From One Reality to Alternative Realities
As America becomes more divided than it has ever been, two versions of reality increasingly permeate the nation. Politicians and party politics take much of the blame for this division, but the real cause might be closer to the broad societal movement from mass culture to segmented culture, from mass marketing to segmented marketing. The movement can be tracked by its close association with capitalism and its communications method of marketing and advertising.
The modern era of capitalism developed in the early part of the 20th century with the mass production of automobiles and military weapons demanded by WWI. In order to sell cars and war to Americans, modern methods of propaganda were developed in the mass communication techniques of Edward Bernays. The years from the 20s to 60s continued to develop mass communication as the stepchild of a mass culture of mass production and consumption.
There certainly were divisions within the culture doing this period of time but mass communication was far more powerful in dominating these divisions and creating one general version of reality. This one version of reality was both created and reinforced by national publications like Life and Time magazines and national broadcasting of the three major television networks of ABC, CBS and NBC.
The world was not defined by competing news and views of reality like it is today. Rather, it was defined by an was American broadcast journalist who served as anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years (1962–1981) who was often cited as “the most trusted man in America.” Walter Cronkite reported many historic world events from 1937 to 1981 and in the 60s and 70s, the daily news was defined by the calm, soothing voice Cronkite at the end of his broadcast with his statement “And that’s the way it is.” It was some news one could take to the bank.
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Starting in the 70s, mass culture began to break up into a segmented culture. There appeared more niche publications and communications media. Broadcast television dominated by three networks found competition in cable networks like CNN. The 70s – 90s brought in the era of segmentation into marketing. Marketing segmentation became the method of the new type of marketing called direct marketing replacing mass marketing. Much of the data for direct marketing was acquired from subscribers to particular publications. There developed huge directories of direct mail lists gained mostly from publication and broadcast data. The directories were the bibles of media buyers in advertising firms.
Direct marketers attempted to reach their markets directly through the mail rather than space ads or commercials in national, mass media. The early years of direct marketing were based on basic demographic data like age, sex, income, employment and location. In the 80s and 90s, psychographic and lifestyle data was mixed with demographic data for a more sophisticated form of direct marketing.
By the beginning years of the 21st century, the growth of the Internet and digital culture marked the final end of mass culture. This end can be related to the beginning of a new super segmentation of the market by Internet companies like Google and Facebook. Super segmentation was based on the ability to capture far more actions and behaviors of people in cyberspace than in physical space. The new super segmentation ushered in an era of capitalism based on surveillance of digital actions. Harvard Business School’s Shoshona Zuboff labels this new economic system “surveillance capitalism” in her important 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, a new mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to use tech for its purposes. It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behavior of those users in astonishing detail, most often without their explicit consent.
As Zuboff writes, “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior.”
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The age of the super segmentation based on surveillance capitalism has created the greatest individualized niche products in history. Grocery stores carry an average of 30,000 products and cable networks have hundreds of stations. Now, people can find products created exclusively for their own needs.
While there are advantages of products made for individuals rather than mass culture, there are some major disadvantages that far outweigh these advantages. For example, consider the academic world and there becomes more and more knowledge about smaller and smaller things. One famous writer once lamented he gave up writing for a period of time because there was an overproduction that apparently could not be consumed. Professors become more specialized within subjects. Surveillance capitalism works hand in hand with the concept of branding and product differentiation. In this sense, there is less brand value in consolidation than in differentiation. In fact, interdisciplinary academics and departments do not provide the best path to tenure at universities. The result of segmentation in the academic world translates into the segmentation of knowledge and information in our everyday world.
Or consider the screenwriting industry of Hollywood. Never has there been more ideas on what film structure should look like. There are gurus based around three-act, five-act structure, eight-act, thirteen-step, fifteen-step and twenty-two-step screenplay structure. New structures continue to be developed each year. Like other products, screenwriting is based around differentiated one’s brand and structure has become one of the grand definers of a screenwriting brand. In effect, certain screenwriting gurus own the number of steps in film structure. There have been little attempts to find commonalities between screenplay structures and consolidate these into new structures. Branding is about differentiation not consolidation. Screenwriting gurus produce expensive seminars and preach their brands to their audiences.
One might consider the inability of screenwriting to settle on a general structure today of little importance in the grand scheme of things. Yet it has more importance than one might think in that it creates a confusion that hoers in the background of modern storytelling. The confusion effects the drama of grand narratives told in culture.
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Many can think of other instances of segmentation from modern surveillance capitalism. However, the greatest effect of segmentation is on that product called news. The greatest walls in the world do not exist between nations but between people because of the segmented versions of reality they receive from their digital actions. While politicians and party politics are most often blamed for divisions of Americans, the true culprit is the insultation of digital citizens in the walled silos created by their own cyber actions.
In effect, the predicament of today’s divided nation on the verge of civil war might be a result of the evolution from a mass market capitalism to a super segmented surveillance capitalism. Attention is directed at politics as a way to solve this problem. But it might be related to the growth of cycles from their birth in equality and growth in freedom. It might find relatives in evolutionary biology and the theories of Darwin.
America was founded at the paradoxical intersection of the two grand symbols of feminine equality and masculine freedom. Its history has shown a continuing drive to unite them. Yet the drive towards unity in many ways goes against laws of evolution and the growth from simple to complex organisms.
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The first “act” of America’s history was defined as the birth and growth of a united, simplified organic nation. This growth was echoed in a mass culture defined by mass production, consumption and communication. The ending of this period was presided over by Walter Cronkite, “The most trusted man in America.”
We’re in the second act of this history where growth has led to diversity and segmentation. Yes, this segmentation is partly created through the voices and actions of people. But perhaps more than we realize through the growth of the grand cycle of life from simplicity to complexity. From the simple, one view of the news, to alternative views of the news. From one reality to alternative realities.
Some might conclude that one person can never again gain the trust of the entire nation because of the segmentation of news. But others might see that a person trusted by all might still be possible. He or she might be that person able to find new commonalities when others simply find more differentiated brands.
John Fraim has been writing about media and symbolism for many years. He has published many articles on Jungian sites and publications. His book Battle of Symbols (Daimon Verlag, Zurch) discusses global symbolism.