During the 1960’s, the communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed that “The medium is the message.” No one (perhaps not even McLuhan himself) was quite sure at the time exactly what this resonant phrase meant, and since then the debate has continued without resolution, but for all the obscurity of explications and multiplicity of explanations, the famous phrase is clearly saying something very important about the media.
Todd Gitlin is among the most recent, and certainly one of the most perceptive observers to follow McLuhan’s trail, and in Media Unlimited he takes up where McLuhan left off in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). As its subtitle proclaims, Media Unlimited is about the “torrent” of media which are sweeping across cultures and individuals alike from Siberia to San Francisco. While the intensity (perhaps “ferocity” would be the more appropriate word, given some of Gitlin’s examples) of the media torrent has increased in recent decades, it has existed in various forms for centuries—for Western culture, certainly as far back as the Middle Ages and perhaps even longer. The differences now are the ever-increasing speed and pervasiveness of the media and their exponentially growing ability to transform not only the human environment but human beings as well.
Gitlin’s central point is that the media (plural) have become the Media (singular). While there may be many components involved in this transformation, they refuse to remain discrete and instead fuse into a single entity, difficult to define but as pervasive and uniform as the sky or the ocean. The dozens of facets of many media have merged: Television, music, film, print, billboards, radio, the Internet, and others not named here and not yet named have transformed themselves in a fashion so that they remain many and yet are one. They no longer assault the senses individually and sequentially (if they ever did) but collectively and simultaneously. It is not uncommon for a news report on television to have, in addition to the “talking head” of the news reader, lines of stock market quotations flowing along the bottom of the screen, sport scores flashing along the edges of the picture, the local time, temperature, and weather forecast boxed in an upper corner, and other information lodged elsewhere in the frame. Music videos mix more than songs and image to contain words, advertising, and quick-cut references to print, photography, and outdoor advertising.
The list of mergers and meltings-together goes on. It could be disputed whether such richness of information constitutes a cornucopia or a trash heap, but its presence cannot be denied. As the media have become the Media, they have retained their individual natures while assuming a new, unified, and collective nature, an entity as mysterious in its way as that of the Holy Ghost and, like the Holy Ghost, able to fill the faithful with the spirit—and, while the precise nature of the spirit is anyone’s guess, it seems to have a great deal to do with ever-increasing consumption of material goods and the instant gratification of immediate needs and manufactured desires.
These needs and desires are framed by kinetic images. Thanks in large part to the Media, Western society has become a culture of images rather than one of thought; a society of feelings and emotions rather than one of intellect and judgment. In contrast to more conventional and less perceptive critics, Gitlin points out that this is no new phenomenon: As early as the 1830’s, Alexis de Tocqueville had noted the tendency in the relatively young United States to prefer the sensationalistic, the emotional, the melodramatic, and the informal in its popular entertainments—and, for Americans, there could be no entertainment that was not, in the root sense of the word, “popular.” Art was for the people and its purpose was to entertain and ease, rather than inform and uplift. Rather than discriminate and restrict, such art naturally welcomed and embraced, accepting content that broadened its popular appeal while utilizing all new technologies that widened its reach. More efficient printing methods, cheaper paper, greater literacy, growing urban centers, concentrated audiences, improved transportation networks, and a populist democracy helped produce the penny press, the best-selling novel, the advertising broadside (and later the billboard), the minstrel show, the side show, the freak show, and the circus. P. T. Barnum and William Randolph Hearst were creators of (and to some extent, created by) the...
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