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Opium of the 21st Century

by DAVID ROSEN

We all know Marx’s famous line, “Religion is the opium of the people.”  However, his full reflection is more insightful and helpful understanding today’s postmodern “opium.”

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Religion has given way to telecommunications, a new belief system — a condition which needs illusions.  Telecom offers the every-person, the consumer, proof of a life anchored in the certainties of postmodern progress.  It’s today’s unacknowledged postmodern religion.

In the U.S., content is the opium of the 21st century telecom user.  It’s so seductive that one ignores the fundamental weaknesses of the underlying networks that make it all possible.  More troubling, it effectively hides the political system – dare we say, “corruption” — that makes it all work.  Whether delivered online via a TV or PC or via a wireless device like a smartphone, tablet or laptop, we are being seduced into a great digital stupor.

Content, broadly speaking, includes all forms of digital communications programming, from voice calls and emails, websites visits and searches, videogames and streaming video downloads, social networking hookups and commercial transactions to everything else one engages in digitally.

The seductive appeal of so much varied and exciting content leads most people to ignore the pathetic state of the nation’s communications infrastructure.  According to November 2012 data from Akamai, an Internet tech company, only 62 percent of the nation had “broadband” and the U.S. ranked 15th in the world in terms of data speed – behind South Korea and Romania.

The digital-opium delusion promoted by 21st century content gluttony is the inability to recognize that the media, the digital high, could be ever better, richer, more robust and a lot cheaper.  U.S. telecom consumers are paying more for inferior service than any advanced nation in the world.

Most troubling, to the extent that the opium of this new religion could serve the nation and not just corporate greed, a true 21st century network would help the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness and people’s standard of living.  Unfortunately, a true 21st century telecom network does not now operate in the U.S.  The self-serving greed of the telecom industry has made the U.S. a 2nd rate technology country.  The true opium of content is that so few care.

* * *

Digital communications is a defining aspect of early-21st century life.  A century ago, the analog signal added a new, transformative, dimension to human experience.  19th century forms of communications consisted of live presentations and print publications.  They were augmented, superseded, by electronic analog technology and media that define the 20th century.

During the 20th century, the communications media changed social relations and consciousness itself.  It was a century of new analog media: the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877), the radio (1910), the movie (1894), the television (1939) and finally videotape (1975).

Cumulatively, these new media helped fashion a new communication experience, a new mode of human perception, of knowing.  Together, the analog media transformed human experience.  They also set the stage for the first generation of the digital communications media.  Officially, the world went “digital” with the ENIAC computer in 1946 and, four decades later, IBM’s personal computer in 1981.  Today, the analog era is over, other than among music cultists.  All media communications is digital, a series of 0s and 1s.

Together, technology and media fashion for each era a new, appropriate sensibility.  The analog media of the 20th century fashioned a sensibility based on two precepts: first, increase the sense of experience at a distance and, over the century, intensify the fracturing of reflection.  Today, it’s all digital, everywhere, all the time.  Impulsive eye-finger coordination tied to a keyboard is replacing deliberative reflection as the mode of interpersonal, social discourse.

Today, the digital communications media are ubiquitous.  They are the enabling technology of globalization, tying people however far away ever closer together.  They played a critical role first, in 2009, in Iran’s electoral uprising and then, starting in 2010, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain.  Smartphones, really personal computing-communication devices, are empowering technologies.

These technologies facilitate voice communications, texting and “IM” or instant messaging as well as photo- and-video capture and transmission functions.  Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter combined with Googe’s search and YouTube videos helped refashion the experience of postmodern communications.

From a “broadcast” model of “one-to-many” that defined 20th century media technology (and still defines cable TV), the 21st century’s switched-digital signal enables a “one-to-one-to-many-to-one” model of communications connectivity.

Few Americans can live without their digital communications media.  A topline overview of U.S. telecom usage suggests the scope of our “addiction” to the new opium of the telecom masses.

 TV viewing

In 2012, Nielsen estimated that for 2011 there were 114.1 million TV households in the U.S. with 289.2 million people living in these homes.  They each watched 153 hours and 19 minutes of “traditional TV” a year — TV viewed on a set watching “content” either live, via a digital video recorder or via a video-on-demand service rather than a computer or a tablet.

A second indication of video content viewing is suggested by comScore, a leading Internet analysis firm.  It found that, in December 2012, 182 million U.S. Internet users watched nearly 39 billion online videos.  It estimates that over 85 percent of these users viewed online video in December.

According to YouTube, it gets over 800 million unique visit each month and over 4 billion hours of video are watched each month; comScore found that in November 2012, 12 billion videos were viewed on all Google sites.  And pay-per-view, video-on-demand, streaming and photo websites has made porn a $15 billion business.

 Telephone calls

The telephone call is undergoing structural realignment, with the old-fashioned wireline phone giving way to wireless devices, whether a cell- or smart-phone.  FCC data from 2011 estimated that there were 146 million wireline “retail local telephone service connections” of which 84 million (or 58%) were residential, 62 million (or 42%) were business connections; it also found that that there were 34 million interconnected VoIP or Internet telephone subscribers.  Most consequential, from 2005 to 2010, landline-only homes dropped from 34.4 percent to 12.9 percent of phone users.

 Mobile device usage

Pew Research found that in December 2012, 87 percent of American adults had a cell phone and 45 percent had a smartphone.  Most illuminating, it analyzed how people used their “smart” mobile computing and communications device and found the following: 79% text, 55% go online to browse the Internet, exchange emails or download apps, 44% record videos and 29% do online banking.

The number of “apps” available through the Apple iTunes Store suggests the scale and diversity of smartphone usage.  In January 2013, according 148Apps.biz, a tracking service, iTunes offered 786,903 downloadable apps, including “apps” (654,913) and “games” (131,990).  Nearly anything one wants to connect to is available through the iPhone and iPad.

 Social networking

According to Nielsen, Americans spent 121 billion minutes on social networking sites between July 2011 and July 2012, up from 88 billion the previous year.  Apps captured a large portion of those minutes, accounting for a third of overall social networking time.  According to one estimate, in the U.S. as of 2012, Facebook had 163 million subscribers and Twitter had 108 million subscribers.

 Online shopping

Among Americans who go online, 83 percent make a purchase.  According to one research firm, during the decade of 2002 to 2011, e-commerce sales jumped more than three-fold from $72 billion to $256 billion.  Over half ($162 billion) of online purchasing goes for retail shopping, while another third is for travel-related purchases.

Videogames

About two-thirds (63%) of Americans, 211.5 million people, play videogames.  According to market research firm, NPD, they fall into two categories, gamers who play console games like the Xbox or Wii and gamers who play mobile and digital (online) games.  Console games make up over half of gamers, but are eroding as new technologies change the gaming experience; mobile gamers account for 22 percent of gamers, while digital gamers make up 16 percent.  Console gamers, however, spend the most money on games — $65 on physical games.

Digital communications media saturates postmodern life.

* * *

The 21st century digital communications media are a powerful social force and, like similar transformative technologies of the past (i.e., electricity, analog communications media), they play both a repressive and a liberatory role.

Sharing some of the political upsurge that took place in North African, Pew found that nearly two-fifths (39%) of American adults using social networking have engaged in civic or political activities.  They have ranged from finding their “voice” and posting their thoughts about civic and political issues, to reacting to others’ postings, to pressing friends to political actions and to voting.

The seductive appeal of so much varied and exciting content leads most people to ignore the pathetic state of the nation’s communications infrastructure.  In November 2012, less than two-thirds (62%) of the nation has “broadband” and the U.S. ranked 15th in the world in terms of data speed.

By analogy, people regard the communications infrastructure like they do their electric service.  One flips a switch and the electric lights go on and we make dinner, go online, watch TV – and one never really thinks about the electric grid.

That’s how most American’s think about their telecom services:  we use them, we grouse about poor service, we know we’re being over-charged, yet we grudgingly pay our bill every month.  And we have to; telecom is an essential part of postmodern life.

One rarely thinks about the telecom infrastructure.  Unless, of course, one’s caught in a natural disaster, like Sandy, and you loose both electric and phone services.  Then one gets a glimpse of just how 2nd-rate the American telecom system really is.

Pew found custom satisfaction pretty pathetic.  Among smartphone Internet users: 77% experienced slow download speeds and 69% who texted got unwanted spam or text messages.

So, enjoy the content.  Like global warming, the telecom crisis is easily ignored until it’s too late.  And it just might be.

David Rosen writes the blog, Media Current, for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to CounterPunch, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

CounterPunch Magazine

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