A critical look at the Information Age. What impact does media have on us? I take a look at how deep this impact runs.
Roman philosopher and politician Cicero once declared, “I will…assert that nature without culture can often do more to deserve praise than culture without nature.” His statement, though made centuries ago, still pertains to the dynamic modernization the United States has undergone. From the industrial revolution to the inception of television, Americans have been displaced—removed from a natural habitat and placed inside a complex labyrinth of the mechanical and electronic. What is frightening about this transformation is that we no longer view it as displacement. Our natural environment has become media and technology; imbedded within our brains is a swarming display of knowledge tailored to this new environment. However, with this new manner of perceiving the world, we have allowed other knowledge to disappear in the same way we have allowed nature to descend into unimportance. At the same time, media encourages us to ignore this transition and to succumb to the efficiency and ease of new technology. In summation, we are a nation of consumers—we consume the environment, we consume media, we consume products, and ultimately we consume consumerism.
In The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben juxtaposes the wealth of knowledge a day in nature delivers with the plentiful, but insubstantial information television pumps out in 24 hours. “Two thirds of Americans tell researches they get ‘most of their information’ about the world from television,” McKibben informs, displaying the unnoticed dependency on electronic media that many denizens of the U.S fail to admit (18). As Americans, we champion ourselves as independent, free-thinkers; yet we all rely on the same source of information—how diverse and free can our ideas then be? “Messages are passed over, absorbed through the eyes without triggering the entire brain,” he writes (21). What is more, these ideas lack primal knowledge derived from nature. In the past, Americans understood their environment because their survival depended on it. For instance, McKibben describes all the specific information needed to successfully raise cattle on a farm. Today, many might sneer at these skills, considering them too primitive and simple. But that is exactly McKibben’s point. We have not only lost the fundamental knowledge of nature but we have lost the fundamental attention towards it. “This is perhaps the ultimate loss of information—too sophisticated to burn books, we burn the planet. Each day information leaks away—some branch of life that evolved for millions of years is gone, and the next day two more, and six the day after that. The world grows stupider, less substantial” (85). Microwaves make it easy to forget ordinary food preparation. Television makes it easy to be distracted. Vehicles make it easy to pollute. In a world of hustle and bustle, who has time to worry about the ecosphere? And media trains us to maintain this attitude toward the environment by creating a new electronic environment that subverts what is natural. The media is constantly stimulating us with the new and exciting in its “information currency,” so that we ignore the growing and unsettling disconnection between man and nature (19).
Following a similar thread, Todd Gitlin explores this new environment in Media Unlimited. Much like McKibben, Gitlin is careful to address the concept of information from the beginning. Media have challenged traditional meanings of information; it turns what once was once prized knowledge into valueless, unimportant refuse for the “olden days” so-to-speak. We now value whatever knowledge media tell us is good knowledge—not what is necessary for survival or even for societal interaction. In effect, information found in media is the only acceptable information. Gitlin explains, “The centrality of media is disguised, in part, by the prevalence of that assured, hard-edged phrase information society, or even more grandly, information age…But we diminish the significance of media and our reliance on them in everyday life by classifying them as channels of information” (5). Furthermore, the sheer amount of information is also relegated within media. Gitlin points to the slower (but more thoughtful), mid-century films of directors like Frank Capra in comparison to today’s Spielberg blockbusters. Dialogue has become less important because audiences are not nearly as patient or satisfied with minimalist storytelling. Gitlin notes, “Between 1936 and 2001, sentence length declined by 43 percent and the number of punctuation marks by 32 percent” (99). Partially due to MTV, cinematography and editing have been radically transformed into a frenzy of images and sounds, bombarding us whenever there is room to spare. “The media torrent is where speed-up is most unmistakable. The images steadily thicken, the soundscape grows nosier, montage more frenetic” (115). It seems there is no slowing down the rampant machine of technology, as it engulfs our senses and devours our thoughts. Perhaps there is no way to stop the media torrent, but Gitlin encourages us all to “step back” and forgo “fantasies of electronic perfection” (209). We can indeed coincide with technology, but we must be aware of its presence. The danger in media is not that it’s there; it is that we no longer notice it.
“You can buy T-shirts decorated with a new version of the American flag. The fifty white stars have been replaced by a pair of [McDonald] golden arches” (Schlosser 32). In a statement that typifies the title of his book, Eric Schlosser describes the fusing of corporation with culture in Fast Food Nation. Gitlin and McKibben’s books characterized the extreme dislodgment of man from the environment into a fast-paced world of technological consumption; Schlosser specializes in the consumer culture that corporations and media preach. By perfecting the “art of selling things to children,” Ray Kroc, owner of McDonald’s, created a character more popular than Mickey Mouse (33). Kroc’s techniques led children and parents alike to believe that McDonald’s was not only a company, but a family friend. Kroc utilized media to fabricate a McDonald’s culture that would resonate among American families in all walks of life; “America’s fast food culture has become indistinguishable from the popular culture of its children” (48). Indeed the entire idea of fast food—quick, cheap service for the masses—captures the essence of modern media. Commercials cut too fast to count. Television doesn’t cost a thing. Studio films are cookie-cutters of mass appeal. Much of these tactics to brand consumers is discussed in Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, in which he details accounts of subliminal and psychological market research. Packard’s primary concern is of the utilization of intimate psychology to undermine consumers, as the hidden persuaders tap into our minds in order to sell their products. An example that Packard cites, although under great suspicion as to its validity, is a stunning display of subliminal advertising’s immense power over the consumer. In a theatre, moviegoers were shown a few frames of ads that said “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola.” Although the viewers did not consciously see the frames, both popcorn and Coke sales increased dramatically. “The result” of the hidden persuader’s increasing presence “is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our daily lives” (1). As Packard and Schlosser demonstrate, media and corporations intertwine themselves with the American consumerist culture that doesn’t have time to wait, even at the expense of nature and planetary longevity.
The musings and contemplations of Marshall McLuhan summarize much of the criticism media receives; but McLuhan also advocates some radical ideas of his own that few authors dare to approach. Similar to what McKibben and Gitlin argue, McLuhan says, “technological innovations are extensions of human abilities and sense that alter this sensory balance—an alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the society that created the technology” (2). To reiterate an earlier point, we don’t notice the changes in society because we know nothing else. We are used to technology and therefore find it difficult to accept that our senses are altered by the presence of media. “For the past 3500 years of the Western World,” McLuhan states, “the effects of media—whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio, or television—have been systematically overlooked by social observers” due to “narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in” (4-5). One of the concepts that separate McLuhan from other scholars is his sense of the word ‘technology.’ To him, it is not only electronics and mechanics; it is all innovation. He includes the phonetic alphabet in the category of “revolutionary transformations” (7). The manner in which we interact with society and the acuteness of our very senses have been changed with the invention of more technology. Marshall McLuhan, just as the aforementioned authors do, pleads with the United States to reevaluate media and technology in order to resituate itself in the grand sensory illusion.
For years the impact of mass media has been misconstrued by arguments over content and political bias; the real crux of the matter is the media’s methods of reshaping our existence. Inside the media frenzy, we are losing the environment at the expense of efficiency. We are submersed in the depth of images and sounds, but we never swim to the surface for air. We are confusing our identity with corporations so that we can become better consumers. We are becoming a massive supply of guinea pigs for marketers to prod and poke. Most importantly, we are not aware.
Gitlin, Todd. Media Unlimited. Henry Holt: New York, 2002.
McKibben, Bill. The Age of Missing Information. Plume: New York, 1993
McLuhan, Marshall. Interview. Playboy Magazine. The Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrove. Basic Books: New York, 1995.
Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. David McKay: New York, 1957.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Harper Collins: New York, 2002.