The Decadence of Mass Media

on . Posted in MME & νέες τεχνολογίες

«Imagine that you are in the year 1994. Your breakfast consists of substitute coffee brewed on the solar stove and you are reading your electronic daily newspaper with all the news which your home computer can hold» That is how the foreword of the classic book "The Network Station" ended, written in 1978 by two computer network specialists, Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff.

Well, 1994 has gone. The classic unhealthy coffee is steaming on the table, the solar stove is still at an experimental stage but the electronic newspaper already has already been a reality for at least a decate. Millions of people on the planet turn on their computers daily to read their newspaper, receive messages from friends and colleagues, and write and send their texts around the world. A silent revolution that began thirty years ago is now taking on mass proportions, taking over people's established practices of work and thought. The Information Society, which is now dawning has started to show its frightening characteristics, according to some or its promising ones, according to others. No human activity, no way of thinking remains untouched by this «third cultural wave of mankind». Everything is being laid on the table and reviewed. Some compare our age to that of the Renaissance (George Gilder: Life after television) A technology, a new medium is undermining social hierarchies by sharing that which is most valuable to our society -namely knowledge- with the masses. Back then it was printing, now it's the computer network...

This new technology has many parallels to the discovery of Guttenberg. Typography started out with the blessings of the Catholic Church, which believed that the printing press was a first class tool for disseminating the Christian faith. The first book to be printed, was the Bible and the first mass orders were those made by the Church which were faced with a lack of indulgences. As the number of printers increased, though, the lack of texts increased. This shortage was remedied partly, by Luther. His texts, which constituted an academic protest against the corruption of the western Church, were posted on church doors. The printers, who had made a significant investment for that period, were hungry for original texts for reproduction and selling. And what was the result? When Luther himself was summoned by the Pope to give explanations for his criticism, he was surprised by the speed with which his ideas had spread. The conflict between Luther and the Catholic Church was unnecessary and may never had happened if it wasn't for printing. As an academic, Luther had a certain freedom to criticism against the most powerful institution of that time, the Church, as long as he kept it on an academic level and disseminated it by way of the established method used at that time which was posting his texts on doors. The moment though, that his ideas were read by the masses, conflict and schism were inevitable. Printing was the catalyst for the reorganization of a society that had been «frozen» for hundreds of years.

And so the first large computer network, the backbone upon which the wonder called Internet was built, was manufactured with the funding and blessings of the Pentagon. It was a tool necessary for a thermonuclear war. ARPAnet, as this juvenile network was named (Advanced Research Projects Agency) was created to distribute communication abilities to many centers. The idea was simple. To create a communications network, where each host would also be a center, so that if 2/3 of it were hit by nuclear warheads, the remaining network would still be operational. The army, a hierarchical institution in principal, was planting a seed for the dispersion of power, a seed for anarchy in a sector which was critical to the development of humanity, communications.

The first four ARPAnet hosts in 1969 became 15 in 1971 and 37 in 1972. It was then that the inspirers of this network became aware that their creation was getting out of hand. The users, mainly scientists at research centers, were using the interconnected computers, not only for transferring military information but also for the exchange of personal messages, gossip, news and had even created open chat groups for subjects referring to science fiction (Bruce Sterling: History of the Net).

The distributed architecture of the network allowed for all kinds of misbehavior. It took away control from anyone, even if he was the creator, a factor which gave unlimited freedom to its users. The seed of anarchy sowed by the generals was beginning to flower but it was completely different to what they had hoped. Conversations on every possible subject were sprouting, more and more academic institutions were connecting, forcing the army in 1982 to withdraw and create its own network MILnet. ARPAnet, which is now called Internet grew at a geometric rate, integrating other computer networks, and by 1994 it had reached 3,120,000 hosts (Eric Arnum: Internet hosts) All types of information was communicated through this network -without censorship- from erotic stories to nuclear physics studies, from anarchic manifestos to religious texts (Bruce Sterling: The Hackers Crackdown)

The parallels between the discovery of the printing press and the birth of communication through the Internet are apparent. A new technology encouraged and financed by established institutions, gradually escaped the control of its creators, turned against them and finally mutated the structures of society. The role played by typography in the birth of national States is known from the time of McLuhan. The role played by the Internet in the birth of a global society is now taking shape. Howard Rheingold created the term «virtual communities» whose joining link is no longer residency, nationality, color, or some other classic classification of people, but only common interests. Hundreds of these communities have already been created with tens to thousands members. Their interests vary from mathematics to Michael Jackson. Their characteristics, though, are common and similar to those of real societies. Among all of these communities there are friendships, animosities, alliances and confrontations as in all human communities. (Howard Rheingold: The Virtual Community)

The most significant characteristic, though, of these virtual communities is the complete lack of hierarchy. And so, while at the time of the printing press the relationship between writers and readers, professors and students, was one of power -one way relationship of transmitter and receiver- on the Internet relationships are bidirectional. Everyone is simultaneously a writer and a reader. This two way relationship is the new characteristic of those communities which have been nurtured by the Mass Media. The passiveness displayed by the reader, viewer or listener is now transformed into active participation, which explains the inconceivable success of this new medium.

It is only natural then, that the first shock waves of this electronic revolution would be felt by the Mass Media. TV ratings are dropping, newspaper circulations are decreasing and contractors with three storey houses are being called upon. The shock caused to television - at least abroad - is too old to explain the declining circulations, and much more TV ratings. «The American Mass Media will be the General Motors of the 90s», writes Michael Crichton (Mediasaurus, Wired 1.4) «The Mass Media is an industry which manufactures a low quality product. Their information is unreliable, filled with chrome and luster, the doors are squeaky, dies on you at traffic lights and is sold without guarantee. The products of the Mass Media are nothing more than shining garbage. That is why people stopped buying it.... Instead of focusing on quality, the Mass Media tried to become colorful and attractive ... by selling gristle instead of lean meat, the program's host instead of his guest and the form instead of the content. In this way, though, they abandoned their audience... »

Michel Crichton is no smarter than the newspaper editors. His observations (in a probably less lively manner) are heard at every Mass Media convention and are noted in each article which is critical of the press. It is just that Crichton dares to say it clearly: today's Mass Media is tomorrow's fossils. The "mediasurus" are becoming extinct...

The traditional interpretations of the phenomenon are too convenient for the people of the Mass Media. «People don't read any more», «Television is to blame for everything», «Young people are only interested in having a good time», and the most arrogant: «The crisis of the press is substantially the crisis of society!» The success, though, of the Internet contradicts all these interpretations. To the 30 million estimated users one more is added every two minutes. Two factors which must be noted: the overwhelming majority of these users are young with an average age of 26 (Jonathan Litt, Craig Wisneski: The Average Age of Internet User) and, most importantly, all of them are readers. All work on the Internet is done exclusively in writing.

This proves that the crisis of the press is not a crisis of the reader nor of society. Both readers and new communities (even virtual ones) are increasing. The problem faced by the Mass Media has to do with its own nature. The magnitude which they want and strive to acquire drives them to the rule of the least common denominator. The Editor's role, in essence is Procrustean in the bed of the average person. The topics in his newspaper or the stories he edits for the news broadcast must reach as many readers or viewers as possible. And since the least common denominator of all people is that of the emotional reaction and not the intellectual interests (which of course vary), it is understandable why gradually the Mass Media are concerned with the form and not the content, the host and not the guest, the «gristle and not the lean meat».

The American newspapers discovered - partly and too late - the power of the new Medium and are now racing to catch up. Many have started to offer their content to their subscribers over the Internet. They stopped there, though. Interactivity, which is the main characteristic of this new medium has been exorcised. The reader's feedback is scary. It is characteristic that even in newsgroups on the Internet, which were designed by journalists to discuss the impact that this new technology will have on the Mass Media, the main subject of conversation was and the great fear was what is called the e-mail overload. What will happen if a thousand readers suddenly decide to convey their opinion to the X journalist on the topic he has just written about? How will the journalist manage to correspond?

There is, though, a deeper meaning to this resistance. Shattered hierarchies have dramatic consequences on the production and distribution of any product. The introduction of computers had an immediate affect on the classic production line by eliminating the middle executives who operated as communication channels between the administration and the employees. This role in the cognitive process is held by the journalists. They are the intellectuals who popularize the knew knowledge and pass it on to the masses, they act as the channels which convey the messages of power on to the citizens and they are the last links in the chain of trustees in a hierarchical society. When any citizen can gain direct access to the sources of knowledge and can simultaneously interact with its producers, and even become one himself, the role of the intermediary becomes redundant. For example, at the time of the last earthquake in Los Angeles, the first news on magnitude and estimations of victims and damages was on the Internet long before the news agencies or television channels could broadcast anything. A citizens network was immediately created which broadcast all the latest news, most of which was vital to the rescue teams. «No other medium», writes the media critic for the New York Magazine, Jon Katz, «has ever provided the individual with such a participative role in the transfer of information and opinions, and never has such an interest been created (not only for the content) but for the medium itself. The culture of electronic news favors a sense (for the medium) of kinship, ownership and participation which never existed with commercial Media» (Online or not, Newspapers Suck, Wired 2.09)

This is what the executives of American newspapers never understood. They actually attempted to transfer the old mentality to the new medium. They tried to impose the relationship of power between the writer and the reader and that is why their failure has already become evident. Some believed that by transforming their print into bytes they would become part of the revolution. Robert Ingle, manager of the newspaper San Jose Mercury News -one of the first to turn electronic- stated: «Our communication (with the reader) through our history was as follows: we would print, you would read. (The network though) has changed everything...» The change to which he refers to is the shattering of the one way relationship between journalist-reader, newspaper-consumer, a relationship with a 500-year tradition, one which the masters will not let go of easily.

The second renaissance is already a fact. As in every significant change there will be winners and losers. The majority of viewers-listeners-readers will be the winners and the ex cathedra masters will be the losers, particularly those imperious connoisseurs of every existing subject.

20040323a1

Το πάνελ του σεμιναρίου. Μιλά ο Διαμαντής Μπασαντής. Στο κέντρο ο καθηγητής Todd Gitlin και δεξιά ο Πάσχος Μανδραβέλης.

Ομιλία στο Σεμινάριο Αμερικανικών Σπουδών (The Future of Print Journalism) στο Κολέγιο Ντιρί στις 23.3.2004. Η ομιλία βασίστηκε σε ένα παλιότερο κείμενο για το μέλλον του γραπτού Τύπου