Blind Faith: The Individual and Vertical Integration

Blind-Faith

 

Within Mark Deuze’s book, Media Work in the Digital Age, there seems to be an almost blind faith in the structural changes that are taking place within the creative industries, especially with regard to how individual workers, producers, and consumers ought to be understood within the larger context of the global economy, the creative industries, and societies (networked or otherwise). We are reminded that “there are many more people wanting to work in [creative] industries than there are jobs available, and most of them are willing or forced to accept below-average salaries, contingent wages, and temporary contractual arrangements without benefits or any kind of guarantees for future employment”.

The precarious nature of employment within the creative industries forces us to ask the question: who is really benefiting from these new changes in Designer-Jeansbusiness management, labor markets, and the global market economy? Some contributors within the book seem to argue that it is indeed the individual that will be reaping the benefits of this increasingly deregulated world of consumers and producers. Deuze links changes in how citizens approach political life to how we may understand today’s individual as a consumer and citizen (or citizen-consumer). In both arenas, he argues, the individual is able to “shop” around for the “perfect pair of jeans”, whether those be actual jeans or particular social justice issues that a particular individual deems relevant within their own life.

Yet this understanding of how the individual interacts with the world around them glosses over the enormous contradiction of the effects of vertical integration on the life of the individual. We no longer are aware of where our products actually come from. To take a short break in the rhetoric, I would like to quote from one of my favorite television shows, Archer. During one episode, one of the characters, Cheryl (or Carol), a trust-fund baby, describes the invisible threads of vertical integration when she responds to a statement about how she owns a resort hotel:

uG7EjpI

 

“I think I just own the conglomerate that owns the holding company that owns the hotel chain that owns it.”

 

 

Turning back to the reading, I would like to refer to Manuel Castells definition of a network society as “[one] where the organizational arrangements of humans in relation to such crucial everyday life-issues as production, consumption and experience are made of networks”(Deuze, 16-17). We may, indeed, be a “cog in the machine”, but who is running the machine? Who owns the machine?? Contrasted with Cheryl/Carol’s summary of her ownership, this definition raises questions about what a ‘network’ can be. Are networks as simple and egalitarian as the network model of the Internet or can they also imply something more sinister? Do networks actually work as support systems for the individuals that comprise them or can they also work against the individual? Although an individual may be a member of a variety of networks, this increased dissemination of control and therefore responsibility from traditional structures to newly envisioned global networks created through the improvements in communication technologies creates precarious risk, a risk which the individual is expected to absorb.

Considering the potential production chain that would be responsible for producing that ‘perfect pair of jeans’ that Deuze’s citizen-consumer is looking for. (For the sake of ease, let’s lose the metaphor and just think about actual designer jeans). These jeans are most likely a product of outsourced labor, whose design has been overseen by creative workers in order to sell a particular image. This image is then completed when an individual consumer purchases and then wears this product. We are reminded early on in his book that marketing a product in this new form of emerging capitalism is reliant on the use of “signs and symbols – designer jeans and limited edition DVDs…”. Consumer-reliant industries are re-purposing creative labor in order to trick “flawed consumers”, people who are unable to ignore the shiny lights and friendly invitations of products that carry brands and logos that are designed to inspire feelings of individuality and independence.

iphone5c-header

Consider the iPhone 5C, for example. It comes in your choice of five colors! How inspiringly individual! And yet, when I continued my cell phone contract with AT&T, I literally bought into this idea of expressing my individuality through my consumption. I got the phone in yellow because that was a color I assumed would be one of the least popular (I wanted my purchase to stand out).

 

This highlights one of my main concerns about living within the society that Deuze describes: we can’t help but participate. Unless we literally choose to farm our own food, make our own clothes, and ‘go off the grid’, we cannot escape the networks that comprise the world we live in. If we purchase, we participate. However, we may not always (or ever) know who we are purchasing from. The conglomerate erases the individual, sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally. We don’t know the names of the people behind creative work, we only know the companies that employed them.

To conclude with a real life example of how large conglomeration can take advantage not only of individual consumption but also of creative work with no benefit returning to the individual. I would like to refer to the story of the original video game Easter Egg. It was included within the Atari game, Adventure, which debuted in 1979.200px-Adventure_Box_Front Back then, video games were simple enough to only require a single programmer. In the case of Adventure, it was Warren Robinett. When Robinett requested that Atari credit him within the game, he was refused. This was his intellectual property, he wrote the game and yet Atari took credit. Robinett may have written the game, but Atari owned his intellectual property. So Robinett responded by writing in a secret room in the game, where there was a single dot, which would display Robinett’s name when the player moved their character over it. Many other individual programmers followed suit, creating their own Easter eggs, undermining the grip of their corporate owners, and getting (some) credit for their creative efforts.

This is an excellent microcosmic example of how the individual interacts with the conglomerate, with the corporation. The individual may be initially overpowered by raw power and control conglomerates possess, but the harder they try to tighten their grasp, the more chances the individual will have to effect their own change. Robinett paved the way for programmers to get the credit they deserve and nowadays, every programmer is credited within the end credits of a game. So too, must we take a page from Robinett: we cannot simply stop participating, but we must make efforts to effect change, however small, through the very act of participation, whether that takes place through consumption or creation.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: