From The Archive
Stephen Duncombe
No. 6  December 1994

I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s a Sony

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I figure it’s my duty. In earlier times, in other places, I would have consulted the tribal elders, heard the debates at the amphitheater, or gone to the town meeting. But as a good citizen of the overdeveloped world living in the dawn of the age of corporate feudalism, I figure it’s my duty to journey to the centers of corporate propagation and tax abatement and be edutained. And so I make my pilgrimage to the IBM Think permanent exhibition and the Sony Wonder Technology Lab.

These increasingly ubiquitous company exhibits—museums, galleries, learning centers—are where the Gospel According to the Corporate World is set forth. It is here that I can discern the order of the new world, have my questions answered, counsel given, societal integration assured. Actually, that’s not quite true. I don’t want to be integrated into their world. But these are the powers that are running ours and I want to see the future they have in store for us. And so I go.

IBM Think is housed in the basement of the granite and glass modernist IBM monolith in midtown New York City. The building is as gray and ordered as the suits once required for all IBM personnel. Everything about it speaks of clean and brutal power: fuck with me you’ll get a boot up your ass, except here it will be a wingtip, and it will be done quietly and efficiently.

I walk through the doors, down a flight of stairs, and I am there: subdued lighting, gray industrial carpeting, gray walls, and hushed tones. A temple of reason, a place of contemplation; like a library or perhaps a monastery, or, with the ubiquitous presence of hovering guards in neat blazers, a bank. Except for the guards, the place is empty and the only sound I hear is the even cadence and reassuring tones of white male authority that unfold from the rear of a darkened room.

But on my way towards this sacred chamber I’m intercepted. Work stations showing the wondrous ability of computer databases to inform on myriad topics block my path. Sidetracked, I pull up before the “History” monitor. Images of America past scroll across the machine. I put my finger on “Topics,” it glows and transports me into another menu. Here I point to “Labor.” And again I’m transported. At this menu I can pick labor history topics that range from “Freedom of Contract, 1905,” to “Seizure of Steel Mills, 1952.”

IBM’s labor history seems solely concerned with the ways that threats to unlimited business expansion were defused.

I press “Freedom of Contract,” and over a blur of archival photos meant to bring me back through time, a voice recalls the Supreme Court case of a bakery owner in Buffalo who won the right to work his employees more than the New York State regulations of ten hours a day, sixty hours a week allowed. Surely a great moment in labor history. “Seizure of Steel Mills,” my next choice, recollects President Truman’s attempt to nationalize U.S. steel mills during the Korean War. But once again the freedom of business triumphs. Due to the objective and judicious thinking of the Supreme Court, the President’s decision is overruled and, as my electronic tutor informs me, “the mills remained in private hands. A forceful example that the court can limit the expansion of presidential power.”

It’s an interesting labor history that doesn’t mention the Ludlow Massacre, the Pullman, Seattle general, Ford Sit-Down, or Air Traffic Controller’s strikes, the Wobblies or the CIO, or any mention of labor struggles at all. In fact, IBM’s labor history seems solely concerned with the ways that threats to unlimited business expansion were defused. Some of this confusion is cleared up when I back out of “Labor” and light up the “Business” history section. It turns out that four of the five history lessons of labor are also included verbatim in the business division. Synergy, I guess.

But the voice of reason beckons, history calls. So I make my way back through the darkness. Here is the centerpiece of the exhibit, its ideological heart: the IBM Think inspirational/historical video. Like the stained glass windows and tapestries of Medieval churches which once taught illiterate peasants God’s word according to whomever was in power, this is where the great order according to IBM is unveiled to us modern masses.

I ready myself. I face a black, slightly concave wall lined with black matte video monitors. A red digital clock on the left wall counts down the seconds 00:03, 00:02, 00:01. The wall lights up and mood music swells. A blur of nature in fast forward, clouds speeding across the sky, the sun rising and setting, nature out of control. An image of Stonehenge. The Voice:

Imagine standing on that cold plain a thousand years before the pyramids. Alone at that distant dawn. How terrifying the world must have been. And how we responded to the night’s dawn, with the dawn of technology. Megaliths carved by hand, shouldered upright, fashioned to create order … [dramatic pause] … from chaos.

Stonehenge dissolves into an image of a circular shell which dissolves into a circular staircase. These, in turn, are replaced by a picture of some Conquistadora warship sailing off into space to metamorphosize into an Apollo spacecraft. The Voice pontificates some more as pictures of “innovators” appear and fade away; the line ending with IBM scientists.

….What is the purpose of this constant need to know? to do? Perhaps it is the discontent of it all. The sense that things can be better … more efficient … faster … more fair. But perhaps it is more….

The video goes on: pictures of deaf children being helped by IBM technology, a woman reading off an IBM screen and smiling contentedly, electromagnetic fields, more kids learning, presumably about order. The Voice reminds us of all the good that the great god bestows upon his children and then issues forth his command:

And all of this to expand the very power of our minds … and our spirits. To define ourselves against … The Chaos.

The screen returns us back to nature, which is then superimposed with a fractal geometry grid—bringing proper order to that messy and bothersome thing, nature.

This is the world according to IBM. From apes to IBM scientists—the unfolding spirit of history. There is but one direction and one imperative: all of history, in the words of the accompanying pamphlet, is “a solid record of the human drive to create order.”

For all its authoritarian bombast, there is something distinctly pathetic about the IBM universe.

This fascination with order and the unfolding spirit of IBM continues elsewhere in the building. I wander over to the IBM Gallery. Here I find two exhibits, both quite appropriate. The first is Sardinian religious art of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries; art with which the Aragonese colonizers of Sardinia reminded the locals of the great hierarchy of being and the locals’ place at the bottom. The second exhibit is simply of old maps, hundreds of them, laying grids—in hindsight often grotesquely misshaped and misinformed—over the rest of the world. Order, we must have order. Upstairs I am treated to 100 Years of Information Technology, with models of computers from the Hollerith Tabulating Machine used for the command and control function of the 1890 U.S. census, to its logical extension: the IBM personal computer, every person a potential order bringer.

And then I’m done. I suppose the Fear of Chaos and the Power of Almighty Order should have me trembling in supplication, but it doesn’t. For all its authoritarian bombast, there is something distinctly pathetic about the IBM universe. In fact, I find Big Blue’s lock step vision almost endearingly quaint. It’s a linear history—one event after the next, all following some internal logic. The end of history is clad in a white scientist’s coat; a time when IBM has figured out how to control everything. And you’re either part of the system or you’re chaos.

This classic “modernist” notion of history is out of favor nowadays. Too predictable and too square, the po-mo academics cry (while jockeying for place in tenure succession). The exhibit also demonstrates a belief—a creepy instrumental incarnation, perhaps, but nonetheless a real belief—in Reason. It is IBM Think after all, and they (kind of) mean it.

Very square. IBM is out of step. What’s missing from their “100 Years” of history is their own eclipse by other computer companies, and their subsequent massive “downsizing”: the firing of tens of thousands of employees and plans to close their main suburban New York headquarters. And to today’s much touted more-cynical-than-thou audience, their exhibition is woefully out of step as well. (In fact, one month after my visit, it closed.)

IBM could have learned something from other mega-corps like AT&T, who early in this century had to figure out how to convince the American public that a private monopoly of a public utility would be in the citizenry’s best interest. In 1923, William P. Banning, AT&T’s Assistant Publicity Manager, put it this way:

[our job] is to make the people understand and love the company. Not merely be consciously dependent upon it—not merely regard it as a necessity—not merely take it for granted, but to love it—hold real affection for it—make it an … admired intimate member of the family.

To hell with ideas, to hell with Reason. And in a society with feel-good democratic illusions, Machiavelli’s old idea about fear being more powerful than love won’t wash either. This notion might still do the trick in those parts of the world where his disciple, Kissinger, and fellow slime still run things, but what’s needed here is affection, understanding, and playfulness; that just-one-of-the-folks, feel-the-pain, yet ready-to-party spirit. Lights, camera, action. Fun, not fear, is what gets them on their bended knees today.

This philosophy was spelled out in 1939 in an internal memo from Walter Teague of the cabal of corporate muscle, the National Association of Manufacturers, regarding a propaganda exhibition for the great New York World’s Fair to be held that year.

In the keen competition for public attention at the World’s Fair the most commendable and educational exhibit will fail completely of its purpose unless it is presented in such a dramatic form that the people are interested, entertained, if possible fascinated and delighted as they see it.

IBM scientists in white coats and babble about order over chaos tend to score low on the fascination and delight scale. Order is boring, chaos is fun. The folks at Sony learned this lesson well. To get to Sony Wonder I leave IBM’s solemn modernist Stonehenge, cross the street, and enter Phillip Johnson and John Burgee’s pink granite, Chippendale roofed, postmodern playhouse. The building used to be owned by AT&T, and in 1978 they struck an agreement with the city: in exchange for building six more whimsical stories than zoning regulations allow, they would have to provide an educational “public” space, operated by AT&T of course.

So when Sony took over the building a year or so ago, they also inherited AT&T’s public obligation. But whereas AT&T showed no enthusiasm for the task in years past—their “public” plaza was bleak and desolate—Sony has poured money and expertise into the space, in the process interpreting “the public” to mean “their public,” or Sonypublic, a captive audience for fun, excitement, and Sony products.

The heavy weight of IBM’s juggernaut History slides away as I enter the Sony Plaza playland. No grey carpets, no somber tones; here are lights, whistles, products: Sony. Money lenders would feel at home in this temple. Whereas IBM announced itself softly, their logo on a pamphlet or on a guard’s blazer pocket, Sony screams. The name hangs from the ceilings on banners. It’s printed everywhere. There’s the Sony Signature Store, the Sony Style Store; Sony even gets its name on “Gottfried’s Newsstand” (Is “Gottfried” a real person? a fictitious Sony one?). Not really a public space, like the old fashioned park or square we might have expected, this is a Sonypublic space: the public-private space of the future. But all this Sony glitz is but a teaser for the main event: the Sony Wonder Technology Lab,

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My “adventure” (as the accompanying promo literature puts it) starts at the entry lobby where I extract my Sony Wonder Card—a simple plastic credit card with a bar code on the back—from a machine that bears an uncanny resemblance to a condom dispenser. A Sony minion then appears and herds me and the other adventurers onto a glass elevator. The doors of the elevators shut and as we begin to glide up, a Voice resonates from the ceiling informing me and my fellows of the wonders that are to befall us on our “Journey of Discovery.”

At the top floor the door opens and after a brief passage we enter the Log-in Station. Armatures of steel tubing and wires running from ceiling to floor are scattered throughout a dark room. Each armature is equipped with a keyboard, a small adjustable video screen, and a slot for the card. I walk over to one and enter my plastic. I’m half expecting a terrifying face to appear and bellow “I am Oz,” but no, the screen glows and a young white woman, looking vaguely bohemian, appears.

“C’mon, come closer, closer,” she beckons. I come closer. She tells me to type in my name, which I do, and then to adjust the screen to my eye level. A brief flash. My picture is taken and my image glows for a few seconds on the screen. Trying to draw me into conversation, she asks me an innocuous question—“What animal makes the best pet?” Trying to share in the warmth and casual good times flowing from my new companion I answer. My response is instantly recorded on the screen as a voice print. The woman reappears and says, “Great, you’re officially logged in as a media trainee.” Media trainee?

I look over my shoulder. A video image of a young black man is cajoling another trainee into logging in her personal information. Throughout the room people are standing in front of the armature apparitions willingly giving away their souls to friendly multi-culti faces. Black, white, red, brown, woman, man, gay and straight; the dominant white male, suit and tie, middle class persona of IBM authority is nowhere to be seen or heard (strangely enough, I don’t notice any Asian faces either). My god, I realize, it’s the Rainbow Coalition asking me for my mugshot and voiceprint.

IBM designed the computer pass system that made it impossible for non-whites to travel freely in apartheid South Africa, but that’s across the street. This is Sony and this is the new order. Not really an order at all, just friendly folks as diverse as you and me asking for personal information to track you while you’re having fun and “training” for Sony. Paranoia begins to set in as I find myself wondering who came up with this idea of a pass system for an interactive exhibit first, Sony Wonder or the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

I pick up the phone and a voice informs me that there’s an energy leak and I get three chances to find it. If I find the leak I get a call offering me a raise and a promotion. If I fail I get a call to evacuate.

Leaving the Log-In Stations, I walk across and down the Communication Bridge. It’s a funhouse corridor of histotainment, with hundreds of video monitors simultaneously belching out fragmented bits of history. I pass by a picture of the first telephone, then soon after, Peter Fonda on his hog in a scene from Easy Rider. No unfolding-spirit style history here, just a cacophony of simultaneity and banality. And here history isn’t distant or remote. No stiff pinkboys telling me about their order, this history is part of me—my favorite TV shows are playing on monitors as I walk by, newspaper headlines from my youth appear, movie stars I had crushes on. To underscore the point that Sonyhistory is our history, they are planning to install a system whereby the great computer mind which has been tracking your progress will insert your picture into a montage of famous faces on a video monitor as you approach. Who was that jerk who sung about the revolution not being televised? Who needs him and who needs all that hard work that goes into revolution? I don’t need anybody telling me what history is about, I’m a part of it right now. See, I’m represented, I am somebody. Look, there, next to Marconi, right above Marilyn. Every man a king, Louisiana populist Huey Long once promised; every person an image, this is popular power Sony style.

Tearing myself away from my place in history I trot down to the “interactive” theater where my media training is to begin. I insert my card at various stations and run through a number of “hands-on” training exercises. The first is a Recording Studio where I get to “join the team” as a recording engineer and help mix Sonystar Celine Dion’s “new hit song,” The Power of Love. Unfortunately, the limits of interactivity prevent me from deleting it from the earth forever.

Next I punch in at the Robotics Engineering Station, where as a trainee I get to operate little metal bugs that wander around in a cage, factory automation that helps get rid of pesky and unnecessary skilled workers, or my favorite, a robotic arm in a nuclear plant. Running the last of these, I get a call on a nearby phone. I pick it up and a voice informs me that there’s an energy leak and I get three chances to find it. If I find the leak I get a call offering me a raise and a promotion. If I fail I get a call to evacuate.

Then on to the Environmental Research Station where I get a choice of responding to two environmental crises set in New York: an oil spill and an impending hurricane. I briefly wonder why I don’t get a chance to clean up the nuclear melt-down I just created with the Sony robotic arm at the previous exhibit, but I quickly move on to the Sony Wonder Television Studio. Given the option of any number of technical positions, I can help “produce” shows for Sony. I’m part of the team, again. I’m ecstatic. Next, in the post-production lab, I can try my skill at re-editing Sonytalent Billy Joel’s new video. Again, I’m only sorry that I can’t erase it. Maybe I’ll bring a powerful magnet next time.

The next room is split in two. On the right is a Medical Imaging Lab, which allows you to experiment with “technological innovation [which] plays a life enhancing role in modern medicine.” On the left is the Video Game Production Studio where you get to work on a Sonygame inspired by the Sonymovie Dracula. I weigh my options: life enhancement, vapid entertainment. All value is relative in Sonyworld, right? I head for the video game.

Looking for the exit I cross through the Design Gallery. Here is the closest thing Sony Wonder has to IBM Think’s linear sense of history: lining the walls are artifacts chronicling the development, from concept to consumer product, of the Sony Handicam. I marvel at the history of evolution brought down to the level of the development of a video camera.

Finally, exhausted, I make it to the Log-out Station. Here I punch my card into a machine and receive … a paycheck? No, a “certificate of achievement” with my picture and skills rating printed on it. I head for the door only to find that after Log-out there is one more skill to be learned: consumption of Sonyproducts. Sony Wonder dumps out into one of the Sony gift shops.

It’s not as easy to decipher the philosophy of Sony as it is IBM’s. IBM Think comes right out and announces their vision, Sony Wonder doesn’t. At Sony you become part of their vision, participating within it, grooving on it, working for The Man and not even knowing it. You become a Sonycitizen without ever being sure what it is you’re a citizen of. My experience with Sony Wonder makes me almost fond of IBM’s rigid authoritarianism. At least with IBM you know where you stand: You either wear the grey suit or you’re off the bus. It’s so ugly, so foreign, so whitebread, so easy to hate … so easy to oppose.

Sony Wonder is different. It has no clear and open philosophy, no “bringing order to chaos” mantra; Sony Wonder presents itself as chaos. It’s easy to debate a coherent philosophy and to argue against a history lesson; well not easy, but at least you know what you’re up against: something “out there,” other and wrong. But it’s hard to agree or disagree with something you can’t nail down and think about. Sony is amorphous, not caring whether you agree or not (what is there to agree to?). It just is … and, by the end of the exhibit, it is you.

No abstract ideas, no aloof lab-coated windbags, or distant historical allusions; no polemics that might arouse critical suspicion and disbelief. Sony doesn’t lecture, it ingratiates and integrates. Their world starts out as part of mine: the faces at my electronic interrogation look and talk like me and my friends, not Al Gore; and history on the Communication Bridge is intimate, made up of images I know, including my own. Surrounded by all this familiarity, I begin to cherish Sony and Sonyproducts, like, well, an “admired intimate member of the family.”

Sony doesn’t convince me of anything with political arguments; they draw me in through experiential conversion. The message here isn’t Think, it’s Wonder. In this era where everybody creates, I get the chance to produce Sonyproduct and be a part of the Sonyteam. Tapping into popular democratic aspirations, they give me interactive “choice.” And then they offer up the ultimate in twentieth century free-will expression: the opportunity to purchase from the full range of Sonyproduct.

Sony Wonder gets under your skin without you knowing it. The chaos it projects keeps you from seeing any pattern or any political ideology. Instead the Sonyworld envelops you: swirling, dancing, embracing, amusing. As a child of the postmodern world, it’s hard not to get off on it at some point. Engaged in Sonyfun, I even find myself forgetting my overarching critical mission and neglecting my birthright cynicism. And meanwhile every action I take and every experience I have brings me closer into the fold. Sony doesn’t tell me what to do, I’m already doing it.

The totalizing politics of Sony Wonder are allusive; not because there aren’t any, but because they’re all too familiar. They are an unarticulated politics we’ve learned through years of breathing, seeing, feeling, tasting—just living—in an era of unabated hyper-consumerism and corporate rule. And because this experiential catechism is not out in the world presenting itself as a belief system, it tends to go uninterrogated, and slide by as neutral, or worse, “natural.” These ideas are now so naturalized and part of our collective unconscious, that Sony didn’t even need to employ a Banning, Teague, or Goebbels to design its Wonderworld, just a prestigious design firm—they “instinctively” knew what to do. And as its message is everyplace, it also seems to be no place. This is the magic of Sonychaos.

In brief: the world according to IBM is Utopian.

Unlike Sony’s corporate acid trip, IBM Think is intelligible. IBM Think is, in a phrase, the (old) ruling ideas of the (old) ruling technocracy. And there is something almost comforting about its obviousness in this respect. Sometimes, when leafing through old magazines, I like to look at the advertisements: brush with Pepsodent or you’ll be a spinster. It’s hard to believe that these ads ever convinced anybody, their coercive intent and message are so open. IBM Think reads just as plainly. You either buy in or you don’t—but you know what it is. It’s stern and imposing and gray and paternalistic … and boring. It’s also something tangible. It gives you something to reject, to rebel against. Because IBM believes in order so thoroughly they construct one, and in so doing give us an order to tear down.

Their very order also implies that we could build a different one back up. It allows us to imagine that we might replace their vision and their history with something equally coherent and equally grand. In brief: the world according to IBM is Utopian. Okay, so we don’t like their Utopia. It’s atrocious, I agree. Good, then let’s go out and create our own and try to replace theirs with ours. It might be difficult, maybe even impossible, but the point is that it’s conceivable.

It’s hard to conceive of how to fight the Sonyworld. There is seemingly nothing there to reject; no coherent order to replace, no grand vision to supplant, no logic of history to rewrite.

Teague’s design for N.A.M.’s World’s Fair exhibit 55 years ago might as well have been written for Sony today:

I do not … see it as an historical pageant. I see it as a series of related exhibits which the visitor will review one after another until he arrives at a climax.

In Sonyworld there is no past or future—except relative to the world of media entertainment; no historical progression—except for the Handicam, and finally, no change—except that moment of “climax” when one becomes a true believer. In other words, for the modern Sonypublic, like for the peasant of years past, the world is fixed, outside of human creation and control. So all that is left for us to do is just sit back and make the best—or worst—of it.

IBM’s linear history no longer weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Gone is an historical tradition which excluded whole ranges of people and experiences, ran roughshod over others, and dictated the future from the past. But Sony presents us with something worse: a static world in which humans don’t make history and individuals have no place—except as happy diverse worker/consumers integrated within a world already called into being by Sony. For all its sound and fury Sony Wonder is a strangely stagnant universe: everything moves but nothing ventures outside the confines of Sony.

So what do we do? Let’s face it, as much as we may need one, we’re in no shape to conjure up a Utopia nowadays—with or without a solid adversary in mind. In fact, the whole notion of the “we” that’s going to do any of this is a bit problematic, as the only universal “we” out there in the open is the public-private corporate one. But the absolute banality and horrible meaninglessness of the World According to Sony is bound to create some heretics, and cracks in the facade can be forced.

It’s just too easy (and not much fun) to withdraw into an isolated and self-righteous puritanism. Besides, we can’t ignore their world, it’s too late for that. Fighting them is important. It’s important because hiding beneath the Sonychaos there is an order. It’s the social covenant of the coming corporate feudal state. We work for them, they keep track of us, we buy their products, and they entertain us. But at the end of the day, when we turn in our Sonypass, they don’t plan on paying us—except with a piece of paper telling us that we’re one of them.

Let’s make them pay.

Thanks to Stuart Ewen for some of the history and David Tomere for some of the present used in this essay.

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