Media Cloud

Originally written on December 21st, 2018. Goes well with my one-minute short film.

As the world grows smaller and smaller, whether because of the technology or population, we often indulge into what can be called as ‘shared experiences’. There are many more ideologies now, than there were a century ago, or even few decades ago. A lot of those intersect with each other and yet retain their uniqueness around a significant event. Media essentially plays a major part in invoking these discussions, reiterating various definitions, sometimes even encouraging new interpretations, albeit often ephemeral in nature. That is not say, media wasn’t a primary catalyst for the rise or revival of some of those ideologies.

However, when I try to make sense of this catalyst in a visual manner, I keep imagining it as a Cloud. A cloud visible to the naked eye, giving glimpses of its nature from the outside, yet hiding a lot inside itself. A careful, often deliberate abstraction yet a self-contained entity, almost invisible when you don’t notice it. But when you do, its presence can be so overwhelming, that it sparks a subconscious reaction even unbeknownst to yourself. So, through this paper, I will try to explain as well as explore this term, with writings new and old, tracing its existence in contemporary affairs.

A major part of proposing this term is the effect – that I primarily wish to investigate in depth – media has on our daily lives. The observations are rather personal, they might tie in much more closely with the socio-economical strata to which I belong – mostly an urban, middle-class individual, working for a multi-national corporation – than put forth different perspectives from the different layers of society. Although, I would say that those socio-economical layers have lessened nowadays, and their borders have grown thinner. However, it still demands carefully analyzed facts and especially our topic in question will blow up a lot, since accessibility of types of media is really diverse for different layers. So, the observations in this paper will rather be Horizontal (pertaining to the wider scope of media for a particular layer) than Vertical (pertaining to lesser variety of media but for different layers).

Coming back to the effects of media, while we can stay alive without it, we seem to depend on it for a supposedly ‘better’, ‘civilized’ and ‘responsible’ living. It is an important tool to even survive in the cut-throat competition that we face today, let alone trying to get ahead. Trying to keep up with the contemporary times and current trends is more necessary than ever. It can be said that one of the major factors for this situation is the exponential growth in world population. But almost equally, the rise of impeccable custom designs of capitalism that most countries – more prominently, their leaders – are taking up, with reference to their economical & cultural standpoints, is another major factor which usually remains hidden behind the success stories of big corporate organizations as well as governments. The divide between economic and social reform is bigger than ever. And sadly enough, social reform gets beaten in priority against all the monetary concerns for that is now becoming the center of an individual’s life. The idea of ‘Net Worth’ is not new, but it sure has taken front seat as most things become inaccessible without money.

So, how does media help in making our lives easier? Thanks to the advancements in technology, we all carry a powerful gadget in our pockets, capable of all types of organizing and communication, helping us with infinite information at our fingertips. The advent of internet, along with its constant propagation to cover all parts of the world, has been reinventing the way we interact with each other or even with non-human entities (AI androids, kiosks, machines, etc.). All media is essentially a piece of communication. The piece of media is originated by a source/sender entity, with a certain purpose to give out certain information (message), to a receiver entity which consciously or subconsciously accepts and processes it.[1] Be it a Google search you initiated or a giant banner on the street that you barely noticed, we continue to in-take information, very densely and a lot these days. Therefore, we all are surrounded by media and continue to receive and process it, without really having a choice.

Media’s omnipotent existence has made sure that it becomes an irremovable part of our daily lives. A Google search initiated by you is still fine, but the giant, overwhelming banner or even the advertisements accompanying your search is not something you requested to see. It is this side of media which I am more interested in. The involuntary yet carefully placed piece of information for your consideration, should you care to explore something more than you were looking for at the moment. Retargeting, the term used for the technology behind these ads that follow you from one site to another, has connotations of more aggressive strategy to overwhelm an individual than a giant banner.

It is arguable, however, mainly on sender’s part, that the information propagated in this case, is to help the receiver. Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky said it in a much wider context that, it is the function of mass media to amuse, entertain & inform individuals with the values, social codes that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.[2] I am trying to narrow the scope here, in order to analyze the layers of decisions, and the possible contrast between them, behind this simple & popular example of media-dependent digital marketing.

The follower ad is based on your search history, and it is expected to inform you that you can still buy that item you were looking at earlier, now its price has reduced or has a faster delivery, etc. Let’s suppose that you were looking up a specific shoe on, and you spent a considerable amount of time on that page, checking out different colors, but you didn’t actually buy it. Now when you jump to another site, like a tabloid or a news site, you see the corners of the page filled with variants of that shoe with different colors, price & delivery options, etc. information. Sure, it is helpful. But the other side of the story is that your information – the fact that you were looking to buy a new shoe – is now being shared around the internet, across different sites and it is being hammered onto you consistently, convincing you to buy the shoe. So, the primary purpose here is hardly the empathetic help, but the flawless capitalism working on your subconscious to achieve profit for itself. This just goes on to show how much media can control our psyche & influence us, while itself being easily susceptible to the level of manipulation that is always difficult to decipher.

This may sound like a little unconventional example, but it is essentially reiterating what Jean Baudrillard would say, that choosing to buy the shoe as our own decision is simply ‘a dream of communication’.[3] The way media has evolved now, we need to re-scan Marshall McLuhan’s definitions of Hot & Cool Media,[4] along with his categorizations of the different mediums in contemporary context, as most of the mediums from his time have evolved into something much beyond those. With the evolution of social media, anyone can endorse or react over a self-contained piece of Hot media, via a ‘retweet’, a ‘like’ or by ‘posting a comment’.

As Internet has changed the way we communicate to each other, by destroying most obstacles in other communication mediums, and inviting most of the world’s population to participate, it has produced advantages like freedom of speech but not without disadvantages like uninformed opinions & propaganda. And thanks to the all-encompassing strength of Internet (it is not just text-based but laced with latest technological trends in audio-visual mediums), its imitation of reality is uncanny. Earlier the authority to express an opinion, thus a proposal to take current theories further, used to be limited to well-informed scholars, and they were wary of its implications, as the forums for such debates were focused – therefore, credible for the most part – critically onto the subject at hand. However, with Internet, anyone can comment over anything and it gets propagated worldwide. The Internet quite specifically enables Enlightenment as Adorno and Horkheimer would put it.[5] The expropriation of uninformed, visceral opinions over intellectual subjects – or any subject for that matter – is much more in the age of Internet.

And because of the hybrid, all-encompassing nature of content on the Internet, the advocacies and influence of an opinion works with multiplied strength on the consumer’s psyche. For all its social appropriation, the virtual reality encourages individualism in reality. It lets one be in control of the information one wants to believe, as he/she possess power to ignore disagreeing opinions, and keep digging up more & more agreements, strengthening the false belief. The cultivation of new truth is at our fingertips, thus saving us the trouble to look for actual facts. So, between going over the trouble to look for factual details and creating our own narrative based on our own understanding – however under-researched it is – the choice is easy. “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning”, is scathingly relevant today.[6]

The level of delusion that virtual reality of social media brings to an individual is far more personal and denser than that of being in a community of believers, few years ago. With this, an individual gain another delusion of an inimitable identity, protecting which quickly becomes his/her mission for life. And what was supposed to be a two-way interaction with other human beings, becomes a life-long struggle for survival via the means of endorsements and advertisements of the self. Another quote from Baudrillard proves itself, “all cultural forms and media are being absorbed into advertising.” Most of the information put forth by individuals, can find its purpose originated from a personal propaganda. This is not a new problem, but its easy and immediate availability right in our hands, multiplies its severity and associated hazards.

As these new, easy means of communication become more and more handy, our dependability and over them keeps increasing. A personal text message on WhatsApp is far more inviting, intimate and influential than a news article online. As McLuhan said, “Medium is the message”.[7] Internet, being a hybrid of many mediums, has varying degrees of hotness and coolness amongst its sub-media. In most cases, the source of the information is visible to the naked eye, however, the delusions associated with self-identity add a layer on consumer’s field of vision, hiding some of those important details. Or, especially thanks to our fast-paced lives, “meaning is lost and devoured faster than it can be re-injected.”[8] The propagation of false information or the one with particular, strong purpose in mind is far more easier with the proper exploitation of these sub-media. The changing of narratives of past events, introducing various elements that could directly influence an individual has never been this uncomplicated, and across many media.

Time and again, audio-visual information have proved to be much more effective than text. Even inside audio-visuals, it is arguable that a visual trope is more influential than an aural recitation of an ideology. Which explains the popularity of Animation, aesthetic designs and state-of-the-art facilities of interactive media. This further adds to the delusion of an individual, as the information is now presented with likeable elements that work directly on subconscious, making it difficult to separate facts from the false information. Jean Baudrillard asserts that the use and abundance of media, signs, and symbols has so bombarded our culture that “reality itself, as something separable from signs of it…vanished in the information-saturated, media-dominated contemporary world”,[9] which he said in regards with ‘reality TV’, advertising, etc. but can be directly applied here as well.

It is rather frightening, how much the dynamism and attractive tropes of media can dilute rationality of an otherwise sensible human. Let me try to explain this phenomenon with one of the biggest events in the recent past – The Indian Election of 2014. Right Wing party BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party – Indian People’s Association) stormed to the power with record seats, defeating the other major party – mostly Left Wing – Indian National Congress even after their 2 consecutive terms. Of course, there are many other factors than BJP’s media Campaigns, like the timely exposé/accusations on INC’s leaders with Corruption, popularity of Narendra Modi – BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister – as a long-time minister of Gujarat state which gets flaunted as one of the most financially & commercially developed states in the country, or even intellectually & politically weak primary opponent who hierarchically inherited INC’s representation. Yet, BJP’s media campaign ‘trended’ for absurd reasons, while INC’s straightforward, typical media campaign (though, rather unimaginative, but politics can be a tricky topic to talk about unconventional use of media) was hardly even noticed.

How can a political campaign with a catchy line and mildly funny animation, be considered effective to get votes for the most powerful position in the country? This brings forth many intricacies of contemporary media. The ‘trending’ things on a medium aren’t necessarily the well-made ones. Wry humor is more popular than ever, and ‘intentionally bad’ is now a major genre. It should have been predicted by their campaign itself that BJP has nabbed the vein of contemporary India, and just constantly wants to be in the news. As P.T. Barnum is reputed to have said, “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. I have seen people passionately debating over some piece of information they received on WhatsApp text messenger without any notion or credibility of its source. BJP’s use of internet and these sub-medias to spread its ideologies & success stories into the minds of a politically passive common Indian man is an astute realization of most of the old theories that I came across this semester. Paired with their usual tropes of aggression, mixing emotions, etc. while making an unreasonable announcement, seems to be working wonders on the citizens. Personally, it was devastating for me to see a mind-boggling majority of people, unable to see the move of demonetisation as much more politically inspired than its claim to social welfare.

BJP’s use of social & news media is especially a fascinating topic, in regards of how it is working and what would be its side-effects. The political debates in all different layers of the Indian society are at their peak. Everyone seems to be chipping in their opinion over various available platforms, thanks to the sudden blow-up of free internet in the country. The ideologies have found a new channel to flow through, and effectively so, with a mix of multimedia. The online troll culture – which began as harmless fun – is being taken to the whole new level of cyber bullying, increasing the incidents of self-harm in the most disturbing way. The hammering of a particular information via different profiles & accounts – Twitter Propaganda Army – is becoming an indecipherable monster. As much we can be relieved and glad about Internet providing the ground for a movement like ‘#MeToo’, we need to be scared and wary of SJWs – Social Justice Warriors – suffocating others by enforcing their beliefs and moral codes.

In one of the plays I had watched, there was an apt dialogue, “The world just keeps swinging…between Left and Right!” I don’t know if the playwright borrowed it from some philosopher, but it ringed very true today and explained a few hard-to-believe phenomenon. Social Media was one of the main tools of success of the Indian Right Wing, however they are unable to control it. Their ideologies are not progressive, which becomes a sort of dead end when trying to maintain a position in today’s expansive & rapidly changing social-scape. Narendra Modi’s complete silence over why his verified account follows trolls and propaganda army bots on Twitter, is a sign of right wing’s incompetency in understanding the media.

Nobody owns media forever, or even for a considerably long time. Trends change every minute. Media’s double-edged sword ends up hurting at least someone or some community. With the widespread appreciation of Memes and its humorous connotations, no one can claim to be fully detached from the emotional toll it could take on us. Overkill of anything is bound to have a damaging effect. Posting sad images as an intended joke – say, which gets popular & praised – makes you want to repeat it, top it, reiterate it – as it is essentially a work of art – and we rigorously search for more content like that, which then becomes an obsession without proper reasoning. It only increases our vulnerability to that sad content, while we long to reach the mirage that virtual fame is. Also, the propagation of distorted information is dangerously easy now. Memes strip the specificity and context of the original content, making its point recreated into another context. A satirical piece can easily be read as factual information. The responsible, harmless use of media is very important, however, the only thing that could reduce this misuse is self-censorship, which is seemingly disappearing from our society.

Sadly, the loss of specificity is not just a problem with Memes. News media, crumbling under competition & capitalism, seems to have adapted to online trends just perfectly. Say, a few people on Twitter – who hardly have followers or are hardly making a sensible comment – take a side over some current event, and immediately news headlines are constructed, “Twitterati slammed —- actor, for performing —- sketch on SNL”. The attention seeking nature of tabloid, makes such an uneventful, insignificant and uninformed action seem like a big deal. What is tragic is, this much loss of credibility goes unnoticed, while the article manages to generate a strong reaction for a few more people.

It can be said that India anticipated the resurgence of Right Wing slightly before the West. There are similarities, on a few levels, between Indian election and American election. And the later effects too can be said to have parallels. In a lot of ways, Donald Trump’s rise was aided by media, which seems fairly out of his control now. His ironic chanting of ‘fake news’ has become rhetoric to the point of an old trend, just like an old meme. Which brings me back to the term ‘Media Cloud’ that I proposed at the beginning of this paper. How much do the actions & claims of Modi or Trump affect my daily life? And for how longer can I hold them responsible, when they indulge into irrational, illogical fits? Of course, Trump’s meeting with Putin or his actions related to Saudi Arabia don’t affect my immediate day. Only time will tell, how many years later, I will face the good or bad consequences of their decisions. And there isn’t much I can do till an election is held again, and I am told how much my vote matters.

When I view the news, it becomes truth of the moment, and then in the next moment, there is some other truth. This could explain how Trump gets away from saying one thing today, and denying having said that on the next, though there are proofs. And there will be people who will blindly jump in to defend their leader, defying logic, since media primarily worked on their psyche and invoked their visceral inclinations. These are the people who actively and voluntarily interact with the said Media Cloud, although fail to see through its blurry abstraction. The Media Cloud is also self-contained in the way that all these events occur inside the cloud and remain there till I actually look and interact with it. This is my experience with media in daily life.

[1] C.E. Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948), Page 2, Fig. 1 ‘General Communication Model’.

[2] Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky, A Propaganda Model (Excerpted from Manufacturing Consent, 1988), Page 1

[3] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), Page 80

[4] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Page 22

[5] Theodore Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Concept of Enlightenment (Intro to Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1972), Page 1

[6] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), Page 79

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Page 23

[8] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), Page 79

[9] Jean Baudrillard, The Hyper-realism of Simulation (1976), 1018.

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