Saturday, February 25, 2017

Swimming Up Mainstream

So, I had an interesting exchange with Andrew Hoskins, a professor at the University of Glasgow, based on my quotes in the New York Times, as discussed in my recent blog post, How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers. 

Andrew is currently working on a book about news and the concept of the "mainstream" and how that ideal or myth or sociological reality (take your pick, or view it as some combination of all three) might relate to changes in the media environment. As he put it, "You are spot on when you say that broadcast TV at its height served very significant social, cultural and political roles, but I wonder then to what extent its absence/demise today has shaped the current crisis in faith in the ‘mainstream’?"

Here now is my response, with a bit of editing to make it suitable for Blog Time Passing readers:

I think it might be fruitful to trace the idea of the mainstream back to that of the public. At the start of The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan states that the public was a product of printing. And I think that when you look at Elizabeth Eisenstein's study of typography and its effects, the argument that the printing revolution formed the basis of the public sphere as outlined by Jürgen Habermas, among others, makes a lot of sense. 

This is the basis of Jay Rosen's notion of public journalism. Like me, Jay was a student of Neil Postman's, and his idea parallel's Postman's in Teaching as a Conserving Activity in looking at print-based institutions as needing to work against the biases of the electronic media environment. That's why  Jay argues that journalists need to create a public, and not only try to reach one. 

Of course, the problem is that the public is no more in an electronic environment, the effects of which include the blurring of public and private, as McLuhan, Joshua Meyrowitz in No Sense of Place, and others have noted (much more has been said about the decline and disappearance of privacy, but the fate of the private and the public are intertwined).

I would also note that Jacques Ellul, in his book Propaganda, explains how individualism, in breaking down ties based on tradition, locality, tribe, etc., leads to the mass, which consists of large numbers of individuals without any organic ties. Perhaps we can break this process down, so that the first stage of individualism, which McLuhan, Walter Ong, and others connect to the isolating effect of literacy, results in the formation of the public. 

Detribalized, able to free themselves from the need, in the absence of any external storage medium, to preserve knowledge through collective memory, able to view and review their thoughts and engage in critical evaluation, to think independently and to think novel thoughts, a group of readers becomes a public. As individual members of a public, they share a common literate culture, but one that also depends on orality in the form of public speaking, discussion, debate, deliberation, etc. We associate this type of speech with the agora and other gathering places, from Eisenstein's printers' shops to Habermas's coffee houses, but again it is an orality produced by literate mentalities, as are the dialogues Plato attributes to Socrates. 

Media environments are always built on and incorporate the environments that came before, so the ideal of the Enlightenment is based on a balance between literacy and orality, as Postman has suggested. And maybe there is an inverse relationship between the amount of dialogue and speech that mediates between print media and readers, and the shift from a public to the mass. 

The shift goes along with new technologies, steam powered printing for shifting the orality-literacy balance away from hearing and towards reading, the mechanical reproduction of images and photography as antagonistic to the word in all modes (spoken, written, and printed), telegraphy and further developments in telecommunications as increasing the potential for mass communication. It would follow that what Daniel Boorstin in The Image describes as the graphic revolution, based on these and other innovations, results in a shift from the public to the mass.

Anyway, what I would say is that electronic technology amplified the effects of print, at first, for example in the way that telegraphic messages took the form of telegrams and wire service reports in newspapers. With radio and then television, print became the content of broadcasting, as McLuhan would put it, as programming was often scripted, including news reporting, while programming following a schedule is also very much a typographic type of structure. 

So typographic biases were initially amplified, but it is important to keep in mind that amplification often turns into distortion. 

It was the internet that fully unleashed the potential of the electronic media, bringing back in a new way a kind of neo-tribalism. This relates to McLuhan's laws of media, specifically the law of reversal, as the mass, as an effect of the first stage of electronic telecommunications, flips into siloing, a reversal from the anonymous heterogeneity of the mass into groups based on affinity and shared identity. And/or, maybe the mass in and of itself is ultimately unsustainable, certainly going against the grain of human nature? 

Certainly, printing was associated with homogenizing culture and society, and electronic media always had the potential and the actuality of undoing that effect, that potential muted as long as print remained the content of broadcasting, but now unleashed as broadcasting and telecommunications become the content of online media.

It follows then, that the crisis of the mainstream, or its actual disappearance, is an effect of the electronic media, and quite possibly an irrevocable one at that. 

So, those are my thoughts on the matter, more or less, at least for now. Where do we go from here? That is a hard question to answer.

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