Before the Internet
Excerpt from the paper Manufacturing Trust at the ArtCenter College of Design
When McLuhan coined the term ‘Medium is the Message’ in 1964, he implied that the message only comes through the medium that embodies it; the change of state in media can change the message. In the past five decades, scholars have done studies and identified different mediums for each episteme. The twentieth century started with radio being the most influential medium, and gave way for television in each household; but where internet was perceived momentary, it took connectivity to conversation and within a century the civilisation moved on to personal computers. With the fast growth and inventions of technological equipments, the pace of media around us increased, whereas paying attention to the media itself decreased. I’ve come to believe that the mediums embedded around us have molded the world, not through the message they shared but due to their nature. Radio, arguably, was the first medium that changed the perception of individualistic experiences, and redefined the course of World War 2. Even before the war, the USSR and Italy were using radio as a propaganda tool. Josef Goebbels, in 1933, said “The radio will be to the twentieth century what the press was to the nineteenth.”(Gobbels 1933) The use of radio and cinema had opened more avenues of communication in early twentieth century. Walter Benjamin, as McLuhan, argued in favour of the multiperspectival nature of cinema, and how it engages the viewer more than theatre due to its multi-modal cinematography; and later in 1950s television became popular, which continued to serve as a uniquely strong medium to propagate any message(Correia 2010). While you could hold a radio and walk around you were still tied to a frequency, but television was even more stationary. It stayed in one place in the home, and everyone gathered around to spend time together while staring at the box. That said, internet lived on your personal computer but with smart mobile devices the network is not just embedded around us, but walks with us, tracks our conversations, and more importantly knows more about us than we realise.
If stationary mediums like radio and television could stir the world, we can imagine the intensity of change internet— and specifically social media —has had on our everyday lives.
Triumph des Willens, a German masterpiece from 1935 was commissioned by Hitler to capture the grandeur and power of his regime. He commanded Leni Riefenstahl, a Hungarian jew, to work with him time and again. The Jewish Virtual Library documented her as Hitler’s favorite director on their website. Beautiful as her work was, it was not just about her work or her culture. Hitler worked with artists and mediums for years, because he considered media as powerful as ordinance. Nazi regime used radio, imagery, and movies, to capture their ‘perfect’ attributes and propagate them to every nook and corner. As McLuhan said, a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. Radio as a medium started connecting the world through sound and conversation. From cave paintings in 30,000 BCE, newspapers in 1650s, telephone in late 1870s, to the discovery of radio in 1902, the mediums evolved with time. In the 90s we saw an upsurge of colour television— in United States —and critical content started reaching individuals in their living room. We witnessed the medium changing the narrative of our everyday life and started raising questions on our perspective. With a series like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air there was a black family on the screen that talked about privilege and struggle of the black community in the different realities of United States.
With television penetrating itself in our lives seamlessly, the content moved from creative and critical to vain and biased. In 2018, Fox News and the President of United States have developed an openly biased relationship where we don’t just see them communicating with each other, we’ve witnessed a feedback loop between the two entities. On October 10, 2017 Fox and Friends talked about NFL protesters at 6:10 AM, and Trump tweeted “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change Tax Law” at 6:13 AM. But this wasn’t a coincidence, Fox News and Trump have created a feedback loop that starts and finishes with media (Maza 2018). Fox news isn’t the first news channel in the history to be partisan. In India, any news outlet would be ready to propagate hindutva agenda through advertorials and events, for a handsome amount(The Wire Staff 2018). In the National Geographic documentary series, The 90s: The Decade That Connected Us, the narrator exclaims “At the beginning of the nineties the walls were coming down, not just between east and west but between news and entertainment.” What we witness now is the result of the blurred lines between news and entertainment, where television, livestream, and social media has changed how we absorb information and the message.