Wednesday, 23 September 2015

“The Medium is the Message” – or how we are surreptitiously persuaded to take sides. – Tim Veater

  “The Medium is the Message” – or how we are surreptitiously persuaded to take sides. – Tim Veater

“The Medium is the Message” – or how we are surreptitiously persuaded to take

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that
the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic
relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.”

As humans, we are deluged with messages, conveyed in a multiplicity of mediums,
by a plethora of sources – the unashamed purpose of which is to influence our
attitudes and actions. The most obvious is the world of advertising when it is
used to persuade people to exchange money for physical objects or services.
Advertising is everywhere and presumably effective or the work of publicity
agencies would not be so lucrative, nor indeed the exercise worth the
expenditure on it, invariably a major part of company overheads, deftly
represented in the recent popular TV series “Mad Men”.

However it is also employed by government to win public support for policies and
actions across the board. We have considered the the topic of “nudging” the
“Behavioural Insights Team” (11) previously here. The term highlights the use of
social theory and advertising techniques by government to persuade us to conform
to identified behavioural objectives including the passive (avoidance of
protest) and active (periodic voting, activism and financial contribution) to
maintain policies and the people who implement them – even if they run counter
to the real interests of the population.

McLuhan compared modern man to Edgar Alan Poe’s sailor, fighting not to be
sucked into the watery vortex by utilising his knowledge of the currents. In a
similar way we need to be acutely aware of the hidden agendas that determine
policy, and the decisions made on the back of them, in the political sphere.
Needless to say it is a given that the population is most at risk when it is
most unaware of how it is being conditioned. In McLuhan’s own words:

“The medium is the message, because media creates its own environments, which
are beneficial to some messages whilst being hostile to others. Just as
sodium-vapour light mutes all colours to an orangey-grey and ultra-violet light
makes white and some colours glow eerily, so different media amplify and repress
their content. If some people lived in a world constantly illuminated by sodium
vapour light, they would have very different perceptions of reality compared
with people who lived in a world illuminated only by ultra-violet light,
although the people of both worlds would be unaware of any distortion in their

It is perhaps worth noting that wars and conflicts would not be possible were it
not for opposing viewpoints, often inculcated or encouraged by political and
religious masters. It is why totalitarian regimes are so fearful of free
expression and western governments, it seems, so keen on monitoring it.
Democracies may have a harder time of keeping their populations on-side. They
have to work harder to do so and be more subtle and sophisticated in

We like to think they are stronger and more just and honest because of it. The
uncomfortable reality may be that  all government is intrinsically wary of the
truth as it relates to past and present action, because all have something to
hide and be ashamed of. Some by virtue of their history may be more sensitive
than others. Particularly in a highly competitive and dangerous world, “national
interests” have to be protected by controlling the message directly and
indirectly by, amongst other things, manipulating the medium, a task that is
becoming increasingly difficult in the age of the internet. The message has
become more divergent and unruly; the medium more interactive and democratic.
The national barriers to opinion are harder to maintain when the technology
hardly recognises them.

Western democratic governments require a semblance of public support for what
they do. It is seldom unanimous or uniform. Only in the military can be
guaranteed. In Britain we have developed  political parties that are intended to
channel opinion at large and to represent all interests even if in many respects
these may be in conflict.

The trouble is the theory is currently subject to serious defect. First the
despite an ever increasing population and electorate, fewer bother to vote,
presumably indicating serious disillusionment with politics and politicians, or
because none of the alternatives are attractive. The younger the cohort the
worse it gets, which does not bode well for the future unless thing change for
the better.

Second the political elite are viewed either accurately or not, as remote and
corrupt. This may have been overdone and we should not ignore the agenda of
those who wish to undermine our constitution and system, however imperfect.
Third, the activities of government are perceived to have caused major issues of
national financial crisis, decline in public services and decimation of our
manufacturing base. The continuing process of “privatising” commonly owned,
government operated activities, may provide short-term receipts but few will be
deceived by a process that requires the same level of tax for ever depleted
services, excessive remuneration for the few and evermore expensive cost of the
privatised services.

Fourth, both at local and national level the individual citizen has seen a
leaching of functions to ever larger more distant and unaccountable
institutions, carried out by sleight of hand whilst alleging the exact opposite.
It has fuelled the move to independence and a disintegration of the state and
its powers. We have witnessed, and are witnessing, at both local and national
government level, an emasculation of function and capability. Even the
administration of  justice, probation, incarceration, police and defence are in
line for the private model to join education, social services and all the
privatised utilities. Is it any cheaper or more efficient? Are we paying lower
bills or less tax as a result?

Meanwhile the state, has been denuded of real estate and assets – the “family
silver” as Harold Macmillan famously put it. Even government offices in
Whitehall are no longer owned by the government! The effect must be that
government becomes an empty shell unable to support its economic viability. In
monetary terms the state is already insolvent, with ever fewer assets to sell
off. Oil income, the saviour of Margaret Thatcher’s government, may no longer be
available. UK independence is thereby seriously compromised. It is in hock to
those who hold the financial purse strings and it knows it. It is dependency on
the approval of twenty  seven other European nations. It is why government is
now a shadow of what it once was, unable to tell the population the truth about
its bankruptcy and of its straight-jacketed impotence.

Finally the electorate is disillusioned by government interference in areas of
private life that is resented by the majority – a combination of political
correctness, and heavy handed authoritativeness. An indifference to deeply held
majority opinion. A failure to protect the interests of the indigenous
Anglicised nation from uncontrolled immigration from without that threatens
stability and social cohesion, signs of a police state from within. Government
has blindly crossed an important line, on the one hand giving away too much of
its sovereignty to intra-national bodies, whilst on the other hand interfering
too much in areas of private decision making. More than a million people are
criminalised every year and this is only the tip of the iceberg of state
interference with the individual and a lawful, peaceable existence. Undoubtedly
many of those cases are justified but many are not. To what extent is the state
justified in criminalising someone for harming or endangering
 only themselves, a classic example of which is the driver of a motor vehicle
not wearing a seat belt? We appear to have become and created an over-populated,
congested and over criminalised and fearful nation.

Have I strayed from my theme of “medium being the message”? If so I apologise
and return to it with just one example from last Friday’s London Times. Two
stories on page 36 of Friday 16th May 2014 edition. “Naval conflict looms as
mobs kill Chinese” relating in about ten column inches and large case the
increasing tensions in the south China Seas. (1)

(In passing, have you noticed how this is becoming ever more unstable since
America announced an increased military build up in the area? Or was their
increased build-up a response to the increased tension? North/South Korea;
Japan/China; now Vietnam/ China? Are the catastrophic incidents of the Sewol
ferry and MH 370 unrelated to the international power struggle and danger of
confrontation.   Both Australia (3) and Britain (4) have made big orders of
stealth fighter/bombers from the United States, both piloted and drone. (5) not
without their technical problems. (6) “The clock is ticking” for Iran says the
US Vice President. (7) Now the US has targeted numerous Chinese for cyber
espionage – clearly not intended to placate the adversary. We might be excused
the belief there was intentional escalation by the US here. What is the bigger
picture, the hidden policy objective?

In the Times article the Vietnamese are painted as aggressors. The Japanese are
reported to be set to end pacifism on the same page. (2) Then what’s this? In a
header over one column inch we are informed “Israel police shoot two”. We learn
two Palestinian young men of 17 and 20 were shot dead whilst demonstrating in
the West Bank on the 66th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” of the
Jewish State’s creation. (8) (This is the much more prominent Guardian report as
the Times is behind a pay wall)

So contrast the headlines again “MOBS KILL Chinese” with “Israel Police SHOOT
two” and relative prominence given to the stories and you have a not too subtle
demonstration of the aphorism “The Medium is the Message”. The
Vietnamise/Chinese dispute is played up, the Israeli/Palestinian played down.
The injustice experienced by both parties down-played. China and Israel thus
presented as the injured party. We need not dwell on the sympathies of News
International, the parent company of the Times, nor its financial links to those
two countries.

This remember was page 36. Page 1 headlines on the same day were “Climate Change
Cover-up” read “help support the petro-chemical industry” ; “UKIP gave jobs to
illegal immigrants”, read “do anything to stop the UKIP danger to Conservative
re-election plans”; Prince Philip smiling whilst at the reins of four-horse
carriage read “maintain the existing  power hierarchy”?

This is but one small illustration of McLuhan’s dictum. The message may be
slanted to produce a positive or negative reaction; to play up or play down an
issue. At least it is fairly obvious. The “medium” is far more subtle and
therefore harder to identify and ultimately more powerful and potentially
dangerous. Take for example the recent story of the “Eleven” meeting to discuss
Syria. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office press release is here (9) the earlier
French Government’s here (10). What are the messages we get through the medium?
Do I need to relate them?

Well first note the smiles, the friendliness between so many. Could so many be
wrong? Could such elegant individuals ever suggest anything sinister or
dangerous? Not a military uniform amongst them. Read this is a meeting of
civilians devoid of any violent intent.Note the opulent physical environment
which oozes power and status. We are all awed by gold furnishings.

Perhaps to hammer home the point, what would be the impact if the eleven
representatives were in blood splattered fatigues, in the middle of a bombed out
building? Would we read the message in quite the same way? These by virtue of
the sub-conscious “medium” messages are peace loving, reliable, credible
individuals, who’s only interest is the welfare of the Syrian people. People
that can be trusted and who’s decisions should be supported and applauded. Would
that it was so!END.

4.  “UK receives first F-35 stealth
fighter jet from US”

“The Taranis begins air trials within weeks over the Australian Outback.”

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