The Duplicity of Choice in the Digital Age

In the modern era, the idea of censorship is a fairly universal notion. This practice did not begin with the digital age or even with film and cinema, but long before these inventions. In fact, since the debut of acting and theatre, audiences were limited in terms what they could and could not see. Actors were unable to swear, imitate lude acts or even take God’s name in vain. These various restrictions led many artists to act subversively in an attempt to uphold their creative integrity as well as to please their prospective audiences. In response to the increased censorship during the 19th and 20th century, many playwrights, directors and producers ended up making deals with bars and clubs in order to use the space above their businesses for uncensored shows. So, by reading Raiford Guins’s essay on “technology and the culture of control”, we can clearly see a continuity in the triangular relationship between consumer/viewer, media and entertainment and lastly, corporations and the government. The major difference, as Guins states, is that because technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, the control and governance employed towards the masses is more implicit and streamlined than ever before. There are fewer hideouts above bars and clubs because we are no longer even sure when the blanket’s being pulled over our eyes.

However, these censorial updates are not a bad thing. The shift made in the digital age has signaled even more user-empowerment as device owners can now choose who and what can be viewed on their various technologies. I believe that it is pretty obvious that the parental controls built into iPads, computers and DVRs make parents’ lives that much easier, but there are similar inhibitions which also stop adult users from accessing content. For instance, Guins brings up the example of the PS2 which essentially locked him out when he attempted to view a NC-17 film on the system. Through its parental block system, the PS2 quite simply prevented him from viewing the film in its explicit entirety. He then goes on to explain the growing presence of the family blocks in the home entertainment industry. These parental restrictions displace the middle-man (corporations and governments) and tie the user-content relationship closer together with individuals having control over the level of censorship.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the blocking, filtering, sanitizing, cleaning and patching processes that are directly under media conglomerates and affect viewership without the viewers really recognizing. This level of censorship is a little more dubious as networks and studios often make these decisions with the intention of increasing sales and viewership. Nothing makes these insidious motives more evident than the darkening of Michael Jackson in the 80s so that he appeared “more black” to those watching. Even worst, the case of Whitney Houston in the early 2000s when the broadcasters digitally filled out her body so that she appeared more healthy. In both of these celebrities’ cases, media companies made the decision to alter these peoples’ appearances to maintain popularity and viewership while hiding their respective personal and/or health issues. In short, studios decided to cover-up the imperfections of both artists unbeknownst to the average viewer. This level of censorship can be called the dark side of censorship in the digital age. By keeping the consumer in the dark, corporations are able to convey the messages they see as correct and most lucrative, without the explicit agreement of the artists or the general public.

In summation, censorship has become so inherent in our technology that we can no longer avoid it, but the control exuded through these technologies is not always made apparent to us, the ones who must be supervised. For instance, our Internet Service Providers can decide what content we can or cannot view while browsing the Web. And in the same vein, despite that this practice isn’t widespread in America, there are several sites that are banned in nations like China and even England due to federal interest. This level and power of governance was unseen prior to the digital age and Guins tries vigilantly to bring this fact to our attention. Through the neoliberal facade of choice and freedom, we as users of technology and the Internet feel more powerful than before, yet our level of connectivity and the instantaneous nature of many  of our interactions has rendered us very easy to control and oversee. Though it may appear as though we are empowered through things like parental controls and passcodes, the truth is that it has never been easier to sell and promote censored material to the eager masses. With each new song, episode or movie, we must ask ourselves “Is this the original content? Is this the director’s cut with all the intended content”? The reality is that choice (at least within entertainment and digital media) is an illusion as these technologies are innate in almost every piece of technology we use on a daily basis and governance is now simply a remote-controlled affair, with networks capable of manipulating images and interrupting broadcasts in a heartbeat.

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