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Growing up - a return to ideals.

We have reached a point of awareness of a) our social evolution as a whole and b) our interdependence such that we can take a hand in guiding our own further evolution. However, the current communications paradigm, while engaging in its own evolution, tends to overlook this bigger picture in favor of an out-of-date competitive framework that restrains the winds of change in society itself.

Society's story must become one of cooperation and broad context if we truly intend to solve the problems facing the global human family. With the increasing returns possible on personal vision, the individual has been paramount in recent history. Accordingly, today's media, having matured in the last hundred years under the influence of individualistic visionaries, have an addiction to the glamour of competition, conflict, and triumph.

The problems facing mankind as a whole, though, are not easily personified, not easily captured in individual personality. Civil rights issues, world hunger, and economic instability are not issues that can be framed in terms of personality A having a point of view different from that of personality B. The winners and losers in these struggles are large groups of individuals, the breadth and depth of which is impossible to accurately portray in 30-second cuts. The issues are complex, affecting everyone.

The media serve mankind as its mirror. Just as the study of history is a window into the past, the "study" of, or indeed, simple exposure to, our media show us the "present." News programs could be considered the nightly narrative update to history except that the emphasis tends to be on "now" with an embedded "us" mentality. The viewpoints shown tend to isolate the media-consuming us from the vague them suffering elsewhere. Personalities speak for each side, and these become our touchstones, the most tangible relation we feel we have to the problems they discuss. For instance, a national healthcare debate has nothing to do with the uninsured voices, but everything to do with the highly visible "champions" of each side -- figure A pushing for, figure B pushing against.

This interplay of forces is similar to former conceptions of the physical world. Newton's classical physics declare that every action has an equal but opposite reaction. We seek to capture action and reaction in the media, but fail to convey the rich substance in every issue by focusing on extremes and those who espouse them. Current trends in physics, however, indicate a shift in thinking from simple cause and effect relationships to complex dynamics involving the interaction of innumerable variables and general emergent patterns -- things best observed from a step back, a bigger picture.

The media must face the necessity of a paradigm shift reflecting this shift in the scientific paradigm. After all, this developing view of the world best describes the social world of humanity. A message may seldom have a definite quantifiable effect, yet each message a person receives throughout the day may have subtle qualitative effects which, in sum, may eventually produce a more observable result. What is more, much takes place below the conscious threshold, making every aspect of communication a variable to consider, including the differing experiences of each member of any given audience.

graphic

Walter Ong uses the concept of the sensorium -- the entire sensory apparatus as an operational complex -- to illustrate the evolution of media. This concept is useful as it points to an fundamental aspect of communication: messages from the outside of an individual making their way into the individual. The senses are the exclusive conduit for messages to reach an individual's brain from the external environment.

Ong divides human communications into three stages: the oral/oral-aural, the script/typographic, and electronic. In considering the transition from an oral/oral-aural culture to a typographic culture, modern benefits are obvious. Before writing is developed, there is no "history," nothing to "look up."The written word allows mankind the idea of information storage never considered in oral culture. It allows individual thinking -- it allows separation from the tribe, once necessary as a collective storage apparatus. Oral communication is inextricably tied to the auditory world, the visual impact of spoken words being nonexistent. As it is spoken, the word comes into existence and immediately passes away -- existing in time as no medium that has come after. This gave the spoken word added import as it was more of an event than modern man considers the word. With no means for recording it, the word's meaning is dependent upon the circumstances at the particular time it is uttered as well as the memory of previous occurrences of the word as an event.

The written word, Ong suggests, was initially merely a memory aid, encoding little serving as a cue for retrieval. The development of scripts -- organized systems of writing -- actually began to bring about a shift in the sensorium. These systems attempt to represent concepts themselves directly, rather than simply picturing objects (as in Egyptian hieroglyphics). The development of the alphabet also introduced modes of linear, structured thinking. By the 18th century, the development of printing had cemented a more profound shift in man's feeling for the world and for his way of relating to his surroundings. Typography created the possibility of exactly repeatable visual statement. The sensorium shifted, Ong says, from preoccupation with sound to preoccupation with space. Corresponding shifts occurred in human consciousness due to the altered perceptual emphasis.

Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, states that the alphabet and print technology engendered a fragmenting process, "a process of specialism and of detachment."

"Its use fostered and encouraged the habit of perceiving all environment in visual and spatial terms -- particularly in terms of a space and of a time that are uniform, continuous, and connected. The line, the continuum...became the organizing principle of life."
letters as one reads from left to right. This is a stark contrast to the oral-aural sensorium in which the sound of the word -- comprising the whole of its existence -- is simply there. Humans are not equipped with earlids, specialized muscles or any such precise means of focusing aural attention. Echoing Ong's observations regarding the sensorium, McLuhan suggests that media actually alter the environment and evoke in man unique ratios of sense perceptions. These alterations change the ways we think and act and, in turn, how we perceive the world. Both Ong and McLuhan point out that modern man's relationship to time, in terms of communication, is similar to that of oral-aural man. Just as oral culture depended on the spoken word as an "event" whose simultaneity with other events held much of its meaning, modern man faces a new world of simultaneity on much larger scales. This is one basis of McLuhan's statement that modern society is becoming a "global village." The near-instantaneous transmission of information across the globe maximizes social sense, in a fashion, by generating a sense of mediated omnipresence.

Ong defines communications as "not simply new gimmicks enabling man to 'contact' his fellows but, more completely, the person's means of entering into the life and consciousness of others and thereby into his own life." He states, "To address or communicate with other persons is to participate in their inwardness as well as in our own."

Electronic communication affords mankind the rapid transmission of information, but Neil Postman points out the decreased value of the information. Beginning with the telegraph, electronic communications have given "a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a 'thing' that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning." Photography heightened this departure from the more utilitarian idea of information, isolating single images from their contexts, "recreat[ing] the world as a series of idiosyncratic events." Just as meaning is distorted by taking a sentence out of context, the meaning of isolated images or facts is lost or lessened when the context cannot be adequately captured by the same electronic means. In fact, more information is substituted for context, as a distant piece of news is somehow legitimized by a photo of the news event, proving its reality and therefore, its connection to reality, so to speak. "But if the event is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter with the stranger, then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so is the impression of meaning attached to it."

Daniel Boorstin calls this the "pseudo event," a societal epidemic reflecting an obsession with the image. This obsession has displaced what once might have dominated thinking: ideals. Defining an ideal as a conception of something in its most excellent or perfect form and an image as an artificial imitation or representation of the external form of any object, one may note the difference in implication between the two: one is something we strive toward while the other is something into which we try to fit.

graphic

Humanity's evolution at this point becomes relevant. Where once biology and natural selection could be said to have guided evolution, mankind today finds his world to be one he created through various media and civilization, distinctly different from natural evolution in the natural world. We now evolve in a "pseudo-reality," one that is a step removed from the conflict of nature, adding new elements of social order and responsibility. We must now decide whether to pursue evolution toward our images or toward our ideals.

Up until this point, mankind's evolution has been largely haphazard. The social changes of the last two centuries were not planned events. However, the current evolution of man is largely psychosocial, and for perhaps the first time, humans may have some choice in which way to go. Of the utmost importance in this view is the "intended result." The media tend today to be specialized as adjuncts to the capitalist economic system. Commercials push new products on the consumer public, while product placement in movies and TV programs carefully reinforce the desirability of these products. This manner of communication is also employed in matters of government and politics, as policy is not intelligently critiqued, just presented as another good or service, of sorts. The resulting society turns out to be a largely superficial one, consisting of countless individuals trying to obtain what they think they want -- to fit some image.

This model has not simply failed -- our society enjoys a higher standard of living than most, after all. The problem is in the underlying emphasis. Are the modern media working toward an ideal future goal or simply seeking the profits of today's image, no matter the costs of tomorrow? Are the media functioning with suspect microcosmic motivations for retaining power and market share or are they taking a macroscopic look at the world and seeing just how much potential human communication has? These are issues to consider as man and his media enter the 21st century.

Nationalism and imposed boundaries defined by imaginary lines put up artificial barriers between the people of the world. Keeping our land distinct from their land has led to war and global instability, yet it is all we know.

Fundamental issues must be viewed differently. Nationalism must give way to a global view. We are not American, Japanese, British, and South African; we are all children of this one planet, the one that makes our childish competition possible. We are earthlings, first and foremost. Though up until this point in our history we have been happy to fight over pieces of the planet's surface (or even below, if oil, gold, etc. is involved), the time to stop fighting has come. We cannot escape the truth of our interdependence. We do not toil in a vacuum. Everything we choose to do has effects far beyond what we imagine, especially when behavior is examined from beyond a one-person radius. It is the grand total of all individual behaviors that has always determined the future courses to be taken, whether into peace or war, freedom or slavery.

Facing the grand millennial transition that scared the human population immensely last time around, we have the opportunity to examine the directions we've been heading in and to chart new courses for the future. We still reside in remnants of the same society that had people frightened as the year 1000 approached. The power of the church is lessened, survival for most of us is not the primary goal of each day, and we have a lot more luxury to make up for the daily toil that is required for survival. Still the consciousness of man struggles to break down walls and discover freedom and a meaningful life.

Visionaries of the past managed to spread their views to certain segments of society and even to bring about certain changes in the world. The challenge for society now is to become a visionary society -- not a societal order based on a few visionaries, but a social order rising from a visionary mindset.

What explains the fact that while the United States wastes thousands of tons of food every year, thousands die elsewhere from starvation? What explains the fact that a small percentage of the world's population controls the vast majority of the world's wealth? These are individualistic holdovers, arising from greed, love of security, and even love of luxury. This is evidence of successful prodigal sons -- they may not have wound up feeding pigs and wishing they could share the pig's food, but they've still not recognized the importance of the family they left behind. Yet we let our brothers and sisters die even as we watch "Seinfeld" without a care in the world.

What is the role of the media in this sorry state of affairs? Too often, it becomes just another opiate for the masses, offering mindless entertainment, simplified and sensationalized newscasts, and creating factitious desires for products we seldom need. Can the media seek to become active participants in the evolutionary drama of real life? Technology, to be sure, offers its share of promise, but as George Gilder writes: "Technology is not a genie in a bottle or an overwhelming tide engulfing us from afar. It is not something that happens to us inexorably and chaotically like a Tolstoyan war. It is something we create or suppress largely as we see fit." What must go hand in hand with technological development are supreme moral and ethical convictions that it is not me with paramount importance, but instead, us.

In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse points out the chilling effect technology has had since the industrial revolution. Technology has become the status quo, the basis for the society in which we live, and therefore, supreme. The feeling one gets is that humanity exists to serve its technology. The high-tech is akin to the divine, but kept shrouded in secrecy, responsive only to the educated, affordable only to the fairly affluent.

Technological innovation still has the potential to be a more liberating factor of life, but its position must change. From the high priest, it must become the servant. The question relevant in this consideration is, "Whose best interest does it serve?" If people are to be served by their technology, how can such a diverse group best be served?

Today's media stem from the same rational mindset that has encouraged reductionist science to the point of developing technology just to break things into smaller and smaller pieces. The connection is not a result of conscious teamwork, but rather the far-reaching result of a paradigm, a world view that suggests we can divide and conquer. Thus today's media, to guarantee their continued existence, support the status quo and this mindset of conflict and domination.

However, times are changing, pushed in new directions by developments and realizations. Modern science, while still reductionist in its methodology, has begun to see the futility of a staunch reductionist view. Research into chaos and complexity theory has revealed that simple equations can lead to complex behavior and that even very small differences in initial conditions can lead to startlingly large differences in behavior over successive iterations of equations. Physicists have stumbled upon intriguing theories of uncertainty and probability has become as important as actual observation.

graphic

The connections between modern scientific thought and modern man may not seem readily apparent, but examining parallels demonstrates how man's view of himself is changing with his view of the universe he inhabits. For example, physicists today know that they cannot take a measurement (of, say, some particular subatomic particle (which may in fact also be a wave)) without actually affecting whatever it is they are measuring. Now consider one of the media's favorite tools for determining public opinion: polling. Taking opinion polls seems intuitively to be the only way to get data on opinion-based issues. Yet consider the effect simply asking the first question could have on the respondent. Psychological concepts of priming and saliency come into play, as even the wording of the question and the tone of the interviewer's voice can become cues. Human thought and feeling is not as simple as asking a question and determining a statistical average. Each person answering has a different set of experiences informing his or her opinion, and one wording of a question might elicit two different responses from two people who ordinarily would consider themselves in agreement on an issue. Complexity certainly exists in interpersonal/social human relationships.

Furthermore, the process does not necessarily stop at the end of an interview. The human subject can answer a list of questions, then proceed down to the neighborhood bar and have a completely different set of opinions by the time he or she leaves. Best of all, the conversation at the pub that leads to the change of opinion may be sparked by the subject bringing up the pollster who called earlier. This hypothetical example points out the difficulty in justifying the workings of our public opinion polling apparatus, although these polls are accepted as hard fact (with obligatory margins of error that mean nothing to us in literal terms) by the time we see results on the news.

The sharp contrasts drawn by the media to demonstrate "both sides" of issues are also, to a degree, as erroneous. What issue has simply two sides? Each issue raised in public discussion is a line drawn, with the possibilities of being on one side or the other. But few issues facing society today are so clear-cut. Consider the abortion controversy that has been on the public's agenda for some time. Media present it as a showdown between pro-lifers and pro-choicers (note also the dual positively-framed reference points, rather than pro- and anti- viewpoints). Both sides obviously have strong feelings for their position, but how much are the positions themselves reinforced by the line drawn to separate them? Whether pro-life or pro-choice, people from each position have personal experiences that have led them to believe in a certain ideal. Yet how much do the people on each side truly differ? Do not both sides value life, while simultaneously valuing choice? Are the media seeking to fan flames of conflict because of the "news value" or are they seeking to help man understand fellow man, and therefore himself? This, after all, is the noblest goal of communication.

The media are not simply carriers of information. They are involved in the same reality as the rest of society. So what responsibility do they carry as inescapably involved (say goodbye to the idea of pure objectivity) carriers of information?

The media must stop looking at communication as force-feeding. We cannot package information as entertainment (or anything else), broadcast it, and expect certain effects or responses. Man and his society are too complex. The advent of computer-based communications holds a light out in the distance, as the potential for more freedom, more possibilities, and more interaction seems far superior to the institutionalized communications media of today.

Some may say the connections drawn between physical principles and mass media-influenced human behavior are irrelevant, tenuous, or wrong. Yet consider the far-reaching implications of scientific developments of the past. The Copernican revolution, pushed by Galileo and perhaps brought to fruition since the beginning of the space age, succeeded in changing man's very sense of himself. From being the center of the universe, man became the inhabitant of a smallish planet, orbiting an ordinary star, in an immense galaxy, one of countless more in a universe that, as far as we can tell, actually has no center. Think this doesn't affect the psyche of men or the predominant world view? Tell that to the Catholic church, which has only in the last 20 years acknowledged that the earth is not the center of the universe.

Consider again the effect of the atomic age of mankind. While an incomprehensible storehouse of energy we can't efficiently use, the atom has become symbolic of man's worst homicidal urges. Atomic power's real debut on this planet was through weapons of mass destruction. As the century progressed, the Cold War became a war fought in the minds of men, women and children, fighting to keep up and keep on even while a thought in the back of the mind notes that it could all be over in an instant -- and feeling powerless to prevent such a holocaust just because the buttons were in someone else's hands.

How many Soviets and Americans were really out for the blood (or perhaps, radiation sickness) of their alleged arch-enemies? These ideological battles were waged by those in power with the means to control their constituents, not least through the media. Yet today, we sense the Russian frustration with economic instability and fear what worldwide instability could mean for our comfortable lives. Lines once drawn are beginning to disappear.

graphic

Interdependence is fundamental to human civilization. Primitive life is characterized by the constant toil to survive, generally looking out only for the self and perhaps, family. As man becomes more conscious, the potential for sharing labor and the fruits of that labor began to make sense. Everyone need not grow their own food and know how to sew new clothes and know how to build a sturdy house and which plants and animals are dangerous. Communication was born from the slow realization that humans, with a foundation of trust, could cooperate to make life easier and, in fact, better, for all those involved. This awareness of interdependence has become subconscious in modern life. Power structures have been around since feudal days, offering certain benefits in return for subservience, but today the power structures are becoming less and less able to cope with the demands of the times. People are becoming more frustrated as they do "their part" but still end up with nothing meaningful in return from their society, a society too busy assimilating every new attack on the status quo.

Champions of the capitalist system will surely point out that reward has been the motivation for individuals to succeed and that this system has succeeded in producing a standard of living incomparable to any of the past. Yet where does true social responsibility reemerge? It is more than paying taxes that go toward welfare programs. The cycles that keep people uneducated, under-skilled, and largely dependent on the state must be broken. The media generally play along with this game, happy to be simply an opiate, pleased to know millions of people come home and sit down to watch televised fiction, and perhaps ecstatic to reap the fiscal benefits from high ratings and corresponding advertising revenues. But consider humanity removed from this aspect of the media. Was one of mankind's great ideals of the past to be able to sit around and watch characters living false lives for hours at a time, even 24 hours a day?

Man must set himself free from the media that are currently entangling him. Man must be encouraged to grow, to dream, to envision more than the current media environment allows. Humanity must begin to see beyond somewhat petty differences into the possibility of global cooperation seeking not profits, but true human progress -- the ability to feed everyone, educate everyone, encourage everyone into positive growth, allow everyone independent thinking, and still enjoy benefits of peace and prosperity.

The stakes have been twisted by short-sightedness of the last century, considering national boundaries and trade ratios to be most important, while using technology to put us to sleep and keep us happy in the short term. Mankind's potential is also the potential of his technology, appropriately used. The Internet may not be the solution, but the potential of computer-based communications cannot be overlooked due to the state of the technology at this point. The continued evolution of man will include further development of technology that perhaps modern man cannot even begin to imagine.

The goal at this point must be to open ourselves for real growth. This does not mean more cable TV channels; this means being able to conceive of our world in new ways, seeing ourselves as members of one human race, and dreaming together of an "ideal" future. Not a future of three cars in my garage and a million dollars in the bank, but a future in which our children need not worry about nuclear war, market instability on the other side of the world, or media that feed them things they don't want or need to eat.

This is nothing less than a complete shift in the communications paradigm we know and love. This means the eventual end of much that is common to communications efforts today. Yet the future beckons the media into a position less in the middle of everything, trying to interpret and frame what happens, and more into the midst of everything, becoming innovative and inventive, seeking the highest good for the human family, changing as it becomes possible to do so.

When people begin to feel empowered, they will begin to seek more than a sit-com respite between days at work. Allowed to select their own media fare, people will eventually begin to search for deeper fulfillment than reruns will ever have to offer. In such a media environment, people would find fewer differences between themselves. Interests would probably bring about potentially surprising alignments. Power structures would eventually become more diffuse. The possibility of equal pursuits of happiness envisioned in the American Declaration of Independence would become more of a reality than it has been thus far in its 200-year history. Today, consumers tend to seek escape rather than true, fulfilling happiness. This escape is made possible through currently immature electronic media, presenting a sanitized view of reality, devoid of most of its real meaning. The media allow consumers to feel informed and connected, while in actuality, the connection fostered by these media can best be likened to having everyone chew the same gum or drink the same soft drink.

The image of our society as one of consumers, demanding production of whatever goods everyone wants, must give way to one of a society of producers. Just as the producers in the food chain, the green plants, ask nothing in return of those who consume them, a society of true producers (a truly productive society, perhaps) must ask nothing in return of those who consume what is produced. Society must begin extricating itself from the images it has created and return to the ideals that made it possible.

graphic

References

  1. Ong, Walter J. (1967). The Presence of the Word. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p23.

  2. Ibid, p40.

  3. Ibid, pp32-3.

  4. Ibid, p35.

  5. Ibid, p36.

  6. Ibid, pp38, 45.

  7. Ibid, p63.

  8. Ibid, p53.

  9. Ibid, p73.

  10. McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. (1967). The Medium is the Massage. New York: Bantam, p8.

  11. Ibid, pp44-5.

  12. Ong, p101.

  13. Ibid, p15.

  14. Ibid, p125.

  15. Postman, Neil. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Viking, p65.

  16. Ibid, p73.

  17. I>Ibid, p75.

  18. Boorstin, Daniel J. (1961). The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Atheneum.

  19. Gilder, George. (1990). Life After Television. Whittle Direct Books, p25.

  20. Marcuse, Herbert. (1964). One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

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