C : Environment :: kB : Reality – Better communications lead to a decrease in understanding.

Gregory O’Toole, Digital Media Specialist, Web Developer, Internal Advisory Board Member, Social Science Research
Institute / Population Research Institute, The Pennsylvania State University

Harold Adams Innis (1894 – 1952) knew that the university as a culturally beneficial and intellectually necessary environment was not perfect, in fact, far from it. He devoted much of his life to establishing and improving the higher education system of Canada. Among Innis’ many contributions is the clarification that borrowing from the past cultural milieu toward the new must be a rather selective process in order to avoid an over abundance of unneeded cultural baggage which simultaneously leaves a conditional void or a type of intellectual incompleteness. This progressive absence is necessary so that there is always a culturally perceived need for new ideas, and so that there is room for these innovative ideas to enter and flourish. Without this necessary incompleteness, the sense of a need for new ideas and innovation is aborted. Innis came to the conclusion that it is an effect of modern mediated communication, with its ever-increasing attribute of flawless efficiency and quantity of content (the record of cultural baggage), that rather senselessly and somewhat automatically fills this void and, in a sense, renders the incomplete complete, but in an insignificant way. For Innis this was a great crisis for the West, and a sign of its eventual downfall.

Twenty years ago if a person would have made a public statement that the human activity surrounding the act of consumption has ascended to the level of effectively altering the Earth’s atmosphere, they would not have been taken very seriously in most circles, and certainly would have generated a few scoffs in others. However, the American lead culture of mass consumption has done just this. The economic system, over many years, has changed the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, buying has affected the way the Earth functions. We’ve extracted, moved, burned, shipped, and consumed fossil fuels to an alarming degree, raising the percentage of carbon in the atmosphere. For starters, this has a direct effect on the weather around the world. Adding carbon changes the weather, this process alters the ways people see and experience the world around them first hand. The world around the consumer is a system, or a series of systems interlinked. It is in a similar manner that the amount of information that we’ve produced, consumed, processed at increasing rates of bits and bytes per second, that we have effectively altered our sense of reality: the ways in which we see ourselves playing apart in the world around us. Like adding an overabundance of carbon atoms into the atmosphere fundamentally changes that environment, introducing a profusion of information in the form of messages makes cardinal edits to human psychology. In this case the system that our human behavior has altered is not the Earth’s atmosphere, but is the sense of what we refer to as reality. Reality has been changed by the messages of mass media and the information they contain. It is our obligation to live with these messages surrounding us every day.

The human being is engulfed by narrative. In the mass media (i.e. Internet) world, it is arguably true that most of what people discuss and concern themselves with on a daily basis is known from their surrounding narrative. At the very least, there is much more narrative knowledge to sift through with the advent of the various static, mobile, dynamic, syndicated communication technologies, not to mention the force of the active audience.

Everything is information. The good news is that in the current information age people have convenient, fingertip access to continual, global content. The bad news is that in the current information age people have this same convenient, fingertip access to continual, global content. At first the free flow of information seems convenient, empowering, and endlessly beneficial for those world citizens with access to it. Industry takes great pains to bridge the social agency and access digital divides. Companies are continuously inventing and marketing smaller pocket-sized devices with which can communicate instantaneously and in a variety of ways. Contemporary culture spends vast amounts of money every day for more connections, faster networks, and ubiquitous wifi. There is a current industry determined pseudo-narrative in place claiming that all of this informational access can only be a good thing. Upon a closer look, one has to wonder if more content can ever be too much content.

Historically, information production and distribution has always equaled a certain amount of power for those in control of these processes. In the one-to-many relationship of mass media producers control what the inactive viewers see, hear, and read. It has been shown that through the event of broadcast, news outlets have had the power to shape the relative importance a viewer may apply to certain content. This process can even influence which issues are thought to be most serious and most important to the viewing public. This historic imbalance between the agencies of media producers and those of media consumers is changing as a result of the available media communication technology, creating a new type of media consumer: the active viewer. As a result of this influx, as media consumers in the Internet age, populations and the individual are in need of a critical regiment to control and understand what they choose to digest as part of a media diet. Through experience it is known that too much of anything is not a good thing. As with the over-consumption of sugar, fat, cholesterol, and salt for the human body, today, as media consumers, individuals have the responsibility of their media diets and in dealing with the potential for an easy, cheap, convenient diet of fast food, always with an eye of awareness toward information glut.

Further, there is a media outlet available for nearly every point of view that exists.

Certainly with a single Google search, for example, a blog entry or forum post, no matter how well or otherwise written and no matter the language, can be located on just about any topic, including posts that fall on both sides (or any side) of any story. However, how does the information consumer know where to find the facts that the news media are supposed to transparently provide in order that users become and remain informed, knowledgeable citizens? Where is the objectification that the media is supposed to promote in order that viewers and readers make informed decisions on their own or within their local critical social circles? There is any number of bloggers out there, but which one is correct, if any? CNN, the BBC, and Der Spiegel run their content distribution twenty-four hours a day, but is what they are pouring into millions of living rooms, computers, cell phones really important for the average citizen to know? If not all of it, how much of it? Today, in the Internet age, these are the questions that can only be answered by each individual as a living member of planet Earth. Gone are the days of the “good” informed citizen needing only to subscribe and read the local newspaper each morning, and the evening edition at night. In the current information epoch users have many more decisions to make, and the power to make the right ones. With a little thoughtfulness and effort, users can do this to the benefit of themselves and their communities. The bad news is that in the information age there is continual, global information content at the user’s fingertips. The good news is that in the information age there is continual, global content available at the user’s fingertips.

In the contemporary media-rich world, there is now, more than ever, the need for an applicable theoretical and quantitative investigation on these questions which involve the ideas of working academics, writers whose work on the nature of media, power, information, human psychology, and mass movements contribute to an advanced academic foundation in media theory and can help viewers to understand the effects of the prevailing condition of the world today.

The present social, economic, political, and cultural conditions, as they are, certainly are difficult to effectively navigate. In the postmodern, as individuals in a larger community, media consumers can no longer rely on the grand narratives they once could to show them the way. When the nuclear family has broken up, where do young people turn for guidance? When the religions cause wars and endless controversy where do we turn for spiritual guidance? When community leaders, politicians, and industry CEOs spend more time defending themselves from fraudulent charges and prison sentences who can we trust? When a daily avalanche of consumerist messages point viewers toward consumption as the way to happiness from where do people find the strength to resist if they chose to do so? How do they even know that they can?

Sut Jhally very clearly points out that “today’s hyper-consumerism is driven by ever more sophisticated advertising and public relations techniques. The specific product is secondary. What they’re really selling is lifestyle (and) ideology.” It is essential for viewers in these investigations to look at the wide potential for acceptance of the messages of mass media texts. It is equally important to inquire into how, as a culture, users have the potential, consciously or otherwise, to allow these mediated messages to actually, in many ways, become at least part of the significance of the daily existence, and to keep in mind that ultimately it is the individual citizen who needs to remain in control of the information they access, how they react to it, and what they consider to be significant and true. One might warn the audience member to do their best to think critically on every topic they consider and do their best not to be swayed in any way by beautiful actors, big budgets, slick graphics, or political agendas: a task that is much easier said than done to be sure.

These reasons only scratch the surface as to why media education is so important, probably more so today than ever. The constant and pressing messages emphasizing the self, image, and self-image, the rhetoric of politics, and the desires imagined by an economics that fosters created wants all speak to the need for media education. The identity construction of every individual and group counts on it. Media education not only needs to be primary in every educational system, but needs to start at the elementary school level. Most beneficially, media education needs to start at home as soon as any child reaches the age where they are old enough to find interest in their first book or cartoon. This is something that everyone can agree upon. Let us become more aware.

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