Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture. – Allen Ginsberg
There are a couple of thoughts I want to explore in this post, one on media in general and one on the history of technology.
Let’s start with media.
What’s off the mainstream?
I’ve been experimenting with non-mainstream media for a couple of days – looking at options for content that isn’t on YouTube, searching for material that’s isn’t a famous, well known shot on a streaming platform.
One of these options is Peer Tube, a decentralized video sharing service. So what can you come across there? Well, its less than you can find on YouTube but it’s different. And that’s good, because you can stumble across stuff that’s not what you usually see.
I came across a video on Noam Chomsky’s five filters of the mass media. Chomsky argues that the media is influenced by factors of ownership, advertising, the media elite, flak and the common enemy. Now, I’m not entirely sure how to take this and I am not sure filter is the right term but then again, Chomsky is a linguist, and probably chooses words very carefully.
Then again, I want to look at these filters, or really what I’d rather term characteristics of the media and evaluate them. This list is presented as a critique of media, in particular media in the US. So, how should we think about them?
What’s the news?
News is simple organized gossip, with a helping of opinion on the side. And some people make it their profession to peddle the news. When you decide that you’re going to write down what’s happening and send it around to your friends you’re starting on a journey to becoming a media mogul. You own your little newsletter and it tells people about the things that you think are important.
As we speak, people are using newsletters to try and build their reach, figuring that if they bring you something useful you’ll want to hear more from them and possibly subscribe to their material. Which they own.
Ownership is not a bad thing. You can look at media and see that some people own large, profitable corporations that deal in the news. The question is not really one of ownership of the news, but of who owns the news. Can anyone own it, does it come down to competition, economics and freedom? Or is it controlled by the state, a cartel, a cabal, a shadowy force? And the answer is yes, to all these in different places because that’s the way life is. But then again it isn’t, because we have access to news from everywhere these days, and it’s hard to argue that ownership of a property equates to control of people’s minds.
I think similar arguments can be advanced for most of Chomsky’s other points. Perhaps it’s a function of time and things have changed. Advertising pays for resources, stars and elites pull in the interest, and if you can’t stand criticism then you shouldn’t be in this business in the first place. And of course, a common enemy pulls us all together. Is there anything in this list of factors that is abnormal?
One way to test this is to look at the inverse of each point. Instead of ownership by individuals you have ownership by everyone, which in practice means ownership by the representatives of everyone, which means the state, which means the only news you can have is the official state news. If there is no advertising, you have to make to with state resources, which means taxes. There are no elites, so all the news is about the lives of everyone, farmers, office workers, social workers, but of course all the stuff that makes stars needs to be thrown away. There is no flak, because there is no opposition, nothing critical is voiced and because all this is so boring you have to see everyone doing anything else as an enemy.
That describes what one imagines the media of North Korea looks like.
Now perhaps all this has to do with the media landscape of the seventies where you had to own presses to print and so ownership wasn’t available to everyone.
While now it is, with the advent of the Internet the cost of publishing has dropped to the cost of your access to bandwidth. Everyone has a voice. Rather than the state owning media, every single one of us has access to platforms, ones we can own ourselves like a website or blog or a voice on other people’s platforms like social media. Isn’t this a good thing? Millions of voices talking about what’s going on, singing in gossip?
Technology and mediating the news
The way to see this chorus of activity is not as an organized, planned thing but rather as an emergent, chaotic thing. The roar, the hubbub of online news has more to do with chaos and complexity theory than it has to do with planning and control. Voices will rise and fall, they will coalesce around points of stability, rise to a crescendo and fall away again. Like starlings flocking the behavior of people online resembles motorway traffic and the movement of schools of fish and you can see the broad sweep of what’s going on but not the individual judgments of individual elements or what the group as a whole is going to do next.
And all this is a good thing, it’s the opposite of control by a few. The eventual result emerges from the actions of many, too many to control. And that’s perhaps the fundamental signature of a free society – you don’t know what they’re going to do next because they don’t know themselves yet, but they’ll figure it out when it comes because they can adapt and change.
What’s important, what’s always been important is not control or money or power but knowledge, knowledge of the medium, of the technology – because if you have knowledge you have the ability to take control of your own thoughts and ideas, rather than having them placed in your head for you. I’m not sure if I’m making myself clear here, but it seems to me that a society where an extremist can voice their views and be challenged in public is better than one where they hide and do what they do in secret. A free society is surely better than a non-free one? And doesn’t the technology we have now lend itself to promoting openness and freedom rather than control and submission to corporations or the state?
Isn’t all this a bit heavy?
As a reminder, I’m trying to work through some ideas on community and I’m being challenged by conflicting objectives. On the one hand, there is the light, business like stuff. Which comes down to what kind of stuff should you send out if you want to build a community. Send out news, stuff people want to share and you’ll get interest. Work with a group of supporters, people with a common interest. That seems to work well, as others amplify what you put out there.
All these thoughts about the underlying structure, the tensions and threads holding it all together, the technology and the systems and the corporations – are any of these relevant to the discussion of community? Why does it matter?
And I have to say, I don’t know. I find myself going down these paths because I want to understand the underlying structure. Yes, given what we have now, the platforms and technology that exist, you can do certain things that make you popular and help you build a business. But the chances are that as you try and appeal to people you’ll choose an approach, you’ll be extreme and confrontational, in order to stand out, you’ll be sweetness and light but most of all you’ll be different from average because who is really interested in average? But then you get everyone being different in the same way, whether it’s trying to provoke or shock or stand out. Everyone’s trying to get an edge.
I don’t really have a conclusion for this post, because it’s such a big thing to chew on. I suppose you have to finish by saying that news brings us together, just like gossip does. But you have to be critical, you have to think about what you’re being told and that’s obvious really, isn’t it? One way of doing that is to build some diversity into your news gathering processes.
But how did this first start to happen? How did we transition from mass media in the Chomsky critique to the options we have today. I think I’ll look at that tomorrow.