Tinseltown Ideology Reflects Our Cultural Obsessions

It’s no surprise that when Hollywood decided to remake the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still for modern audiences, the theme would change from nuclear war to the now much more popular fear of environmental collapse. There is a long tradition of movies with political messages.

But the strikingly different approach of each film speaks volumes about a shift in green philosophy of the last few years. It is apparently now unremarkable to believe that humanity should be sacrificed at the altar of Gaia.

The plot of both The Day the Earth Stood Still films is very simple – an alien named “Klaatu” visits Earth to teach humanity a lesson about its bad ways.

In the 1951 film, Klaatu is a sort of Christ-like figure, whose extraterrestrial intervention into human affairs brings about an age of peace. This original Klaatu is a charming alien who firmly but gently convinces mankind to abandon politics and warfare. Humanity obediently pulls back from the nuclear precipice. Peace and good times are then had by all.

In 2009, the filmmakers have changed Klaatu into a dictatorial environmentalist with a penchant for genocide. Keanu Reeves plays a Klaatu who fairly quickly decides that all humans need to be immediately eliminated for the sake of the earth. The new film is sort of like an episode of Doctor Who where the Daleks are the good guys.

Indeed, the alien civilisations of 2009 appear to be everything that the alien civilisations of 1951 were trying to stop. When the 1951 Klaatu steps out of his space ship, he immediately states that he has come to visit the earth “in peace and with good will”. By contrast, it seems that Keanu Reeves steps out of his space ship only to briefly survey the species he plans to destroy. This film has to be one of the most deeply anti-human movies in a long time.

So what does it say about our collective mental health that, when we try to imagine a “good” race of aliens, we also imagine that they would want to systematically slaughter us? If we’re lucky, the next bunch of extraterrestrial visitors will bring us the anti-depressants we so obviously need.

The extraordinary ideological change between the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and its remake shows how mainstream apocalyptic environmentalism has become. Obviously, the vast majority of those who care for the environment also think that the human race is probably worth keeping alive. But what was, just a few years ago, the harmless spluttering of Malthusian academics certain that the Earth needs to halve its population, is now being repackaged approvingly as infotainment.

Movies have always both reflected and distorted our cultural obsessions. Filmmakers aren’t stupid – they want movies to sell to as wide an audience as possible, so they try to mimic as best they can the attitudes and interests of the population at large.

But at the same time, the political views of most filmmakers hardly reflect the political views of that audience. You could shove the number of conservatives and libertarians in Hollywood into a small Prius, and still have enough room for their pets, or their guns – or whatever profit-loving, environment-hating, worker-oppressing things they like to carry around with them.

So every year, Hollywood produces a couple of films that are little more than vehicles for Tinseltown’s latest trendy ideology. Last year’s otherwise charming Wall-E depicted humanity as not just destructive, but also morbidly obese morons encased in hover-chairs. And the global warming disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow implied that the world was just one bonfire away from a climate implosion.

Presumably the next iteration of Godzilla will be born because of an aggregate global temperate change of 3 degrees spread over a century.

Of course, if you’re too quick to jump at the latest popular cause, it’s easy to make mistakes. Hollywood can get it spectacularly wrong. Remember the overpopulation crisis of the 1970s? A steady stream of films like Logan’s Run, Soylent GreenThe Last Child, and Z.P.G. (which stood for the environmental movement’s aim of “zero population growth”) tried to popularise the bizarre idea that the amount of people the world had in 1978 was exactly the maximum population the world could hold.

But despite Hollywood’s best efforts at convincing us not to, we kept on breeding. At the time of writing, we have not yet had to resort to turning our dead into basic foodstuffs.

For decades, the film industry churned out films about the need for love, peace and just generally getting along. What made them stop? Bring back the original, kindly Klaatu, who wants to help humanity, not destroy it.

When Reform Has No Bang And Barely A Whimper

What a difference a year makes. One year ago, when Communications Minister Helen Coonan released the discussion paper which was to become the September 2006 media reform package, was also coincidently the same day that Apple’s iTunes service released its first movie for download – High School Musical, a movie apparently popular with the tween set. iTunes has now sold 50 million TV shows. Apple started shipping their Apple TV, a device which delivers content downloaded from the iTunes service to the family television, in March this year.

The frenzied media commentary which greeted YouTube’s sale to Google in October for $US1.65 billion wasn’t all hyperbole. YouTube only opened for business a year prior, and, due to its popularity, it now plays a central role in modern political campaigns, public relations, and is at the centre of debate about copyright online. No television program with aspirations of greatness can ignore the contradictory importance of YouTube – success on the online social video networking site can mean enormous popularity, but also copyright infringement on a massive scale.

YouTube and iTunes are merely two of the largest services. Video downloading services, in different shades of legality, have sprouted up rapidly over the last twelve months, and are injecting themselves into media consumption habits across the globe. In 2004, an American study found that in the United States, consumers spent roughly 10 per cent of their leisure time online. With the increase of applications and bandwidth since then, that number is no doubt higher.

There are few serious commentators on the media who doubt that in the near or at least foreseeable future, new media will be as popular, important and influential as the traditional print, radio and television triangle was in the second half of the 20th century.

On the one hand, change of this dramatic nature isn’t new. The history of media and technology is scattered with examples of disruptive, radical innovations.

Numerous technological innovations have altered the way we consume, produce and interact with media. The transition in the 1960s and 1970s of magazine printing from the older rotary press to offset lithography dramatically reduced the cost of printing, resulting in the proliferation of hundreds of specialty publications, in contrast with the previously rather limited selection.

The history of popular music was shaped by the potent combination of the use of the FM band by independent broadcasters, and the emerging competition from television in the 1950s. Vinyl recordings, tapes, CDs and MP3s – and the devices they are played on – have further altered our relationship with popular music, and the content of the music itself.

Similarly, entrepreneurs have altered patterns of media consumption with existing technologies with innovative new business models. Charles Dickens serialised his novels in popular magazines, changing the nature and structure of his stories, and creating new market opportunities to great effect. The practise of block booking, where film studios bundled multiple films together to sell to theatres, buttressed the Hollywood studio system, until it was prohibited by the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948.

The history of media is change, not continuity.

The dynamism of technological innovation couldn’t be better contrasted than by the narrow approach taken by governments to media law and regulation. It is a consequence of the inertia of the political process that major regulatory changes can be enacted perhaps once a decade. When policy is made and reform is pursued it must be forward-looking enough to facilitate unexpected changes in the industry it is trying to regulate. By this measure the government’s 2006 media law reforms were a regrettable failure – after ten years of promises to liberalise Australia’s media regulation, the package passed in Parliament in October had no bang, and barely a whimper.

Minor adjustments to ownership rules, the introduction of two crippled “non-traditional TV” licences, loop-hole closing in anti-siphoning regulations, another delay of switchover to digital television – it is only by force of habit that the package was referred to by commentators as “reform”. Where large regulatory decisions changes were made, they went in the opposite direction. Regional and rural radio licensees ended 2006 staring down the barrel of a draconian array of new regulatory controls, designed to keep rural politicians on the air, rather than increase any level of local “diversity”.

The federal government’s reluctance to pursue any meaningful reform after such a long build up is most unfortunate. The laws which govern Australia’s media are a fragmentary web of protectionism and restriction. It is hard to beat the Productivity Commission’s characterisation of a regulatory framework that “reflects a history of political, technical, industrial, economic and social compromises. This legacy of quid pro quos has created a policy framework that is inward looking, anti-competitive and restrictive”.

These regulations rest on an outdated conceptual framework. They assume that there is a fixed pie of media content and media outlets – there can only be so many television or radio stations, for instance. The regulatory framework then slices up that pie to a number of operators, and ensures they don’t get in each other’s way.

But this model is entirely unsuited to the contemporary media landscape. Gone are the days when our consumption of news and opinion was constrained by the number of printers in the town, or broadcasters with licenses. An infinite range of news and opinion can be now gathered at almost no cost from the Internet, produced by professionals and, increasingly, amateurs.

This new availability of sources requires us to look carefully at what we mean by “diversity”. The left-wing political critique of the 2006 reforms centred on the notion that a free market in media would necessarily result in media monopolies – Australians ruled over by omnipotent media moguls, rather than their democratically elected politicians. It’s true that the vast bulk of media consumed by Australians is still clustered around these “traditional” owners – Fairfax and News Limited have the lions share of online readership for Australian news sources.

But the measure of diversity should not be an analysis of what everybody is currently reading or watching, but what is available for their consumption, should they choose to investigate outside of the Murdoch, Packer and Stokes empires. We should not only include sources likeOn Line Opinion, but also the Washington PostPravda, and the Borehamwood & Elstree Times. Diversity is a question of available choice, not a question of how best to stop everybody reading Murdoch’s tabloids.

This question about what constitutes true diversity pervades the debate over ownership regulation. The reflections of former FCC chairman Michael Powell on a similar debate about reform in the United States could easily apply to Australia:

Here’s the truth: the ownership debate is about nothing but content … [The ownership rules] became a stalking horse for a debate about the role of media in our society. … It was really an invitation for people with particular viewpoints to push for a thumb on the scale, for content in a direction that people preferred.

Luckily, little the government does will alter the inevitable migration of our media consumption to the Internet. But retaining the byzantine regulations which we have inherited punishes consumers by both privileging and restricting the traditional media outlets which have, until recently, been protected from full exposure to the market.

There are a range of specific reforms that can be adopted. Governments could take convergence seriously and being to harmonise regulations across networks – the regulations that apply to radio broadcasting should apply to television broadcasting, which should also in turn apply to web broadcasting and podcasts. Similarly, the use of the electromagnetic spectrum should be determined by the market – who owns it, what technologies utilise it, how many television and radio stations are broadcast on it, and so on.

But the biggest change needed is philosophical. There is no legitimate role for government in the entertainment business. Consumers determine what they want to watch on television, listen to on the radio, or browse on the Internet. The sooner policy-makers acknowledge this simple fact, the better off our media will be.

Broadband Internet – Getting The Framework Right

The United Nations last month released a report on broadband policies for developing nations. Unfortunately, its recommendations provide little more than advocacy of futile, centralised, national “plans” to increase Internet availability and use.

Similarly, policy makers across the Australia are formulating grand plans to resolve this county’s broadband crisis.

In Communications Departments around the world, “plans” are in fashion.

These plans are trying to address real issues. In Australia, communications policy has comprehensively failed. Infrastructure investments are being tied up for years in regulatory negotiation, and they are abandoned when no compromise is reached. As a result, our broadband penetration is in the bottom half of the OECD rankings.

For developing nations, the lack of adequate communications infrastructure can be a significant obstacle to development.

The United Nations recommends that governments in developing nations institute a series of master plans to introduce and expand their infrastructure. These consist variously of government subsidises and interventions. Growth, and a reduction in poverty, they argue, will naturally follow.

But communications is a highly profitable business to be in. Entrepreneurs sensing a demand for communications networks, be they fibre-optic broadband or mobile, will strive to meet that demand.

What is the market failure that the lavish master plans advocated by the United Nations are supposed to address?

Institutional obstacles hold back many of these developing nations from the growth they desperately need. The popularity of mobile networks in developing nations is because they are typically unregulated, in contrast to the corrupt, state-owned telcos and rigid regulatory impediments which restrict markets in wired telephony.

Kenyan farmers, just like those in the Riverina, can now communicate with their markets to ascertain the level of demand for their produce. The waste of food and man-hours from lengthy trips to supply a demand that didn’t exist is no longer common. If you have food to sell or buy, you simply make some phone calls.

The “digital divide” is only indicative of a general economic divide between rich and poor countries. Communications networks are not the catalyst for economic development. Instead, they are built when a sufficient demand, brought about by economic growth, presents individuals and companies with opportunities to make profit in communications.

However, government policy in many of developing countries either discourages or even forbids entrepreneurial investment in communications and other infrastructure. The solution is institutional and government reform, to allow economic growth, rather than subsidies and plans.

It isn’t surprising that we have the same problem in Australia.

In the aftermath of Telstra’s cancellation of their fibre-optic cable to the node plans, politicians around the country have been spurred into action. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie announced last month a broadband initiative for Brisbane, which, incidentally, offered Queensland entrepreneurs nothing they didn’t already have.

The West Australian government has announced $1 billion worth of funding for a broadband network across their state. In New South Wales, the government has announced plans for free wireless broadband throughout Sydney.

And Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan, has announced a range of grand initiatives to deliver broadband to regional Australia.

Many of these plans are similar to the existing subsidies being trialled in rural regions around the country. Taxpayer’s money will be transferred to businesses and individuals who would prefer slightly faster speeds than are currently available.

Like the United Nations’ master plans, these Australian broadband plans are a mere bandaid to cover the real issues in economic policy.

The Australian government administers a regulatory framework which actively discourages investment in infrastructure by forcing entrepreneurs to share their investments with their competitors, at a price chosen by the regulator. Telstra’s reluctance to build a new network and have its control immediately handed over to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is understandable. This is a failure not of the private sector, but of government.

The obvious solution is to reform access regulations to encourage investment. Competition regulation which does not do so is regulation which holds back economic growth.

Grand government initiatives aren’t needed to encourage telecommunications investment. Entrepreneurs merely need to be granted the freedom to build on terms of their choosing. On this measure, the Australian government, not the private sector, has failed.

No comfort should be taken in the enthusiastic proclamations of plans and initiatives by politicians.

The lesson for rich and poor countries are the same. Get the frameworks right, and the rest will follow.