How media reshapes our consciousness

“All of us have become the unwitting workforce for social change.” -Marshall McLuhan

Lincoln Douglas Debates (source: wikimedia commons)

In nineteenth century America, it was common for citizens to gather and listen to dense political oratory for hours at a time.  At the first of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln proposed that the debate be split in half to make it easier on the audience.  The two men would share the podium for just four hours before lunch and three hours after—even with the break, an excruciating stretch of time by today’s standards.  Yet the crowd that day reportedly listened with rapt attention for the full seven hours, only breaking their silence to express support or disagreement, or to applaud a well-turned phrase.  Nineteenth century audiences regularly gathered by the thousands to perform similar feats of sustained attention.[1]  Neither Lincoln nor Douglas were considered prolix, yet just one of Lincoln’s responses that day ran to over sixteen thousand spoken words.

In contrast, the entire televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in September of 1960 ran to fewer than ten thousand words.  Today, the average length of a political ad on TV is thirty seconds, and the average sound bite on the evening news is fifteen seconds (about how long it takes to read this paragraph out loud).  Nine and a half million viewers tuned out of President Obama’s most recent State of the Union Address during the first five minutes, before the speech even began.

Nixon-Kennedy debates (source: National Parks Service)

What has happened to the American attention span?  Are Americans today simply dumber, or less virtuous than they were in the 1800s?

Declaring a decline in public virtue is speculation at best, and at worst a reactionary cliché.  To discover what has changed about our public discourse between Lincoln’s day and ours, we have to rethink the question.  Instead of focusing on public virtue, we should focus on the ways that virtue is talked about.  Or, as the father of media studies Marshall McLuhan would have said, we need to concern ourselves with the medium rather than the message.

The Nixon-Kennedy debates are a good place to begin.  In 1960, enough Americans based their vote on the outcome of the TV debate to decide the election in Kennedy’s favor.  Of the 70 million Americans who watched the debate on TV, the majority thought that Kennedy won.  Of the far smaller number who heard the debate on the radio, the majority thought that Nixon won.

Radio listeners and TV viewers heard the same words, but came to different conclusions.  Why?

Nixon had insisted on vigorously campaigning until just a few hours before the debate.  He wore an ill-fitting shirt, refused make-up, and was noticeably gaunt from time spent recuperating after surgery.  Kennedy was well rested, tan from a recent vacation, and, unlike Nixon, did not visibly sweat under the hot studio lights.  But the reasons for Kennedy’s victory went beyond the circumstances of the debate.

The medium of TV itself prevents viewers from listening in quite the same way that their forebears listened to Lincoln and Douglas.  TV excludes all but the most impotent forms of audience participation, for one.  Furthermore, attention itself toward any televised event is not sustained as easily as attention to a real world event.  After a few moments, most people’s interest naturally strays from any image on a glowing screen.  Attention has to be revived and sustained artificially and continuously, by quick cuts from one viewpoint to the next, pans, close-ups, and other tricks, so commonly deployed that the TV industry refers to them collectively as “technical events.”  TV as a medium simply does not allow the kind of deep participation of print and radio.

Most pointedly for Kennedy and Nixon, and perhaps counterintuitively for viewers, television does not flatter intense emotional involvement.  Those present in the room for 2006 Presidential candidate Howard Dean’s famous “scream,” made during his Iowa caucus concession speech, did not feel that anything out of the ordinary had happened.  Yet on television, the same speech came across with such ferocity and strangeness that it ended Dean’s presidential hopes.  Nixon’s intensity and sharp intellectual edge similarly alienated most viewers of the 1960 TV debate with Kennedy, whose relative lack of emotion and less pointed approach to the issues proved more telegenic.  Since television was, by 1960, where the national discourse had migrated, Kennedy was chosen to lead the country.

The mode in which we encounter information, the medium in which it is expressed, changes not only what we choose to express but what we think is important.

Every form of communication invisibly lends its biases to the civilization that employs it.

Five centuries of print have given the world cities, industry, specialization, the middle class, mass literacy, continuous technological and social progress, and widespread democracy.

What kind of civilization can we expect from instantaneous electronic communication?

Marshall McLuhan (credit: Louis Forsedale)

Since McLuhan’s time, we have come to a partial understanding of television’s effects on society.  The Internet’s effects are even more dimly understood, yet the accelerated pace of change in the world demands that we understand them as quickly as possible.  The health of the political discourse is one issue at stake, but the health of our intellectual culture and even our minds themselves may also be at stake.

When Marshall McLuhan first proposed the idea that the dominant medium of communication shapes a society more than the content of its communications, he employed metaphors that foreshadowed neuroscience.  McLuhan said that the habit of reading print on the page promoted the visual sense to a place of unnatural prominence, upsetting its natural equality with the four other senses.  He also said that instantaneous electronic communication activated patterns of thought similar to an “oral” or “tribal” organization of knowledge.

The conclusions of neuroscientists currently studying the effects of computers on the brain are even more outlandish than McLuhan’s metaphors.  The concept of neuroplasticity argues that our brains at any stage of life are capable of being rewired by repeated activity.  The rewiring can be so fundamental that types of repetitive brain exercise are prescribed as treatment for diseases like schizophrenia and severe brain damage.  As we use the Web more and more, say some neuroscientists, we are literally reprogramming our brains to think in new ways.  And the new ways of thinking displace older ones.  As we learn to multitask, for example, we actually lose the ability to be silent and concentrate deeply on one thing at a time.[2]  Not only do important political decisions require deep concentration, but so too does the formation of meaningful personal relationships.

If there is a chance that even some of these ideas prove to be true, then more than just our political discourse is at stake when we ask how new media are affecting society.  We cannot isolate the effects of media to a single realm, like politics or education.  Instead, we have to ask the broader question: “How is media reshaping our consciousness?”


[1] Postman, Neil.  Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  (New York: Penguin, 2006).

[2] Carr, Nicholas.  The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).

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