Mass Media and the Vertigo of Interpretation
“Information devours its own contents… [It] dissolves meaning and the social into a sort of nebulous state leading not to a surfeit of innovation but to the very contrary, to total entropy.” — Jean Baudrillard
According to numerous polls, the US media is suffering historic low levels of public trust. Corporate restructuring and conglomeration, ethics scandals, and emergent technologies have all led to decades of tumultuous change in an industry so crucial to democracy — yet just that: an industry. A new era of disparate, self-curated media feeds has effectively done away with a globally cohesive, common narrative. One of the thinkers who saw this coming was French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, whose analysis of the then-burgeoning modern mediascape anticipated much of this crisis. Today, the reality of our atomized media resembles more and more his anxious vision.
Often derided as pessimistic, Baudrillard illustrated an inevitable disruption of meaning in mass media using the semiotic concepts of the signifier and signified. The imperfect replication and sheer scale of transmission in a globalized world, as he explains, create a crucial disconnect between the sign and its referent. An overseas war, for instance, retains little, if any, of its horror to the disaffected viewer to whom the war has no significance beyond its presence in the media itself. And it is precisely such distance, the one standing between the viewer and the event, that, along the way, allows for any number of perversions and degradations to take place.
Marshall McLuhan once famously proposed that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be the primary focus of study. His dictum, the medium is the message, is acknowledged throughout Baudrillard’s work, “the key formula of the era of simulation”. This framework is even more relevant today, given the serious complications and distortions introduced to both our socio-political discourse and the global flow of information.
The advent of the internet, and the subsequent fragmentation of the media industry, has put the marketplace into a state of near-constant upheaval. Today, as each outlet struggles for survival among the increasing competition, the precariousness of their existence governs their every decisions — hence its modern profit-driven mindset, unscrupulous marketing tactics and negligent content curation that, ultimately, ends up undermining the media’s democratic function.
It was around the same time these changes were taking hold, that Baudrillard published his 1987 work The Ecstasy of Communication. In it, he observes what we can all recognize today: as our media technologies evolved and became embedded in our lives, information had taken on an almost pornographic quality, consumed with what he describes as a sort of giddy ecstasy:
“Ecstasy is all functions abolished into one dimension, the dimension of communication. All events, all spaces, all memories are abolished in the sole dimension of information.”
America was particularly ripe for this sort of shift — the post-’60s disillusionment, the failure of Vietnam, the burgeoning of a new American imperialism… A vacuum of meaning had begun to open, and the consumption-based lifestyle that came to characterize the ’80s was an effective, omnipresent opiate. The race for market share in the new booming industry accelerated the corporatization and its effects throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as conglomerates snapped up smaller outlets and expanded their territory.
The big money at stake led to profit-motives steering their trajectories even more directly, placing ever more emphasis on the tried and true revenue generators: infotainment-style, dramatized news with wide appeal — particularly among key advertising demographics. The media industry, after all, traffics in and thrives on the exploitation of highly abstracted, ambiguous signs. A given event, especially a distant or obscured one, is valuable for its malleability. Conjecture and speculation in this sense are infinitely renewable, endlessly capable of capturing the attention of an audience compelled to always know more.
This modern business models necessitate sensationalism. As analysts and commentators crowd the spotlight, facts and opinions are increasingly blurred. Short-form explanatory journalism, opinion-based programming and infotainment-style coverage, whether of overseas warzones, home-grown terrorists, or any cause for alarm to fuel the 24-hour news cycle, have become the rules that govern the market — a degradation by the hands of capitalist principles, or as former CBS CEO Les Moonves’ puts it (in a comment made about their 2016 election’s coverage): “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Our media models precede our assessment of reality (a point also made by Baudrillard in The Precession of the Simulacra, from which he coins his term hyperreality). When verifying the information presented to you is functionally impossible, the models become indistinguishable from the real. Nowadays, increased competition in the market has given us a vast array of curated content feeds. We are no longer subjected to a singularly coherent hyperreality, to one comparably stable simulacrum presented to us via a few relatively homogenous mainstream cable news networks à la the 1970s. The industry will continue to fragment, and the onus will be placed on the individual to seek out their own media from hundreds of options.
An increasingly atomized mediascape also exposes us to an unprecedented variety of models. As Baudrillard puts it in The Precession of Simulacra:
“Simulation is characterized by a procession of the model, of all models based on the merest fact— the models come first, their circulation, orbital like that of the bomb, constitutes the genuine magnetic field of the event. The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.”
Outlets, after all, must follow economic incentives and carve a niche for themselves if they want to survive. Thus, each media model necessarily differs to an extent, and information is sorted accordingly by both the producers and consumers. As a 2017 study demonstrated, “individual ideology evolves towards the estimated ideologies of [his or her preferred] news channels.” Is it unreasonable to assume the same phenomenon occurs with internet news sources, especially when the free market (and freedom of information) allows consumers to curate their own hyperreality according to the worldview they want to reinforce?
And so here we are, unlikely to return to the relative comfort of what was presented and largely accepted as one common and unquestionable narrative. We’ve all heard the joke that we might be the only real person on the internet, and everyone else text-generated by artificial intelligence. Absurdity of the concept aside, the running joke is premised on a key observation about its nature — the morbidly amusing recognition of a distantiation unique to this medium, an implicit acknowledgement of the loss of essential human characteristics — the dehumanization that occurs over online communication.
In the era of polarizing (largely online) culture wars, this dehumanization becomes palpable. Baudrillard was acutely aware of this social degradation: the deindividuation of the so-called internet-disinhibition effect and the overwhelming speed of our communication that facilitates impulsive, emotional rhetoric. The quasi-anonymous voice, sufficiently divorced from social liability and any considerations that would otherwise give pause, takes on shameless vitriol. The discourse becomes more careless, more irresponsible — dominated by emotions. While this is a boon for independent creators to build legitimate audiences without financial barriers, it’s a double-edged sword, incentivizing histrionics above all else.
Mass media is inextricable to a democracy whose influence spans the globe. But its actual functioning is predicated on institutional trust — a lack of which, was perhaps best encapsulated by the episode which saw Oxford Dictionaries’ president Casper Grathwohl naming post-truth their 2016 word of the year. One might cynically view this as a concession that our global media’s Achilles’ heel — its inability to make solidly ‘verifiable’ claims — had eventually made its way into the cultural consciousness.
Donald Trump’s brand of populism and his constant insistence on “fake and disgusting news” has given state-sanctioned credence to this schizophrenic attitude. But the term is employed by those all across the political spectrum, and the danger rests in its nearly impossible refutation (due to the enormous abstraction that takes place over global media). In a confusing deluge of narratives and information, such scapegoat is naturally appealing, and in a way must be deployed in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.
With the declining public trust in Government and confidence in the media, long-standing institutions are regarded with scrutiny. We’ve now entered a world where political power can be wielded by private corporations and near-omnipotent tech-giants can execute the political goals of the highest bidder. The prospect of a truly disparate discourse in which we can no longer agree on any common narrative doesn’t seem too outlandish, and may even be already here.
As a matter of fact, our present is growing eerily similar to Baudrillard’s grim future. Valuable, trusted information seems increasingly unrealistic as the forces of global capitalism, corruption, and unprecedented technologies constantly undermine the process. While the optimist might be inclined to view this destabilization as necessary growing pains of a technological democracy, there is no clear or easy solution: these problems arise from the freedom of information. But the alternative is dubious at best and totalitarian at worst. Confronting the issue must begin with a widespread acknowledgment of the nature of the predicament. Baudrillard’s prescient theoretical work proves increasingly relevant in our analysis. Though infamously pessimistic, there is a strain of affirmative vitality in his persistent vigilance within what continues to prove to be a flawed system. This perseverance, if anything, should inspire our approach to further understand and adapt to our circumstances.