I Remember Socialism
with apologies to the late Stanley Kubrick
How I learned to stop worrying and love the USA
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
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
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
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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