Screenshot of “1984” by Steve Hayden, Brent Thomas and Lee Clow at Chiat/Day, Venice. Produced by Fairbanks Films, and directed by Ridley Scott.

The Failure of the Digital Revolution

Over 30 years ago, Americans were told on a commercial break during the Super Bowl that the Macintosh was the reason the real 1984 wouldn’t be like Orwell’s 1984. The ad (I know you’ve seen it): men and women march in uniform, presumably conformist in mind as well as body. They sit side by side, rapt and staring at the talking head of Big Brother. Between them runs a woman in orange shorts; her ass, the brightest color on the screen. She carries a sledgehammer. She swings. The sledgehammer flies through the air and Big Brother explodes into blinding light. The people stare, aghast.

The idea was a plausible one: personal computing would give people the ability to create, live, and work on their own terms. To have a personal computer was to have the analytical power once monopolized by large institutions and corporations now available in the corner of your kitchen, bedroom, living room, or office. And the internet brought with it a similar mythos, this time about the free exchange of ideas and information.

But we are past those utopian ideals. The unexpectedly prescient part of that seminal ad was actually the dropped jaws, the shocked faces, the flinching eyes. We may have the freedom to create, but the audience of the things we create is still constricted by the taste of the market. Everyone is trying to catch the attention of the large media players, be they cable channels or online media empires, and winning is measured the same as it ever was: endorsements, write-ups, ads, syndication, the talk circuit. I suppose there is this new marker of success: multiplatform exposure. The internet turned out to be less of a revolution and more of a utility.

As a culture, we may have unprecedented access to information of all kinds, including news stories, literature, photographs, videos, libraries — the list goes on — but we have not become better for it. Perhaps because we are overwhelmed by our power, perhaps because we have not learned a way to filter the stream of this all-access future without deploying our pre-existing prejudices, we have used our new technologies simply to replicate our existing power structures, values, communities, nation-states, and allegiances. It turns out Tweets are just public telegrams, email chains are disorganized files of letters, and Facebook is the new party line with a direct link to the newsroom. The early ideals of free information exchange have been coopted by technocratic feudalists, who have convinced the market that nothing is as valuable as ad space, and music, content, art and apps are just fishing lures for the blankly consuming masses.

Instead of feeling empowered by our new tools and ability, we are adrift and alienated. A cultural constriction is taking place. Fundamentalism — in politics, in religion — is thriving. People cling desperately to the familiar and turn away from the possible. Turning and turning into the widening gyre — no one wants to get lost in the crowd, but few are willing to turn away from the screen, let alone destroy it.

What will be next? Have you wondered? On any given Wednesday, it feels like we have entered the NeoDark Ages. Instead of drawing and quartering the enemies of the crown, our police forces shoot the innocent unwanted. Our so-called democratic election is the stuff of rebooted Hollywood classics: pick The Manchurian Candidate, choose Citizen Kane, pick Bulworth, choose A Face in the Crowd. Governance as spectacle, power as capital. The meritocracy never was. Now confronted with that reality, we become the fist grasping at sand. We look in the mirror, and come undone.