Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mass Media and the Loss of Individuality

(from my focus paper at CSUSM)

The Industrial Revolution shifted economic and social change, making the world available to all who wanted to experience it. Efficiency and innovation led society into a new world, a world that needed to stay connected. Mass Media by definition is designed to distribute media to as many people as possible. In essence, Mass Media keeps the world connected. Understanding the process of how Mass Media works, primarily in regards to it relationship with society, one will see the grandeur of the spectacle that is Mass Media. All 1984 and Brave New World references aside, we are controlled in every aspect by what we see, and what we buy. Money, consumerism, radio, television, printed media, and fame have constructed the “American Dream”, the spectacle. Thinking for ourselves is now aided and even guided by our high speed internet connection and the ten o’clock news. These sources also, conveniently enough, sell products that help attain the “American Dream”. Through careful analysis of the current state of Mass Media and the effects it has on society it is my contention that the Industrial Revolution has created a new, pre-packaged and ultimately non-satisfying self image that is exaggerated by today’s Mass Media and the spectacle it creates.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, needs were based on survival. People made, farmed, and bought only what they needed to provide for their families. Occupations existed to provide unique services and you were known for your job. For instance in Europe if you were a blacksmith, your last name reflected your occupation and everywhere you went people knew you as the town blacksmith. News traveled from town to town via travelers or traders and was inconsistent and outdated at best. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution machines made businesses more efficient, money became more readily available and people began to communicate across vast distances with new forms of media, primarily the printing press. However with the increased production, people were no longer needed for the occupations they once served. Town blacksmiths were replaced with machines which could turn out multiple times more products at higher qualities. Profits were soaring and individuality was transforming into a collective unit serving to better society. People began to assemble the parts that would serve to build modern society, and in doing so they were overcome with the sentiment that they were no longer important. A new sentiment emerged, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau perhaps encapsulates the entire problem with modern society in that one sentence.

Society needed news. People wanted to be informed how the world was advancing and the beginning forms of print journalism exploited this hunger for information.

The newspaper of 1897 was the sole purveyor of news until the advent of newsreels in the 1910s (Hearst was a pioneer, by the way) and radio in the 1920s. Its comics, fiction, and features made it the home-entertainment center. Ample advertisements made it the shopping bazaar and wish book, too, both of which explain why so many homes consumed more than one daily each day. The competition for readers in New York was intensified, writes Campbell, by the decline of the previously dominant newspapers—Pulitzer's World, Charles A. Dana's New York Sun, James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s New York Herald, and Whitelaw Reid's New York Tribune. Even so, Pulitzer sensed enough of the crisis to order his business manager to recruit a spy within Hearst's Journal to find the source of the paper's ideas and identify what dissatisfied talent might be willing to leave Hearst and join him. – Shafer, Jack The Great Press War of 1897, Slate 2006

After the Industrial Revolution was in full gear, mass merchandising came into place and people soon discovered there were many things available to them to buy. With more things to spend money on people started situating themselves into jobs that would provide more money, while not necessarily providing personal satisfaction. More places to spend money lead to more companies competing to win money; less personal satisfaction lead people to try and fill the void with material possessions. The competition between corporations lead to mass commercialism. Commercialism then found its roots within media and the proliferation of new products was sent to the masses. People were reading about products that would make their lives better, help them keep up with the Jones’s. “For consumers as a whole, Boss sees a collective psychology prevailing. "We ask, 'What are others doing, and what can I get for myself?' Nobody wants to admit that there's anybody they're keeping up with, but we do collectively keep up with one another." – Gardner, Marylin A penny earned is a penny spent, The Christian Science Monitor 2006. With all of society consuming bigger and better products, innovation was at a peak. Soon two new technologies came into the spotlight that would forever change the way society gained information from Mass Media, radio and television.

In 1859 Oliver Wendell Holmes described photography as the most remarkable achievement of his time because it allowed human beings to separate an experience or a texture or an emotion or a likeness from a particular time and place — and still remain real, visible, and permanent. He described it as a "conquest over matter" and predicted it would alter the physics of perception, changing forever the way people would see and understand the world around them. Holmes precisely observed that the emergence of this new technology marked the beginning of a time when the "image would become more important than the object itself and would in fact make the object disposable." Contemporary advertising critic Stuart Ewen describes the photographic process as "skinning" the world of its visible images, then marketing those images inexpensively to the public. – Thoman, Elizabeth Rise of the Image Culture, Center for Media Literacy 2003 See: Elizabeth's article here: http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article79.html

Radio became a mainstream technology and transformed once distant social activities into every household. Radio also introduced new forms of marketing and more vibrant sources for news and information. The spectacle was now starting to take shape and people began to distract themselves from reality every night through a hypnosis of sorts from this speaking box. The success of the radio fostered the birth of television, which rapidly transformed the world. The masses became enamored with television and the stars it created. TV shows become commonplace, and commercials become as important as the show content. Television starts shrinking the world introducing celebrity fame and furthering the loss of identity.

When I heard the mellifluous voice of Ronald Reagan announce on GE Theatre that "Progress is our most important product," little did I realize that the big box in our living room was not just entertaining me. At a deeper level, it was stimulating an "image" in my head of how the world should work: that anything new was better than something old; that science and technology were the greatest of all human achievements and that in the near future — and certainly by the time I grew up — the power of technology would make it possible for everyone to live and work in a world free of war, poverty, drudgery and ignorance. – Thoman, Elizabeth Rise of the Image Culture, Center for Media Literacy 2003

People became so interested in fame they began to wonder if anyone would ever recognize them as an individual. This furthered loss of individuality and started molding society to emulate importance modeling the lives of the people they see on TV and read about in beauty and tabloid magazines. Commercials interlaced with biased news networks sponsored by media conglomerations started broadcasting stereotypical personalities; the people society wanted to become. Furthermore television moved from information based news shows to more entertainment based productions.

The rise in these types of magazines has everything to do with pent-up demand, said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. Because our society has no aristocracy, Americans have always been obsessed with celebrity. In its earliest incarnation, according to Thompson, celebrity worship translated into bragging that George Washington slept here. “On a fundamental level, it is appealing to something deep in the American soul,” he said. –Davies, Jennifer Gluttons For Gossip, The San Diego Union Tribune, 2005

In fact, we currently have shows composed of nothing but celebrity entertainment “news”. To reiterate “Entertainment News”, people have become so hypnotized by television that they can’t even distinguish the fact that the news they are watching is for their entertainment not to inform them of real problems they face. That same entertainment news is filled with celebrities talking about face creams or diet programs they themselves buy and or recommend. This substance free programming leaves the viewer with a thirty minute show about nothing of any real consequence. Laced within the thirty minutes are various commercials selling products that more or less add no real value to anyone’s life and are repeated ad nauseam. So in essence, our mainstream television has now become a box broadcasting nothing of any substance, selling valueless products and indoctrinating our “individual” opinions. People start to see beauty which is defined by these companies trying to sell products that will make people beautiful. People start to believe news that will effect how they vote and place people into office to make news and control their lives. People start to see these “beautiful” television and movie stars and do everything in their power to bring any bit of that fame into their own lives. “’There’s a real hunger for this,’ said Steven Cohn, editor-in-chief of Media Industry Newsletter, which tracks industry trends. ‘There’s not a hunger for newsmagazines. There’s not a hunger for business newsmagazines. But there is a hunger for celebrity newsmagazines’.” –Davies, Jennifer Gluttons For Gossip, The San Diego Union Tribune, 2005

The overwhelming tragedy of it all can be seen by what society has become today, an entertainment consuming, distracted, bland mixture of subtleties and indifference. Individuals are few and far between as the masses consume not just information, but free thinkers. People are so desperate to be unique that they look to other people for inspiration, the problem being that our media broadcasts and highlights the same models of individuality to the masses creating nothing more than a sea of clones constantly trying to keep up and follow the newest trend. Joe Smith the blacksmith is no longer the blacksmith, now he is the accountant, he is the taxi driver, he is the software engineer; Joe Smith is now one of three hundred other Smiths in the phone book, none of which actually blacksmith anything. How is Joe Smith any different than Bill Smith? What individual characteristics or value can he use to separate himself from anyone else? Who will notice that he is gone if and when he is gone? The loss of individuality is a terrifying proposition that most men lead lives of quiet desperation fighting.

Perhaps Thoreau was correct; people need self value and worth. Perhaps the spectacle resultant from the Industrial Revolution is not so much the distraction from real life, but the cheap ideal that we aren’t worth anything as an individual. The irony of the spectacle is in it inescapable appeal to the masses; for the spectacle is nothing more than a reflection of society at its best and worst, more often the latter. The understanding that the viewer is in a sense watching themselves seems to escape most, which is arguable the reason the spectacle is so amusing. We want to be distracted and entertained, Shakespeare perfected it, Hitler took advantage of it, and the media whores it out to any one willing to buy it. Our daily grind revolves around the spectacle, the idle water cooler conversation about last night’s police chase, the latest Fox prime time TV show. It’s as though the grim reality that our lives could be boring without spectacle, and that fear of status-quo drives the masses insane with commercialism and capitalistic endeavors to desperately try to become part of the spectacle.


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Desert-Roses said...

Leave Joe smith alone lol, he is paid more now...

I absolutely liked your article, was inspiring for me..hmm..(Looking for other thoughts about individuality)..
school project ^_^...

u know, i really began to think of plastic surgery while reading ur article...

Anyways, I have two comments regarding your article..

First...If someone knows him/herself technology or mass media wont affect them much, right?..
As i began to think critically about this topic( individuality)..I find it is more about decision making and knowing yourself more...
on the other hand, yes mass media can affect individuality but not severely if someone was enough aware..some things are uncontrollable, like the black smith thingie...
I have the same issue..
Well, in Kuwait 90% of families are named according to their occupation or the original place they came from, or tribe name..
Mine is called "al-wazan" or the weighter because we used to weight rice and coal...yet, I never felt like I lost my uniqueness according to technology..

They created their uniqueness according to their time and we can create our uniqueness according to our time ...

anyways..am still grabbing my thoughts together :)..


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