04 June 2020

How the media (eg. organisations) change our identity?

How the media (eg. organisations) change our identity?


I can understand the claim that the “medium is the message” in the field of communication which was coined by Marshall McLuhan (1964), but what I don’t understand is why have a message in the medium? The problem is that in 1948 Claude Shannon had already established the principles of Information theory which distinguishes information/data, in our case the message, from noise. Strictly speaking it should be Shannon’s theory (at least the beginnings of a theory) rather than McLuhan that should concern us. Shannon is about the message and the messenger, McLuhan is about the messenger.


Of course, McLuhan and Shannon helped develop and advance society in ways beyond imagination before they opened the door for us on how to deal with information and communication. Unfortunately, this only takes care of part of our question, “the media” part. This advancement in communication does not explain “our identity” part.


Unfortunately, our question as it stands reflects the centuries old hierarchical model of society. Whichever way we describe this model it functions on the principle that the individual is subject to the influence of those institutions above one’s station. In other words, the scenario we are asked to consider is a mono directional system as if the individual is a receptor at the end of an information conveyor belt.


But the media does not function in a one way fashion, and by media we do not only mean the traditional media of print media, radio, and television but today we have to include digital media. Indeed the relationship between the media and the reader is not a linear causal event but a dynamic system. This means that the relationship between the media and the reader is still bound by Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is not only the media that changes our identity but we also influence the evolution of the media. And to this system we need to add the other stake holders.


Strictly speaking, the owners of the media are the only shareholders of the media and we, as readers, are the principle stakeholders. This means that we are not really victims of the media but rather consumers of the media, in the same way that we are consumers of cars and coffee and whatever.


Admittedly, the message of the media is information that affects our beliefs but that’s the only function of the media is to provide us with information to form beliefs. A car does change our beliefs but it also takes us from point A to point B.


Other stakeholders and vested interests in the media are other enterprises selling their goods, political parties trying to attract our votes and of course other power influencers who want to use national and international influence to protect their interests. Sometimes some media outlets have our interests and try to educate us.


 The problem with the media whether today or in the past has always been information overload. And to add insult to injury in the past we had really few means to fact check the information we were given. Incidentally that’s the whole point about information theory: confirming that the message we receive is indeed the message that was sent to us. By preventing fact checking, however, people who want to manipulate our opinion couch the message in such as way to make us think we are receiving one message but the intention is something else.


For example, today there are some people who argue in respected media that wearing masks does not protect us against contracting the COVID-19 and if anything this causes more deaths.  If we wear masks for us people in the west will give us the impression that the Coronavirus is extremely dangerous and we won’t go out to spend money and go to work. Spending money and work are two necessary conditions for the short termism model of the economy.  Wearing masks is not to protect us from COVID-19 but to protect others by reducing the unit count of the virus in short social distances. Masks are a well know measure against infectious diseases, but they are not sufficient measures. And of course we should have been wearing mask for a number of years to reduce the incidence of influenza and pollution: in the Far East this is normal.


Where McLuhan might have gone wrong is to assume that the medium was writing or speech or whatever: no, the medium for human to human communication is always language which includes images and gestures. It is not radio or TV that is the medium but rather language and the language games we play with language (Wittgenstein). The media is a necessary component up to the extent that it delivers the message efficiently.


This somewhat changes the media dynamic has with us. From the media being the message, the media needs to become efficient (as per Shannon) to make sure that the message (sales pitch of the shareholder) becomes easy to understand and form the right belief. Television, radio and newspapers are only means to deliver the language to the respective audience. Reading means that one has to be literate, skilful at language and able to form ideas and beliefs from complex written language. A message delivered in auditory form (radio) or in imagery and auditory form combined (TV) means that one does not have to be that sophisticated at reading complex idea. Not to mention that reading and writing take a long time.


What TV has done, and social media today, is to offer a common denominator for a population with different intellectual and language skills. People who in the past had difficulty reading the content of a news paper can now get the message by just hearing and seeing it. By itself television is neutral; TV does not only make it easy for the intellectually challenged, but also offers new sources of information such as developing news, video and not just photos, these two have different  objectives, and an opportunity to see the human behind the voice or words.


Today the digital revolution has given us all this in a single instrument which we can carry with us and use it whenever we want. But the magic of the internet is more than just portability. The various tools we employ to use the internet have enormous advantages and benefits which the old media never had.


The first advantage is that we can access information when we want and we can also access more than one source of information we want. This also means by implication that we also have enough sources to fact check any information we have. But just because we can access the information we want, we still have to find it, confirm it meets our needs, and then process it into our ideas and beliefs.


Accessing the internet also means that we are not only recipients of information but also sources of information. Today it is much easier to leave our opinion at the end of an article in a digital newspaper than ever before. In fact today we can leave our opinion on the internet not only on matters which we know a lot about but also on matters which we hardly know anything about. Today we can leave opinions on our political opinions, prejudices, biases, and whatever takes our fancy. But we must want to first!


It is a myth that the media in the past was more honest, reliable and objective than the media today. In the past the media tried hard to pretend, today they seem they just don’t care.


The only difference between now and the past is that in the past we could exclude ourselves from information that did not conform to our prejudices and beliefs. We could do this by not watching the relevant TV programme, or buy the relevant newspaper or listen to the relevant radio transmission. Today information, for example news, is more likely to be delivered to us in linear format (the medium) than the traditional newspaper format although some newspapers do try to emulate the traditional format on screen. But most social media Apps do deliver information in linear format thus we have to take in chunks of information whether we are interested in that information or not. In other words, we have to filter and manage the information we are interested in from the information that is not relevant for us.


This means that not only do we read more and be quicker at reading, and make quicker judgements, but we need to read more type and forms of language before we can reach our target information. And equally important we also need to know how to manage information: how to search for information on a search engine, how to locate messages on Twitter or how to get Facebook to feed the right information. The reason why we need broader language skills is because we have to read information on broader subjects before we exclude it or include it in our research.


The new media game has not only changed our language skills, and our information management skill but also our cultural skills. Whether we like it or not a lot of information that comes our way or that we need to consult comes from sources beyond our geographical location. This means that we are most like to have the information in a different language, so we need to know a second language or know the limits and function of on line translators; these are quite good for simple things but the noise to information ratio is bound to increase. Thus if we exclude this sort of information from our language game and information database it means that we are limiting our reach for the information we want. When I say a “second” language this is not an imperative we must follow, but a skill that is nice to have. What is an imperative is our ability to know how to access this information that is relatively reliable.


 The media has always changed our identity by providing a positive feedback loop for our beliefs and prejudices: we read the articles and watch the programmes that conform to our beliefs thus alienating us from fact checking our information and beliefs. In turn by consuming the media we do we enforce the message to the media shareholder that this is the information we want to consume, the rest is  a numbers game. This was true at the time of Shannon and McLuhan and still true today in the age of Twitter and Facebook.


But our relationship with the media has also been a relationship of wits. The more the owners of the media (including state owned media) want to influence our beliefs and opinion the more we have to be clever to see through the propaganda, fake news and manipulation and thus arrive at the facts. Unfortunately this is an evolutionary game that many people, like many hares in a fox-hare game, fail to survive let alone win. The irony with the new media is that the medium (the internet) comes with all the necessary means (information) to control its excesses.

 underlined text are changes after poting..

Best and take care



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