There have been few institutions over the past one hundred years that have had quite the impact on 20th century thought as The Frankfurt School. The Institut für Sozialforschung or Institute for Social Research was created during what was a fragile point in western civilisation. A time where in the west capitalism was in the midst of becoming established and at the end of a World War with unknowingly a second in not too distant future.
Two key first generation academics from the institute, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, wrote a provocative text entitled ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ exploring the way in which the media was changing and expanding. In this text are a number of bold statements that portray the ‘culture industry’ from a less than flattering angle. The author’s note that the media industry ‘perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises.’ It is widely currently and culturally believed that on an individual level, especially in a time where consumers have such a vast range of consumption choices, that we may be being perpetually cheated Although, as Marxists, the School would not take the answer that a culture of capitalism and the need to please the masses to satisfy those at the top of the system of course will lead to the need of the mass market outweighing that of the individual.
Personally I just can’t agree that so-called ‘gatekeepers’ in the digital era can be effective in filtering what one on an individual level consumes. I would however put forward the idea that culturally the digital industry may seem as if it is uniting us through services such as social media, but quite to the contrary, we may be been falsely led into confinement.
To try and evaluate Adorno and Horkheimer’s ideas it’s important to look at 21st century media to understand if there is any truth to the matter. In the same text it is noted ““the whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry.” As the world is becoming ever more connected in the digital era it is hard to shy away from the fact that media is in some sense filtered. Although the text fails to mention social media, as it was written in 1944, I think this area of the ‘culture industry’ is particularly concerning. As can be seen here, the social network Facebook conducted, in conjunction with a Cornell University professor, some very controversial research. They took a cross section of their users and without permission used them to see if what Facebook let them see, affected them on an emotional level. This does demonstrate that the media can and do filter what the audience see.
While on the subject of filters, I would like to finish with this thought. The social media app Instagram allows users to manipulate, edit, filter and then share the resulting image. Can you draw up any parallels between what a user on an app can do, and perhaps what the media can do a greater scale?