Ranjona Banerji: How the medium is the message and how both confuse us today

21 Jul,2017

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Google, in this morning’s doodle, has paid tribute to Marshall McLuhan on his 106th birthday. McLuhan, media guru to us all, is best known for “the medium is the message”, a mantra of sorts which gets repeated around the world by those who understand it and those who don’t. A Canadian academic and public intellectual, McLuhan was one of the primary influences the media in mid-20th century onwards, where he foresaw how humans would interact, the vast reach of the media (meaning more than journalism) and set the cornerstones for communication theory which is essential in all media courses taught ever since. It has also been argued that he predicted the World Wide Web years before it was invented.

This is from The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962: “The next medium, whatever it is — it may be the extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopaedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

So what does this mean to us today? Is the medium really the message? Do we in the media have any control over the message? Or has the medium gone so beyond us that there are a 7 billion messages fighting for supremacy in an apparently infinite space?

As it is now, we seem incapable of even discussing the medium and its messages. A debate on the NDTV’s Big Fight recently on how social media, including trolls, spurs on hatred or hope in society just became the usual big fight between various political viewpoints. Politics won that one, and used the medium to confuse its electorate with conflicting messages.

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Meanwhile, the end of Wimbledon for this year has meant that I am forced to follow The News, a prospect which gets more and more horrific moment by moment. A programme on Union minister Smriti Irani’s sense of humour – is that news? The full telecast of a long and boring press conference on India’s response to the threats from China where the bureaucrat is adept at saying nothing in many words – is that news? And then the interminable coverage of the election of the new President of India where the result was a foregone conclusion and the President of India is not equivalent to the President of the United States. Is that deserving of quite so much news time?

On Times Now, we are told that Gopal Krishna Gandhi, retired IAS officer, former diplomat and former governor of Bengal, is a possible traitor and is not fit to be vice-president of India because he opposed the death penalty for Yakub Memon, convicted in the 1993 serial bomb blasts case in Mumbai. Thus the extreme idiocy of news television comes to the viewer in full Technicolor. The prime anchor makes up his own ideas of what is what, completely unrelated to reality, intelligence and common sense and then concocts an argument to steamroll his beliefs. Neither the medium nor its message makes any sense at times like this.

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Some TV discussions on the increasing aggression of China have however been sober and insightful providing that politicians are not allowed to run away with the agenda. Luckily, the situation is so serious that few politicians are able to make much sense of it, leaving both postulations and predictions to experts.

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A senior journalist pointed out to me the other day that Rahul Gandhi must have had a party after reading the Times of India edit page piece which claimed that the Modi government went slow on economic reforms because of Gandhi’s “suit-boot ki sarkar” dig. No one has possibly given Gandhi more political importance than the Times of India if indeed this is why Modi has been unable to gesture hypnotically and produce the promised “good days”.

The message trumped the medium in this case?

 

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