At the end of the year, newspapers and magazines are full of summaries and reviews of the significant and important things that have happened during the year. At the beginning of the year, they offer outlooks, expected events, forecasts, investment tips. It’s as if we need ending and opening summaries to remember anything at all, repetition and practice for the end and the beginning, because there is so much information and no one can absorb or organize it anymore. Except – for the media.
In fact, such overviews are primarily a reminder of the very existence of media: we are here, don’t worry, we will never leave you, thanks to us you will see and hear everything you need to understand the world around us. The world is primarily a media world, only then, perhaps, a world of…
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“What we know about society, indeed about the world we live in, we know through the media,” wrote German sociologist Nicklas Luhmann in his book The Reality of Mass Media back in 1996. All that remains of the comprehensive book is a sentence, and it has been twisted and misinterpreted ever since, because to say something like that is obviously nonsense. After all, we all know that we live outside the media reality, that we are also unmediatedly ourselves. But with the tide of time, it is as if Luhmann’s prediction is rather extensively coming true; media today are love and sexual relationships and constructions of ego and self-esteem, and what else are social networks but mass media of their own kind. But Luhmann was going much further with his statement.
Luhmann’s sentence is important above all for the preservation of difference, a difference that is no longer a difference. If the world is an all-encompassing mediality, there is nothing “out there” anymore, everything is inside, everything can be mediated and grasped (the notion of understanding and the concept of the concept still includes this action of grasping), everything can be mediated, broadcast, captured, interpreted. The world, which is causing us more and more fear, is losing a key mystery because the mass media have created “the illusion of perfect transparency in the world”, says the German philosopher Norbert Bolz, an expert on the media world, adding: “We can thank the media for that, it’s their real psychological feat.” In what way? The media give the impression that even in a complex world where we need an expert’s view on everything, we can understand the world perfectly. “The media brings evidence against the complexity of the world and says: you can understand everything, and we’ll take care of it.”
Usefulness, constant presence, “being on hand”, the pragmatic conviction that we are there for you because we will help you understand, has two functions above all: self-referential and psychological, which is closely related to the former.
This is probably the reason why the media space has turned into an auxiliary schoolroom, where all kinds of stupid things are explained just to make media consumers feel that they need the media to navigate life, because where else to hide from the pitfalls of the world and their own fears than in the media. For example, advice on how to save money on heating, as if no one ever turned the control valve, dominates the media at the moment; in an ice storm you learn that it is a good idea not to drive and to walk slowly, or not to walk at all. When it snows, it just snows everywhere. The information is duplicated, triplicated in one report, perhaps to make it more memorable, but more so that the viewer, the reader, the listener can say, “Heureka, I’ve known this for a long time, that’s good.” “Media populism”, increasingly using the practices of the entertainment industry, is here largely replicating political populism, and it is not entirely clear who actually started this “politics of the too-human-for-the-people-with-the-people”… Finally, it is the joint work of politicians and the media who is the bigger and first populist, is pretty much useless in the world of general journalism.
The media world offers a constructed reality in which those who construct it, often with the help of experts, pretend to know more or better. An elitist objection, therefore, according to the prevailing interpretation, one of the causes of the growing external distrust of traditional media that has been spreading through Western societies for the last decade. But it may be otherwise. After all, the media’s defence is precisely the trivialisation of the world by journalistic didactics and the creation of the feeling that we end up knowing the same things as the experts, the same things as others, which paradoxically produces not uncertainty but reassurance. The German philosopher Norbert Bolz does not see in the activity of the media primarily a desire to “be better informed”, that is, to educate (oneself); it is not a question of knowing better, but of “feeling more confident”. The absorption of uncertainty by the mass media, according to Bolz, is exactly what is at stake. Never mind that instead of traditional television and newspapers, this is often done today by self-referential “opinion magazines” or social media bubbles.
One illustrative example illustrates this nicely, to sufficiently analyse the whole thing in the media. After a football match at the stadium, you come home, you were there, but you still prefer to check the highlights of the goals you saw, and finally check the reports on sports servers and the goal scorers in the results, or the statuses of your friends who were at the match with you. The media is a space of self-affirmation (from both sides of the communication channel) that everything is as it really is, as it was, and if it isn’t, at least we can rely on the media to be in control. This is ultimately true of the media experience of the war in Ukraine. We don’t watch all the horrors over and over again in hundreds or even thousands of news reports because we want to be scared over and over again, or because we are masochists, but paradoxically because it gives us the peace of the illusion of knowledge, the certainty of a world that we somehow have control over despite all the horrors. Somewhere in here we can look for something common to all that society so lacks. “What this means, then,” concludes philosopher Norbert Bolz on the matter, “is that redundancy, superfluity, is not the problem of the media but its own goal.”
It sounds strange to say that “media redundancy makes it possible to survive in a world in which any one of us can very quickly become redundant.” But that’s why, at the cusp of the old year and the new, we are so happy to look back again at what we all somehow already know. To gain at least some certainty in the face of what is coming as we look into the temporal unknown. By the end of 2023, we’ll have it all nicely in hand again. Unless we manage a small miracle this year – stepping out into the non-existent media outside for a while…
This article was translated from the original published in the online magazine Přítomnost.
published: 9. 1. 2023