Media saturate our attention

Media saturate our attention.

I made a big life decision a year back. I wouldn’t bring my phone into the bedroom at night. I’d plug it in on my study desk and leave it there till morning.

So now, the last thing I do before going to bed, is stand at my study desk in the dark, scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, catching a few last glances at the endless feed of stimulation.

The first thing I do in the morning is head to my desk, unplug the phone and check – things, all the things that happened. 

There’s a tendency to think we just started doing this with the smartphone. Sort of. For as long as I can remember switching on a media device has been part of the morning routine in the households I’ve lived in. Switching on a radio in the kitchen or bathroom. Switching on a television. Going out the front to get a newspaper off the lawn.

While smartphones and their apps and platforms have changed the interplay between everyday life and media, much is also much the same.

We tune into a mass and industrialised media system every day.

On average, we spend 65 hours a week tuned into media of some kind. That’s about 9 hours a day.

Think about that.

Say you spend about 8 hours a day, that’s 56 hours sleep a week. And, say you spend 40 hours a week working. That leaves about 72 hours ‘free time’ in a week.

We spend about 90% of our free time connected to a flow of media imagery. Images produced by a massive industrial system that employs an army of professional communicators.

Their job is to construct and organize the flows of meaning and data we are immersed in every day.

Media is at the heart of the exercise of power in our society. It organizes our everyday lives and our market and political systems.

Media is the machinery through which we come to understand the world we live in.

In some important ways media has changed dramatically in the past generation.

Media are now more interactive and participatory, more mobile, more connected to our bodies, and more data-driven.

But, something important has stayed very much the same.

Since the middle of the twentieth century media have saturated our everyday life.

We need to go back and think about this longer history, to see the ubiquitous presence of media in our everyday life as something that has been developing for nearly a century.

And, to see the changes to media over the last generation are not just sparkly technological inventions, but rather as part of a particular kind of networked and flexible economic and political system that has been taking shape since at least the 1970s.

By the middle of the twentieth century, that’s less than a hundred years ago, we had begun to live in societies where industrialised media played a role in the rhythms and rituals of everyday life.

Newspapers, radio, cinema and then television had become part of the way people living in mass societies had come to understand themselves, their lives and dreams.

In 1947 two German thinkers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer coined the term ‘the culture industry’ to describe the institutions that produced and distributed film, radio, newspapers, advertising and propaganda in mass societies.

They argued that the twentieth century was the first time in history that culture had been produced on an industrial scale.

They pointed out that film studios and television stations were just like a car factory, many workers working in set routines, producing the same thing day in day out – the same news stories, the same quiz shows, the same music, the same films.

If Ford had invented an industrial way of making cars, the Frankfurt School argued this model of production was now being applied to culture.

They thought this was a fascinating and troubling development.

The capacity to produce culture on an industrial scale was a way to exercise enormous control over vast populations.

Culture matters because it is the set of meanings and practices that we use to think about our lives, if you change culture, you change who we are as human beings.

Most importantly, our culture is critical to how we as human beings think about our future and the possibilities of our lives. Human progress – our ability to respond to complex problems – depends to a large degree on the culture we have.

There were of course many thinkers in this period who were trying to make sense of societies where media had become central to the formation of identities, the rituals of everyday life and the functioning of market and political systems.

Walter Lipmann and John Dewey had famous debates about the role of the mass media in forming public opinion in democratic societies.

Stanley Cohen offered a famous formula for the agenda-setting function of the mass media, ‘the media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann argued that mass media formed a ‘spiral of silence’ where those with dissenting views on an issue fell silent, and those who spoke simply expressed the already-held common-sense.

George Gerbner developed idea of ‘cultivation’ to describe the way that television subtly shapes our view of reality, over time we are enculturated into the reality we see via the media.

What these thinkers in the mid-twentieth century shared in common was an appreciation of the capacity of media to saturate the everyday experience of mass populations.

In mass societies, people were increasingly immersed in homogenized flows of content.

In the middle of the twentieth century, this was entirely new.

The media-saturated society you live in today first takes shape during the middle of the twentieth century.

You probably never go more than an hour or more without coming into contact with images or sounds produced and distributed by industrialized mass media.

What a strange achievement this is, to have a society so comprehensively plugged into this machinery.

Think about this bewildering infrastructural achievement: getting millions of people to pay attention to the same thing via material technologies like printed paper, transmitters, speakers and screens.

It is an incredible thing to ponder, and to remind ourselves, that this kind of life where everyday we make sense of ourselves and the world around us using media technologies is less than a hundred years old.

When was the last time you spent a day, let alone a week, or a month, without any engagement with mass industrially produced culture?

Trace your movements today.

How long was it before you engaged with a media device, database, or content?

You wake up and check your phone.

You switch on the radio or television while you have breakfast.

You get on a bus or train and read a newspaper, magazine or watch a show on your tablet.

You get in your car and listen to the radio or a CD.

You see an advertisement on the side of a bus or a billboard.

These are all routine habitual engagements with flows of industrialised culture.

For thinkers in the twentieth century – who were examining cinema, newspapers, radio and television – media were becoming the glue that made the social system cohesive.

Think about how successful the mass media is at organizing everyday life. Every day citizens willingly tune into a machine that pumps out the same cultural ideas to millions of people.

Thinkers and critics from the twentieth century who first observed how media were integrated into everyday life remain an important reference point because they were able to predict how much media would alter the human experience in technologically-driven mass societies.