The famous dictum “the medium is the message” from theorist Marshall McLuhan remains as relevant in the digital era as it was in the the televised world of the 1960s.
Could it also be that the content itself matters even less than it did then with worrying consequences for our collective sense of society and truth?
Michael Sacasas, blogging at The Convivial Society, thinks so. He suggests that the age of social media and the massive proliferation of images has led to a degradation of the cultural power of the image.
He has this thought-provoking idea: “As we approach the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I’m tempted to suggest that the image of the towers burning might be the last example of an iconic public image with longstanding cultural currency. As a simple thought experiment, consider how different the documentary evidence of 9/11 would be if the event had occurred ten years later after smartphones had saturated the market.”
He argues that 9/11 marked the beginning of the end for the age of the image. Specifically, it is the end of the age of the manufactured image that speaks compellingly to a broad swath of society.
Post-9/11, “the image economy began to collapse when the market was flooded with digital representations.”
Theorists before McLuhan, notably Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” pointed out that art works lost their ‘aura’ or authority when no longer unique but capable of being reprinted by anyone and displayed anywhere.
Sacasas extends this by saying that, in turn, the image loses its own cultural standing in the age of its digital manipulability.
Images, he writes, “are no longer received from a class of professional story tellers who have monopolized the power to produce and interpret the symbolic currency of cultural exchange. The image-making tools have been democratized. The image itself has been demystified. Every image we encounter now invites us to manipulate it to whatever end strikes our fancy.”
The point applies to all pre-digital media. Television, film, radio, print — all are taken up and absorbed by digital media either because they themselves become digital artifacts (digital files rather than, say, rolls of film) or because they become the content of digital media feeds.
“This means, for example, that a movie is not only something to be taken whole and enjoyed on its own terms, it is also going to be dissected and turned into free-floating clips and memes and gifs. What’s more, the meaning and effect of these clips, memes, and gifs may very well depend more on their own formal structure and their use in our feeds than on their relation to the film that is their source.”
Posing the rhetorical question, “What frames what, the televisual medium or the digital?” Sacasas contends that the answer is pretty straightforward: increasingly, digital media frames all older forms, and it is the habits, assumptions, and total effect of the digital medium that matters most.
Why does this matter? It’s couched in the academic language of Media Ecology but he is underlining the point that McLuhan made: that the medium of communication matters as much as, if not more than, the content that is being communicated through it.
Take the recent events in Afghanistan. How long will those images remain on the news agenda? How much cut through did they genuinely have on citizens around the world given that attention span of news making agendas?
“It’s the sense that nothing seems to get any durable traction in our collective imagination. I’ll provisionally suggest that this is yet another example of the medium being the message. In this case, I would argue that the relevant medium is the social media timeline. The timeline now tends to be the principal point of mediation between the world and our perception of it.
“Its relentless temporality structures our perception of time and with it our sense of what is enduring and significant.”