Thoughts on Adorno and the Internet

by Moya K. Mason

I was reading about a new study wherein the researchers went into a Vancouver library for a few weeks and observed those who used the web, later asking them a series of questions about their experience. They were trying to find out if they were using the web for Utopian/furtherance of democracy purposes. They found that the majority are using it for entertainment: email, chat rooms, gaming, porn, etc. They were using it for 'mindless entertainment' or as Adorno would likely amuse themselves.

Horkheimer and Adorno
Horkheimer and Adorno

Overall, the biggest concern Adorno and Horkheimer had was with the fusion between the culture industry and mindless entertainment. Amusement is specific to the twentieth century mass cultural industry and is simply another part of the cycle of routinization. They believed mass art was based on "a medicinal bath"(1) of amusement and laughter, rather than on transcendence or happiness. The great perversion had taken place: people were amused and liberated from the need to think and their laughter affirmed existing society.

It made me think about e-commerce on the rise and all those mega corporations who seem to be buying up the web and trying their best to control it. When there is money to be made, when economic aspects of media culture become entrenched, then more controls will be instituted because there is more at stake. The web is just another piece of the media pie now and when I read about how it is likely that the huge television networks in the States fear their demise and are therefore moving more into the online realm, it concerns me.

Since late 1996, there has been an increase in the advertisement side of things: pop-up windows, etc. When I was in library school, a couple of the profs kept pushing the whole catalogue the web thing, wanting to make it stream-lined, cleaned up (to whose specifications, I ask), and easy to navigate, like a linear menu of sorts. I could never see why anyone would want to take this beautiful, chaotic place where so many voices can be heard, where chaos can run free and where the individual can find a niche, and make it into some kind of sterilized OPAC with shopping thrown in for good measure.

Monopoly ownership of the media by corporations, and all that that entails, with the vast power of these conglomerates, translates into political power, and uniformity of perspective. Ownership of most of United State's more than 1,000 daily newspapers by 11 corporations has to have an effect on the democratic process. I think the web is going the way of the newspapers and broadcast avenues and we must fight thay...if we can, because if not, where will we find the germ of resistance and a place to be autonomous individuals? How can we stop the undermining of the democratic process with the increase in monopolization and market concentration that characterizes a maturing capitalism? How can the Internet fulfill its utopian promise as a tool of empowerment when all this is going on? I don't think people realize. Adorno would say we have already been swept away by the amusement of it all. I say that perhaps that will be the most important niche for virtual communities: a last hold out from the commodification of media culture, a place of resistance and autonomy and self-empowerment. A place where we have a chance of seeing reality for what it is, so that we can refuse to accept the present and try to change the future. That is Adorno's Utopian vision, and mine.

Adorno and Horkheimer saw the culture industry as one that no longer tolerated autonomous thought or deviation to any degree because of the economic necessity for rapid return of capital investment. More than that, mass culture does not question the society it exists in and instead, continually "confirms the validity of the system."(2) Adorno and Horkheimer saw how acceptance and reaction were permeating more and more spheres of life, and how the culture of mass society with its corporate rather than aesthetic ideology eroded cultural standards in order to quell any forms of expression which might contest the given order, producing less freedom, less individuality, and ultimately, less happiness. Their primary concern was the transformation of society, for the continuance of civilized humanity. They envisioned democracy and freedom to choose diverging paths, but they found that "freedom to choose an ideology proved only to be freedom to choose what is always the same."(3) For them, autonomy allows a conception of a different world and communicates the possibility that reason can penetrate existing barriers, allowing some to take a stance against modern culture to give the world a new direction, with a hope for the liberation of the human spirit.

Their critique of mass culture is quite complex and was based on the belief that culture had become a form of domination, that the culture industry operates to diffuse oppositional consciousness, and individualism. For them, the industry was selling a package of ideas and beliefs so that people no longer had to think since "the product prescribes every reaction by signals."(4) It is characterized by a pervasive manipulation of the consumer whose intellectual capacity is continually underestimated. There is simply a profusion of sameness and repetition by using sets of interchangeable details, sweeping away all particularity and flattening out anything distinct, changing the nature of society as well as the way we perceive reality. One of the conclusions of the Frankfurt School was that the consumer society encouraged social and political apathy.

As an aside, I will say that to build a democratic culture in a society based on a system that remains fundamentally anti-democratic, we need to keep in mind the distance that exists between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' and remember that for now, cyberspace's little communities are isolated agoras for the privileged few, and the web, in general, something not available to everyone. We must ask ourselves if it is a space within which to impact public policy? Adorno would say no, because he relied on artistic and cultural expressions as the places where resistance could find a safe harbour. Adorno spent his life advocating rebellion through artistic expression. However, he just might like the thought of what virtual communities may end up being and doing. That could happen if we can keep some of them far from a corporate mentality. There must be a desire to resist adapting our modes of self-expression to conform to regulations and standards set by corps.

Related Papers

Theodor Adorno's Theory of Music and its Social Implications
Adorno: World of Art and What is at Stake
Herbert Marcuse: Evolution and Transformation of Individuality and Reason


1Adorno and Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, p. 127.

2Ibid., p. 129.

3Ibid., p. 167.

4Ibid., p. 137.

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