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I was surprised when someone wrote to me in an on-line discussion,. He was ranting about the continued existence of Mass Media. “Mass Media” I thought? “Didn’t you know?” I wrote. “It’s dead; and has been for a decade or so.” Adamant in his belief, he chastised me. “No, no” he wrote. I could tell I was a fool in his eyes. “We still have newspapers and TV. Mass Media will be with us for quite some time yet. He held off being nasty to me, but his message was clear. “You’re an idiot. You don’t know what you are talking (or writing) about.” It dawned on me right then that Mass Media had gone quietly to its grave, lost in the frenzy and confusion of the information age, It grasped at life for a bit, and a few newspapers continue to do wheeze and gasp. But in the end the era of Mass Media has died.
There was a time when choice was limited. When one was sure to marry someone from the local tribe or village, become a hunter or farmer; get their news from the local gossip network or the occasional passing traveler. But as civilization progressed so did our choices. And in the modern age, giants such as mass production, mass industrialization, and mass movements lived among us and ruled the day. Mass Media was perhaps the greatest of them all.
In its heyday, Mass Media were those few media outlets in society where information was funneled to reach “the masses”. The term was coined in the 1920s with the advent of nationwide radio networks, mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. There was a time when most Americans got their information, news, and entertainment through television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and books. But now those days are forever over. Oh to be sure all those media sources exist. But global spread of tele-communications has multiplied their numbers 10 X 10,000, and made each of them accessible to “the masses”. Mass Media is no longer a funnel of information to society.
A Kid Growing up in New York
As a kid in New York City I had the following choices for media: Four television stations (NBC, CBS, ABC, and a local channel), radio, three newspapers (New York Times, Daily News, Wall Street Journal), and any books and magazines I could get my hands on. And that was in New York City. Can you imagine living like that now? If you are reading this article on-line the answer is probably “no”.
Gone forever is the concept of “Mass” as in one point for the distribution of knowledge. A more accurate term is “public media” where Internet has opened up communications to every individual through electronic and print media. Today there are thousands of media sources available to people:
- On-line social media forums
- Broadcasting, in the narrow sense, for radio and television.
- Broadcasting for radio and television on Internet
- Various types of discs, tapes, or digital output.
- Internet blogs and podcasts, such as news, music, pre-recorded speech, and video
- Mobile phones and other carry devices on three and four G networks.
- On-line (and paper) books, magazines, blogs, articles, chats, and newspapers.
- Video games through PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and Wii.
Any person can now publish materials to every one of these forms of media leveling the playing field with governments or corporate media giants. The same “de-massification” trends will happen in unions, religions, education, politics, etc.
So why is the passing of Mass Media important?
As the means for global communications increases so too does the ability for self-expression and individualism. And that means millions of individuals and small groups make their opinions and presence known to the world. In the future, multitudes of individuals and small groups will bond together for a specific cause (political, environmental, social, etc.) before going their own way again. Enhanced telecommunications and media production is the key for enabling this trend. We have already seen this type of self expression manifest itself as political and social action in the 2010 Arab Spring revolutions and 2011 United Kingdom riots.
The impacts of Internet, an expanding global telecommunications infrastructure, and technology are difficult to predict. Only now are we witnessing the effects of instantaneous public communications on political institutions. Nations and non government organizations will grapple to control regional and global communications to limit, manipulate, or direct the popular will of people. But for governments, limiting Internet will prove exceedingly difficult as global communications becomes inextricably integrated to economic well being.
Decisions by any government will, more and more, become a decentralized decision-making process. In the United States, the Federal Government will lose considerable decision making power to people, foreign governments, and international bodies. Thus, decisions become micro and macro with a loss of power to the governmental structure in the middle.
The U.S. is a representative form of democracy. At the micro level, the dispersion (de-massifying) of the media fueled by the Internet provides communication capabilities allowing for direct engagement between the governing and the governed. It allows for the average person to be heard by millions and exert political pressure on the governing apparatus. Our current system of representative government is not particularly well suited to this form of direct democracy. In fact, by design the framers of the Constitution ensured decision-making processes were slow to make sure emotions of the moment did not drive national policy. The speed of global communications will set in place a high level of friction between politicians and constitutes as the former tries to respond to the instantaneous demands of the latter.
At the macro level, foreign governments and international bodies are taking a greater role in national decision making. This situation is true not only for war, but for environmental issues, political issues, legal decisions, economic and trade issues, business and investment practices, information technology standards, etc. Even today, there is great international pressure against the independent action of nation states. And yet the processes for transnational decision-making are, at best, immature. The world continues to rely on diplomats, global, or quasi-global bodies based on “pre-digital age” organizational structure and processes. There is no construct, process, model, or simulation that understands and integrates nation state values, global influences, and decision-making practices. The result is that international treaties and agreements go through a time consuming and arduous process of negotiation, analysis, re-negotiation, analysis, recommendation, and approval. This arcane process often outlasts the assignments of those subject matter experts supporting them.
A final goodbye to Mass Media
Internet and the global telecommunications infrastructure of today is quickly evolving to be humanity’s great equalizer. No longer is the case that we are hostage to the giants of Mass Media. The giants have been laid to rest and humans have risen to fill the void.
We shall forever live in a world where information shall be pervasive in our lives. Our greatest challenge will be to locate our preferred channels for entertainment and to determine accuracy and truth in the quest for knowledge. This latter point may, over time, not bode well for those newspapers, magazines, websites and other media outlets associated with partisan support or a particular viewpoint on issues. Polls over the last few decades show nearly 70% of the American public do not trust the traditional news media. The difference now is that they have a choice. Farewell Mass Media, rest in peace.