We're Inside the Informational 'Belly of Baal'

November 16, 1994|By COLIN CAMPBELL

ATLANTA — Atlanta. -- Where is this curious post-Cold War world headed? Or, where should it be headed? Why do Americans seem so anxious? And, if answers like ''the economy, stupid'' don't work, Why?

I've been studying a remarkable essay by David Bosworth in the fall issue of The Georgia Review. Mr. Bosworth -- heretofore a writer of fiction in Seattle -- tries to answer such questions with a theory that encompasses wealth, poverty, psychology, the Soviet collapse, morality and changing notions of the Absolute.

We're living, he begins, in an imitation Heaven like the one proposed by Mammon in Milton's ''Paradise Lost.'' Having failed to storm the real Heaven, Mammon proposed a tarted-up Hell -- the ''virtual reality'' of ''Heaven II,'' as Mr. Bosworth puts it, juggling ideas across the centuries.

''Show up at any symposium with a futuristic bent,'' he continues, ''and what you inevitably hear is some updated version of the old Mammon theme: more spiritual salvation through physical simulation, another 'technical fix' for the soul.''

Today's economic fix is the information revolution.

Americans used to covet hardware (cars, appliances and such). Then came novelties (minivacs, pet rocks). Now we're ''trained,'' Mr. Bosworth says, to ''acquire 'software' experiences (exotic meals; extended therapies; trips physical, religious, and/or chemical in nature).''

This ''software'' market is limited only by the mind's desires and therefore cannot be satisfied. Materialism has ''dematerialized.'' What we want is essentially ''information,'' quickly consumed.

Advertisements ''pulse, flash, chant, and sing their way into our consciousness . . . [and] their voices possess us, as surely as the village priest's or tribal chief's once possessed us.''

It's a process more powerful than traditional indoctrination. We're inside the informational ''Belly of Baal,'' and our new tempters are more in tune with the human mind than any Stalinist ever was.

But the notion that ideology has vanished with the collapse of communism is false. On the contrary, a highly informational environment needs to be more ideological and more concerned with ''our innermost thoughts'' even when it doesn't push overt political doctrines.

According to Mr. Bosworth, ''it is not ideology but our awareness of ideology that is disappearing.'' He gives five reasons:

First, we're becoming enclosed in the new informational order order and thus don't notice it: ''By the end of 1995 there will be at least 33 commercial communication satellites in orbit, drenching every possible sociological niche with 'Lucy' reruns and talk-show factoids.''

Second, the world is becoming homogenized. There's less to contrast things with.

Third, we're often deceived by the new technology -- mystified, for example, by the differences between real and fantasy violence. Endless sound tracks and a general busyness disrupt ''the stillness necessary for rational reflection.''

Fourth, we're biased toward the view that propaganda is practiced only by monstrous regimes. But ad agencies and political consultants play the same games.

And, fifth, the real powers of the world have become diffused and hard to identify.

In short, we're saturated. And when a piece of powerful (and false) ideology appears -- such as the money-making notion that reality is becoming data and all data are commodities -- we don't quite see it. So we feel stressed out, not knowing the cause. And our leaders ''enact a kind of puppet show of leadership . . . that conceals not only a self- interested cynicism but also an actual and increasing helplessness.''

We can throw the bums out, but our new leaders will confront the same informational economy; and ''it's the Economy alone, I fear, rather than the masses of people increasingly indentured to its avid needs, that . . . well-intentioned policies will finally serve. . . . It's the Economy, too, that makes us feel stupid: out-of-date and out-of-touch.''

Until I read Mr. Bosworth's last pages I thought his ''Baal'' imagery might be literary posturing. But he concludes, seriously, that our growing obedience to the ''invisible hand'' of the Economy is a throwback to idolatry. The sacrifices this merciless Economy ''demands'' (from child prostitutes in liberated Eastern Europe to shootouts at home) are ways of ''killing the covenant,'' Mr. Bosworth warns -- the covenant Abraham made with God, and Jesus made after him.

These covenants replaced a narrow, arbitrary Absolute with one that was merciful, universal, lawful and just. And Mr. Bosworth now raises his voice in the wilderness to say we're reverting to a false god (the Economy being a product of human hands) that is cruel and arbitrary.

Maybe he's a false prophet. But he raises moral and thoughtful questions. And too few voices speak these days, in the triumphal aftermath of the Cold War, against the rosy platitudes of the ''information superhighway'' or against a ''free'' world economy that leaves millions in the dust.

Colin Campbell is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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