The quantum theory of media

“The future of the book is the blurb,” as McLuhan once said. The news teaser, not even the article, is now the quantum of media content. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).

What is the unit of media consumption? What is the tiniest particle in which we receive and consume media content?

The digital media made the switching between streams of content not only easier but also tempting: the lion’s share of the content we receive digitally is about clicking the ever-more-interesting links and jumping to somewhere else. It was not that easy to switch between content streams in books; one couldn’t do so without switching the books themselves. Newspapers offered a mosaic, but the reader still stayed within the same physical print issue. Old media kept users imprisoned within an allotted chunk of content.

When magazine publishers decided to advertise magazine reading in 2010 (in those romantic times, they still hoped to return the readers to print), they used the image of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and the motto: “We surf the Internet, we swim in magazines”[1]

Indeed, in older and bulkier formats of media, the consumer had no choice but to immerse themselves into a media piece deeper and for longer. There were not many ‘withdrawing lures’ that would lead one to some other piece without having to materially change the medium – without a costly ‘material’ effort.

Radio with its tuning knob and television with its remote control started eroding user’s loyalty to a linear narrative.

It occurred that the attention span correlates with the length of uninterrupted media consumption, and the length of media consumption correlates with the size of the media parcel. The shrinking of attention spans is a consequence of changes in media formats.

***

So, if the unit of media consumption in old media is equal to what is wrapped – literally – in between magazine and newspaper covers (or TV shows’ scheduled times), what is the unit of media consumption on the Internet? It is obviously an endless flow, but what is the quantum of media we receive that our mind is able to register and process?

In 2011, Demyan Kudryavtsev, then-CEO of the major Russian business newspaper Kommersant, noted that “a quantum of media expression is no longer an issue of a newspaper; it has shrunk down to an article.”[2]

Indeed, prior to the Internet Age, we consumed media content in the form of periodicals (or broadcast shows). A newspaper, a magazine, or a TV program constituted a media consumption unit for the reason of an obvious material nature: it was necessary to ‘pack’ news into a newspaper or a TV/radio program for its production and delivery.

That is how media brands appeared. The method of production and delivery cut the natural flows of news and thoughts down to deliverable parcels, which became books, newsletters and, later, media brands. When asked what kind of media they read, people of the newspaper generation named titles of media outlets: Reader’s Digest, the New York Times, Fortune, etc. In practical terms, they read the regular print issues of those outlets, which were the quanta of media consumption.

***

The internet made it possible to deliver content in smaller ‘parcels’ of separate articles, video clips and alike. This change is often overlooked and underestimated, but it struck one of the biggest nails into the coffin of old media.

By minimizing the size of media consumption from the media issue down to the article, the internet detached content from media brands. The media were thereby deprived of the opportunity to maintain their ownership over content. When content travels in parcels that are smaller than a physically wrapped and salable piece of media (book, magazine, newspaper), it becomes harder or impossible to commodify it under a media brand.

Not only does the business of the news media suffer from this issue, but the news media are even losing the promotional effect from good articles they produce. The reader does not need to associate a good article with a media brand anymore, as he or she receives it as a separate and self-containing quantum of media. The media brand can be shown in some way on the top or below the article, of course, but this type of presence doesn’t matter anymore and is rarely even noticed.

Brands mattered when they labeled and, in fact, organized the package/channel of delivery. When the media brand and the package/channel are not the same entity, the user can consume the smaller piece of content directly and ‘unmediated’ – without seeing or referring to the media brand.

This new quantization of media content deprives the media of the former significance of their branded packaging, thereby killing the commercial value of content. (Many attempts to sell articles separately, by piece, have failed. The earning of that small transaction does not even cover the costs of maintaining the payment infrastructure and associated administrative efforts.)

***

The quantization of media consumption goes further and deeper into the microcosm of media content. As social media, particularly Facebook, have gained momentum, the media quantum – i.e. the elementary particle of media consumption – has become even tinier. These days, an individual article is no longer the smallest unit of mass media consumption. It has been replaced by the smallest bits of media content – headlines, recaps, announcements, teasers, clickbait – destined to attract readers in the social media newsfeed.

The news teaser, not even the article, is now the quantum of media content. As McLuhan once said, “The future of the book is the blurb.”[3] The present of journalism is the news teaser. The necessity to attract turns news teasers into news bits and news baits simultaneously.

Even though those accustomed to a larger and more detailed parcellation of media content resist this change (at least they think so when asked), in fact, they can’t help but switch to this new mode of fast media surfing. The new generation, the Digital Natives, perceive this mode of media consumption as the natural one. They are simply not familiar with other ways of media packaging that are limited by physical parceling.

***

Interestingly, the legacy media had been laying the ground for turning news into news blurbs long before the internet. There was a certain marketing logic behind it. Describing the rise of magazines in America in the 1920s, James Baughman wrote:

Indeed, perhaps the most successful magazine of the 1920s, Reader’s Digest, reprinted abbreviated versions of pieces originating elsewhere. “To be brisk, curt, concise, telegraphic, and bright became the verbal mode of the hour,” Charles and Mary Beard wrote. “To print nothing that would take more than 10 or 15 minutes to read became almost a ruling fashion.” (Baughman, 2001 [1987], p. 30.)

Launched in 1923, “Time turned boring newspaper reporting into fun blurbs.”[4]

In the 1980s, “USA Today embraced a design standard that, in today’s terms, seems almost web-like: Its pages were dominated by charts, photos, and shorter blurbs of text.”[5] Competitors mocked USA Today, comparing it to fast-food merchandizing, and joked that “it would someday win a prize for ‘best investigative paragraph.’”[6] Well, it happened; not the prize, but cutting the size of media narrative down to the paragraph and smaller.

Not only did the shortening of the media narrative happen before the internet, the format of clickbait appeared in old media, too. Magazines put catchy headlines on covers, announcing the articles and luring passersby inside the magazine. Radio and TV used announcements to attract listeners and viewers to certain shows or newscasts. News teasers started shaping a specific genre of media narrative long ago.

However, in old media, the teasers just marketed content. They did not deliver it and did not replace it while delivering.

***

The fact that media content is now consumed in ever-smaller pieces has some evolutionary logic behind it. The function of journalism is to compress the world into a mosaic panorama. This can be done by cutting the flow into parcels. Such were the pre-requisites for better (faster) delivery bounded by the conditions of material production.

In the good-old times, journalism dealt with fairly large sizes of media content not by choice, but by virtue of the available technologies. To print or broadcast content, editors had to pack news into transferable and economically-efficient portions, such as a printed issue or a TV/radio show, scheduled within a certain time frame.

The periodicity was inherent in the old media technologies, and this predefined the size of the issued media parcels. The key thing here was that these technologies taught the audience to consume media in chunks of pre-processed and carefully organized information.

In nature, events, processes or tendencies do not exist in parcels. Their parceled packaging, to which the Newspaper Generations were accustomed, was exclusively the product of certain historical technologies of media production, such as found in print and TV/radio. The publisher was obliged to fill every page (or all of the time allotted to a TV/radio show) with content, not a page more, or a minute less. This operation parceled the natural news flow into chunks, which were the paper issues and TV/radio shows.

***

When material production was based on print/paper, the parcels travelled slowly and had to be quite sizeable in order to fit the optimal proportions of price-quantity-deliverability. But the very idea of news is that it must be delivered faster than anything else; ideally – immediately.

The newspaper, after more than three hundred years of evolution, managed to wrap the news flow into the dailies, the agenda of the day. Radio and TV compressed the world into the agenda of the hour (TV news had already been sensed as a stream). Twitter and other social media platforms deliver the news of the moment.

Morphologically, the flow of news on social media represents the flow of news in the world in the most relevant way. The parceling of news has finally caught up with the natural pace of events by means of quantization into the tiniest news pieces.

The parcels of content in old media were not capable of doing this, as they had to cut artificial chunks out of a natural ongoing flow. And since this operation was performed by individuals, it deviated the flow of information by packaging it into subjectively selected and parceled agendas.

So, media content always ‘wanted’ faster technologies and, therefore, smaller parceling. With social media, we have approached the quantum limits of media content parceling and the light-speed limits of media content delivery.

The Digital Natives perceive the world in the flow, not in parcels. This is not an issue for them (except for the shortening of their attention span and their screen-scrolling obsession).

***

Physicist Alan Sokal didn’t like how postmodernists, Baudrillard specifically, freely manipulated notions and concepts borrowed from real, hardcore science. The famous ‘Sokal hoax’[7] aimed to prove that people in cultural studies gladly accept scientific nonsense if that nonsense ideologically fits their preconceptions. He wrote an article that stated that quantum gravity is a social construct. The idea was to wrap a piece of complete physics gibberish in progressive leftist clothes. The article was accepted and published in Social Text, the leading academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, in 1996. The publication led to a scandal and also made Sokal famous. This case should be a starting point for any study of postmodernism in order to expose the gnoseological limitations of both traditional science and cultural studies.

Now, to give Dr. Sokal yet another reason to be upset: The news bit as the quantum of media content, in essence, represents the wave-particle duality of streaming media consumption.

The internet has shifted the news from a parceled mode of production and consumption to a streamed one. Old media sold media parcels, with the chunks of content packaged at their sole discretion. In contrast, the quantization of content down to the news bit on social media has allowed for the disassembly of the picture of the world into the tiniest particles and their subsequent reassembly into the individually customized newsfeeds streamed on social media.

The newsfeed, which morphologically is a stream, cannot consist of big chunks (such as articles), as Web 1.0 and earlier blog platforms tried to do. Info-parcels are good for periodicals – they created the periodicals; they are the periodicals. However, with regard to the flow, they would clog it. For the stream to flow, the content had to be fluid, squeezable or cut tiny enough.

This not only allows news teasers to be reassembled in any blend for the personally customized newsfeed but also represents something akin to the abovementioned ‘wave-particle duality’ (sorry, again, Dr. Sokal)

The news bits (teasers, recaps, headlines, announcements, etc.) act as particles when representing pieces of the world picture mosaic. However, when reassembled in a personal newsfeed, they act as the flow, with resonating waves that enable the viral behavior of news on social media.

Thus, more precisely, it is a ‘particle-flow duality’, which is the most natural way for news to exist. Any other materiality of news, such as parcels of any size, convey not information itself but rather the social-historical conditions of its production/distribution. The method of parceling matters: the parceling is the message. Different media epochs sliced the information flow into content chunks differently, and this made them different social epochs.

***

The number of possible combinations of parcels (the agendas) is much less than the number of possible combinations of particles. Therefore, agendas based on parceling are easier to reduce and manage. This is what journalism is for. Journalism is the fruit of information parceling. News media gatekeeping originated from parcel-binding.

News bits’ shepherding on social media, whether by humans (by the Viral Editor) or by algorithms, is making journalism obsolete. Due to the technological difference, not slicing into chunks but blending into flow is at the core of this new news reassembly operation. There will be no journalism as we knew it in a world without info parceling.

Unlike the case was with parcels, the number of combinations of particles is infinite. Therefore, so is the potential number of personally adjusted newsfeeds on social media. When content is received in the form of flow, not parcels, agendas are the product of personal networks, not the mass media. So, the number of agendas equals the number of users. Everyone becomes their own gatekeeper, depriving the media of this formerly sacrosanct and well-paying job.

However, certain laws of social gravitation start working on social media, eliminating the redundancy of personal news agendas and providing social coherence, even in this highly dispersed news environment. As social significance is the function of quantitative outreach, atomized agendas cannot stay lonely; they immediately start swarming around the centers of social gravitation, or gravitas. Journalism gets replaced by new mechanisms of cohering based on collective selection (the Viral Editor) and algorithms.

***

Media evolution is ‘set’ to implode the outer environment into the user’s operationality. What once was the natural flow of common-to-all alienated events must become the internalized flow of sensations within the induced reality centered on the user.

Content parcellation was the interim stage of media evolution, with media technologies slicing the outer flow of events into increasingly smaller quanta of content. These quanta had to become small enough to be reassembled into the flow of digital events. This is one of the transitional mechanisms that facilitates humans’ resettling from the physical reality into the digital reality.

As evolution dictates, only the fittest survive. The obsolescent news media parceling simply does not fit the requirements of flow; the parcels just get jammed in the flow, slowing it down.

This does not mean content parceling will vanish. Larger parcels will simply become the derivatives and the referents for their better, faster cousins, news bits, which are able to flow in the digital stream. News bits and news baits will travel at lightspeed in the mainstreams of newsfeeds, while larger parcels of content will get mouldy in backwaters, being referred to only on occasion.

___________

Andrey Mir

Excerpts from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”

_________

[1] Adams, Russell, & Ovide, Shira. (2010, March 1). “Magazines Team Up to Tout ‘Power of Print’.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703940704575090120113003314

[2] Miroshnichenko, Andrey. (2014). “What are new media involving us in?” Slon. Мирошниченко, Андрей. (2018). «Во что вовлекают человека новые медиа?» Slon. https://www.aka-media.ru/foresight/835/

[3] I have made fair efforts to find a proper reference for this quote, searched and asked the experts, collaborators and McLuhan’s family members, but did not succeed. This phrase may well happen to be either a part of the oral legacy of McLuhan or one of those McLuhanisms that sound very McLuhanesque but were never actually said by him. The best reference I could find was: The Official Site for the Estate of Marshall McLuhan. https://www.marshallmcluhan.com/mcluhanisms/

[4] LaFrance, Adrienne, & Meyer, Robinson. (2015, April 15). “The Eternal Return of BuzzFeed. What the online juggernaut can learn from Time, USA Today, and MTV.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/the-eternal-return-of-buzzfeed/390270/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sokal, Alan D. (1996, June 5). “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies.” Lingua Franca. https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Media ecology, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Viral Editor

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