Reading Herbert Schiller: “Data Deprivation” in Information Inequality: the Deepening Social Crisis in America, 1996.

Herbert Schiller

Herbert Schiller’s chapter “Data Deprivation,” from his 1996 work Information Inequalities, focuses on the great shift in power and control from state to private actors, resulting in a massive consolidation of power in the corporate sector, particularly over the control and dissemination of communication and information (43). Almost 15 years old, this essay draws out the peculiar of this new power structure and highlights the disturbing characteristics of that shift, including the crystallization of the already-underway processes (in the United States and, by extension, abroad, wherever the transnational influence of these companies reaches) such media conglomeration (44), leaving important informational functions, vital to a vibrant democracy, in the hands of a relatively elite few with considerable agendas of their own.

The results of the shift from state to private hands has immense and critically important ramifications, Schiller convincingly argues. One major arena of this transformation occurs in the context of an increase in the technologically-facilitated disappearance of some information (such as the case of that at the federal level in the context of changing administrations) (48), and the lack of transparency and accountability under new privatized paradigms where private corporations stand in for the government/state. Using techniques such as privatization, contracting and deregulation, corporate contractors have taken on the process of creating, managing, storing and disseminating (or hiding, in some cases) vast amounts of information. Indeed, the recent “Top Secret America” report in the Washington Post reveals that there are now over 2000 private firms engaged in data analysis for the purposes of national security alone, with little, if any, public redress available to learn more or understand what these firms do.

Meanwhile, as the government cedes control over the production and dissemination of material to corporations that treat it as commodity (46) and then are under no obligation to engage in transparency, the corporations themselves have seen a major rise in their own profile, to the point that, as Schiller describes, “corporate speech has become a dominant discourse, nationally and internationally…”, forcing individual speech aside or drowning it out completely (45). This trend has recently reached its apex, resulting in a Supreme Court ruling that has now codified the “right” of a corporation to “speak” politically (and monetarily) at a scale no individual citizen could ever reasonably hope to attain (c.f. the Citizens United case of 2010).

Schiller’s view of the near future he did not live to see may, at first blush, seem unusually prescient. Yet his clairvoyance stems simply from his engaging in tracing the logical conclusion of the tendencies he identified, in the mid-90s and much earlier, of consolidation, conglomeration, and shifting control across the military-academic-indusrial complex. Many of these tendencies have yet to fully play out and continue on today, particularly in the context of the Internet.