The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age

by Joyce Nelson
187 pages,
ISBN: 0919946852

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Techno pathology
by Brian Fawcett

A few month ago an acquaintance who works in advertising told me that the average North American citizen is currently subjected to 12,000 pre-inscribed images each day-shaped and franchised data signals from television commercials to streetscape Golden Arches to the Toyota or Ford logos on the tailgates of pickup trucks glimpsed momentarily in traffic. I asked him to put his statistic into a historical context and into the context of our total perceptual capability.
He pointed out that even 40 years ago only a fraction of that number of preinscribed images would have existed, and 100 years ago almost none. In short. those images are the perceptual preload of consumerist capitalism - a form of mind control.
"The human brain," he went on, "is capable of roughly 96,000 synapses a day. An image received subconsciously or unconsciously will occupy a single synapse. If it is consciously processed, it can occupy 15 or 20 synapses, or more."
When I pointed out that this meant that advertising controlled at least one-eighth of our daily brain capacity, a strange kind of Cheshire-cat grin crossed his face.
"Yeah," he said. "And we want it all."
The paradigm this presents scares the hell out of me, but it also breeds a certain degree of scepticism. I don't know for certain if what my advertising friend tells me is true, or whether it is merely a self - serving arrangement of partial truths that valorizes his essentially macho view of human life. I've been trying to find out, but it's difficult to get anyone with a knowledge of neurobiology to talk in those terms. They say it's mixing apples and oranges. But maybe they just don't want to admit the extremity of the situation we're in.
Joyce Nelson's book, The Perfect Machine, appears to offer similar intellectual difficulties. The vision of contemporary reality it presents is so depressing that one recoils instinctively from what it is saying that there is an absolute collusion between nuclear and telecommunications technology that is leading us toward a self-destructive Manichean apocalypse.
The difference is that most of her research is thorough and, on the whole, pretty clean. She has compiled, particularly in the middle section of the book, the most comprehensive array of information on how the television industry constructs and evaluates its activities that I've ever seen. Better still, her analysis of the information is insightful and incisive. By itself, that should make the book required reading for anyone in the field - students, technologists, and executives. It also should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the fate of our society and in our disappearing culture.
I have greater difficulties with her intellectual method in the first and third sections of the book, which is marred by cliches and inductive/deductive errors. It is one thing to establish a conceptual collusion between the nuclear and telecommunications industries, quite another to see this as an organized, conscious conspiracy engendered by patriarchal rightwing capitalism. And Nelson frequently implies that this is the case, though her obvious academic and journalistic training prevents her from coming right out with it,
It must have been an arduous book to put together, and knowing this will allow readers to excuse its excesses. Nelson has looked hard and tong at the most complex and frightening aspects of the contemporary world, and her analysis is courageous and frequently brilliant. Having to choose between a perfect machine with lethal intent and one that is outrageously powerful but lethally out of control makes her occasional lapses into paranoia excusable. As it stands, she has come up with more questions than answers. but the questions she asks are the ones we are all going to have to answer if the human species is to survive. Despite its problems I can think of few books published recently that are more worth reading than this one.

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