The Yellow Submarine

William Powers of the National Journal (Hat tip Austin Bay) has an article that addresses the changing form of the media environment. In response to a new satellite radio channel devoted entirely to the US Presidential campaign he says “specialization is the name of the game in satellite radio, which is a kind of metaphor for all digital media.” Indeed it is. He continues:

….while it’s true that there is more coverage than ever, nobody has time to absorb it all. As I wrote here last week, one effect of the content explosion is that the campaign no longer arrives as one big picture that everyone takes in together. Instead, we all get whatever little pieces of it float across our screens — headlines, e-mailed YouTube clips, bits of this and that.

I would go further – digital media deliver a much less predigested product. You get to assemble the jig saw puzzle from the pieces whether you like it or not. The mass media create a coordinated media experience that everyone shares and therefore become part of a mass public. The Newspaper followed by radio created ‘the masses’ of the early 20th century that led to fascism, communism, Japanese militarism and WWII. The biggest name – Hitler – was devastatingly effective on radio. Since WWII, TV created a different kind of mass consciousness. The pictures dominate TV and turn nearly all programming into drama. Once you see TV news as soap opera with roots going back to Greek drama it becomes much harder to take seriously. There is always a good guy and a bad guy. Nemesis – divine retribution against those that succumb to hubris (overconfidence) – is a TV staple that drives everything from CSI whodunits to the ever unfolding drama of the comeuppance of the superpower. But digital media break up the mass. Even cable TV blurs but doesn’t break the kind of hold that one anchorman like radio’s Edward R Murrow or TV’s Walter Cronkite had on the American public.

Powers points out that isn’t entirely new:

It’s the modern paradox: The bigger the content pie grows, the smaller each slice becomes. In fact, it isn’t all that modern. The media were totally niche-ified in the 19th century, when newspapers came in every possible political flavor and voters followed the news through whatever rag matched their own sensibility.

That fragmented media environment is not within the living memory of anyone in the West. Power’s reaction to the situation he so aptly describes is to do exactly what McLuhan said we all do. Look in the rear view mirror for the future. He calls for the return of the anchorman to impose some order on the chaos.

I’ve devoted whole columns to making fun of the old network-anchorman model. But looking ahead to this campaign, I find myself craving exactly that paleolithic kind of coverage, and I don’t think I’m alone

I’m not putting Powers down and he is clearly aware of what he is doing. We all do it because the past is what we all have to go on. He may even be right, but I don’t think that is how it will happen. It’s a bit like what happened in the garden of Eden – once you have knowledge of the digital world you can’t swallow the mass media story whole without noticing how manipulated it is. Some wont notice because they are still blissfully contained in the world TV has created for them. But increasing numbers will be aware as they watch TV that there are whole other worlds out there. The spell of the common experience is broken by the digital fragments they perforce encounter – like the details of Campaign ’08 they never hear on TV from the political junkie at work who wont shut up about the new satellite radio coverage. Even for the most indifferent, the perfectly sealed yellow submarine we all lived in the 6os now leaks. For some of us it has surfaced.

I think the trick here is to try to distinguish between what applies from the past and what does not. This is where I find McLuhan helpful in trying to get some idea where a new media environment is taking us. Because he tells us that a change in the media environment changes the way our minds work – our thought process, our emotional process – the whole of human consciousness – we immediately must doubt that we will get a simple repeat of the anchorman or small newspaper era. Armed with that understanding we can still recognize elements from the past which are at play in the current media situation. I agree with Powers that the current fragmentation inherent in the advent of digital media create a desire for integration. Personally I try to distill my own synthesis primarily from my reading on the Internet. Like Austin Bay says here I prefer to do my own thinking:

Many of us don’t want, need, or require an anchor to “impose some order.” That concept is so Twelfth Century. And it’s unfortunate we had to futz with it in the Twentieth.

I don’t know how other people – particularly young people who have never lived in the yellow submarine – will put the new media environment together. I think we are in a transition period where the hold of mass media is still strong but McLuhan tells us there is probably no going back. The spell of mass media has been broken, but it will take a while for a new mentality for the digital age to emerge. Personally I think there are nascent opinions forming in the digital cloud that we don’t see very well. Like Bush and Blair didn’t see the massive Western opposition to the invasion of Iraq that unified most of the left against them. Now that that left thinks it has won that battle they in turn don’t see the condensing cloud of opinion rejecting Islamic radicalism in events like the Buddhist population of Thailand calling for the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion, the Sunni sheiks of Iraq turning on al Qaeda, or the recent turn in French politics.

One Response to “The Yellow Submarine”  

  1. 1 John Cooley

    You are right we are in a transition. And for sure we are not going back. It’ll be a while before the trend is clear but it’s difinitely going to be different.

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