New Perspectives Quarterly, 22 Sep 1995
The making of McWorld. (interview with Benjamin Barber)

NPQ / You have written of your worry that the media-merger frenzy in recent years will end up flattening cultures around the planet into a globally homogenized "McWorld."

Now, Disney and ABC as well as Time Warner and CNN have merged into the world's largest media conglomerates. Does this further your concern that culture on a global scale will be cast in the image of Mickey Mouse? Or will the opposite occur - not a McWorld of planetized entertainment produced out of Hollywood, but a new diversity that arises because boring old oligopoly just doesn't satisfy, especially in the cultural realm?

BENJAMIN BARBER / There will be an appearance of diversity, in my view, that is likely to be illusory in the long term. The experts have all suggested that the multiplication of broadcast spectra and delivery systems as well as the multiplication of cable channels and optic fiber wiring will create a powerful impetus for diversification. I think what we are going to see instead is more messengers and fewer messages.

The real impact of these vertical integration mergers is going to be the gradual homogenization of culture on a planetary scale and the choking off of difference. This will not come as a result of overt censorship, tyranny or even the monopolistic intent of a small group of media owners, but rather as a consequence of market forces that tend to give popular majoritarian culture the edge. Imitation and competition for that majoritarian market will squeeze out anything too innovative or different.

One may well answer that my concern is misplaced, that human beings are remarkably resilient in spirit and will resist such leveling in the end. After all, people weathered 70 years of totalitarianism under the Soviet regime which was supposed to extinguish all capacity for spontaneity and originality. Yet, they re-emerged powerfully with the human spirit intact.

Will the same thing happen in McWorld? As you suggest, will people tire and even rebel out of boredom against too much Disney? That is always possible. But what worries me is that the soft forms of tyranny built into the globalization of a single culture are much harder to resist because they are so much more comfortable.

By contrast, the censorious presence of the hard totalitarian state often provoked the very spontaneity and originality it was trying to censor. Jean-Paul Sartre once remarked, for example, that "we were never so free as under the Nazi occupation." I doubt that someone a hundred years from now will say "we were never so free as under the Disney colonization of global culture."

NPQ / What you say echoes the worries set out decades ago by Herbert Marcuse in his book, One Dimensional Man and in his formulation of "repressive tolerance" - the seduction of total tolerance in mass consumer societies that leads to an appearance of difference but masks the essential reality of broad social conformity.

BARBER / That book looked foolish in the 1970s and 1980s. Today it looks prescient. Like all true prophets, Marcuse wasn't ten years ahead of his time, but 30 years ahead.

NPQ / You talk about "Disney colonization." Isn't it more than that? I can hardly go out and buy a pillowcase and some sheets or a T-shirt for my kids without some Disney emblem on it. We are continually propagandized, assaulted really, by the perpetual hype whenever a major new film comes out. Unless you are a hermit, you can't help bumping into Pocahantas or the Lion King. Isn't this something akin to totalitarianism? Stalin may have been more omnipotent; surely Mickey Mouse is more omnipresent.

BARBER / Not totalitarian, but, let's say "totalistic," or permeating, like a very shallow but extensive flood tide that seeps into everything. It doesn't seem deep or disastrous at the time, but then we find that mud is absolutely everywhere; everything is wet.

I have that feeling about McWorld's culture. It finds its way in, seeping through everywhere. People think they have sand bagged it out. They think they are high and dry, only to turn around and find out it is lapping at their ankles everywhere they walk. There is no escape.

NPQ / Like Disney-ABC or Time Warner in their realm, Microsoft controls much of the software market. Yet, because of the inherent heterarchy of cyberspace - the many-to-many communication instead of the one-to-many of cable and broadcasting - won't it be a refuge of diversity apart from McWorld?

BARBER / Yes and no. True, cyberspace is a people-to-people medium in its essential character. Its technological propensity is, as you say, the creation of heterarchy. Unfortunately, as with every other form of communication across distances, there are gatekeepers. In this sense Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is appropriately named: He is the most formidable gatekeeper of all.

To talk with someone on the other side of the planet, you don't just click up the modem. You have to access the Internet through a series of gatekeepers such as Windows 95. One might say at this point that these gates are benign, but they offer potentially extraordinary control because, in essence they turn the information highway into a toll road.

While the Internet certainly began as an interactive, decentralized Wild West kind of frontier with great democratic potential, there is no way that the people who produce the hardware and the software to navigate the Internet are simply going to sit by and let anarchy reign. Anarchy means no big profits for anyone in particular. Anarchy places the Internet outside the market, but virtual profits are not what shareholders are looking for.

One has to have an awfully benign view of the perfectly appropriate imperative of large corporations to seek large profits to believe they are not going to commercialize cyberspace. Already there is a rush by the programming companies not to carve out a niche, but to dominate. Totality, not niches; that is the inexorable logic of capitalism. That is its virtue as an efficient economic system and I can have no quarrel with that. But is it wise to cede all public goods to the market?

It is interesting to note as well that Microsoft is also very engaged, like Disney-ABC and the other big media, in the rush to vertical integration. A team composed of ex-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and record producer David Geffen, with start-up funding from Bill Gates, has created Dreamworks, a company that will produce entertainment software. Surely, that will give Gates a huge vested interest in bringing the values of planetized entertainment to the software he controls in a way that will promote, not lessen, his dominance of the market.

Where once capitalism supplied the goods demanded by human needs, now post-industrial capitalism is busy manufacturing the needs themselves, in the forms of commercialized dreams and images, so that it has a market for goods that might otherwise appear unnecessary. In the end, the present diversity of cyberspace too will be gobbled up and assimilated into McWorld.

NPQ / Sony's Akio Morita often preached that manufacturing matters. But even the creator of Walkman did not seem to grasp that the manufacture of dreams, even the pedestrian dreams of Hollywood, matters more. Images, after all, rule dreams and dreams rule actions. They generate the desire for more.

BARBER / This is my point exactly. From Barbie dolls to real estate to sexual mythology, post-industrial capitalism uses the image to create demand disassociated from basic human need.

NPQ / We can't blame the flattening of culture entirely on Disney. Hasn't experience itself flattened out? In the 18th century, the German romantic Johann Gottfried Herder could still talk about volksgeist - the spirit of a place and a people. He argued that one couldn't really understand a Scandinavian saga if one hadn't experienced a North Sea storm.

Yet, today, we all drive the same cars, fly in the same jumbo jets, visit the same theme parks, use the same credit cards and listen to the same music. Technology homogenizes time and space.

BARBER / When I use the term McWorld I am not speaking about a wholly constructed reality as a result of the dreamfactories of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, but about a world produced by modernization and post-industrialization, by suburbia and freeways, by airplanes and automobiles and the way they affect how we live.

There is certainly a two-way street, though, between the sociological reality and the media that reflect that reality. Our reality and the images of ourselves-what we are, what we have become, what we can be - converge. This double-whammy has resulted in the flattening of unique cultures, leaving only atomistic consumers to fend for themselves. Volk, after all, denotes a distinct people, and we are all becoming more the same, not more distinct.

The struggle between what I call jihad and McWorld is precisely this: The resistance of a people, a place or a religion to homogenization. Jihad defends particularity, parochialism and local culture against globalism.

My idea of McWorld is obviously a reference to McDonald's. What happens there? Eating is no longer something you do over a three-hour period where you commune with your family and friends, talk and argue and share a common experience. Instead, fast-food eateries have become nothing more than an efficient fuel stop for post-industrial workers where velocity is all that matters.

To some extent, the image makers only reflect this flattening; but they also reinforce it, strengthen it and become part of it. Through them anyone who has a television set - whether in Khartoum or Katmandu - has access to a second layer of virtual experience from MTV, CNN or Hollywood films that increasingly encroaches in all its fast-paced glamour on their identity.

NPQ / McDonald's itself is perhaps more a premonition of the McWorld ahead than we realize. Not only is the cooking and service efficiently engineered in terms of the standard use of time and organization, but there is an attempt to present the facade of diversity. In Newport Beach, the interior decor will have a sailboat motif; in Tucson it will be wagon wheels. Yet, the heavily marketed "Happy Meals" are all tied into the latest Hollywood blockbuster - along with Chicken McNuggets the kids will get plastic figures of the characters in Lion King or Power Rangers to play with while they munch away under the warm glow of the Golden Arches.

BARBER / This is absolutely true. We are seeing a remarkable blurring of the boundaries between eating and entertainment, between entertainment and news. In a way, McDonald's restaurants have become mini-theme parks with their playgrounds and toy prizes. This in turn is part and parcel of the themeparking and malling of the planet.

Despite the claims of McDonald's that it is proud that it sensitively shapes itself to the local culture by, for example, using Bulgarian beef at what is considered its upscale restaurant in Moscow. What that disguises is the fact that its big contribution to the flattening of global culture is not the imposition of the Big Mac, but rather the mode of eating and social discourse that is radically different from, say, the long, sit-down dinner of Latin or Mediterranean cultures.

Such an accommodation to postmodern velocity is an assault on the family values for which the dinner table was in some sense the core setting. Similarly, the Walkman is not just a device that allows you to listen to your favorite music while jogging; it changes the very character of listening from a social into a solitary occupation, from the foreground appreciation of musical experience to background muzak that is part of the ubiquitous commercial noise that accompanies McWorld's roiling floodtide.

Like fast-food, this kind of experience tends to desocialize, to atomize and to break up, leaving us as the kind of individuated consumers whom the market loves most. Now the family is not sitting around the piano or arguing over who can play their LP on the record player. Instead, everyone - mom, dad, single mothers, deadbeat dads, teenagers, juveniles, children - has their own music and their own equipment; every member of the family buys their own tapes and CDs.

Some still warmly remember those days when the TV replaced the hearth and the various members of the family fought over which show to watch. Increasingly, everyone has their own TV and videoplayer, watching alone in their separate rooms. Each American household today has something like 3.5 television sets.

NPQ / All this flattening may spark resistance in some, but doesn't it also give rise to the demand for something new and different besides the same old Disney formula film or Big Mac? Hence the appeal of the otherworldly special effects of a Jurassic Park or the excessive violence of a film like Pulp Fiction. It is the same dynamic that makes white suburban kids so drawn to gangsta rap.

BARBER / What you say is not untrue, but there is something very illusory add unsatisfying about it. Like an addict whose tolerance for the substance he craves keeps growing, the flattened soul can never get enough of the violence or the special effects.

There is an asymmetry between the problem, which is an essentially flat soul incapable of any longer being stimulated, and the remedy - a more obsessive emphasis on extremes, on violence, on raw sex. The flatter and deader the person the less of a difference even the most extreme forms of stimulation will make. The heartbeat of the virtual nation will hardly rise, perhaps from a pulse reading of 40 to 42. It certainly won't zoom to 80. It is part of the flattening process itself that the extreme becomes commonplace and fails to shock.

In the presence of such excess, we may well become numb to being moved by something that might remedy our conditions, such as the subtle effects of an aria, a piano concerto or even a great folk-rock lyric from a gifted balladeer like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.

NPQ / What is the global appeal of American mass culture? Michael Eisner of Disney argues the following: "Diversity of individual opportunity, individual choice and individual expression is what American entertainment imparts - and that is what people everywhere want."

BARBER / That is more than an illusion. That is a flat lie.

The great myth of capitalism has been the idea that all markets do is license and legitimize choice; markets empower people to choose, to vote with their dollars, D-Marks or the yen.

This myth blurs two crucial issues: the character of choice and the supposed autonomy of wants. Certainly, markets open up brand name choice. But, at the same time, they close down broader choices. The old example still stands: In many American cities you can choose from 25 models of automobiles, but you can't choose public transportation. You can choose a Big Mac or a Whopper on the run between errands from work, but you can't choose to sit down for a three-hour meal with the family. You'd be fired.

A famous Midwestern baked potato chain advertises "We give you the freedom to choose!" - to choose what is the topping for your potato. A lot of American capitalism is like that - a choice of toppings.

It is also said that the market gives people the culture they want. The broadcasters and the Hollywood filmakers say they dish up only the trash for which there is a demand. Only an elitist demagogue, they smirk, would presume to tell "the people" what they want, as if the consumer consults some primordial list of human needs from which to choose and finds there shelter, food and sex and then - without blinking - also finds Buicks, Big Macs, Red Label Scotch and high-top tennis shoes.

Well, in reality the purveyors of merchandise have a lot to do with proposing the list from the products they can provide and the tastes they think they can satisfy. How can anyone take seriously the claim that the market only gives people what they want when there is a quarter of a trillion dollar advertising industry? How can anyone not recognize the fact that purveyors of merchandise condition wants and manufacture desires with 4-hour-a-day home shopping television or MTV, which is, in the end, nothing but around the clock, global advertising for the music industry?

NPQ / And "those hours that have lost their clock," to use the words of the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, simply don't get any air time or shelf space. They are not present in the fast-food franchise. This is true enough, but the fact remains that American mass culture is tremendously popular around the planet.

BARBER / In other words, if the volksgeist of Indonesia or India is so valued and valuable, how then does Disney make such inroads?

Much of the answer, I think, lies in a fundamental fact about human existence. From the beginning of civilization there has been a contest between hard and easy, between fast and slow, between complex and simple.

Fast, easy and simple are very appealing. They appeal to our lethargy, lassitude and laziness. Hard, slow and complicated on the other hand seem to be associated with most of those things we most cherish in our civilization - great literature, great art, great music, a functioning democracy.

What the market has exploited is the fact that while human beings admire the accomplishments brought about by the hard, the slow and the complicated they can more easily be appealed to through the easy, fast and simple. Disney, McDonald's and MTV all appeal to the easy, the fast and the simple.

TV beats out books everytime in this contest and entertainment beats out education - unless some cultural elite or some democratic authority insists on the value of a society putting itself through the hard, slow and complicated effort necessary to sustaining books and education.

NPQ / George Yeo, the information and arts minister of Singapore, couldn't agree with you more. That is why he calls for censorship as a means to affirm the values of a community against the onslaught of global culture.

BARBER / As much as I love liberty, I might be an advocate of some form of censorship if I had the slightest hope it would work to preserve what we cherish. But censorship against McWorld's flood tide can be little more than a dyke or a levee that is bound to give way when it is sodden enough. Even young people in Teheran listen to rock music and get American TV programs by satellite despite the sanctions of the ayatollahs. No walls can keep out the virtual culture of McWorld.

NPQ / In this age of lightning capital flows, round-the-clock markets and satellite signals, is the nation state still an effective instrument for defense of the volksgeist against McWorld?

BARBER / The only counter to McWorld is our common associations and democratic institutions. The reason the nation state was founded was to provide common control over what our common lives were going to look like.

The irony of our time is that just as the large multinational companies, above all the media conglomerates, have become globally powerful, we are dismantling the only countervailing institutions we have. We are discounting the only form of will - our common will expressed in democratic institutions - that might have any influence on shaping our cultural landscape.

Individualism is paradoxically the ideology purveyed by all these large, collectively-run institutions of the market that dominate finance and give us our images. But while they spin the myth of choice and autonomy, monopoly and collectivism are their modus operandi - microsoft as well as McDonald's, IBM as well as Nike. Meanwhile, we are all fragmented in our consumer roles into atomistic units not big or powerful enough to challenge them.

The democratic polity is the only alternative we have. If we are alienated from that polity, the answer is not to dismantle it across the board, but to find ways to reinvigorate it.

Finally, if a rehabilitated democracy in the nation state were possible, would that be enough? It wouldn't, as you suggest, because the scope of the challenge is transnational and, indeed, even anti-national.

Absent the emergence of some kind of a syndicalism of nations where states band together, what on earth can make a difference? The simple and direct answer is not a very hopeful one: We need to create international civic, voluntary and non-state associations that have some chance on the global level to challenge McWorld. In other words, Greenpeace-type organizations of many colors that resist the homogenization of difference in the same way environmental groups fight to protect endangered species. The first step is to muster the political will here in America to sustain democracy as a countervailing force to both jihad and McWorld. Without that step, the global struggle can never even begin.