Tuesday, April 19, 2011


All good Dirt guest posts need to begin with a shoutout to our Old Pal Jerky, and all our old pals from over the on-again, off-again years of the Daily Dirt. Special cheers to our Old Pal Daddybear – may he make it through all the shit his body is putting him through. Not to mention our pals in post-apocalyptic New Zealand and Japan.

Recently, Jerky posted a rant expressing his frustration with living in a sea of propaganda and how difficult it is to figure out what’s true anymore. One of my passions is exploring media effects. I think most of us would agree that a sense of being overwhelmed by information is indeed a media effect that people didn’t experience through interpersonal communication a thousand years ago to the same extent we experience it through mediated communication by the time we’ve had a morning cup of coffee.

I think back to the classic John E. Smoke by those legends of psychedelia, the Butthole Surfers. I have no idea what the song’s about, but one of the lines is “Upwardly he did evolve.” That line probably means something in its original context, or in the case of many Buttholes songs, it might actually be meaningless. In my head it has snowballed into significance over the years and provides a poetic basis for my perspective on media effects. See, I argue that media technology is not what determines who we are, but that greater forces (the same ones that make us human) send us out to evolve our species, and technology is a byproduct alongside which we co-evolve. The state of the human brain is in a sort of adolescence; as we rewire it with help from media technology, we make it more efficient at processing information. According to evolution theory and all three of the hardcore Christians who believe in it, those with brains better-equipped to process inundations of information will pass their genes into the future and those without will be less likely to influence the trajectory of our species. But I digress...
For the purposes of this argument, the term “media” refers specifically to a physical object that transmits, receives, amplifies, or in some way stands between ourselves and a message. Invoking pieces of a McLuhanian perspective, various media are extensions of our natural senses. They have even evolved to a point where we can create and interact with many mediated scenes. In general I do not disagree with McLuhan’s perspective on what media are, nor that the global village concept is a reasonable outcome of connectivity. McLuhan, however, argues that “The medium is the message because it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” (Understanding Media, NY, 1964, p. 9). There may be elements of truth in this statement, but media are powerless over people. Ultimately it is people who create their own effects out of messages they experience through media. In light of this, “media effects” may be a misnomer; we actually look for, find, and experience message effects.

The effects of media and the effects of messages need to be conceptually separated. TVs, radios, computers, and cell phones have a very specific set of effects on us. These effects are related to the logistics of medium ownership: purchasing our media, storing our media, moving our media around and/or not moving ourselves around, paying the power bill, etc. One could make an argument that the form and appearance of media could potentially affect our cognition, affection, and behavior -- older television sets may have a “nostalgic” feel to their look, wooden stereo speaker cabinets sound better than plastic to some people, CRT and backlit screens may cause damage to our vision over the long term whereas LCD displays may take longer to do the same thing. There is little question that media do affect our physical environment (we often organize our living areas around televisions or clusters of media) as well as the functioning of our bodies, but far more interesting are the cognitive and affective effects associated with messages. Technically these types of “media effects” are not effects of the media themselves, but effects that occur in response to processing messages.

Determinists, such as McLuhan, argue that once we come into contact with a new technology, we are forever changed as we assimilate its function into our daily lives. Their argument appears sound; the invention of alphabets seems to have rewired our brains for reading rather than listening, the printing press helped mass-produce this rewiring, and later, electronic media did the same thing. A team of researchers recently found that Internet savvy people’s brains light up in all sorts of areas under an MRI, such as reasoning and decision making areas, whereas the brains of those with limited Google experience only showed activity in centers that control language and such. Unfortunately, technology does not (yet) allow us to dig up the brains of people who died 4000 years ago to determine what parts were more developed than others, so as to compare them with contemporary brains.

Others have made the argument that networks have become the basic units of society; social organization and the needs that arise from a network society are what produce technology to satisfy those needs. Fred Turner wrote a book placing the filthy hippie how-to manual Whole Earth Catalog at the root of modern social organization; large-scale desire in the 1960s for communal living outside and independent from the hustle and bustle of modern life. He describes a scenario where eggheads working on cybernetic antiaircraft weapons, dropped-out communalists, natural promoters like Stewart Brand, artists, and chemists with the knowledge to manufacture such technologies as LSD were getting into the chemists’ stash, partying into the 5th dimension, and coming up with stuff like the WELL, a forerunner of Al Gore’s Internet.

Now let’s get back to message effects for a second. Several large bodies of scientific literature blends interpersonal communication variables with media effects research and makes it difficult to not conclude that we are active users of media who do pretty much with media the same damn things we do in interpersonal communication. This is where McLuhan’s notion that technology is extensions of our sensory apparatus comes into play. Tires are extensions of our feet, radio is an extension of our ears, television is an extension of our eyes, and Internet is an extension of who knows what, but I would argue it’s an extension of our nervous systems, particularly our brains. We use technology to extend ourselves beyond corporeal form to do the same things we would do in our corporeal form with other people. In so doing, our brains re-wire themselves to make us better-able to operate in our environments, and our environments extend beyond the dark room with the shades drawn and a computer glowing in the corner.

I better offer a couple of caveats here. Because distant scenes are often mediated by television or Internet, they may have less of an immediate effect on our minds and imaginations than real life interaction with others, but what can we expect? Mediated interactions are not immediately threatening to our physiology and technology provides us time to think about how to react before we actually react to mediated stimuli. Distance between us and “the action” may diminish the cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects of our interactions, but it does not make them less real. I would argue that the Dirt community, though most of or none of us have ever met other members in person, is still a real community cemented by our mediated interactions.

Another notion worth mentioning is selectivity. Selectivity is a survival mechanism. At one point in human history it served as a means of drawing our attention to those things that could harm us, whether they were the teeth of a tiger, a much larger enemy brandishing a club, or a slippery and dangerous path alongside a cliff. Living submerged in information brought to us by various and multiple media, selectivity continues to help us survive by drawing our attention to those things and people that are like us, and that in which we may find a useful tool or ally. Should our selective processes be shut down, we would find ourselves in a state nonconducive to our survival. Selectivity, arguably, is the one thing keeping us from becoming overwhelmed by details or being overwhelmed by extraneous and useless information that neither helps us to make decisions nor appears in any pattern we can interpret in a meaningful way.

So what was my point? My point is that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed as we sort through seas of propaganda looking for truth. Ultimately what we find as truth will reflect who we are – our desires, beliefs, dreams, etc. the process of discovering that truth will rewire our brains and create new and different needs for information in different forms. In response to those needs we will create new technologies to satisfy them. Greater forces than technology, however, guide the human spirit – we pretty much do the same things through media that we would do with other people. Moreover, the process isn’t painless or comfortable; as far as I know, nobody has ever written about life being painless and comfortable – such a rant wouldn’t be marketable.

That’s what I think, at least for today. What do you think?
-yer old pal Sixlegged


  1. I think your assessment of the Internet as an extension of the brain is pretty solid.

    There are those who consider it the precursor to telepathic communication, since it, at times, basically is a transfer of information directly from one brain to another. Unfortunately, it still lacks immediate processing since the recipient still has to read the words to absorb the idea, but in essence it's still very similar.

    Great post, by the way...

  2. I've read that the 'mass' in mass communication is the greatest of propaganda tools. The idea is you don't need to hide the truth. You just include it among an endless and relentless flow of total info, everything at once thrown at the reader/viewer/media consumer. Then just try to separate anything meaningful or 'true' from that bottomless sea of info-garbage. I guess it could be called mass obfuscation. Goebbels would have loved it - the lazy man's way to hiding the 'truth.'

  3. Basil an important principle of propaganda is that you make it hit the audience's emotional buttons. Whether we admit it or not, we tend to be affectively-driven rather than cognitively-driven. We tend to believe things that stir our emotions, then using the cues around an emotional experience we cognitively create a conceptualization of reality that, to us, is consistent with our affective states. Ultimately, our idea of truth is confined by our affective states. We create our own reality based on these states, and stick with it till the end, even if we receive conflicting information. It takes a lot to overcome our conceptualizations of reality because they are affectively-driven, rather than cognitively-driven.