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The Media Is the Message, Essay Example

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Essay

The Media Is the Message: Technology and Connectivity

Introduction

The ethnographic exercise conducted, in which cell phone use is examined in terms of impact and meaning among diverse age and occupations groups interviewed and observed in Campbell Square, very much reflects how technology is literally shaping behaviors and how people perceive their roles in the society.  The cell phone is admittedly only one example of the vast array of communication technologies playing a part in human interaction, in the past and today, yet the significance is clear.  As the study reflects, cell users engage in behaviors at least partially influenced, if not dictated, by what the device enables.  This in turn supports how communication technology, as well as the media presences relying upon it, has a distinct effect on human conduct, and ideas of self and the community.  As the following will explore, technology’s impact is hardly new, just as tracing the degrees and variations of it generates a wide range of perspectives. Nonetheless, the implications are clear: technology creates connectivity, connectivity enables collectivity, and this equation then affirms how individual usage of communication technology goes to the constructive imaginings of societies themselves.

Literature Review

The literature, in plain terms, provides a wide-ranging view of how technology consistently affects social behavior and societies themselves, and inevitably through connectivity.  As Larkin observes, communication technology expands in ways far beyond interpersonal exchanges, as in his study on the impact of cinema in Nigeria.  The movie houses of the region are here analyzed as centers of socializing dependent upon media technology,  Larkin’s emphasis is in fact on how the cinema technology disrupts traditional social frameworks and, importantly, represents technology as furthering political, and primarily colonial, agendas.  He notes, for instance, that American cinemas were traditionally designed to appeal to, and bring together, the working classes and provide relatively empty entertainment.  The colonial context is different, as the spaces go to the infusion of imperialist ideologies within the initially alien environment (Larkin 322).  Consequently, cinema, clearly a communication technology, is used to generate  social and political ideas through the indigenous public’s interest in gathering in the spaces and taking in the technology as a social agent.

Joshua Barker examines another variation on these processes called interkom, an increasingly popular communication system in Indonesia. Informality marks interkom; users are connected to headsets, often engaging in the system in their homes, and carry on conversations with any number of others within the community.  It is in a sense a modern version of the old-fashioned “party line”; even if only two are conversing, it cannot be known how many others are sharing the connection (Barker 128).  Aide from the distinct aspect of socializing identified as attracting users, it is interestingly documented that interkom appeals to many due to the potentials of cepretan, which translates loosely to cross-talk and the clicking sounds made when others join the line (133).  That is to say, users seem to enjoy the possibility of being overheard.

Then, the ethnographic importance of media technology is interestingly placed in a far-reaching context by Anderson, as he explores the historical trajectory of the imagined community.  Drawing upon long-established processes of cultural and community identities as generated in past societies, Anderson notes distinct influences in play.  For example, the gradual decay of Latin as the universal Western language created insularity; societies were essentially thrown upon themselves to forge unique presences as they developed vernaculars of their own (Anderson 18).  Then, cultures of the past reflected what Anderson refers to as an inherent simultaneity, or sense of the past as relevant to the present, which is largely absent in modern, imagined societies.  The icons linking the past to the current day are gone, and replacing them is “homogenous, empty time” in which only actual measurement defines the quality of the time itself (24).  The immense social implications of this are obvious, and indicate a profound shift in individual, and consequently collective, ideas of self and social meaning.

Michael Warner also  poses interesting questions regarding connectivity and societal change in his analysis of traditional print media, and its undeniably critical role in furthering both the Age of Enlightenment and republicanism.  Warner argues that printing, or any technological communication, cannot possess an ontological status prior to the culture.  He disputes ideas that printing in earlier centuries brought with it social construction, as in the formations of literate elites based upon the superior distinction of writing as opposed to the ability to disseminate and acquire information through printing (Warner 7). By way of refutation, Warner engages in a lengthy dissection of printing processes, yet the point remains questionable, certainly in terms of the impact of the technology.  That is to say, the author seems to ignore the inherently exponential relationship between any medium and the society, or societies, employing it.  An example of such an exponential effect, in fact, is seen in Hirschkind’s analysis of how cassette sermons have altered Egyptian culture. Since the 1970s, Egyptian preacher have increasingly turned to this technology as a means of widening their audiences.  Moreover, the unique quality of the cassette sermon has been seen as elevating preachers into figures of political and social importance, and chiefly because the cassette is perceived as immune to external influences.  It is in a sense the “word” of the preacher, unaffected by any state censorship, and thus it has greater integrity for the listeners (Hirschkind 117).

Regarding journalism and shifts within it due to technology, Bishara discusses how American journalism has radically altered in a world in which connectivity, as well as American imperialism, influence the ways in which media disseminates news.  The author notes distinct patterns in modern reporting, as in: detachment or objectivity as increased; the emphasis on beginning reports with the most important information; a stress on empiricism; and balance (Bishara 38).  It would then appear that modern journalism, aware of its international and immediate impact, and also clearly abetted by communication technologies widely disseminating it virtually instantaneously, has taken on a greater sense of accountability; that is, as the audience must consist of a limitless range of cultures, objectivity is the keynote to be struck.

Focusing on the impacts and discourses of radio in Zambia, another author argues that the intrinsic intertextual quality of media inevitably shapes communities, as it works to construct localized cultures which in turn interact more widely as singular, and evolving, presences.  The Zambian radio effects studied by Spitulnik affirm a reality hardly surprising; the discourse heard on the radio becomes infused into the popular language, just as ideas and perceptions are equally taken in by the public.  This effect is interestingly reliant upon Anderson’s conception of the imagined community, and certainly in Zambia; as this is a state of multiple languages and greatly varied subcultures, the unifying effect of the radio transmissions provides all natives with a sens of social coherence, or unity (Spitulnik 163).  Most of these people do not of course know one another or interact at all, yet the radio serves as a social core.  In a sense, it constructs community merely by virtue of its being the primary element shared by the diverse peoples.

Lastly, Weidman offers one particular aspect of how such social construction occurs in her article on how gramophone technology generated in India mimicry, which in turn became a defining social and linguistic element in the first decade of the 20th century.  Following a detailed examination of the economic, social, and political components in place in India at this time, the author goes on to note that the popular recordings reflected an idea of Indian culture to which most communities could relate.  The recordings were typically of a folk tale or parody model, emphasizing ordinary life and interactions, and frequently with songs.  In one, “Dialogue between a Gardener and a Lady,” various social classes are lampooned as, importantly, the native Indian is more clever than the British master (Weidman 301).

Relevance and Perspectives

As noted, the ethnographic study focused on observing and interviewing a diverse selection of people during one week, in Campbell Square. The objective was to ascertain both cell phone activity rates and the meaning of the activity to the users.  This is of course a highly specific study, and therefore one seemingly distanced from the literature addressing larger social issues, and of myriad cultures and differing eras.  Nonetheless, there is a commonality to be noted, as all the literature to some extent necessarily involves how communication exists in public spaces, connects individuals within such spaces, and/or addresses how various communication technologies appear to greatly influence behavior.

For example, it would seem that Larkin’s study of Nigerian cinema as shaping cultural conceptions is inherently unconcerned with a cell phone analysis. At the same time however, such a view ignores the broader implications within any study of how a technology affects individual and social behavior. Larkin observes that colonial agendas come into play as Nigerians experience the medium, which are unlike the standardized, American experiences of a working class seeking entertainment. This of itself then reinforces how impactful a single technology may be, which in turn emphasizes the meaning of the cell phone as studied.  It must be understood, first and foremost, that a society is inevitably developed as the individuals within it respond to one another in connected ways.  This frequently occurs when a medium is a focal point, as in a cinema, but another medium may be a focal point despite its being unconfined to a single arena.  Consequently, the cell phone promotes direct connectivity as the cinema encourages the indirect, but the connectivity is the pivotal element.  In both instances, individuals are interacting through a technology that is communicative, and this mutual engagement must then influence the processes of the culture itself.

A more direct correlation between the study and the literature lies in the interesting aspect of how many cell users employed ear pieces, presumably then engaged in listening to music or other media: 45 percent.  This translates then to users seeking to establish in public spaces arenas of “privacy,” or parameters wherein individual preferences could be enjoyed in a way both enhancing the direct experience and not affecting others.  There is then a clear connection, or at least supposition, to be made with Spitulnik’s work on the effects of radio in Zambia.  That is to say, and no matter the media engaged in, even these cell users are taking in social discourse; they are passive, as are Spitulnik’s radio listeners, but there must nonetheless be a disseminating of cultural information.  Consequently, there is very much social connectivity occurring, and occurring as simultaneously a private and public experience.  This in turn leads to the reasonable assumption that this consumption of the media – and, again, content notwithstanding – promotes an increased cultural connectivity.  Individual listening aside, these cell users, like the Zambian listeners, are both participating in and enhancing some form of collective reality.

Equally relevant to the cell phone study, while also seemingly removed from it, is Warner’s research on the effects of print mediums in historical contexts.  The “connection” between this and the cell study lies in the extensive texting performed by the cell users; 80 percent texted, often colliding into one another in the process.  Clearly, the texting relies on transmitting the written word, so “print” is in effect translated to a different dimension.  It is the written word, yet it is composed of the moment and transmitted immediately, and this must add meaning to its impact.  Warner questions the true influence of print as a shaping influence but, as noted, this ignores how individuals collectively construct ideas pertaining to the culture strictly through such processes.  It is arguable that texting alone affirms that, today, the medium is the message, in that the choices inherent in what to transmit, and when, must reflects ideas of personal entitlement, social imperatives, and general priorities.  Texting, it may then be argued, more strongly refutes Warner and supports how “print” is inevitably not merely a means of transmission, but an actual and connective force which then influences concepts of the self and the larger community.

Lastly, and from a more broad perspective, Anderson’s work profoundly reinforces the cell phone usage study in terms of how connectivity enables the collectivity which shapes cultural frameworks, and in consistently evolving ways.  To begin with, Anderson’s presentation of the changes in simultaneity, as both living process and as relic of the past, vastly reveal how cell usage reflects – and generates – the lack of simultaneity he discusses.  The concept relies on a societal acceptance of the past, present, and future as inherently parts of one another, existing as meaning within any actual present.  This was in place in the past due to cultural insistences upon preserving, and usually in visual forms, aspects of the past, which in turn encourage conceptualizing of how the present will exist in the future.  With modern communication technology, as in the cell, it is instead all about the “moment.”  Immediacy not only dictates, it eviscerates meaning of the past, so the individual and collective effects must be immense.

The ethnographic study indicates the younger people more frequently use their cells in public spaces, just as occupation and usage itself varied.  Nonetheless, the trajectory is clear and immediacy is undeniable as the paramount aspect.  As communication technology increasingly becomes ordinary behavior in public spaces, individuals are creating imagined cultures based primarily on the investment in the activity, which may only go to whatever matters are at hand. Consequently, the cell usage studied, along with other technologies, promotes through connectivity a collective reality, social and individual, intrinsically creating itself as it exists.  The private and the public become as one, and in this process there can be no real assessment of a culture save as one perpetually reinventing and redefining itself through connectivity.

Conclusion

Modern communication technology presents many issues regarding behavior and human ideas of meaning, both individually and socially, and a large element in these issues is the blurring of the lines between public and private space as enabled by technology.  As the literature reveals, however, such issues are by no means new; media has long had immense impact, ranging from how Nigerian cinemas reflect political agendas to how print may be impactful as a social force.  Influence, then, has always been in place, and the variety of technologies today vastly amplifies this, and as noted in the cell phone study.  In plain terms, people in today’s world render communication a shaping instrument more than ever.  Consequently, as the technology creates connectivity, the connectivity enables collectivity, and this equation then reinforces how individual usage of communication technology goes to the constructive imaginings of societies themselves.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities:Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Lomdon: Verso, 2006.  Print.

Barker, Joshua. “Playing with publics: Technology, talk and sociability in Indonesia.” Language & Communication 28.2 (2008): 127-142.  Web.  2 April 2014.

Bishara, Amahi.  Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.  Print.

Hirschkind, Charles.  The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

Larkin, Brian.  “The materiality of cinema theaters in northern Nigeria.” Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain  (2002): 319-36.  Web.  2 April 2014.

Spitulnik, Debra.  “The social circulation of media discourse and the mediation of communities.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 6.2 (1996): 161-187.  Web. 2 April 2014.

Warner, Michael.  The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-century America. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1990.  Print.

Weidman, Amanda. “Sound and the city: Mimicry and media in South India.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20.2 (2010): 294-313. Web. 2 April 2014.

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