Pictures in our Heads

The American political commentator and journalist Walter Lippman begins his 1922 book Public Opinion with this story:

There is an island in the ocean were in 1914 a few Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans lived. No cable reaches that island, and the British mail steamer comes but once in sixty days. In September it had not yet come, and the islanders were still talking about the latest newspaper which told about the approaching trial of Madame Caillaux for the shooting of Gaston Calmette. It was therefore, with more than usual eagerness that the whole colony assembled at the quay on a day in mid-September to hear from the captain what the verdict had been.

In the two months since the mail steamer had least visited, World War I had broken out in Europe.

And so, for six weeks those of them who were British and French had been at war against those of them who were German, although they didn’t know this.

Lippman writes:

For six strange weeks they had acted as if they were friends, when in fact they were enemies... But their plight was not so different from that of most of the population of Europe. They had been mistaken for six weeks, on the continent the interval may have been only six days or six hours. There was an interval. There was a moment when the picture of Europe on which men were conducting their business as usual, did not in any way correspond to the Europe which was about to make a jumble of their lives.  There was a time for each man when he was still adjusted to an environment that no longer existed.

Lippman’s story illustrates critical features of the relationship between ‘meaning’ and ‘media infrastructure’.

People ‘trust the pictures in their heads’ of how the world is, and, they act in accordance with those pictures.

Although their nations were now at war, the English, French and Germans on the island continued to regard each other as friends because the media infrastructure – in this case a ship carrying newspapers – had not yet delivered the news.

There are perhaps two important points to derive from Lippman’s story then. The first is the way humans use symbols to create ‘pictures’ of how the world is.

Lippman’s story illustrates that how the world is represented matters because it shapes how humans understand the world. And, how humans understand the world affects how they act in the world.

The second is that these pictures are created and disseminated via material infrastructure. In the case of Lippman’s story, news travels on a ship.

Media technologies and infrastructure govern the flow of meanings over time and space. Over the past century media infrastructure have arguably collapsed time and space, in the sense that meanings travel around the globe instantaneously.

Humans are a particularly strange and interesting kind of animal not just because we make and share meanings, but because we build devices, infrastructure, tools for externalising, storing and processing our communication as symbols and data.