The medium is the massage
March 25, 2003
Switching television channels on Sunday from the World Cup Cricket final between Australia and India to the War in Iraq was a bizarre experience. Filtered through the medium of television into the safety of one's home, both events had become a form of entertainment, though in one case of course the stakes were immeasurably higher, cities were being bombed, soldiers and civilians were dying, and the outcome was of global significance.
It brought home what the late Herbert Marshall Mc Luhan, the director of the University of Toronto's Center for Culture, had taught long ago. The electronic media deeply influence the way we think and behave. We are, as he put it, virtual prisoners in an infinite collection of media form and content. After looking at dozens of missiles exploding in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq and at tanks racing through the desert one understands exactly what he meant. The nature of the medium massages us continuously.
Mc Luhan developed a cluster of theories about the impact of the electronic media. He noted that instantaneous information and communications had shrunk the world to the size of a global village. One could see on the television screen peoples of all kinds and societies at all stages of development. Social and ethnic barriers were visually demolished. The effect of all this information, of exposure to conflicting ideas and principles, was both liberating and disruptive.
The increasing viewing of television, still more so in the developed world but spreading rapidly in the developing world, is creating a new type of person, conditioned by television images and presentations. Many critics have pointed out that is has led to a most unfortunate decline in the habit of reading and has introduced the world of the soundbite, quick, snappy usually shallow phrases or paragraphs which pass for an opinion or position on an issue. But on the plus side, television has created a greater awareness of global problems like AIDS, environmental pollution, pure water supply and weapons of mass destruction. To some extent it creates a commonality of interest in the far flung denizens of the global village.
But back to the war. The BBC and CNN, particularly the former, do give some exposure to a variety of opinions, including critical opinion, and refer to the coverage on events on Iraqi TV, al Jazeera and other channels. But inevitably the bulk of the coverage on BBC and CNN, including that from 'embedded' journalists (those travelling with military units, who report under rules agreed in advance) and journalists stationed at various points in and near Iraq whose coverage is sometimes censored by the Iraqi authorities, reflects national priorities, though some journalists are admirably dispassionate. For many obvious reasons it will never be easy to report a war and one can only have the highest admiration for those journalists who put their lives on the line in an effort to get the facts in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances.
Yet television does something unpleasant which we can easily become inured to. It makes the war almost palatable to the viewer by turning it into a kaleidoscope of bright explosions, racing vehicles, brief skirmishes and tidy summaries. We don't feel the explosions, we don't experience the terror, we don't see the dead and the injured (except perhaps fleetingly). Despite the best efforts of the presenters it tends to become a depersonalised spectacle, an entertainment. As we settle down with a drink we switch from the cricket to the war with hardly a qualm. The medium is the message/massage.