The medium is the event

McLuhan was full of genius when he stated that “the medium is the message” (1) in a time when our humanistic tradition did not prepare us to understand the impact of technology onto our cognitive as much as social structures. As a matter of fact, it is easy to verify today that cell telephones or internet have become very powerful socialization’s tools, even when they transmit poor if not insignificant messages. Just think of chatting, or exchanges between young owners of cell telephones: Where are you? I am here. Me too. Let’s speak again later. (2) McLuhan’s intuition was provocative and meaningful in many aspects, but it was also too simple. And we have now to urgently revaluate the importance of contents, if we want to resist the alienating mass massage of mass media. We can’t afford neglecting any longer the importance of contents if we believe in the basic importance of rationalism and critical thinking.
media ecology

Meanwhile we have also experienced a new step of media ecology. Media ecology is a human science dedicated to the study of media environments. The Media Ecology Association has proposed the following definition: “the study of media environments, the idea that technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication, play a leading role in human affairs”. It seems to me also that the history and the social and political context of development of those media, the kind of users or public they tend to reach, and the sociological analysis of their contents are very relevant to explain their nature, their success or limits, and their evolution. Media ecology has been developed by Neil Postman in a Program of media at New York University in 1971. Marshall McLuhan is frequently quoted for having formulated the basic idea inspiring ecology of media: means arranging various media to help each other so they won't cancel each other out, to buttress one medium with another.

self media

We cannot any more consider exclusively mass media communications in a time when self media emerge as powerful alternative. We observe that they are even able to create mass media events. Cell telephones and digital cameras offer now miniaturized webcams able to register any incident occurring in the street which you may casually attend. And the file may be easily sent, even in real time, thanks to internet, to popular websites such as Youtube, where they get accessible to everybody. These self media give to ordinary citizens, without any professional training or link to chief editors, the possibility to register and transmit crucial amateur’s videos from an airplane crash, from a natural disaster, from an excessive reaction of police, from the moves and behaviours of a well known personality, from a demonstration or a riot in the street. These video may soon be accessible around the world thanks to the web, and even attract the attention of large broadcasting television programs.
Allow us to mention here a typical example. We have seen recently how young people in Montreal, Québec, being excited by the victory of their Canadian hockey team, have decided to celebrate abusively in the streets, by breaking down show windows of shops and setting police cars on fire. It seems that they got even more excited by the possibility of filming themselves in action with their cell telephones. And being probably proud of such a transgressive spectacle, they have transferred their video on Youtube, giving thus real time material to TV channels which were not there to retransmit images of the street disorders. They were probably not so much motivated by a sort of narcissism, than by the possibility to act as reporters of themselves and give oneself a mediatic importance. We may see it as revenge from frustrated young people suddenly encountering an opportunity to take their place in adult society where they feel marginalised, and getting thus social recognition of their existence. They got aware that new digital technologies were offering them the possibility to get important, by creating an event in which they were the main actors and suitable to be eventually broadcasted later on.
CNN is now broadcasting occasionally excerpts of Youtube's Citizennews Channel (3). They would see their images in the TV programs and big news papers, which usually don’t pay attention to them. And this digital promotion or exhibitionism in real time has become for sure part of their motivation to vandalize more and put more police cars on fire. Everybody has learned how to behave and smile for a photo. The codes are well known. But on that evening these young people have started more fires letting them hope better videos of themselves making the news for sure. The small cameras in their hands have finally made the event. I have often emphasized that digital technologies produce a psychotropic effect on those who escape from the heavy reality into the blue light of the cathodic screen. But this psychological effect of experiencing virtual spaces without gravity results also easily and rapidly into a counter effect onto real acts. In other words, we live now in a society of media and spectacle which results in a hybrid real-virtual world. You may act virtually in the real world and change it! These young sport amateurs became simultaneously film, news and event makers. They were acting inside the reality according to the needs of image producers.

media canibalism
Since 911 we know that terrorists also have learned how to produce the news. They are professionals trained in the use of internet. They have learned to behead a hostage in front of a camera. They are sure to obtain worldwide attention just putting such a video on internet. The destruction of the world trade center has been theatrically programmed like a Hollywood production with a delay between the attack of the two towers to allow camera men to be on site and time for the second impact and dramatic spectacle. Thus, they have obtained that professional TV reporters broadcast it worldwide in real time. The diffusion makes the event, more than the reality by itself.

Nowadays cameras multiply everywhere, waiting for something to happen. They are automatically in the right place at right time to create the event. Broadcasters will exploit their frames to amplify the event. We have to admit that mass media professionals are themselves waiting for something to broadcast. They sell news, therefore they need events. Eventually they create it. Of course, they look mainly for bad news which are selling much better! Sensationalism! God news is no news, no-event worth to be reported, because unable to catch the attention of telespectators or readers. Editorial staffs send reporters where something may eventually happen. And they are requested to report something able to make news. There is a need to nourish the media beast daily. Otherwise it will die from hunger immediately. Just think of the emptiness of the news on a bank holyday in summertime! Isn’t it terribly disappointing?
This law is bidirectional. The media is the event, and the event is the media. We may speak of real media cannibalism. The media never stop eating news. They gorge themselves of news. Of course such a statement may sound also too simple. But its provocative effect may be considered for a better understanding of today’s media.

self media and social control
We may even verify a second circularity of the phenomena. We are not only confronted to self media nourishing mass media, and ordinary anonymous citizens contributing spontaneously to the task of professional staffs of mass media, but we may also observe the emergence of a collective social self control based on self media. The night of victory of the Canadian hockey team in Montreal has prompted not only the delinquents to film themselves acting, not only policemen to register images with professional cameras, but also other ordinary people passing by and witnessing the disorders, to contribute to the mandate of the police. They had of course used their cell telephones to film the fires and acts of vandalism, a spectacle which they considered worth registering. It is not surprising then, that some of them, who disagreed with the violence, have spontaneously responded to the public call of the police on television to let see their video by the investigators in search of images allowing to the arrest delinquents and establish a proof of their involvement in vandalism. The new technologies may work as a kind of digital Panopticon (from the Greek, evocating a prison where the prisoners may be constantly watched without knowing it, so that they control their behaviour and limit their acts according to the fear that they may be seen). In fact, nowadays you never know if there is no webcam somewhere around, unseen from you, or somebody in position to film you with his cell telephone. We may even hope that this awareness may inspire more self control of people and less violence. A gangster or a policeman is never sure anymore not to be seen if he acts violently. We don’t fear anymore only Big Brother. We have also to take in account invasive Small Brothers possibly watching us and having the power to show us in broadcast diffusion or to denounce us to police authorities. This evolution of the media or information society may result more and more into a watch society, a cybersurveillance society, for the best and the worst.

Hervé Fischer
(1) - Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, Toronto, 1964.
(2) - André H. Caron and Letizia Caronia, Moving Cultures: Mobile Communication in Everyday Life, McGill and Queen’s University Press, Canada, 2007.
(3) - Voir http://youtube.com/citizennews

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