Today it is common knowledge that Big Business will go to any lengths to find out information about you in order to better sell you stuff. It is also becoming far less of a secret that these companies accomplish by selling the fiction of tailoring to the individual when in fact they are actually using the information to figure out how to get everybody liking the same thing, thus reducing overhead and increasing profit. In 1944 this was a radical proposition.
The proposition gained steam courtesy of two men at the center of the then-burgeoning fields of social research and critical theory. Theodor Adorno in collaboration with Max Horkheimer produce “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” as part of a broader survey titled Dialectic of Enlightenment. Many of the assumptions made and theories postulated in this essay have only taken on greater significance in the wake of some of the most important innovations in consumerism and advertising since it was first published when World War II was still raging: antenna TV, cable TV, the computer, the internet and smartphone apps just to name the most important. What is most astounding, perhaps, about the prescience of the central thesis that the culture industry targets consumers for instant gratification like an infant and for addiction like a heroin user is that at the time they were writing almost exclusively about the influence of radio and cinema.
That thesis is primarily bound within Marxist critiques of the failures of capitalism, but Adorno and Horkheimer move the locus of their argument on how Marxist doctrine is enacted from the factory to the entertainment industry in which culture is really just a palatable name for the mass marketing of standardization. What is really breathtaking about just how well the authors peeked into the future and saw what was coming lies not so much in how such an agenda affects leisure and entertainment, but how easily the template can be moved into more weighty spheres. Not for nothing as “The Culture Industry” been a required text for in a variety of college courses. When most people commonly accepted that entertainment and the real world were firmly divided and easily distinguished, these two men were asserting that
“The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers.”
They might almost have been writing about election politics in 2016 rather than film and radio in the 1940's.