Media and Medium: Entertainment and Culture

In a moment of self-reflective poetic irony I decided to investigate the media with this my renewed attempt at something resembling a blog on Medium. Although many may know this already, it is always worth a reminder: media is the plural of medium. But, the word is changing meaning from suggesting form to content. One way we use the word media today illuminates this shift. We often speak of consuming media but how could one ravage pure form or mediations. In the following short gibbering, I suggest folk uses are not wrong but indicate a broader social shift away from culture towards entertainment.

Any media study student like an automaton would produce the well-worn mantra, “The medium is the message”. One should, however, be wary of any quick “is”. The maxim, I suggest, should instead read, “The medium includes a message”. Watch enough historical documentaries, and you will soon spot, for example, the overwrought style of the History Channel; full of action-flick-like quick cuts and overdramatised voiceovers. But, of course, even though the History Channel imposes a thick formative layer on its content, it still needs some shared cotextuality with other histories for credibility. If, for some reason, the History Channel was your sole source for history documentaries (and I would strongly suggest diversifying) you would never notice the form’s influence. Indeed, as I will soon suggest, the phrase “consuming media” makes a similar monocultural mistake but in the overbearing cultural capitalist direction.

Before claiming such a thing, however, first a side note on one difference between public and private media outlets. Now, by mainstream media outlets, I don’t mean tabloids or whatever Breitbart would qualify as. Just this week as I was thumbing my way through Deutsche Welle the absence a common category in the Anglo-American news-media struck me: entertainment. Instead, entertainment, for the German media outlet, files under culture. Which, to me at least, changed tone and goal of media. Instead of mere entertainment, media illuminates culture; media as digestion instead of consumption. Here, is a fundamental disconnect between European and Anglo-American media houses. And, of course, then also how these media outlets perceive their own place. Whereas Anglo-American media houses seem hell-bent on entertainment without suggesting they contribute to culture, Europeans see their media and by extension Anglo-American entertainment as culture writ large.

Now, let us turn for a moment to social media which has again a different timber. The parlance of these media are that of sharing platforms. But we should not be fooled by their claimed democracy. Instead, social media adhere closer to something like a digital version the American media myth of pure entertainment. Thus, the propaganda goes, if you aspire to change something, become something more than you are, or be a celebrity, use our platform.

Now, of course, similar to Hollywood and Wall Street a small percentage of the lower ranks do float to the top through some strange emergent pattern. But those companies and people with already powerful networks to start with — be they constructed through gender, racial, money or other means — still dominate. For sure, so-called New Media’s texture is different, but it turns out many of the same old influencers dominate the new platform. Not, that this is just bad thing. Indeed, what would happen if only new, inexperienced individuals and outlets would dominate — queue chaotic misinformation here. We leave aside for another time how social media’s claimed “free-dom” is another perfect metaphor for another peculiar American phenomenon — this time an ethical one: ethics as freedom from others rather than freedom for others.

Coming back to the question of culture versus entertainment, consumption versus digestion. Whereas a monotonous media diet makes us worse reflectors on how the medium influences, so too does the meta-diversification of media ready for consumption destroy any semblance of culture. We are scattered into million micro worlds because the media caters to consumers, instead of taking responsibility for their cultural, formative function. In short, we need a media environment which encourages slow, long-term, and critical thinking. Thus, in over the following few weeks, we will consider questions of media speed and thoughtfulness. In short, I hope, we will learn to chew instead of gulp our media.