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The emergence of media: Humanity's endgame (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted November 26, 2007

This piece of critical writing intends to look at the topic of media in contemporary society. This writing should be seen as the beginning of further attempts -- building on the insights of figures as diverse as Marshall McLuhan and the lesser-known media theorist Harold A. Innis, Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant, Noam Chomsky, and Camille Paglia -- to extend towards a "unified field theory" of the relations between media and society.

It could be argued that the effect on society of the emergence of electronic mass media (and their immediate precursors such as cinema) has been profoundly underestimated by most thinkers, or interpreted in banal and fairly trivial terms. One point that can almost immediately be made is that there are considerable differences between the mass media before the emergence of the Internet as a mass medium, and afterwards.  It could be suggested that the real birth of the Internet was in 1995, with the creation of the first websites which could be accessed by everyone who had a computer with an Internet connection. With ever-faster connections and ever-faster microcomputers (personal computers) the Internet spawned all kinds of new media developments that had never really been possible before, or had been prefigured only in some kind of fragmentary form. Thus, to look at the impact of the somewhat earlier media (mainly cinema, television, and the VCR) and then to try to examine the multifarious impacts of the post-1995 Internet, are largely discrete questions.

As the Internet develops, we learn through different events and junctures about different aspects of its possible impact – such as the emergence of Amazon, of Napster, of political blogs, of MMORPGs, of Google, of MySpace, of YouTube, of Facebook, of SecondLife, of iTunes, of podcasts, of the Blackberry, and so forth. To briefly look at just one of these developments, Google has become the overwhelmingly dominant search-engine, and has been able to parlay that into vast commercial wealth. The only main alternative to Google one can probably think of today is A9, which is most prominently utilized now (as far as the author knows) by Amazon. There were also reports that some regional search engines in China and Korea were being hugely utilized.

In terms of human consciousness, it could be argued with a broad sweep, that the realm of modern media (mainly cinema, television, and Internet) constitutes a new type of reality, of various dimensions -- parts of which can also be stored and recreated for viewing or listening by most people.

Until the emergence of the mass Internet after 1995, the situation was that, while almost anyone could use a camcorder, there was no easy way of widely distributing personal content. In the pre-Internet days, the "video" content that could be given a truly mass-audience constituted only an infinitesimal portion of all videotape filmed. Of course, just having "video" content today theoretically available to everyone on the Web who wishes to view it certainly does not guarantee it a mass-audience. What can be seen is that much of Web content, even today, is driven by the inertia, resources, and economic as well as cultural power of vast media enterprises, franchises and brands. This weight of inertia goes back three to four decades, at least.

In the pre-1995 days, almost everything in media that was widely available was produced by a relatively small number of different types of professionals, such as Hollywood movie directors and network television producers. And the final say on virtually all the sounds, speech, and images which could become available to a truly large, mass-audience was further channeled through an extremely small number of effective decision-makers, or "gatekeepers". However, the weight of the pre-1995 media is such that the hegemony of various media enterprises, franchises and brands, endlessly and almost effortlessly continues. In fact, an argument could be made that such phenomena as celebrity gossip websites have in fact intensified many people's never-ending excitation over various entertainment and sports celebrities.

While eclectic material can theoretically be made available on the Internet, in most cases, it lacks the "authority", "cool-factor", and advertising muscle of such phenomena as Hollywood blockbusters, CNN news programs, or videogames created with multi-million dollar budgets. Indeed, the effect of the Internet is often just to mobilize and intensify a given "fan-base" – rather than to encourage any kind of eclectic philosophical thinking, reflection, or discussion.  The Internet has arrived on the scene after more than four decades of extremely intensive image shaping by media such as television and electrically-enhanced popular music (formerly mostly existing in the category of rock music, and now given over largely to rap and hip-hop.)

The notion that so-called "televangelism" may be a major aspect of the current-day media that brings into question the idea that there is overwhelming antinomianism in current-day media culture, is highly dubious. It could be argued that "televangelism" (which in any case may have in fact peaked in the 1980s) is mostly just another form of entertainment, at considerable remove from more traditional understandings of religion and the religious experience. It also frequently trades on highly dubious misapplications of prophetic and apocalyptic traditions. And any serious comparison of the comparative social and cultural reach and influence of Hollywood as opposed to "televangelism" show the former as far, far more salient.

In regard to talk-radio, it could be argued that there is little there but a mostly mindless, jingoistic, ersatz patriotism whose main purpose appears to be to drive America into endless wars abroad.

As far as independent "art" films, documentaries, and so forth, nearly all of them can be seen as
intensifying most of the trends and concepts prevalent today in most major Hollywood productions, rather than trying to give voice to a truly serious, constructive critique of current-day society.

It might also be noted that the mass-education system over the last three to four decades mostly failed to encourage any kind of "counter-ethic" to the prevalent media messages and images, thus resulting in the near-destruction of the possibility of nurturing a substantial number of more reflective, cultured, truly literate people in our society.

It could be argued that the real impact of media on human upbringing, conditioning, behavior, and perception of reality is grossly underestimated. Who could realistically deny that the steady exposure of a generation to various media images, sounds, and speech, does not result in these being often seared into the mind, deeply internalized, and then, in some greater or sometimes lesser way, expressed in behavior? As opposed to the immediate spoken word, the manuscript, the printed book, or even the mass newspaper, electronic media has raised the ability of a given person or idea to influence society to a hitherto unimaginable degree, and with the near-total exclusion of other persons, ideas, and ways-of-life. Not only does it allow public speech to reach simultaneously tens or hundreds of millions of people, it also raises the possibility of almost continuous, searing, graphic and auditory impact on viewers or listeners. It could be argued that media -- unless the small number of its effective decision-makers described above is of strongly divergent viewpoints, or unless other institutions in society confront it very powerfully – may be the perfect instrumentality for total conformity or social totalitarianism, defined as imposing one way of thinking, being, existing, and living on a given population. Eighteenth-century legislation could be seen as inadequate to address this issue.

There is a growing body of literature around the world that increasingly demonstrates the startling degree of single-mindedness of those who are the effective decision-makers of the media, as well of its most prominent celebrities, which can be described as one of "Americanocentric consumerist liberalism". 

To be continued next week. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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