Deus ex Media?

Three views of mass communications: Transmission, Medium, Cultural.

Transmission. Power of the financiers. Fewer than 8 companies own the majority of the world’s media outlets. People. Are. Dupes.

[ Sender –> message –> transmitter –> channel — receiver –> destination. ] The model of the media industry. Effective. Controlled. Mass Communications deliver a product.

Internet the Transmission killer?

Medium. McLuhan, one of the prominent figures of the media studies’ world, suggested, along with a number of other analysts during his time period, that the message

It matters not what is said
or heard
or felt

It is all about the medium itself. The medium dictates the lifestyle that people live while utilizing it, and it is that change in lifestyles that is the important factor in the power of the media and mass communications.

Forget the rich people. Forget the effect of the propaganda’s content. The delivery, the power behind the message — that is to say, the medium itself — is the truly affecting force.

Take, for example, the television (which was the prime focus for McLuhan). The television can carry any sort of signal, in his opinion, and still have the same result on the psyche of the society. Unlike written and auditory media, which had previously been the mainstream source of information for the public, the electronic forms of information “work us over completely,” making us use far more of our sense than ever before. Our society, which has hitherto been a primarily visual one, is suddenly caught up in the rush of excitement that is brought forth through the combination of the senses. No longer are we able to accept singular stimuli. It must be in combinations; our inclination towards text is dimished.

But to ignore money, in our capitalistic society, is perhaps a bit too theoretical and too little practical?

Cultural. Binding together. those pieces that would otherwise be separate. Individuals count. They are not dupes nor are the “senders” all-powerful. Rather, the media depend on the support of the people about them. The media somehow fulfill a role in the lives of the masses, or otherwise there would be no reason for its success.

People matter, in all forms. The individuals who are receivers do not passively accept what is sent. They interact with it, make decisions about it. In many ways, media become a ritual for the receivers.

For those putting it forth, the media are centered around profit. They, too, are people, and their motivations count. To see the media machine as being controlled by some faceless enterprise manipulating those beneath them is foolish… they have their desires, their prejudices, and their limits.

MY view. The Internet has changed the scope of individual participation. With television, radio, writing, etc., there was always a producer and an audience. With the Internet, the age has come when interacting through media is as simple as having a conversation. There are no clear givers and takers, because every taker has the potential to give back. Prime example? This blog.

As a result, the Cultural view of mass communications has become the predominant one of our age. Also relevant, in my mind, is the Medium view of mass communications. The power of the media themselves is easy to overlook, especially in a day and age when we hear regularly about the influence of advertisements, of movies, and other such media. The focus of these precautions is clearly the messages contained in the medium, not the medium itself. The overlooked factor is that the medium decided the style of life around it. McLuhan draws heavily upon evidence of Reading causing a predominantly visual society. Television, on the other hand, encourages a multifaceted sensual experience. It is entirely normal for a person to sit at a desk, typing out their blog while listening to music and checking out what other blogs have commented on recently. This multitasking of sensory systems is something that electronic media have instituted. However, to say that the message itself has no power is ridiculous. A single message may not alter our lives the way a single innovative technology will, but a thousand such messages may.

However, while the latter two views of mass communications may be more relevant to today’s world, corporate delivery must not be completely ignored. While there is the potential for a completely individualized internet, there are still major players who control a huge portion of the market. In much the same way as Newspapers, which are “unbiased”, the Internet provides an “individual” experience while still being dictated by those who control the resources.

The key to true freedom of communications? There is none, as long as capitalism is the dominant global economic system If people are driven by their desire for money, inevitably even if individuals should manage to develop a superior product, those individuals will become corporate with time due to the drive for financial reimbursement for the time and effort required for developing the product. And while the cultural view maintains that the corporation is a group of individuals, there is no denying that figured such as Bill Gates are no longer responsible for the majority of decisions made concerning the company. The only influence on decisions is economic, and as long as that is the case, the goal of advertising will be to influence the masses into buying products, which is ideally (for the company) the result of the masses absorbing the information passively and acting on the desires placed in them. Companies will continue to aspire to make us sponges, as long as capitalism and economic gain are the primary motivating factors of our society.


The photograph.

Destroyer of Aura.

Original piece? No matter.

The power of mass-produced art.

Disembodied. Distanced. Destroyed?

I think not.


The black dog howls at my door

Winston Churchill referred to depression as a black dog.

As is true with all metaphors, it speaks volumes. The nickname implies both familiarity and an attempt at mastery, because while that dog may sink his fangs into one’s person every now and then, he’s still, after all, only a dog, and he can be cajoled sometimes and locked up other times.

That’s a positive interpretation of the metaphor. Depression doesn’t respond to cajoling, in my experience! Perhaps the metaphor is more sinister than that: the black dog is an adversary that cannot be shaken off, always out there (even on good days), though you can’t quite see it, persistently hunting you down. It’s a scary shadow to live with, akin to the Hound of the Baskervilles.

black dog giving chase

My family has a marked history of depression and suicide, which suggests a genetic predisposition. Many years ago, the high school guidance counselor took my girlfriend aside to warn her: “If you decide to break up with him, be careful how you handle it — you never know how someone in that family might react.”

I’ve been fortunate. The teenaged years were a real struggle for me, but I’ve been healthy as an adult. Sometimes depressive; even a low-level depression during a particularly difficult period (when my marriage was breaking down), but tougher and more resilient than some of my near relatives.

But this weekend, the black dog was howling at my door. It managed to sneak inside at least once, and leave its muddy paw prints in my entranceway. The good news is, I think the trigger was my asthma medication, so I’ve stopped taking it.

I’ve suffered from mild asthma every night at bedtime for the past several weeks. I have a prescription for a daily inhaler, but I had never filled it until now.

Saturday, I had a somewhat frustrating day. Then I had a small setback before bed, and I had a complete meltdown. I bawled like my best friend had died, and it took me about an hour to regain control. Poor MaryP — she was trying to find out what was “really” wrong, because my response was out of all proportion to the stimulus.

That episode set me to wondering about my asthma medication, so I googled it. Infrequent (less than one percent incidence) adverse events for inhaled budesonide include “psychiatric symptoms including depression, aggressive reactions, irritability, anxiety, and psychosis”. I suppose my inherent depressive tendency made me more susceptible to this adverse reaction.

But of course I’m speculating. Maybe it was just a coincidence. I’ve stopped taking the medication; now we’ll see whether I start to feel less fragile. I’ll follow up with my doctor when I have more information for her.

In the meantime, I worked out my coping mechanisms a long time ago.

  • Seek a balance between rest and productive activity.
    It’s a mistake to sit idle, with nothing to occupy you except thoughts of how depressed you are. Much better to set manageable goals for the day (changing the cat litter, for example) so you’ve got something to feel good about when bedtime arrives. (For me, “manageable goals” includes blogging!)
  • Do something physical.
    Yesterday, I went for a forty-minute walk despite the cold weather. (Minus 18° Celsius = 0° Fahrenheit — within seasonal norms for Ottawa in January.) Exercise is a constructive response to stress of any kind — even if it’s a cold day!
  • Get extra sleep.
    I had an exceptionally demanding week recently, and I suspect part of my problem is the inevitable letdown from that. I didn’t sleep well that week. Now I’m going to bed early, aiming at an extra hour or two of sleep each night to catch up.
  • Eat nutritional foods.
    Note the theme of the three middle bullets: look after your body. You can’t directly control your emotional state, but looking after your physical health is an indirect lever on emotional well-being.
  • Seek support from friends or family.
    MaryP has been entirely supportive, making little adjustments in the domestic routine. I’m very blessed, and I appreciate it!

I expect the ship will right itself, soon enough. Or (reverting to the original metaphor) the black dog will slink off with its tail between its legs.

Til the next time.

Defenceless against pretty woman

I don’t usually read Dear Abby, but for some reason I did today. This letter is pathetic, but hilarious.

Pretty girl is more than roommates can handle

My best friend, “Ted,” and I recently met an attractive girl I’ll call “Bridget.” Ted was married and suggested I date Bridget.

Within a few days, before I got up the nerve to ask her on a date, Ted broke up with his wife, moved in with me and started seeing Bridget.

This was awkward, but in addition, Bridget started making sexual advances toward me. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the wisdom to keep away from her. Although we didn’t have sex, I was closer to her than I should have been to my best friend’s girl.

Bridget JonesTed knows about it, and now ensures that Bridget and I are never alone together. He constantly worries about the situation, and it is interfering with his job.

I believe he wants to break up with her, but he’s afraid I will date her. I agreed with his suggestion that we both stop talking to her, but they are still dating. She continues to flirt with me every time he leaves the room, and I am defenseless against a pretty woman.

Bridget says she likes me, but she loves Ted. She clearly has some attachment issues. I would love to talk to her about them and help her.

I think Ted and I both have strong feelings for her. What should we do? Neither of us can resist when she cries or wants something.

“I am defenseless against a pretty woman.” Honestly! Are there still men living in the West who blame women for their lack of sexual self-control?

It’s too bad Dear Abby doesn’t publish photos, because “Bridget” must be beyond pretty.

Vita Machina

Welcome to the 21st century, realm of the machines. Life today revolves around the use of technology. This is but one of the undeniable truths of our current age.But the question is: is it good, bad, or is it even particularly revolutionary in its nature? This topic is in full-fledged debate in university this very moment. I would know. I attend.

And then again, this begs the question: is attending enough? The point has been brought forth that today’s education system is as obsolete as last year’s computer. Is this true? Is it time to advance beyond the preschool-elementary school-high school-university model that has been mainstream for what passes in today’s 10-second attention-span world as an eternity?

I don’t pretend to have answers.
I do have opinions.
Perhaps that’s a start to dismantling the education system.

A comment was made concerning the literacy rate of Prince Edward Island by a companion of mine. Theoretically there is a major issue with the ability of children to read, however given a chance to instant message one another, they are fully able to cope in an environment that demands an ability to truly read. Unlike the literature presented to us in the education system, which revolves around a disembodied voice presenting a narrative of events, speaking to live people on the other end of a communications’ relay requires genuine knowledge of the connotations contained within the message. Consideration must be given to phrasings, punctuation. and CAPitAlization. No, thei kanot spel and, their punctuation may not be grammatically in-tune with the 17th century regulations imposed on them. Nto to meniton the typos. But the amount one of the children of today can read out of a single misspelt message proves that they have a deeper understanding of the humanity behind the text than analysts of 19th century texts do. The machine has taught literacy — a different kind of literacy, certainly, but perhaps one more relevant to today’s needs, anyhow.

Marshall McLuhan wrote a book in 1967 called The Medium is the Massage. In it he presents his argument that the world is in a stage that has never before been witnessed, because of electronic communication. To him, the technology from his day was threatening to transform humanity unlike any previous innovation. That was 40 years ago. Is his argument still relevant? More relevant than ever? Was it relevant to begin with?

I would propose that it is, in fact, very relevant, but not in the way McLuhan was suggesting. To him, the television was proof that human beings were reverting to pre-literate patterns, that text and visual media were becoming encompassed by complete sensory experiences. Television, to him, represented the integration of sound, video, and presence.

As far as the media argument goes, I find it hard to refute. Certainly technology is advancing beyond a single-layered experience. However, the non-technological implications are, in my opinion, completely wrong. His suggestion that this particular line of advances is “the big one”, the one that will change the face of technology as we know it, is only evidence, in my mind, of the vita machina, the machine life, that surrounds us. And do excuse the poor Latin. I realize it is probably horribly wrong. But it sounds nice, and that is more important than grammar in this day and age.

Our machine life is so engrossing that we tend to forget that it is but the tip of the technological iceberg. This is perhaps even truer today, 40 years after the television was a major topic of discussion. The concept that innovations such as the internet are somehow different, somehow more moving of civilization than ancient advances, are looking at the ice that surfaces and assuming its slightly different colour means it is the raison d’etre of the iceberg. This egocentric view of humanity’s relationship with technology is perhaps typical of humanity, or at least of our culture, but has very little grounds for truth.

For today’s technology simply follows the exponential trend of acceleration that has been ongoing since the first major innovations were made by humans. When the alphabet was formed, it would have been a process of centuries for it to establish itself as useable. The same is likely the case with the wheel. Our culture looks at this long-term development, compares it to the spur-of-the-moment transformations that dictate technology in the 20th and 21st centuries, and judge this to be a sign of some major alteration having been made in the time period slightly before the boom. However, with millennia between the first human invention and modern times, it is difficult to grasp a single, key concept: technology is like a set of fertile bunny rabbits. It multiples no matter how hard you fight it.

The invention of the alphabet (or whatever innovation came prior to writing) naturally caused the next technological development by humans to be simpler, more adaptable. Similarly, the following invention made the one following it even simpler to integrate into the location’s culture. Yes, it still perhaps took a century to adapt, but the rate of change would certainly be increased. The pattern continues, with each innovation affecting the following ones, to varying degrees.

At the end of the cycle, we come to the internet, or whatever other major invention has recently replaced another. They too, will alter the face of communications in the same way the alphabet did. The internet will make innovations in transportation technology simpler and easier to integrate into our arguably global culture, in this case by allowing for more people to communicate faster and more often. Yes, our technology is changing at a faster pace then ever, but it by no means is the first set of advances to develop faster than the previous ones. That is why electronic information cannot be considered “the big one” of inventions.

In fact, it is just the product of an exponential increase in the potency of the initial big ones that were developed millennia past.


The view from Andrew Sullivan’s window

(If you’re a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, you’ll understand the title of my post.)

As mentioned in the previous post, Andrew Sullivan has been debating theism with Sam Harris. Harris commented on consciousness at one point. I want to pick up on it in light of recent discussion of consciousness on this blog. He writes:

The question of what happens after death (if anything) is a question about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.

After the initial exchange on beliefnet, Sullivan is posting his half of the dialogue on his blog. He uses Harris’s comment on consciousness as a springboard to argue that the scientific method cannot be the only means by which we validate truth:

I do not believe … that all truth rests on scientific premises and can be ‘proven’ by empirical or scientific methods. I believe science is one, important, valuable and respectable mode of thinking about the whole. But there are truth questions it has not answered and cannot answer. What I found insightful about your book was your openness to this possibility. You repeat that openness in your recent posting:

While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.

So you allow for a space where the logic of science and of materialism does not lead us toward truth, but may even mislead us about it, and lead us away from it. This is a big concession, and it undermines the certainty of your entire case. Such an argument must rest on a notion of ultimate truth that is deeper than science, beyond science. It must rest on a notion that allows for the rational legitimacy of my faith.

It might even include an appreciation of other modes of rational discourse that are not empirical in origin or form. Take, for example, the question of historical truth. You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true — and could never be proven true — by the scientific method that is your benchmark. There are no control groups in history. There are no experiments. But there is a form of truth. Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian – and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature.

My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode.

I appreciate Sullivan’s reference to the canons of historical truth, since I have spent a lot of time investigating the question of the “historical” Jesus. I can’t comment on mathematical proofs, but in my view there’s merit in the notion of “aesthetic truth” too — or at least, an intuitive grasp of truth for which an aesthetic experience may be the catalyst.

I often agree with Sullivan’s positions on religion and, to a lesser extent, on politics. I think I’m going to have to buy his book (pictured in the previous post).

Previous Older Entries