When media shift from broadcasting to engagement, other countries may have their own Trump and Brexit waiting ahead.
Douglas Rushkoff published a great article The New Nationalism Of Brexit And Trump Is A Product Of The Digital Age. “TV may have been about global unity, but the Internet inspires the opposite,” states he. Indeed, both Brexit and the Trump candidacy is the product of a tectonic clash between an old media model of broadcasting and a new media model of engagement.
Until now, digital media has often been presumed to be the continuation of electronic media, just in the context of McLuhan’s take on electricity. Finally, someone has reasonably differentiated the digital media environment (the internet and social media) from the electronic media environment (radio and television).
Douglas Rushkoff sees boundaries and memories as digital media biases that reveal themselves during the shift from television to the internet. I would add two other substantial traits of this shift:
– the switch from broadcasting to engagement; and, as a consequence,
– the rebellion of the resentment (not just nationalism).
All legacy media are broadcasting media, be it newspapers or TV. TV and radio are broadcasting media literally; however, print media also communicate top-down, with almost no chance for the audience to talk back. Newspapers appeared four centuries ago not to provide freedom of speech but to enable cohesion. The mass media’s basic function is to eliminate an excessive diversity of opinions. The superior broadcasting ability of TV just implements this function of mass media at the highest level.
What has been changed with the advent of the internet is the engagement of the audience. Rightless media consumers have become uncontrolled media contributors. I can quote Dan Gilmor, “The former audience joins the party” (from his book We the media[i]), or Clay Shirky, “You can play this game too” (from his Cognitive Surplus[ii]), or many others.
Douglas Rushkoff himself described the very first sign of what then became the shift from broadcasting to engagement. In his Media virus (1994) he mentioned a game released in the 1970s called Pong, the first video game that could be played on a home television screen. In the book, Douglas quotes his own interview with Timothy Leary from 1993:
“Pong was the first kids’ game that you could move things on a screen yourself. … The importance of the Nintendo phenomenon is about equal to that of the Gutenberg printing press. Here you had a new generation of kids who grew up knowing that they could change what’s on the screen. Upstairs, Mom and Dad are in the living room – they’re baby boomers – passively watching the news or prime time the way they passively watched Disney back when they were kids. And down in the kids’ room, the kids are changing the screen. … The ability to change what’s on the screen is the tremendous empowerment.[iii]”
In recent years we have been living through the tectonic shift from a broadcasting media environment to an engagement media environment. This shift has caused upheavals here and there, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street and Brexit. This all is an outcome of the phenomenon I call the emancipation of authorship[iv].
The internet has given the technical opportunity of authorship to everyone who is connected. The general number of emancipated “authors” is currently about 3.4 billion. I have tried to count the number of authors in the entire history of humankind before the internet and determined that there were only about 300 million of them throughout human history prior to the internet. Clearly, we are now experiencing the real explosion of authorship.
In the broadcasting media environment, content was filtered by professional editors BEFORE publishing. In the engagement media environment, content is filtered by the Viral Editor AFTER publishing, during the distribution. Preliminary content filtering, i.e. editing, has been the property of legacy media because of simple technical restrictions. You can only place a restricted amount of content on the paper square or in broadcasting time; therefore, you need to choose what to publish. In media, technical conditions always shape social relations. Editing gives access to the authorship in legacy media only to those who have passed certain barriers – educational, professional, financial, and other barriers related to moral appropriation and political suitability. Such content filtering itself filters people. This is not just about shaping an agenda but also about forming elites shaping an agenda. Just technically, indeed, mass media always have a liberal bias – in comparison to the rest of society.
The engagement media environment, in turn, poses no social restrictions to the access to authorship. Everyone now can “join the party” and “play this game”. The emphasis on distinctions is indeed a substantial product of the digital media environment, in contrast to the unifying power of television, as is noted by Douglas Rushkoff. This outcome of the internet has also sometimes been called “atomization”. But what is more important is that the internet unleashed and legalized the private right of everyone to judge common issues. This means the engagement media environment liberates countless unprepared, unfiltered opinions, which immediately start elaborating its own multidirectional gravitations.
Broadcasting supports a pyramidal hierarchy with top-down gravity. Multidirectional gravitation of engagement shapes a cloud of peers with wandering centres of authority. When engagement displaces broadcasting, the cloud attacks the pyramid, which means grassroots starts fighting elites. There is no ideology thus far, just morphological contrariety. Afterwards, this potential morphological clash is fueled by current sentiments, emotions, and, rarely, ideologies.
Now, which sentiment is better suited to be boosted by an engagement media environment? This one, which is evoked and oppressed by a broadcasting media environment. This sentiment is just resentment.
The world shaped by a unifying broadcasting media environment is getting too new, too other. Both old media and the internet act accordingly for that matter – they increase media consumption. When media attack people from everywhere, so does news. Demand breeds supply: the more news we consume, the more events happen. There is no place and time for people to get accustomed to the newness and otherness since changes come faster than generational change, the bygone mechanism of social adaptation. When time is accelerated, the social agenda starts disturbing people.
Meanwhile, broadcasting media enforce this agenda without paying any attention to the resentment which inevitably appears. Having no decent representation in the broadcasting media environment, which is run by elites, the resentment of the masses is pushed to the room with lower pressure, where oppressed reactions can find a way to be released. Here, the environment of emancipated authorship comes to help the masses out. The engagement media environment always collects, cumulates, and boosts whatever is disdained by the broadcasting media environment. That is why Brexit and Trump have surprised pundits and elites so much.
Both pundits and elites are the creations and creators of broadcasting. The internet, however, does not expel pundits or elites; it embraces all and everyone. It embraces even broadcasting media themselves – with strangling hugs, of course. But what is frozen and oppressed in the broadcasting media environment becomes extra heated and boosted in the engagement media environment if this “what” disturbs a significant number of people. For the broadcasting media environment, these people were just the silent audience; they themselves mostly accepted that status. But the engagement media environment unleashes their resentment and empowers it to the level of political significance. They have tasted the sacred and previously unaffordable right to express publicly a private opinion. In the engagement media environment, an online passer-by with no expertise and education has the same right to judge as an influential editor-in-chief. This alone inspires people very much (particularly trolls).
So, I do not think the internet restores national boundaries and nationalism, specifically. First, it is able to amplify the resentment of the masses, which is otherwise ignored by the broadcasting media environment. This resentment can be linked to a sense of lost justice, or a sense of violated status quo, or a sense of destroyed order of things, or whatever is a normal reaction to changes that occur too quickly. But when it comes to defining a specific address for resentment, it can turn to separatism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, or religious extremism. Douglass Rushkoff describes it as “nationalist, regressively anti-global sentiments.” Another characteristic of this sense, by Clay Shirky, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The resentment may be focused on nationalism, like in the case of Brexit; but it also may be omnivorous, like in the case of Trump. Any sort of regressive reaction to change can find its expression in resentment.
It is resentment legalized and amplified by the engagement media environment that underlies Brexit, the Trump phenomenon, Hofer phenomenon, Le Pen phenomenon, and other samples of political “reactionism” cumulating the reaction of a surprisingly significant number of people to rapidly occurring newness and otherness. It may be that any fast-changing society with oppressed resentment, which is transitioning from the broadcasting media environment to the engagement media environment, is doomed to meet its own Trump and its own Brexit. The recent cases showed that the resentment enabled by engagement can easily gain 25 to 50+ percent of votes.
Upd: Here is a good article on this topic by Peter Pomerantsev, Why We’re Post-Fact.
“Fragmentation, combined with the disorientation of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia.”
[ii] Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. 2010. P. 18.