Note: the following is a slight adaptation of an essay written as part of a Masters-level analysis of the impact of new technologies upon the spread of news media. The idea is to begin posting a number of longer-form discussions of media generally, as a counterpoint to the pop-cultural emphasis of most of the content here.
Unfortunately WordPress doesn’t enable for the easy formatting of footnotes, hence the rather ugly bracketed numbers indicating references, although any online sources I’ve hyperlinked to. Once a better system becomes apparent I’ll use it…
“‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening.”(1)
Writing in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan asserted that technological advances had rendered the world a far smaller place, sealing ‘the entire human family into a single global tribe.’(2) Nearly five decades later we’re seeing the culmination of his ideas: twenty-four news channels bring us images of Japanese tsunamis moments after they’ve occurred, Twitter feeds us live thoughts from Tahir Square, we learn of Michael Jackson’s death and worldwide reactions to it almost simultaneously.
‘The most important agent of change has been the internet’(3) wrote Howard French of the new communication age, and it’s true: online we have access to information from almost anywhere, geographical constraints rendered meaningless and traditional systems of media control largely undermined. It represents, as Brian McNair states, ‘the first truly global news medium’(4), the potential audience of a media text theoretically extended to anyone with a connection to the web.
Social networking, YouTube and the growth of user-generated news content has exposed us to a proliferation of voices, a conversation that arguably transcends nationality, race and class. ‘Suddenly everyone in the world is linked to everyone else’, wrote Victor Keegan in The Guardian of the rise of the wi-fi enabled smartphone. ‘A subtle form of exodus is taking place. People, especially early adopters, are spending more of their time conversing or doing things with people abroad, a kind of virtual migration.’ Our access to media is, argues Simon Cottle, ‘encouraging a sense of the world as a singular, shared, space’(5): increasingly diverse connections with different people and places are driving a consciousness of the world as a whole. It’s this that McLuhan envisioned when he discussed a ‘heightened human awareness of responsibility’(6), new technologies forcing us to ‘participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action.’(7)
After centuries of mass media, centralised and controlled, these technologies have the potential to democratise our information, giving everyone – not just the elite – a voice. From documents shared on Wikileaks to the explosion in online activism promoted by groups such as Avaaz.org, our capacity to understand and even influence global issues has never been greater. Or, at least, that’s the promise.
The reality gives rather less cause for optimism. With such an explosion in content we’re relying ever more upon media gatekeepers to filter out the noise, and these remain geographically-defined, often presenting the world through a prism of national self-interest. Of the current top ten newspaper websites worldwide, seven are based within America and two within the UK: only one, China’s Xinhua News Agency, is non-Western. Personalised home pages like Yahoo.com deliver a localised and user-defined news experience, with an emphasis upon Western celebrity, fashion and entertainment, whilst news apps such as those of The Guardian and the Daily Mail enable a customisation of content feeds, allowing us control over our news intake through an array of narrow parameters and filters. The effect of the rise in ‘news choice’ is that we can effectively silence any voices that we don’t want to hear, fashioning and maintaining our own individual world-views that need never be challenged by information which may disrupt them.
As for Twitter, regularly fêted as a truly diverse, open network of communication, research suggests that its user base is rather more homogenous. Statistics from the Pew Research Centre indicate that the typical American user is 18-29, male and urban, and twice as likely to be Hispanic than white. In the UK 46% of users are under 35, more likely to live in London and less likely to vote Conservative. And despite there being 200 million registered accounts, fifty percent of all tweets read and shared are generated by just 20,000 ‘elite’ users, predominantly consisting of celebrities and representatives of media outlets. As one researcher put it, ‘Information flows have not become egalitarian by any means’: instead we still have a culture of opinion-formers exerting a disproportionate level of influence over the audience, just as with traditional, top-down media.
The proliferation of news sources has simply served to emphasise the sense of hierarchy within the media, and it’s clear that not all voices are equal. The Daily Mail continues to set the UK’s news agenda in a way its ailing mid-market rival the Daily Express cannot: Rush Limbaugh’s right-wing talkshow is thriving, whilst its liberal counterpart Air America ceased broadcasting in 2010. Vice Magazine might claim 900,000 monthly readers across twenty-two countries but in terms of mainstream impact it remains a niche concern. And few outlets can compete with the level of influence held by Murdoch’s top brands: Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The Sun.
Alternative perspectives may be there for those who seek them out, but we’re a long way from an egalitarian news media. As Jaap van Ginneken puts it. ‘A few voices can be heard loudly and clearly all the time, but many more voices are drowned out by the noise, and their vague murmur can only be heard intermittently in the background.’(8) On a global level these loud and clear voices overwhelmingly belong to Western news organisations, firmly retaining their hegemonic dominance: despite praise for their coverage of the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya this year, Al Jazeera’s attempts to expand outside of the Middle East continue to be met with suspicion and distrust, largely on account of their perceived association with Islamic fundamentalism. And, according to Canada’s Media Awareness Network, the media’s voice of authority remains primarily ‘that of a middle-aged, professional, white male.’
If the world is indeed now a global village then it’s one riven with inequality, where a few speak for and over the rest, amplified above the clamour of the ideas competing behind. The internet may, for a time, have broken down the division between the media and the audience, but the former has been quick to reassert its power: ‘Old media is rapidly occupying this new media’s space,’ said Harvard’s Nieman Foundation For Journalism, ‘and soaking up much of the audience.’
There are, of course, many for whom the clamour of ideas has been rather more muted: the citizens of less democratic countries, where official parties assume a more overt gatekeeping role with regards to information. Google may have last year stood up to the harsh censorship requirements imposed by the Chinese government, but only this month Facebook lobbyist Adam Conner stated that the site was ‘allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before.’ Given the role played by the social networking giant in the recent Arab uprisings, his comments have caused alarm with their apparent endorsement of restrictions upon the flow of information in some regions.
Then there are those that don’t want to think globally, and who oppose the notion of belonging to McLuhan’s ‘global tribe’. The media serve these attitudes well, especially the tabloid newspapers, which have largely shrunk from globalisation in favour of a trenchant nationalism. The Daily Mail and Daily Express in particular regularly adopt a myopia with regards to internationalism, tending to present different cultures either as a threat or through a prism of otherness, with little sympathy for the plight of citizens displaced by war or natural disaster: recent headlines in the latter bemoan the ‘War Migrants’ headed for Britain in the wake of continued conflict in Africa, with no evident empathy for the victims themselves.
Even when international issues are covered, the media’s role in mediating events to us often serves to distance us from them. A focus upon emotion and evocative imagery over more complex details of background and context have left audiences with little real understanding or insight into global situations, an issue highlighted by documentary-maker Adam Curtis: ‘Political conflicts around the world, from Darfur to Gaza, are now portrayed to us as simple illustrations of the mindless cruelty of the human race, about which nothing can be done, and to which the only response is Oh Dear.’ New technologies might be making more of the world visible to us, but that doesn’t mean that we have any greater comprehension of it.
But the greatest barrier to a fully global village remains, simply, the ability to gain access to that village. The digital divide might be narrowing but it’s still very much an issue: whilst a third of the world’s population was online by the close of 2010, over four billion people were not. Connections in the developed world continue to outstrip those in the developing world: just 21% of people within developing nations have internet access, compared to 71% of those in the West. It’s a disparity that continues to impact our view of the globe: we might be seeing more of it than before, but what we hear continues to be skewed towards a familiar paradigm of Western interests and concerns.
That’s not to say that McLuhan’s vision won’t come to pass. Many of us already live within his village, exhibiting global concerns for the economy, for the environment, for depleting resources and the spread of democracy. But not all of us, not yet: as Charles Arthur wrote of our progress towards a fully global village last October, ‘The future is here already – it just isn’t evenly distributed.’ And, until this changes, it’s the poorest among us who remain the least likely to be heard.
1 McLuhan M, Fiore Q. The Medium Is The Massage. Gingko Press; 1967. p. 63
2 McLuhan M. The Gutenberg Galaxy. London: Routledge; 1962. p. 8
3 Edwards D, Cromwell D. Guardians Of Power. London: Pluto Press; 2006. p. 193
4 McNair B. Cultural Chaos: Journalism, News, and Power In A Globalised World. Routledge; 2006. p. 103
5 Cottle S. Global Crisis Reporting. Open University Press; 2009. p. 1
6 McLuhan M. Understanding Media. New York: Mentor; 1964. p. 5
7 McLuhan M. Understanding Media. New York: Mentor; 1964. p. 4
8 Ginneken J. Understanding Global News. London: Sage Publications; 1999. p. 85