Sunday, March 30, 2014

Control the medium, Control the message

When the great Canadian media philosopher and public intellectual coined the phrase "the medium is the message", I wonder how far he saw into the future. It is even believed that he predicted the coming of the world wide web thirty years before its onset, and his visions of the future to a large extent have come true. But I doubt even he could have imagined the engineering of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc. and the immediacy with which information is consumed, discerned and discarded today. He was certainly accurate when he predicted that the medium by which information is delivered will define, alter and impact the message itself. But in what way, would have been hard to fathom by anyone. Today when everything personal, private, public and consequential is shared via  "social media" the impact is telling. While McLuhan did predict that communication technology would transform the world into a "global village", and shrink the planet in a meta-physical sense, it is  anyone's guess, as to how far that process will really push us over the edge.

Marshal McLuhan also predicted the end of the print medium as we know it. The newspaper and the book in its known physical form, will become a thing of the past. The early signs of which are already present as more and more people use tablets, phones and laptops to consume information. While the medium of delivery will continue to change at a rapid rate, the content creation will change as a result as well. But there will always be a need for good writers and journalists as an alternative to the rapidly diluted 140 characters or less way of sharing information. But those who control the medium, will always control the message.

On March 19, 2014 an excerpt from an upcoming book by veteran New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall was published in the New York Time's magazine section. The article titled What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden was an extremely well researched piece of journalism. It put you on the edge of your seat, exposing the complex and disturbing nature of a protracted war that has caused death and destruction on a massive scale. After a trillion dollars spent, leaders assassinated, countless innocents killed, the article concluded that nothing significant has changed. The Taliban, the dubious Pakistani intelligence services, the politicians and the various rag-tag armies of terrorists from Al-Qaida to Lashkar-E-Taiba, are all intact waiting to rise again as soon as the American forces left Afghanistan. The article indicts everyone from the Pakistani Dictator Parvez Musharraf to his ISI companions and local bureaucrats, of knowing all along where Osama Bin Laden was being housed. He was free to roam as he pleased as protection was guaranteed from the highest levels of power. This article was not published in Pakistan. 9000 copies of the International New York Times were printed and distributed in Pakistan with blank white space on the front page. The truth was censored either by intimidation or by exertion. The message was effectively erased by the people who exerted control on the medium.The people of Pakistan were yet again hoodwinked.

Next month, the largest democracy on the planet goes to the polls. Approximately 800 million eligible voters will take part in one the longest, most chaotic, colorful and controversial elections ever seen. Countless regional and national political parties will vie for power in the 543 seat parliament. It will take 272 seats to form a government, and there is no single party that has the wherewithal to garner an absolute vote. Therefore only a coalition government can come to power and thus votes will be bought for hard cash and deals will be made in a nation that is awash with corruption.

Corruption is a central issue in this election. A new national political party called Aam Admi Party (Common Man's Party) has chosen the eradication of corruption as its only political agenda/manifesto in this election. In any democracy, it is the free and objective press that guarantees a fair election. In India, in this election, the media/press has successfully been corrupted as well. Voters are being misled by what is being called "paid news". Where politicians and political parties are buying column space in respected news papers, and are having propaganda pieces dressed up as real news with no distinction. Even the editorial sections are being bought and turned into puff pieces. The divisive candidate Narendra Modi of the BJP party is the favorite to become the next Prime Minister of India. He is perceived to be "business friendly". Newspapers, TV stations and their owners who stand to gain from his victory, have steadily made him the media darling, consciously and carefully evading the tough questions and sugar quoting the uncomfortable ones to give him an edge.

With over 250 radio stations, 850 TV Channels, 93,000 registered newspapers and the social media networks buzzing the Indian media landscape is an influential juggernaut. Political parties own media outlets outright and war openly with little oversight. In this election the message is being dressed and distorted even more to influence the vote in a tightly contested election. Largely because the medium of delivery has changed and the control has fragmented in some cases or has conglomerated  in others. According to the BBC radio documentary "Press for Sale" there have been over 1,400 cases where the Election Commission has detected alleged paid news over the last four years. Now the Indian parliament has been considering legislation which will outlaw the practice – although detecting and proving it is likely to be tough. Controlling the medium is definitely paying off for those who stand to gain. Most likely this could steal the election from a voting base, whose discerning capacity is limited.

Controlling the medium in the digital age is challenging, lucrative and powerful. While the internet does create a highly democratic space, it certainly also creates a space that can be heavily surveilled. Edward Snowden revealed how the NSA was invading privacy of the powerless and the powerful, under the guise of fighting terrorism. In nations like China, Turkey and Egypt, the internet is seen as a real threat to the establishment and therefore is highly regulated. The acquisition of fledgeling companies like Instagram, Whatsapp, Occulus VR for exorbitant sums of money by giants like Facebook, reveals the desire of these companies to control the pipeline. Comcast, an American company is all set to purchase Time Warner Cable another behemoth that controls what is known in the business as the "last mile". The last few feet of  physical cable that penetrates your wall into the TV Cable box in your living room. This is where it is predicted companies will fight for space to collect the most intimate data on the consumer, so they can advertise in the most narrow manner possible. Apple, Inc. is close to signing an exclusive deal with Comcast to launch its new gizmo directly into the living room to observe your every consumerist move. The cutthroat competition to control the medium of delivery is getting intense, and this will define what as consumers we end up seeing or not seeing, and in the process trading personal data.

While it seems as though technology is making the world a more open space, it is also doing exactly the opposite. On one level revolutions and peoples movements can be triggered and surged by social media, information can also be spied on, collected and controlled by dubious means. It is also that same media that dilutes the content by its very nature, compromising all validity and integrity. Living in a developed nation with unfettered access to the internet, with some education, one can sift through the noise and stunted information to find the essence of what is "real". For those who do not have that privilege, the alternative is perilous.

Marshal McLuhan also coined the term "surfing" meaning the rapid, irregular and multi-directional movement through a heterogeneous body of documents or knowledge. That word means something else these days. It means to endlessly bounce around, swimming and floating in a sea of information, sometimes in search of something very particular, most often to aimlessly wander in digital intoxication. So the next time you go "surfing" remember to ask yourself, who exactly is controlling the medium and what exactly therefore is the message that is being delivered? It is what it is.