Life of Make Believe

This article is not about the reliability or otherwise of the news or the trustworthiness or otherwise of politicians and business leaders. Dissembling (polite word for falsification and pretence!) has been part of public life for many centuries. The article is about the yawning gap opening up between reality and what is deemed to be normal day to day life particularly within ‘advanced societies’. It would seem that the more communication technology improves the more confusion is created between what is real and what is make believe. Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have simply increased the volume of the noise without necessarily bringing people back in touch with reality. If anything, the constant twittering, by sometimes sad and lonely people, cements the chasm between the real and unreal worlds.

For millennia people communicated through person to person contact. They lived in smaller communities which catered for most of their social and economic needs. There were disparities even on that scale but the very rich still belonged to the community and were reasonably accessible to others living in the neighbourhood. On the much larger scale people knew there were very rich and powerful individuals but they played little part in defining the local’s view of reality. The few were remote, almost mythical, entities that did not attract much attention. It could be said that people on average were ignorant of ‘the big picture’. However, their reality (and desires) was tangible and reflected what is practically possible.

Then the ‘communications revolution’ and extreme economic liberalism hit humanity simultaneously. The two of course are inseparable for readily obvious reasons. Extreme economic liberalism identified inequality as a powerful incentive for people to try harder . The communication revolution (among other things) sought to show what people could achieve if only they reached out for the ‘ultimate dream’ and became more entrepreneurial in spotting and exploiting opportunities. The theory was, and is, simple and there are mountains of textbooks that extol its virtues. Eminent scholars have gone further and asserted that it is the only way forward for humanity. In practice, the theory is little more than make beleive but adherents were not to be diverted by facts. The chances of anyone breaking into the ranks of rich few are similar to winning the lottery. That is reality.

Now we have the worst of both worlds. The global core/ periphery split between haves and have-nots has changed somewhat. There are now core and periphery splits in all societies. Inequality has reached ridiculous levels and penetrated most countries thanks to the ‘value-free’ economic liberal model. At the same time the communication revolution sets out it seems to remind everyone of that fact; not as criticism but more in admiration. Celebrities, industrialists bankers, footballers, etc. are glorified as never before. The message is clear: try to join them: one way or the other; the ends will always justify the means. The design principles of the extreme liberal market system are specifically based on that incentive. That is make believe.
An email from a friend recently informed me that two Indian brothers “can buy 100 percent of every company listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) and would still be left with $30 billion to spare. The four richest Indians can buy up all goods and services produced over a year by 169 million Pakistanis and still be left with $60 billion to spare.” Another friend informed me of the salaries and bonuses received by the chief executives of the leading US health insurance companies. Enough to say the figures eclipse the miserly £100,000 plus per week pocketed by some footballers in Britain. At the same time, we are bombarded with news of the life styles of the richest few; their planes, yachts, mistresses, etc. Their ‘scandals’ are on every page and news bulletin. When Tiger Woods gave his carefully choreographed statement of ‘regret’ about his sexual escapades the BBC in Britain put that at the top of its news bulletins ahead of the mayhem of the latest battles in Afghanistan. The same wide coverage was given to a married footballer who went had an affair with his colleague’s ex-girlfriend. There is more than a suspicion that to many people; especially of the younger generation, there was a hefty measure of envy mixed with whatever disapproval. The sub-text is clear, the fabulously rich are having a great time and you too could join them if you could just try harder to succeed. Those who do not make it are failures to be pitied.

To cover all angles, TV soaps show you what life could be like if you were to cut corners, become ruthless, etc. Sex, drugs, and money are constant themes. If you do not succeed in business then there are alternatives to grab a bit of fun. The ever popular ‘The Hustle’ TV series provides the ultimate: crooks that turn their activity into a remunerative business. Another helping of make believe.

Of course the vast majority of people are in neither camp. They are the ‘in between people’: hard working people trying to make a living in an increasingly hostile economic environment. The ‘rich’ advanced economies are drifting downwards at an ever faster rate. The process is being managed (and sold to the bewildered citizens) in the form of ‘unpredictable’ and ‘passing’ world crises. The solutions inevitably mean the ‘in between people’ will be squeezed further. The latest crisis in Greece was caused by a few rich and powerful individuals (whose ability to avoid paying taxes is legendary) but the government with enthusiastic support from the European Union insisted that the ‘in between people’ must tighten their belts. After all, that is how the rest of the advanced economies formulated their response to the 2007-2009 credit crunch (or whatever you would wish to call it!). Companies have been given the green light to cut costs (and jobs) in all ways possible. I decided to renew my car insurance in February and contacted my insurance company fully expecting to speak to someone in a call centre in India, but businesses seem to have moved on. A computer answered me and took me through the process of renewal. Great business initiative but sheer make believe: where would young people in Britain (and India!) find jobs when most companies become as efficient as my insurance company I wonder. The efficiency is make believe and the loss in employment opportunities is real life for most people.

Wonderful letters arrive (often from from Nigeria fro some reason!) promising riches and asking only personal banking details in return. Some people do just that and their accounts are cleaned out. Why do they fall for such an obvious scam? For the same reason that many intelligent people accumulate huge debts on their credit cards and end up paying anything up to 20 percent on their balances in these days of exceptionally low interest rates. Under attack from the communications revolution and the economic liberal model they have finally lost the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Using their ‘flexible friend’ does not seem the same as paying for goods and services with real money. Credit card companies are not alone in manufacturing a life of make believe for their customers. Politicians and business leaders have turned this into an art form. When they succeed the former acquire power (and ultimately wealth) and the latter acquire huge bonuses. The fiction of waging war abroad to bring democracy and freedom to target nations must be seen in the context of the reality of competition over resources (often oil) and the need to satisfy the needs of Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex”.

Turning fiction into reality is not easy and requires massive effort in which the communications revolution participates enthusiastically. For a start intermediaries are now often in control of the messages we all regularly receive. The ‘packaging’ is near-perfect by design. Machines persistently dial up telephone numbers and send messages and faxes day and night. What do you see when you access the electronic programme schedule on your TV? Now you will see what you sought but also advertisements that you have no way of avoiding. What happens if you complain? You are told the ‘platform’ (whatever that might be) chosen by the maker includes adverts. In short, the TV makers involved get paid by the advertisers.

Even if senders did not set out to deceive (naturally a big assumption) the medium of transmission might well step in to change the content or intention of the message intentionally or otherwise. News items broadcast on radio and television are already altered by the choices made by programme producers as to what to include, what to exclude, and then the order in which the items are presented. When the Israeli ambassador in London was called to the foreign office in mid-February 2010 to answer questions about the murder of a Hamas operative by (it is suspected) Israeli agents using British passports, the BBC went out of its way to assure listeners and viewers that he was ‘invited’ and not ‘summoned’. Did the BBC inject that emphasis or the UK Foreign Office? The latter one assumes but the result is the same: the Israeli government and its agents are ‘nice’ people ‘just like us’. They belong to the same club no matter what the reality of their actions might be.

How could a world that has supposedly been brought closer together by new inventions end up destroying comprehension and the quest for a reasonable level of truth? Decision-makers have seen the opportunities presented by the ‘communications revolution’ and set out to exploit the potential to the full. The BBC (assumed to be the most reliable source of information in an admittedly murky field of doubtful sources) provides another example. BBC reporters are embedded into the British and American forces in Afghanistan (and other war zones). They are the public’s eyes and ears (or supposed to be!) while sitting at an army base possibly hundreds of miles away from the scene of action. Their main source for information is what the military liaison officers provide. Were five Taliban fighters really killed? Were they Taliban fighters? Were any ‘innocent’ civilians killed in the process? What is being in a war zone really like for the poor soldiers who have to do battle? Once a question is asked, the doubts multiply unless listeners and viewers have absolute faith in the military liaison officers. And in that case why have a BBC reporter as a middleman? The answer of course is obvious: putting the message through the ‘independent’ BBC makes the message more believable and less awful: it is just news from somewhere. It is not really real. The use of drones controlled by operators thousands of miles away makes killing easier for the soldiers as well. Essentially, it is just a make believe computer game. We have now reached the ultimate in mounting war on hapless ‘enemies’. The people back home think it is necessary but not so bad, and those doing the fighting think it is a computer game.
But it does not have to be about life and death. The ‘communication gap’ is of key importance when one considers the relations between governments and those they govern. Suddenly it emerges that the two might well be in two different worlds. An army of ‘spin doctors’ (a feature not invented but perfected by New Labour when they came to power in Britain in 1997) and a highly complicated hierarchy of ‘stakeholder engagement’ professionals immediately confronts anyone rash enough to try and communicate with his or her ‘representative’. The more organisations talk of stakeholder engagement the less evidence there is of any meaningful communication, let alone involvement is decision-making.

The above is now part of the prevailing organisational model. One of the first tasks for anyone who has arrived at public (and of course private) middle and upper rungs of management is to be sent to a training course in communications. The aim has little to do with better communication. Most of the course focuses on how to avoid answering serious (and often difficult) questions. And the media have entered this charade with gusto. The end result has nothing to do with whether the public are better informed after an interview: it is how well the interviewer and interviewee came out of the contest. Many of those in the media end up running ‘communication training courses’ to aspiring leaders to teach them how to win the combat! The distance between governments and the governed is vast and it is increasing at a fast rate.

In the meantime, the public are kept busy/ entertained by trivia: the vast sums paid to ‘fantastic’ footballers to create dream teams, the irreplaceable bankers who deserve millions in bonuses, etc. Fiction of course as anyone who had watched a match between a team in the higher divisions and one from the lower divisions quickly realises. The reality of the ‘brilliant’ bankers was of course exposed when the causes of the latest credit crunch were revealed. Nonetheless, bankers, footballers and other elites sitting at the top of the tree are untouched. They are ‘celebrities’ and their breathlessly exciting lives should be an incentive for others to try harder.
The ‘communications revolution’ have a positive aspect. It is now impossible to totally obliterate reality. Where could I find real reality? Easy, leave the advanced economies and their life of make believe and read about of better still visit one of the so-called ‘developing countries’. There is plenty of reality there. Do you want even more reality? Even easier, look at the Middle East and see how the masses (and not their leaders) live. Still not satisfied? Then take your life in your hand and go to the countries chosen by the ‘West’ to be liberated and democratised: Iraq and Afghanistan should be at the top of your list of ‘must visit’. But please beware: too much reality might kill you!