These are apocalyptic times for traditional media. For fresh consideration, I offer Marshall McLuhan’s view: “Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.”
Regarded as one of the great minds of the 20th Century, Marshall McLuhan’s perceptive, discerning views architected the media world as we know it today. He wrote about allatonceness in 1968, five short years after the rotary phone faced the competition of the push-button phone. In the 50 years since, the world grew and stretched its media wings as the Third Industrial Revolution gave digital prowess and mobility to information. And now, we stand on the edge of another crag in social and informational allatoneness: The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
It’s comforting to go back to the future, to McLuhan, to learn from the sage minds of the past. The past is present in the future; the present moment is 43,000 news cycles in tomorrow’s past. Is it any wonder that the foundation of the media industry is being shattered at the pace of its own volition?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution and media
Technology is making horizontal what once was vertical, hierarchical. The rain of information pours down or up or stays richly interconnected in a flat dam on the verge of collapsing. Audiences are gaining leverage throughout the news information industry. Audiences do not conform any more to being fed. Now they demand to be also proactive feeders and, disturbingly enough, believers. When you are a carrier of the news you blindly and uncritically believe in, you become a ‘believer’. What I mean is that there is a difference between understanding media as a platform you access looking for diverse ideas to acquire knowledge (knowledge is a multifaceted array of information that approximates us to the elusive truth) vs a platform of messages that reinforce the one-way street of one’s reality. In this sense, news can be divided between “news as a reinforcer” (edited in a way that plays the social media tribal role) vs “news as a truth-searcher” (edited in a way that the reader gets exposed to a diverse environment of ideas). So, active entrenched audiences (believers) empowered by technology can become a challenge and a threat to the news industry and indeed to Western culture itself
Are we experiencing the paradise of information access or the hell of noise orchestrated by hidden interests? Who is telling what to whom? How is it being told? How much background and context is it provided? Who is being served? Can computer code and the realm of algorithms become the new Inquisition or the invisible Big Brother?
Technology provides us access to information at an unimaginable speed only a few years ago. But who decides what you see when you search? Do you understand what your data on your phone reveals about you? Who will snip at and work on your DNA, digital or otherwise? (Joshua Cooper Ramo, ‘The Seventh Sense’). Is our life, our behavior, our gestures even becoming just a probability curve or some parameter of social science? (McLuhan) Is technology opening up new worlds of access and use or the price to pay for technological innovation is humans (aka audiences) becoming hostages inside one of an infinite succession of Matryoshka dolls? These are open-ended questions. But it is worth noting the risks of subcontracting our human core to the service of data gathering technologies.
People evolve slower than society
And then, there are our own ancestral behavioral patterns. Because as technology expands, one could argue that the complexity of human output shrinks. McLuhan’s Global Village (1968) has materialized in the 21st Century via the recent technological revolution. But recent research on social media behavior indicates that the key word in “Global Village” is village, the parochial instinct, leaving the global part, the reach, as a key element for those who make business out of our behavior since our “private and corporate lives have become information processes” (McLuhan). Social media, the poster boy of the early 21st Century technology revolution, looks a lot like the “tribal drum” McLuhan saw in radio during the first half of the 20th Century: “…it is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords.” (‘Understanding Media’, 1964).
In his latest book, Thomas L. Friedman thanks us “for being late,” in what he calls “an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations”. However, he warns us that there is a mismatch between “the pace of change” and our ability to develop the social, political and industrial mechanisms that “would enable citizens to get the most out of these accelerations and cushion their worst impacts.” He’s right. Humans cannot adapt at this speed. And neither can media which behave as if serving audiences is equivalent to rapidly vomiting images, soundbites and headlines. This hasty approach is precisely how media organizations fall into the trap of fake news and get lost in the unsubstantial abyss of fast, juicy alleged facts over and over again.
As we have seen in recent events —from the 2016 US Presidential election to the Catalonia crisis in Spain—, “if it bleeds it leads” is being challenged by if it is fake it is a take, and it gains traction. And we have not been able yet to develop technologically appropriate and consistent journalistic lines of defense.
So, let’s go back to the media business and to the reporter’s anxieties. There are technologies that define a decade (1979-1989) in a reporter’s life: A typewriter, a phone and a phone booth, a telex, TeleRam Portabubble, an IBM desktop, floppy disks, and Tandy laptops. And then in 1995, Netscape becomes an internet browser.
The web has made reporters compulsive writers and updaters, in addition to Tweeterers, Facebookers, and YouTube narrators. The speed of their updates is at deadline a second. But what is really new? About 40 years ago, a young Thomas L. Friedman still remembers his days “as a wire service reporter in Beirut —filing a breaking news story, filing a picture, doing a radio spot— all the hectic things you had to do at once…”
Back to the future again. Nothing is new, but everything has changed.
Fact: The media business model is changing and new models need to satisfy economic demands still anchored in the past.
Fact: Dailies are becoming weeklies or online-only products. Pay to play is proliferating with different results and the news environment is becoming noisier, less reliable, slightly uncontrollable, and crowded. At the same time, this new phenomenon is exciting and full of possibilities.
Implosion is a process in which objects are destroyed by collapsing or being squeezed in on themselves. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is the inrush of air in forming a suction stop. The opposite of explosion, implosion concentrates matter and energy. Likewise, the building of media is collapsing from within while the façades remain standing proudly. Is this the way the industry registers despair?
The Fourth Estate is up for auction
How do media cope with the fact that they are not the Fourth Estate any longer? A new industrial revolution is currently questioning media status as stable pillars of social structure. In a fluid economy where certainty is dropping out from the western social equation of predictable outcomes, journalism and the information industry as a whole have been thrown into the open seas of volatility and placed under such a perfect storm that can no longer be considered an Estate. Not even a voice or a generator of change. Solely an echo in a fragmented, noisy world formerly known as news. Do I sound pessimistic? Answer this question: Where have the media homogenizing powers gone?
McLuhan used to repeat that media are extensions of the human senses. But, what happens when media are us? When communications are us? And in this environment, where is journalism to be found?
In the era of accelerations there is no possibility of human adaptation —only the future human cyborg will be able to tell, though.
In any case, and whatever the future brings in terms of Homo Politicus or Homo Technologicus, the question remains: How can we translate the values of a “literate society”, our Western culture, that started with Gutenberg and took a few centuries to sink in, into the new technologically fast and furious, disperse, manipulative and manipulated, fragmented media landscape?
American television host and liberal political commentator, Rachel Maddow, is a TV talking head performing within the codes of old media to produce information that is embraced within the codes of new media. Nothing fascinates me more than going back to basics to look new. That’s what Maddow does: Context is text, explanation is headline or soundbite. In this way, she is able to extract truth from the storm of information, and present it responsibly —in an opinionated way— to her audience. She is able to navigate the excruciating black hole of truth in order to create what is always elusive.
We should always remember what I think is Maddow’s lesson: Journalism is a story built on a strong foundation, at the same time humble and nimble.
Indeed, there is nothing to fear but the old model itself. Welcome to the chaos of interactivity, interconnectivity, and excess —all of which has its origins in the early days of the newspaper industry. Back to the future again.
Washington Post Executive Editor, Martin Baron, delivered “The 2015 Hays Press-Enterprise” lecture at the University of California, Riverside with a speech titled “Journalism’s Big Move: What to discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving from Print to Web.” Baron said that he has worked in the journalism industry for 39 years, “and never have I seen a moment of so much excitement and yet so much anxiety… Excitement because journalism is being thoroughly reimagined. Anxiety because… journalism is being thoroughly reimagined —because our traditional economic model is disintegrating.”
Between 2004 and 2010 High-speed broadband developed, then we had Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Kindle, iPhone, Instagram, WhatsApp, and the iPad. Remember the decade from the typewriter to the floppy disks? Fast then, faster today.
Today, the speed and mobility brought by technology are not only eroding the economic foundation of the news industry, it is changing the news ecosystem. Yes, the medium is (also) the message. News and technology are now an indissoluble marriage.
Baron is confident and enthusiastic, focused on possibilities. He sees journalists with an entrepreneurial spirit. In the new era, he says, everyone, regardless of position, must be a leader. With ideas and initiatives. “It used to be… that we hired people who could learn from us. Now we aim to hire people who can teach us what we need to know.” And —as McLuhan would say— embrace multiple models for exploration.
While the media industry puzzle cracks its pieces behind its imposing façade and new media professionals arrive at a burnt field scattered by green sprouts, it is crucial to remind ourselves of the importance of news and information in a free society. And since “war is no longer the movement of hardware, but of information” (McLuhan), should be the protection against media fallout a national interest issue?
The ideas of the Enlightment made us citizens, not subjects. Then, knowledge was power. Connectivity is power in the 21st Century technological revolution. And it comes with the risk of losing our centuries-built values —the tolerance, the human freedoms, the universal rights that emerge from an informed public— in the limbo provided by a non-human speed. Excess has the reach, but lacks the substance. How will the media industry help minimize the damage inflicted upon the free flow of real and useful information in the age of “interconnectivity”?
Cooper Ramo calls us to take responsibility in the age of accelerations. But we will need a good dose of awareness, maybe a “seventh sense”, —hopefully a healthy media environment also— in order not to fall under the spell of a techno democracy that could keep all of us hostages via increased affordability, easiness, and convenience. Will we trade liberty for convenience? Or rather will we take the technological minotaur by the horns and help ourselves out of the labyrinth? Will the information industry be our Ariadne? These are close-ended questions. Our survival is at stake. We need educated citizens and media that makes a business model out of the search of truth.
Alberto Avendaño is the president of Latino Impact Media (latinoimpact.org), a dual-language nonprofit media organization. A former reporter for RTVG (Spain), and a former Publisher and Executive Editor for The Washington Post’s Spanish language content, Avendaño has received the José Martí Award for Excellence in US Hispanic Journalism several times, as well as an Emmy Award in 2017. Avendaño is a founding member of The Harris Institute for Hispanic & International Communication at Texas Tech University, member of the US Spanish Language Academy, and he has served as a commissioner for Maryland Public Television.