When I talk about or write literary critique, the most common response is not ‘wow, that’s interesting’, but ‘you’re mad’, or ‘what the hell are you talking about’. That’s more or less what happened last year when I embarked on a joint writing project to pick apart the political and cultural references in the once popular TV series The West Wing. In this venture, it was like my confederate and I were watching completely different episodes.
The reason for such diversity of explanation is that I was trained in Western literary critique as part of my undergraduate degree, and I worked for a time as a journalist, in which that training paid off. It may strike many people as unnecessary or contrived to read meanings beyond the literal or pedestrian interpretations, but it is unavoidable that artists and writers, even script-writers for TV shows, often do know some literary or cultural theory, and embed messages in their scripts that are lost without some similar knowledge in their audiences.
It was to be a meeting with an old colleague, in old stomping grounds, but it turned into a reflection on the paths by which people become alienated from each other, and even from themselves. Along the way it also turned into a recognition of missed opportunity for something genuinely human, because no meeting ever took place.
I last saw Laurent seven years ago, when we both worked at Elysian Fields. He had been my divisional chief before he was encouraged to leave the corporation because neither his ambitions nor function were required any longer. I lasted some more months before being deposed by the less noble but more profitable artifice of redundancy.
He moved on to greener pastures, with a smaller company based in West End, which is where I lived at that time, and with which I was in love as the ambient territory of more than a decade’s experiences that included triumphs and desperation enough to make for a melodramatic TV series.
That day, though, Laurent and I were to ‘catch up’ over coffee at a local café. He chose the place and the time. I confirmed it with him just a couple of hours before the appointed time.
Looking at media coverage of Edward Snowden’s allegations, what is surprising is not their content, but that we are shocked by the close links between Silicon Valley companies and state intelligence agencies. Our dismay suggests that we have credulously accepted the fairy-tale reporting of firms like Facebook and Google as ‘tech’ or ‘social media’ outfits rather than seeing them for what they really are: intelligence gathering, manipulation and sales corporations.
Using Google as our example here, let’s have a closer look at why we have deluded ourselves about what to expect from it.
Google is no more a technology company than auto manufacturers, pharmaceutical corporations, or food conglomerates. The latter all use and develop technology too, but we name them according to their products and services, not the tools they use to develop and sell them.
In a disciplined process of analysis we might question other assumptions too. The word ‘users’, for example, is far too neutral about the relationship between the corporation and us. We are actually more akin to patrons who frequent a ‘market’ where we purchase third party goods and services either directly or indirectly through the influence of advertising. Goodies like email, office software, and online chatting facilities are not really products so much as the enticement to turn up.