January 25th, 2010 by Tim Greenhalgh
Would you turn the clock back? To a more simple, one-way age without the Internet? Not many hands showing there…
For all its faults, catalogued by Aleks Krotoski in her illuminating Observer article this week, the Internet has become the defining cultural force, with a power dwarfing the traditional means of communication.
Aleks, whose long-term research into online culture has given birth to a four-part series – The Virtual Revolution (starting Saturday 30th, BBC 2 8.30pm) – recognises the flaws while celebrating the benefits of our connected present. I, for one, can’t wait to see the series.
Her fears around issues of online privacy and the commercially-driven narrowing of personal horizons are matched by her ambivalence towards a technology that can be appropriated both for progressive ends and at the same time by repressive governments and extremist propaganda.
Her telling point that the Web – although we can extend that to the global meshwork – is “simply a reflection of who we already are offline” gives us pause. We do things differently now because the means are available to communicate in different ways – changing ourselves is a little more complex.
Aleks’ words found a resonant echo in another incisive weekend article by Naomi Klein. From her vantage point on No Logo hill, Naomi surveys the rebranded United States and urges us to be vigilant in our online and offline lives.
Her passionate dissection of the Obama brand in The Guardian Review – and what that means for our political future – reveals the excruciating tension at the heart of the culture of governance. We’re in danger of accepting the superficial glamour of personal political branding at the expense of challenging and debating the complex underlying systems.
This political rebranding is still in its infancy in the UK and we’re unlikely to see the country morphed in a similar way before the election – or indeed to witness an online-engineered transformation of the party leaders Gordon Brown, David Cameron or Nick Clegg.
But Naomi shows how the moonling Bush was dissolved by the extraordinary marketing machine that Obama engineered and, because we have embraced the American way of political campaigning, there is no reason to assume that rebranding of leaders and country is impossible.
As Aleks suggests, we are all in the process of recreating the world and this is reflected online. What each of us thinks and does has a profound effect on how the future is shaped – the meshwork functions at our command. Right now, by investigating beyond the distractions and distortions of brand culture, we can engage and change.
We can also believe more in the power of the meshwork to be an honest reflection of our true needs and desires. What both Aleks and Naomi intimate is that we can define the discourse and put pressure on every brand to engage more honestly with us – the dusting of glamour is wearing thinner – we naturally want substance that matches our dreams.