The corporate branded vision of space

The 1998 film, The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, presents a character, Truman Burbank, who unknowingly stars in a 30-year soap opera/reality show about his own life, under a giant dome whose boundaries are hidden from him. The show is broadcast to a global audience of billions.

The fake town Truman lives in, Seahaven, is populated by a massive number of actors playing real people. Seahaven’s creator, director, executive producer, and God, Christof, is convinced that the deception is benign, because Truman’s life in the synthetic town is far happier than anything he could find in the real world.

As  the film progresses, Truman begins to suspect that his entire life is part of an elaborate set. It’s at this point that the shows audience begin to root for him in his quest to uncover his fake existence and to escape from the confines of his virtual reality prison. The viewing audience are able to relate to Truman’s plight because they recognize that they too are trapped by similar forces that they need to be rescued from.

The film works as a satire because the community in which Truman lives his fake existence is very much tied into a corporate dominated world in which the notion of illusion and reality is often blurred. Truman’s quest for freedom can be interpreted as the aspiration for authenticity and meaning within a world in which the increasing commodification of all things is a feature of modern life. Was Weir on to something? Is the world in which Truman inhabits more than just a piece of science fiction allegory?

Every institution provides the people who are members of it with a social role to occupy – that’s as true to the role played by say, the church, as it is to the corporation whose goal it is to maximize profit and market share. The idea is to have individuals who are totally disassociated from one another. Just like the God figure, Christof, the fictional creator of Seahaven, public relations and advertising industries’ facilitate the process of disassociation by molding people from a very early age into a desired pattern.

To achieve this, corporations don’t necessarily advertise products but advertise a way of life and a narrative of who we are as people. The aim is to persuade us that the corporation is virtuous, responsible for the good life and the belief that the future can only be better than the present; that modernity itself means human improvement. Reinforcing this ideology of progress is the notionthat the successful corporations of the future will increasingly focus onbranding as a form of production.

Many corporations have already recreated their branded visions as three dimensional representations of real life. A company like Disney, for example, have taken this logic to the next level by building a “town” in the image of their brand – Celebration Florida, which it describes as a “unincorporated community of almost 8,000 people, situated on 11 square miles of carefully engineered Floridian swamp.”

The brand image of Celebration Florida is a themed all-American family friendly environment set within a bygone era. Family orientated films are a logical extension of this idea. According to Celebration Florida spokesperson, Andrea Finger, the Disney brand “speaks of reassurance, tradition and quality. And you can see that in this community that we’ve built.”

The Celebration Florida town is essentially a privatized branded cocoon which you start by shopping in, then you continue by holidaying in and eventually you just might move into. This is the real life Seahaven of the Truman Show. Given that the relations mediated between human beings is intrinsic to a commercial world, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Utopian Celebration Florida model is a vision of the future that will become commonplace elsewhere.

Already, people are being subliminally targeted with branding by undercover marketeers on a daily basis. Can civilization survive on this narrow definition of how we interact with one another? Not according to one prominent commentator who argues that “progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life” . The Commodification of life perpetuates this destructiveness by reducing human resource to the same market discipline logic as everything else.

This brings into sharp focus the contesting nature of authenticity; of identity and representation and what constitutes democratic urban space and its relation to forms of state power. In London, this relationship is highlighted by the umbilical cord that connects the interests of the ruling Conservative government and the mayors office to big business.

The lack of availability of affordable housing in the city combined with the hated bedroom tax is resulting in the effective social cleansing from the city of the poor and those on middle incomes. What determines the government’s housing policy is not the ending of the housing crisis but to bolster the investment opportunities of the rich which will make it worse.

This is what Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in January regarding the governments’ intention to demolish council homes and replace them with private housing is all about. This ethos is central to the recently proposed Housing and Planning Bill which will force families living in social housing and earning £30,000-£40,000 to pay rents nearly as high as those in the private sector.

It will also compel local authorities to sell ‘high value’ housing, either by transferring public housing into private hands or giving the land it sits on to property developers. What were once public spaces are increasingly being privatized and sold off to foreign investors. This undermines social networks and local economies upon which local businesses depend for their livelihoods.

More broadly, the hollowing out of large parts of not only London but other towns and cities throughout the country in this way changes our perceptions of what constitutes private and public spaces and for what use the state intends to put them to. The February 13 edition of the Guardian reported on a London rally that protested against the corporate takeover of public streets and squares. Protesters cited London’s Canary Wharf, Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City as public places now governed by the rules of the corporations that own them.

Privatized public zones are appearing throughout Britain and include Birmingham’s Brindley place, a significant canal-side development. In Exeter, there is Princesshay, described as a “shopping destination featuring over 60 shops set in a series of interconnecting open streets and squares”. Intrinsic to the privatization agenda is the Public Space Protection Order (PSPO).

Introduced by the coalition government, the PSPO is another form of social cleansing that is intended to criminalize those sleeping rough in an attempt to drive homeless people from towns and city centres. The formal ordering and disciplining of the poorest within urban spaces in this way, in other words, has had the affect of pushing the poor to the periphery, out of sight and out of mind of urban powers for whom responsibility is increasingly disavowed.

This process is not new. The 19th century architect Nash’s designs of Trafalgar Square, Regent’s Street, Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, for example, created a London that has “the air of a seat of government, and not of an immeasurable metropolis of ‘shopkeepers’ to use Napoleons expression.” This was achieved:

“by demarcating poorer and richer areas, in effect cutting off the rich from the sight and odours of the poor. Nash himself declared that he wished to create a line or barrier between the Streets and Squares occupied by the Nobility and Gentry and the narrow Streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community.”

The governments latest attempts to cut off the rich from the poor through the implementation of the PSPO is, therefore, part of an historical continuum which also involves the enclosure of open fields and common land as part of a series of parliamentary Enclosure Acts that began in the early 17th century. Central to this is the notion that power relations are shaped by  neoliberal economic forces which determine and shape elements from the landscape of cities and re-package them under the banner ‘urban renaissance’.

Begun under New Labour, the ideology that underpins urban renaissance reflects a historical contradiction between planning in terms of social need and the process of competitive accumulation which is expressed in living and working urban spaces. This contradiction can be traced back to the 1947 Town and Planning Act. Although urban planners have often been cast in an heroic role protecting the public from shoddy contractors and the short-term drive for profit by speculators, town planning has been skewed historically by deeply undemocratic practices.

As was the case with their New Labour predecessors under Tony Blair, the Conservative government under David Cameron is committed to an urban renaissance and renewal policy that is ideologically attached to neoliberalism manifested in supply-side strategies for urban investment. Examples are regeneration programmes predicated on place promotion and development with culture, heritage and conspicuous consumption in mind.

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