Critics or consumers? – A Look at Modern Mass Communication

This post is the first of a series of pieces in which I’ll be looking to deconstruct and criticise  contemporary social ideas. The project is run in collaboration with The Rethinking Society (based at Exeter University), for whom I am an affiliate writer. This piece will be up on their website this weekend (link to follow).

The way we communicate is ever-changing.

Communication, from the moment we start to babble as infants, is an inevitable and natural human phenomenon. Of course, it evolves, changing with our evolution as a species just as naturally as language changes in us – as individuals – over the course of our lives. But although human communication is wedded to change, modern communication is changing in such rapid and unprecedented ways that it is both important and timely that we step back and take note.

I am talking about written and visual communication, as opposed to spoken everyday discourse. The forms of communication that we go to for education, information, debate and (increasingly) entertainment. The past hundred years – and especially the past fifteen or so – have drastically changed the sphere of written and visual communication.

Technology drives this change. Visual technology – cameras, production processes and publishing costs – were hugely cheapened and industrialised over the course of the 20th century, led by the switch from film to digital. Accompanying this change came a natural result: the proliferation of photographic content in newspapers and magazines, the rise of cinema and television, and a switch in attitude toward understanding the world – not just through words as before – but through images.

Following this, the rise of the internet has changed the whole shape of communication, providing a platform for instant, free, global and (supposedly) democratic communication. Social media platforms sprung up, offering people a portal of access into this instant, connected and pluralist world. And as whole populations shifted online, so the markets for communication adapted.

With print in rapid decline, the internet became the marketplace for ‘content’ – that ugly 21st century term used to describe any loosely informative thing that people view online. Inevitably, the internet became established as a profit-making tool as soon as substantial numbers of people – consumers – were using it. A fleet of bloggers, new-gen news outlets and niche websites rode this wave, and were rewarded by the profits of pay-per-click advertising. The big, traditional publishing outlets – national news outlets, broadsheets, tabloids and periodicals – reacted slowly at first, but have long since followed the bandwagon onto the internet. Thus, humanity’s communicative hub is, almost exclusively, online – and as a result, marketized and revenue-driven.

The problem, in this revenue-driven online era, is that published content becomes primarily a tool for boosting readership statistics and, in turn, profit potential. Though some outlets – the BBC, for example – are officially neutral on profit incentives, nearly all online publishers strive for some form of marketability (or at the very least, are driven by the need to be relevant).

But unlike the newspaper stall or corner shop, the internet offers unparalleled variety. Publishers simply have to stand out – or risk drifting into the sad realms of loss and irrelevance. And significantly, what makes content stand out online are the visual features that the 20th century was so adept at facilitating. Social media channels and webpages are proliferated with images, short videos, memes, live feeds. These visual forms are enticing, engaging and quick to digest, completely appropriate for the fast-paced nature and appeal of the internet. They satisfy a candy-cane desire that is inherently human: a desire for sensationalism, entertainment and quick pleasure.

However, as our more informative, responsible outlets conform – at least slightly – to these standards in the quest for readership, our critical capacity as readers is being damaged. The appeal to entertainment makes ‘content’ increasingly simplified so that it can capture attention quickly and effectively. This shift to simplicity erodes conventional standards of journalistic depth, quality and sophistication. If sophisticated vocabulary is less attractive online, for example, precise words are not only used less frequently, but edged that little bit closer to irrelevancy – as is the function of these words in facilitating precision and clarity of thought.

This pattern perpetuates itself in all areas where traditional modes of communication are unfavourable, where the new media production process repeats itself over and over. Think click-bait and fake news, video reels and airbrushed Instagram feeds, where excitement and cheap aestheticism are favoured over honesty and truth.

The supposed benefit of simpler communication is that the message is easier to access and appreciate. The negative, however, is that by favouring simplicity, we discard complexity – the element that can bring greater precision and depth to communication. This makes it easier to explain the meshing together of media forms, where short sentences summarise whole events by captioning a photo-series and short, punchy videos are the most popular and prevalent form of media.

Articles and long form writing – the stuff that cultivates thoughtful deliberation and reflection – are crowded out. Maybe we can deliberate over images and videos, but, as Susan Sontag once suggested, “photographs do not explain, they [merely] acknowledge” – the implication being that our deliberations over visual content are limited by the limited capacity of images to tell us things about the world. A picture might say a thousand words, but it cannot match the clarity and direction of actual words themselves.

In allowing this shift in communication to continue unchanged – without pushing for a healthier, better alternative – we are dismantling quality, depth and nuance, and with it, the human capacity for attention and consideration. As Habermas feared, modern mass communication – fuelled by capitalistic market forces – is moving us away from being critical, deliberative members of society and towards becoming passive, unreflective consumers of ‘content’.


A Full Moon Festival

I knew Hoi An for its charm. The historic port city, nestled halfway down the long strip of land that is Vietnam, home to traditional trades and the freshest seafood. As sunset brought a wash of cool to the air, in the aftermath of searing daytime heat, tonight was even more special than most. It was full moon in June.

Paper lanterns, traditional fare of the old trading centre, proliferate around every street corner. The twilight leaves its own glow, painting the sky with streaks of purple and amber, matched by the brighter, and no less tranquil, colours at street level. The primary reds and yellows of lanterns beam from windows, gutters and lines overhead, their internal residents flickering in the gentle breeze.

Its busy but not loud. Cafes and restaurants are filling up. The market across the river thrives with activity. Everywhere are the shapes and shadows of people, now half-masked by the growing darkness. There is activity down every street, a climax of it on the riverfront, but the volume is mute. The river seems to swallow the noise, absorbing it into its inky mass and casting back, instead, the soft tinkle of flowing water.

And as the sun departs and the sky deepens, slowly darkening to an oily black, the river sucks Hoi An’s festival visitors in. Both banks are filled now. The congregation, thicker, winds its way up along the river and over the old bridge. There’s still business being done, food enjoyed, drinks drunk, along the streets penetrating, their backs to the river, into the city itself. But it’s less regular, inconsistent, now. The evening energy is concentrated on the riverfront.

Here, old Vietnamese ferrymen carry their cargo – boatload after boatload of tourists – down the river. Their slender ships are traditional narrowboats, powered by the soft swish of oar plunging into the shallows, handled with all the nimble dexterity of a free-climber. Once out on the water, the cargo turns gleefully to handling their paper lanterns, provided by a few swift movements of the ferryman. A couple of flicks of a lighter later, and the lanterns are alive. As are their attendants. Faces, eyes, cheeks light up – expressions flicker, warm and eerie, against the glow of a mini sun. Then, the pinnacle of the experience. The moment, not worn for these one-time visitors, still preserved from a surely jaded authenticity. The candle, sheltered from the gentlest crests of waves by its little paper home, cast onto the water. A picture taken. A wish made.

The candle joins the throng of tealights on the river; the cargo is taken ashore, space cleared for the next boatload. The lunar festival in Hoi An. Haunting, beautiful, and unforgettable.

And consumed just like anything else.



A Cambodian Kind Of Wilderness

It clunks along alright, this vehicle. Engine churning as hard as it can along this road, which is little more than a mud track, beaten out as if by hand, the bus picks up a giddy speed, again on one of several overtakes, before the driver slams his foot on the breaks, then picks up the pace again, the near-crash just gone already out of mind.

The easier sight, on journeys like these, is out the side window. The windscreen, too ready to alert you to the driver’s kamikaze tendencies, is best avoided. Look left or look right – anywhere but ahead. The view, thankfully, is an intriguing distraction.

There, lined sporadically along the simple roads that link up Cambodia’s few big cities, are the local dwellings of the country’s rural population. These pockets of mini-civilisation are seriously humble, and comprise of simple huts, brick houses and corrugated steel shacks, clustered together in communion. Some sit on stilts, high enough to escape the floods that wash through the country in rainy season. Others occupy the ground, perilously close to both the anarchically motored roads and the seasonal tides.

Making its way onwards, the bus travels through stretches of luscious, deep-green countryside, where rice fields fill the space between roadside and horizon. Yet it’s never long until the shacks return. With them come the motorcycle repair garages and the shops selling food, toiletries and other necessities out of front rooms. Kids play. Workers farm in the fields. A few mothers and older ones browse the local store fronts.

Sure, these crude micro-economies manage to provide some kind of self-sufficiency for those inhabiting Cambodia’s rural wilderness. But a hand-to-mouth survival is merely more than a subsistence. For all their resourcefulness and spirit, it’s hard to avoid the strong impression that Cambodia’s country people – like the poorest in its cities – are left, more or less, forgotten.

Paradoxical Bangkok

Bangkok’s an interesting one. The stacked city, its architecture piles layer after layer on top of the other. Decades, even centuries, have observably passed in this city, and intimidating modern structures continue to spring up, climbing yet higher than the towering empty shells of last-generation masterpieces.

The city swells with energy and variety. Bangkok teems with the same impatient energy that has drivers swerving violently across its roads, the energy that sees it rush to satisfy the interests of tourists and bankers, the energy that leaves whole districts behind in the wake of commercial ‘progress’. There are bustling markets and streets lined with food vendors, each working with prodigious resourcefulness and haste to offer up their wares. From the financial district (the city’s glossy, technological mini-Tokyo) to the brash tourist haven of Khao San Road, Bangkok steers headlong into the future – to the hustle of tomorrow – with little nostalgia.

But respite, it seems, comes from venturing into one of its many ancient Buddhist temples or down a quiet backstreet, both of which reveal a different aspect of how life in the Thai capital can be lived.

In the capital’s quieter parts, that living is done with a compassion and benevolence unfamiliar to those only acquainted with Bangkok’s busier hotspots. Locals extend their kindness to visitors with nods of gratitude, half-prayers, warm smiles and a reverence, which at times feels disturbingly excessive. This is certainly due to the country’s long-standing Buddhist history and the almost Confucian regularity with which many still follow the religion today. The central tenet of treating all people with compassion has instilled a habitual kindness in many, many of the local people. It makes the city, for all its bustle and exoticism, a delightfully warm and welcoming place to stay.

In the heart of Ho Chi Minh City

Rammed to the hilt with peddlers, vendors, backpackers, bikes, vans, buses, Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao is a hub of local and foreign activity. The offices of bus companies open their doors onto this busy street, spilling cartloads of passengers out and onto the latest departure with clockwork consistency. The street brims with activity even in the lapses between buses. Carts and vans are parked, their backs shunted onto the pavements, and hurriedly loaded with some delivery or other. The locals doing the loading are young, but no less adept at smoking their cigarettes while working than the older men – the drivers – who chuff from their front seats. The smell of their cigarettes, made more pungent by the humidity, floats into the air and carries down the road, jostling with the smell of cooking noodles and petrol fumes for attention. The suppliers of these other smells dot themselves along the pavement: local wives offer over-ripe fruit and dishes on demand from mobile stations and shopfronts; motorcyclists pull up, navigating the hectic pavement surface to find a space to park. Through all this, the backpackers join the mill – one eye on the roadside, the other on the shopfronts – in their attempt to find travel to the next place. Few are intense as Saigon.

The Outsider, Albert Camus

Camus’ earliest novel is a lucid glimpse into his absurdist philosophy.

The book itself is strikingly well-written, its effectively staccato prose and detached narrative perspective exemplifying why Camus considered himself a writer first and foremost. These devices put the reader into the mind of his lead character, Meursault, with ease. We then watch as Meursault moves, unsteering, towards his eventual fate, disillusioned by and detached from the social claw of others. The overarching theme of Camus’ absurdism is made apparent through the metaphor of Meursault’s story, and especially vivid by his interactions with others. It is most apparent, though, in Meursault’s epiphany in the final scene, where the beautifully stark indifference of the world to human activity hits home. The reader’s close attachment to Meursault’s first-person perspective is invaluable here, allowing the waves of absurdist epiphany to wash right onto you.

This is philosophical metaphor at its finest (if there even is such a thing). Delicately written, daringly persuasive, The Outsider will leave you longing for more philosophers like Camus, whatever you make of his concepts themselves.

Service station.

Maybe it’s the lack of stench. Cleaned away by happy human drones – the same drones that stand, bearing expressionless smiles, behind homogeneous counters of fast food. Tall glass and an arching, modern structure that still reeks of promise, beckon in those unfortunate motorway souls, stunned from the monotony of hours at the wheel, who enter, unthinkingly, into the haze.

Bright light floods the site, a dizzying contrast to the M-whatever at night. There’s no horror on show, not really. This is a perfectly normal thing; a perfectly normal place. Just as the rubbish stockpiles in bins, planted at a lazy convenience not more than a step from the foraging trail, people are doing just as they would at a tavern or a truck stop, stepping in to fill themselves for the night.

Maybe it’s the food that makes it seem so alien: the familiar chains with their unsurprising offerings and strictly identical pricing and portion control and meat processing. Maybe it’s the people, plugged in or plugged out of headsets, sitting gormlessly at their office-cubicle tables, duly chewing through bite after bite of ‘happy meal’, westernised Asian or sterile, additive-clad semi-chicken. Maybe it’s the giant TV screens that hover overhead, silently blaring news from a dulled and darkening outside world. But then again, maybe it’s the lack of stench.