As I keep track of the unfolding struggle over the FCC’s proposed creation of a corporate “fast lane” on the internet that would regulate non-corporate media to second class status online, I’m reminded of the film World on a Wire by Rainer Fassbinder, which I watched on DVD a couple of months ago. Despite being made way back in 1973, it struck me as being one of the most insightful commentaries on the current impasse we face in 2014. The fact that this could be the case shows that sweeping historical change, something that digital technology is supposed to serve as the prime current example of, is often more superficial than structural. The ephemera shift, but underlying power dynamics in society have a chameleon like staying power that brings to mind the French cliche, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Growing up, I associated TV movies with trashiness and sensationalism, even when they tried to tackle a serious social issue, such as the film The Day After, which came out when I was in middle school. Its portrayal of the aftermath of nuclear war hasn’t stood the test of time. I don’t think I’ve even read anything about it since it came out. World on a Wire was one of a few different films Fassbinder made for German television, including his epic opus Berlin Alexanderplatz, which I liked but not as much as this more obscure film. The fact that someone like Fassbinder could make both of those challenging films for TV in Germany shows that the relative absence of corporate media control over television in much of postwar Europe has tended to provide a forum for more substantial work than television in the US, especially before the advent of cable television.
Robert McChesney’s 1999 book Rich Media, Poor Democracy chronicles how there was a very conscious battle at the dawn of television technology over who would control the airwaves, corporations or the public. In the US, corporations won out, while he writes of the rise of the publicly funded CBC in Canada and the BBC in the UK as the better path not taken here in the states. The Clinton administrations’s passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 facilitated further consolidation of media conglomerates that continues to today, as proposed and fait accompli mergers between the likes of Comcast, NBC, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and DirecTV continue apace. The book’s publisher summarizes the author’s conclusions about the historical fallout of these political watershed moments as follows: “McChesney argues that the major beneficiaries of the so-called Information Age are wealthy investors, advertisers, and a handful of enormous media, computer, and telecommunications corporations. This concentrated corporate control, McChesney maintains, is disastrous for any notion of participatory democracy.”
This is all presented as fresh knowledge by the book’s publisher, but Fassbinder’s film had already captured this vector on film 26 years earlier. World on a Wire is a sci-fi ish feeling film of a dystopian future made in the early days of the digital age. It has a byzantine complexity to its plot and visual architecture that is both seductive and confusing – or even misleading. The sci-fi part of the film has to do with its plot lines about the programming of virtual reality. Much of what seems like the real world in the film is in fact a computer simulation created by the institute for cybernetics and future science, or IKZ according to the German acronym. This cybernetic ecosphere is populated by some 9,000 “identity units” who believe they are actual human beings. It is possible for individuals to transport their consciousness into this virtual world using the helmet pictured at right. In the beginning of the film, Henry Vollmer, the technical director of the simulation, goes insane and commits suicide after telling Guenther Lause, the institute’s Director of Security, that he has discovered a secret about the simulation that threatens to “destroy the whole world.” Lause himself disappears after informing Vollmer’s successor, Dr. Fred Stiller, (shown below,) about what Vollmer had told him. Stiller undertakes a kind of paranoid investigation of the grisly fates of Vollmer and Lause that makes him a target of his boss, IKZ executive Herbert Siskins, (pictured in the white tie and checkered jacket below. The bald man with a mustache beside Siskins helps him pursue Stiller after being appointed co-technical director of the IKZ.)
The conflict between Siskins and Stiller is not just about the suspicious death and disappearance of Stiller’s colleagues. Siskins also sees Stiller as a threat to his plans to use the company’s work to enrich powerful corporate interests, namely, the steel industry. Goverment officials are in on this and appear in Siskins’ office on several occasions. Agents of the press are trying to expose this partnership between these power structures, contributing to the dramatic action of the film. At one point, they ask Stiller who will benefit from the virtual world he is in charge of. “Everyone,” he say, “if it’s up to me.”
It’s tempting to spend the entire film trying to understand what is real and what is not, and to piece together the puzzle of the whodunnit side of the film. (This can lead one to feel as disoriented as Fred Stiller does in the above still from the film.) But I think Fassbinder intended to draw us in this direction in order to mirror the way we are caught up in the plot lines of a dizzying array of micro and macro narratives in the digital media age. Like Fassbinder’s complex plot, today’s narratives distract us from noticing underlying power structures that do not wish to call attention to themselves. Once examined, they are revealed to be both more straightforward and less novel than the play of surfaces and technological glitz that they are housed in.
In that respect, the film reminded me of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, whose 700+ page arc depicts the byzatine debris of World War 2 as a catalyst for the rise of multinational corporations like IG Farben that got up and running thanks to the massive industrial push to manufacture the weapons of modern warfare that took place on both sides of that conflict.
The perfect example of this is the way that the new technology is being used in the film to provide market research data to US Steel, the old school economy corporation par excellence. The “revolutionary” technology serves a very conservative agenda. It is used to further enrich traditional elites, who gain access to a new way to centralize the distribution and collection of information they use to manipulate public consciousness. This is the kind of programming that the sci-fi programming of “identity units” serves as a metaphor of in the film. It is reminiscent of the dictum of one of the Muzak corporation’s executives, who once said “We don’t sell music, we sell programming.”
Computer chips may not be implanted literally in our brains, but Photoshop and other computer graphics programs are used, for example, to alter our ideas about what a “normal” or “attractive” human body looks like. This contributes to the very real phenomenon of eating disorders around the world. Photoshop and its ilk can also be used to lighten and whiten the skin of people of color in digital media, reinforcing the racism that is the legacy of centuries of European colonialism while enriching cosmetics companies.
One of the most impressive aspects of World on a Wire is the way it shows how power dynamics of race and gender can thrive in the digital future, which has now become our present. Women appear in the film almost exclusively as secretaries to white male executives and directors like Siskins and Stiller. These female characters package a familiar mix of maternal support and sexual stimulation. They are frequently shot as almost still faces, conjuring up an imaginary presence that men can project their desires onto. Stiller tries to escape this dynamic by falling in love with Vollmer’s daughter. The conclusion of the film revolves around her facilitation of the virtual Stiller’s return to the “real” world, thanks to the role he discovers she plays as the contact between the two. While this is dramatized as an exit from the maze Stiller is trapped in, his blonde contact with the world outside the programmed realm gives birth to his non-programmed body in a way that continues the gender role playing that is present throughout the film. The mirrors in which we see her throughout the film raise the questions of whether we are really looking at a woman or a man’s constructed image of her.
The preponderance of mirrors and postmodern architecture throughout the film also give it a whiteness that is interrupted only twice by the appearance of black people in the film. In one of the scenes, black men and women are show dancing in a club on a floor that the white female character traverses as a sexual tourist rather than as a full participant. In the other, a black man cooks at a grill Stiller moves past as he attempts to escape his pursuers. In each scene, the black men wear no shirts, revealing hyper-buff torsos. The black women are also scantily clad in the dance scene. There is no place for these characters in the narrative. They have no names, and there is no explanation for why they appear. None of the white characters mention them. Even more than the women in the film, the black “characters” are not allowed to really speak or appear as themselves. They occupy the marginal roles usually assigned to them by classic Hollywood cinema – domestic servants and musical entertainers.
Food and music are often potent symbols of sexuality, and the shirtless black men in the film may be read as a familiarly sick appropriation of black bodies as projective screens for the sexuality that the cerebral world of corporate conspiracy and computer programming represses in order to cast a veneer of rationality over its dominating role in society. The Moroccan actor El Hedi ben Salem (who was also Fassbinder’s boyfriend at the time) is cast as a tough guy henchman in service of the sinister executive Herbert Siskins. He also remains nearly silent in the film, and plays a role that references Hollywood’s tendency to cast people of color as criminals.
All of this resonates with issues that have been raised about racism and sexism in the recent debate on net neutrality. Silicon Valley has never been known for its diversity. In March of this year, Jesse Jackson began to take on the issue by announcing he would attend Hewlett-Packard’s shareholder meeting to raise the issue. But the technology Silicon Valley supplies has provided an way for people of color and women to speak their mind without being censored by the kind of people who own NBC and Comcast. The bifurcation of the internet into fast and slow lanes based on access to capital has been analyzed by some as a way of marginalizing these voices once again. In a recent interview on The Real News Network, Jessica Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition notes that the internet has not been politically neutral even before the proposed FCC ruling on fast-lane access:
“Latinos and other people of color have long faced discrimination at the hands of mainstream media. What is exciting for us about the internet is that we are able to share our own stories fairly and accurately, to push back against discrimination, to organize our community for positive change, and even in many cases to earn a living. (But) nearly a million Americans, mostly black and brown people, have no broadband access at home. Latinos, the Latino community is one of the least connected communities. Just over 50 percent of Latinos in the U.S. have broadband internet access at home. That number drops to 38 percent for Spanish speakers. It’s a digital divide that is creating further barriers for some of our most disenfranchised communities to get equal access to education, to job applications, to healthcare, to civic engagement opportunities, and to get informed and communicate with their family and friends.”
“And so it’s vitally important that the FCC … not only ensure equality and network neutrality on the internet, but also expand federal policies that help make broadband more affordable. There are a variety of options that they can pursue to help make broadband more affordable so that our communities start getting more and more connected. We have some of the most expensive and slowest internet in the international community.”
In a recent interview on Democracy Now, Astrid Taylor responded to a question about the article Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet by saying that author “Amanda Hess did a fantastic job of challenging the myth that we would all be able to transcend our bodies, our real-world identities, and go be whoever we wanted to be on the Internet, and the best would inevitably rise to the top. [She told] a personal story that was pretty dark and scary. But she’s not alone. There are so many women in the last few months who have come forward with similar tales of discrimination and harassment. And it’s not just anecdotal. I quote a study in one of the chapters that if you use a female user name online, then you get 25 times the harassing messages of a gender-neutral screen name.”
Hess’s piece tells us that “off the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.” Her article looks at the challenges associated with passing new civil rights legislation to protect women and others from bias driven online abuse. “The Internet is not a school or a workplace,” she writes, “but a vast and diffuse universe that often lacks any clear locus of accountability.”
It’s that very lack of accountability in a vast and diffuse virtual universe that World on a Wire captures so well, so early. Despite all its diffuse play of mirrors and complex plot twists, it redirects our attention to how racism, sexism, and corporate capitalism thrive by hiding in the weeds of cyberspace. The FCC is taking public comments on the proposed new fast-lane regulations in the coming weeks. It remains to be seen how much they will listen to them. It’s current chairman, Tom Wheeler, is a classic case of the revolving door between industry executives and government positions that write the regulations that effect their former (and future) employers. It is typical of the the Obama administration and the Democratic party to fail to protect the interests of its base by making such an appointment.