA. I realised that the creators of this technology had, I believe unwittingly, built into these tools their own cultural and aesthetic assumptions. These systems had an inbuilt signature that designers in other countries were unable to overcome.

Although the technology had this insidious (albeit as I have indicated unintentional) imperialistic cultural agenda embedded within it we shouldn't forget that in many cases young designers of the period actually wanted to mimic the fashionable European and US studios.

In his book "The Hidden Order of Art" Anton Ehrensweig described how, as a young man in the early years of the 20th century, he had been invited to show a group of visiting Chinese dignitaries some of the great European art of his home city of Vienna. Ehrensweig recounts how these visitors complained about the gratuitous distortions in the great works of renaissance art. These, well-educated members of the Chinese ruling classes had never been exposed to perspectival representation before. Their own culture used an orthographic representation of depth that they had assimilated as naturalistic. Ehrensweig concluded that perspective, far from being the "correct'" representation of space was just one of many possible ways of seeing.

Nevertheless, 100 years later, perspective has become the dominant global model for spatial representation. Here again we can see how Euro-American technologies like photography; motion cinematography, video and computer graphics have enabled this blatant act of cultural imperialism. Here again, I suggest we witness another unintentional act.

Some years ago I was invited to give a talk at the computer graphics megaconference SIGGRAPH in the USA. In my presentation I mentioned my belief that the discipline was wrong to assume that perspective was the "natural" or "self evident" way to describe space. To my astonishment, at question time, this relatively innocuous part of my talk dominated the dialogue. It was obvious that the majority of my audience (of several thousand people) believed absolutely in the sanctity of perspective and were extremely disturbed by my attempt to undermine their faith.

Technological signatures can have profound effects. As I have illustrated above they can impose global paradigms. As with all acts of cultural imperialism, whether deliberate or not, they displace native heritage. Cultural agendas that might have taken hundreds or thousands of years to evolve can be forgotten and lost forever in a single generation.

In 1996 a prominent American media "expert" suggested that with the immanent convergence of telecommunications, broadcasting and publishing it was time for the world to grow up and for everyone to speak English. This was the last of his utterances that I took time to consider. In those early days of the World Wide Web many of us feared opportunities for cultural tyrannies that would surpass anything that had gone before.

Five years later it is reassuring to see the growth of non-English language sites, like Computerra, on the web. We should nevertheless remain concerned about the numbers of global youth who daily click on links to the US propaganda orifices.

Some years ago I taught in the USA and one colleague was a Serbian. According to him the difference between living in the United States and the Soviet Union was simple - both communities were bombarded by propaganda but ... " in the Soviet Union we knew it was propaganda!"

Not all Americans are naive. In the early 1990's I visited the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in an "official" capacity. I was given the red-carpet treatment that included a viewing of President Lyndon B. Johnson's speech at the AFI's official opening. I have always respected LBJ's forthrightness and plain speaking and here he gave his opinion that Hollywood was an excellent vehicle for taking the "American way of life" to the people of the world.

He was right. Hollywood turned out to be a lot more successful than the other model of world domination that he was experimenting with at that time in a then little known corner of the world called Vietnam.

I am speaking now of deliberate forms of imperialism: not the subtle and perhaps unintended signatures of a technology but rather the considered plans of powerful people who want to perpetuate their wealth and influence.

Twenty years ago a new economic model was introduced into the global financial domain. We now call it Economic Rationalism. It had an exceptionally high fitness in the Darwinian or evolutionary sense of the word. Like any fit predator when introduced into a domain where there is no real opposition it quickly devoured it's competition and has become the global economic model.

It was designed (and I use the word "designed" in a considered sense) to destroy socialism. Socialism proposed controlled economies and used mechanisms like taxation to redistribute wealth in an egalitarian way. As Marx taught us: "to each according to their need, from each according to their ability".

Rational economics suggests that you get what you deserve rather that what you need and takes it's ethics from likes of the US cynic W.C. Fields who suggested that you should ... "never give a sucker an even break". Instead of redistributing wealth it disenfranchises the majority of the workforce (by undermining trust and solidarity and encouraging individual competition and greed) in order to force more wealth up to the shareholders at the top. It claims to be democratic by pointing out that anyone can own shares but fails to point out that power is based on volume of shares and that ordinary people can only own a few whereas the elite own all the rest.

The first great success of rational economics was the downfall of the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachov relaxed political and economic controls. I remember seeing a photograph of a kilometres long line of soviet citizens queuing to visit the first Moscow McDonald's and feeling a quiet sense of dread. More recently we have seen Britain's New Labour completely eradicate socialism from its agenda and China which, remarkably, claims both a reforming economy and allegiance to communism.

Socialism was, of course, a belief system that had been described as a form of secular Christianity. I haven't got time to go into that here but socialism was a nice idea and I have to admit that I subscribed. It painted a picture of a utopian world where people helped each other: a world where chiefs and priests and other exploiters could be replaced by equality, trust and mutual respect.

I'm sad that it doesn't exist any more. But hey, that's globalism for you. The USA has won! Their weapons were television, computer graphics, Hollywood and a predatory economic theory that appealed to that most basic of human instincts - greed! And their prize? It was Planet Earth.

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