Friday, May 12, 2006

Technology and Media (Max Fritsch)

The manufacture and utilization of tools and equipment, the end products themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve are all a part of technology. This Martin Heidegger calls "the instrumental and anthropological definition of technology."1 In its various forms technology has evolved as a vital link to society, a conveyor of a methodology for shaping perception, understanding and man's reality. Technology has taken over and captured the viewer, altering patterns of perception and world views by sending subtle and subliminal messages.

The electronic revolution and the mass media have redefined society and the world, and reshaped our personal, social, cultural, economic and political environments. These rapid technological changes and developments have had a direct and powerful influence on society's perception of the world and the shaping and reshaping of its world view. Henryk Skolimowski 1984, states that "the more sophisticated technology becomes the more it disengages us from life,"2 and stresses the need for insight and responsibility in managing the new tools of communication.

Marshall McLuhan argues that various achievements of technology be considered media extensions of our existence, having changed our way of seeing the world, dulling and restructuring our sensibility. The change that a new medium involves makes the content of experience that it can transmit irrelevant.3 These new technologies have dramatically transformed the possibilities for visual representation, allowing for a dynamic analysis of motion, time, space and the abstract relations between them. Visual technology has revised our experiences, developing new arenas for exploration in the media and expanding their parameters and social function.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, man is living in an era of rapid and constant change brought about by the electronic media. As technology is rapidly changing, man, unaware of the images flowing throughout obscuring the real and false and merging fantasy with reality, is continually testing his ability to discern an authentic reality from the world of high-tech simulation. Where does one start and the other, that which technology has taken over, end? Here we have the basis for an ethical debate focusing on what the power behind technology can do to an unsuspecting, receptive society. Heidegger asserts that "everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means."4

As Jean-Franois Lyotard points out, new technologies make the information used in decision making and therefore the means of control, even more mobile and subject to reproduction.5 As technology threatens to escape control, the will to master it becomes more compelling. As Umberto Eco suggests, with every significant technological change, society must rethink many of the presuppositions which have served as the foundation for cultural analysis and discourse. This rethinking or reexamining of postmodern thinking, has been undertaken by scholars, philosophers and journalists, with an aim toward understanding the process of cultural growth in society, a process which to a major extent is provided by television. Can our present system of ethics, assuming it is definable, survive in this high-tech world which has become our reality? Or must it be redefined to compete or merge with our system of ethics, if that is possible?

This study will examine the relationship between technological development and ethics; discuss the influence of the electronic media, primarily that of television; and explore the growing impact of these new technologies on ethical experiences as well as social and cultural conditioning. As technology changes, images and representations are not the promotional attachments to economic products, they become the products themselves. Ultimately the nature of the journalism business changes in that, as Frederic Jameson has stated, the "explosion" of information technology makes information the most important of commodities.6

I shall explore the notion of journalistic ethics as displayed during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, which evolved from the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. As people enter the political arena, the power of the individual becomes more dependent upon the means of mass communication for a view of the structure as a whole. The role of television as a medium for presenting the political process, obscures reality and threatens journalistic ethics. The essential purpose of news is to inform, however, the media is often more interested in entertaining then informing. The spectacular implications of the Hill-Thomas hearings, coupled with the seductive powers of television, entangled the journalist and viewer in a powerful and complex web of race and gender politics, underlying the Thomas confirmation proceedings.

The newsmaking process and the changes it has undergone as new electronic technologies have emerged will be examined, along with journalism in the electronic age, the properties of the medium of television and how it has redefined media. With the proliferation of advanced technologies, a new social order accompanied by a network of cultural relations has emerged. Many of the postmodern thinkers whose works will be discussed in this study, contemplate the human condition in the technological age.

The media plays a central role in the process of social control. As we watch television we are seeing exactly what hegemony wants us to see. Hegemony is the manner in which a governing power wins consent to its rule from those it subjugates. Hegemony is also viewed as a process whereby the subordinate are led to consent to the system that subordinates them; when they "consent" to view the social system and its representations as "common sense."7 Power, becoming a simulation of power, remains invisible, is disseminated throughout social life and becomes "naturalized" as a spontaneous practice.8

According to Eco, power is a multiplicity of relations inherent in the realm in which it operates, and which it embodies in the formulation of the law in the various social hegemonies. The more power diminishes, the greater the obsession for it becomes. For Jean Baudrillard, the ultimate slogan of power is "take your desires for reality!"9 In Antonio Gramsci's view, to win hegemony is to establish moral, political and intellectual leadership by diffusing one's own world view and equating one's interests with those of society at large.10

Inasmuch as the postmodern view is focused on confronting reality as it is and understanding one's place in the world, a new ethics for living in the technological age is in order. An acceptable measure of morality to this new way of living in agreement with the postmodern condition of knowledge must be made available. Postmodernism reflects and embodies the role of cultural criticism which affects contemporary life, which J¸rgen Habermas calls the "legitimation crisis": the inaccessibility to principles which can act as criteria of value.11

The mission of the journalist is to cover the news. Journalists make every effort to be objective, but reality judgments are never completely free of values. As Herbert Gans demonstrates, it has been been shown that journalism which is strictly objective is heavily influenced by occupational and societal values. Inherently, there is internal conflict and uncertainty among journalists who can become preoccupied with whether what they do is ethical, fair, balanced, constructive or worthy. What role do values play in the formulation of journalism?

Enduring values, as Gans points out are the basic considerations underlying news judgment which help to shape opinion. They are of journalism, not of journalists, since most are unconscious and interpreted differently by news organizations and journalists. While enduring values are a part of news judgment, they are not professional values in the sense that they do not reflect technical expertise, but rather are part of a vision of society.12 The message of news rests upon judgment and interpretation, emanating from the determination and application of the criterion of truth, morality and ethical wisdom of the journalist.

As Jameson writes, postmodernism involves a radical break with a dominant culture and a different socioeconomic organization; a new social and economic system called media society, "the society of the spectacle" (Guy Debord), in which the most developed form of the commodity is the image consumer society, the "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption" (Henri Lefebvre).13 On Debord's notion of la societé du spectacle, as Norman Fruchter puts it, "the spectacle is the continuously produced and therefore continuously evolving pseudo-reality, predominantly visual, which each individual encounters, inhabits and accepts as public and official reality, thereby denying as much as is possible, the daily private reality of exploitation...and inauthenticity...[of] experiences."14

A postmodern world according to Baudrillard is one in which everything has been reduced, extended and intensified into representations and simulacra. Simulation begins with what Baudrillard describes as an "implosion" of meaning, where the distinction between poles in the political or media domain can no longer be maintained, a realm of absolute manipulation, "the non-distinction of active and passive," indecipherable as to its truth. He argues that we cannot separate the economic or productive from ideology or culture, since cultural artefacts, images and representations have become part of the world of the economic.15

Every image, every media message is what Baudrillard calls a "liberating response mechanism." The object is no longer the object as known, just as media news has nothing to do with a "reality" of facts. In the traditional sense they are no longer "functional," they test rather than serve the viewer. Objects and information originate from a point of view, wherein "reality" has been broken down into elements that have been reassembled. Baudrillard has observed that the media frame their "message bundles" into bundles of selected questions. The original must be approached from the right position, at the right moment that will render the correct response. Everything is presented in a version which resembles a general outlook toward the world to that of a "reading and selective deciphering."16

This study is neither an analysis of all postmodern media, nor is it an analysis of the history of ethical philosophy. The development of postmodern philosophy will be discussed, so that postmodernism as the contemporary condition of American culture can be established. It is difficult to discriminate about media and their contents, without looking at how media are organized and controlled; how they maintain and change our culture and alter our way of life. Only those works which elucidate the condition of postmodernism as explored in this study will be analyzed.

According to C. Wright Mills, competing in the mass society of media markets are the manipulators with their mass media and the public who are exposed to mass media's suggestions and manipulations. As Walter Lippmann notes, the public has come to have an apparitional meaning, incorporating those who cannot be readily identified. Mills contends that the functions of the mass media are so pervasive and subtle that no one really knows all of its functions. He believes that the media have helped transform the public into a set of media markets, creating a kind of "psychological illiteracy" facilitated by media. By way of explanation, Mills suggests that little of the social realities of the world come from first-hand knowledge. Most mental images have come from the media. The media, more so than our own fragmentary experiences, provide information, guide our experiences and set our standards of believability and reality. The individual often does not trust his own experience until it is confirmed by the media.17

Mills observes that although the media display an outward variety and competition, they compete more in terms of variations on a few standardized themes. The media have not only filtered into one's experience of external reality, they have entered the experience of one's own self, giving the masses identity, aspiration, technique and escape. The gap between identity and aspiration lead to technique and/or escape which Mills claims is probably the basic psychological formula of the mass media, which he believes is the formula of a "pseudo-world" invented and sustained by the media.18 McLuhan argues that all media exist to invest our lives with "artificial perception and arbitrary values."19

This is neither an analysis of the history of journalism and the newsmaking process, nor is it an analysis of the history of professional ethics. In considering the ethics of journalistic practice, the focus will be on newspaper and television journalism. In addition, this is not a report on ethics of all mass communicators. Although this study will explore the wider corporate or societal context, individual responsibility in ethical matters belongs to journalists, editors, news directors and network executives. Ethics will be discussed primarily from the individual perspective rather than from commercial and other considerations arising from the fact that journalists work in news organizations. The development of modern moral philosophy as it has evolved to empower a system of ethics will be discussed, with a focus on selected relevant works.

Further, this study is not an analysis of the Hill-Thomas hearings, nor is it an analysis of the judicial process underlying the hearings. It is an analysis of the types of ethical messages projected and displayed by the television media. It is crucial that one understand media in its present context as one searches for a way to understand cultural growth in society. As McLuhan suggests, we can free ourselves and experience reality in the technological age only if we become involved in technology's extensions of ourselves.

McLuhan contends that after more than a century of electric technology, our senses and nerves have been extended in a global embrace, cancelling space and time, by the various media. The medium of television unlike most other media is a "tactile" medium, " extension of the sense of touch, which involves maximal interplay of all the senses."20 Baudrillard would agree with McLuhan, and suggests that the entire process of meaning is reduced to the "ability to produce contrasting reactions to a growing series of adequate stimuli," which in effect is controlled by the medium.21 The television image demands in-depth participation and involvement and as such "...creates audience involvement in depth as well."22 McLuhan points out that understanding of oneself will come not through logic and knowledge but rather, through experience and exposure to various media.

This study will analyze the postmodern aspects of the medium of television, and examine its inherent properties as a postmodern context that generates postmodern practice. Television news represents itself as a neutral conveyer of "real events" that are shown and then commented upon. Trying to provide a "window on the world," this image of television news is constructed out of the widely-held assumption that there is an "event" occurring in the world, and that television news reports on that event. The "window on the world" is thus constructed out of an assumed link between two separate and discrete things: actual existing events and reports about them.23

Todd Gitlin claims that television is a screen on which the spectacles, "absurdities and abominations of politics and morals" are presented.24 The Hill-Thomas hearings will be analyzed and discussed as an example of how television functions as simulation, the ecstasy of the real. One need only watch television, where real events continuously emerge through unreal and stereotyped traits which allow for continuous and uninterrupted combinations. As Baudrillard states, the "anti-theatre is the ecstatic form of theatre"--theatre in the streets, without actors, theatre for everyone which merges with the unfolding of life--theatre which imitates daily life. The media has put an end to the real event.25

The mass media, especially television, often infringe upon and destroy the potential for interchange of opinion and are an important cause of the destruction of privacy. Mills views the media as malign, unattuned to the development of man and failing as an educational force. While providing information about world occurrences, the media does not always enable the viewer to connect daily life to these larger realities. Mills argues that rather than providing rational insight into the individual's or society's anxieties, the media distract and obscure understanding of the world by focusing on artificial chaos within the framework of a program, creating a tone of "animated distraction" and "suspended agitation."26

The Hill-Thomas hearings have been compared to an elite soap opera without the glamour, revealing an ethnographic exposé of the style and demeanor of powerful white males. The lines between sexual harassment, erotic fantasy and distraction between public questioning and lynching became a state of confusion in the minds of the nation's lawmakers.27 Many of the thinkers whose works shall be discussed and utilized in this study, as a criteria for analyzing the relationship between media and the condition of life in the technological age, share the belief that involvement and participation of each individual in the process of change, is a condition for overcoming the "split between thinking and feeling" fostered by modernism.

It is essential one understands that the growing importance of computer-based information systems rests not in technology alone, but in the perpetually changing interaction among technologies. Consideration must also be given to the economic and social conditions that delineate their primary use and cultural practices, including systems of law, regulations and regulatory institutions that govern us.28 Whether we accept or deny it, we are unfree and bound to technology.

Modern technology is but a means to an end, the essence of which can be found in the enframing, ordering and positioning in which the real is revealed to man. In an analysis of film as a technical instrument, Walter Benjamin points out that the image is transmitted by an array of technical instruments. Directed by the cameraman, the camera continually changes position with respect to the subject. The completed film is then comprised of a sequence of positional views which the editor creates from the material supplied. Consequently, the audience takes the position of the camera, and identification with the subject is in reality identification with the camera.29 As Stuart Hall suggests, the moment of the message needs to be dismantled into components to be meaningful. We become absorbed by the scenery our culture makes out of its technology and the messages received, which are its products.30

Man's understanding is continually searching for ground and justification, taking suggestions from the "world" of readily-available intentions and needs, even where matters of foremost importance are concerned. Man replenishes his "world" based on current needs and aims, continually setting new standards, without considering the ground or the essence of the standard.31 According to Heidegger, man goes awry as regards the essential genuineness of his standards. Technology demands that we think in what is "essence," which for Heidegger is not technological, but a way of revealing. This way of revealing carries the risk that this may overwhelm man and all other possible ways of revealing. Technology is not merely a means of revealing, it is a way, a mode, the realm where revealing takes place, or where truth occurs. The revealing is never-ending, it reveals to itself.32

We live in what is often described as a "media culture," the product of an industrialized society, produced by large organizations that depend on trained workers with journalistic skills, technical know-how and commitment. How free are journalists to speak and write what they will? It has been shown that having values does not necessarily lead to ethical behavior. What role then do values play in influencing a journalist's ethics? Is ethics a subject in which everything depends on specific case interests at stake and the person doing the judging? To understand the role of a journalist, this study will focus on the Hill-Thomas hearings, while exploring ethical problems and moral questions which occur in the pursuit of news.


  • 1Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to the Task of Thinking (1964), 1st ed., ed. David Farrell Krell, (New York: Harper, 1977), 288.
  • 2Henryk Skolimowski, "Freedom, Responsibility and the Information Society," see Warren K. Agee, etal., Maincurrents in Mass Communications, (New York: Harper, 1986), 419.
  • 3Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, tr. William Weaver, (San Diego: Harcourt, 1986), 227.
  • 4Heidegger, 289.
  • 5Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989), 6.
  • 6Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 46.
  • 7John Fiske, Television Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1990), 40.
  • 8Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), 116.
  • 9Ibid.
  • 10Fred Inglis, Media Theory: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 167-171.
  • 11Connor, 8.
  • 12Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time, (New York: Vintage, 1980), 196-97, 323-26.
  • 13See Frederic Jameson's "Foreword," The Postmodern Condition, vii.
  • 14Donald Lazere, ed., American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, (Berkeley: U of California P, 1987), 9. From Norman Fruchter, "Movement Propaganda and the Culture of the Spectacle," Liberation, May 1971, 4-17.
  • 15Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, tr. Paul Foss, etal., (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 57-58.
  • 16Baudrillard, 121-123.
  • 17C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, (New York: Oxford UP, 1959), 305-311.
  • 18Ibid.
  • 19Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (New York: New American, 1964), 178.
  • 20Ibid., 290.
  • 21Baudrillard, 123.
  • 22McLuhan, 272.
  • 23John Downing, etal., Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction, (Newbury Park: Sage, 1990), 282-283.
  • 24Todd Gitlin, ed., Watching Television, (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 4.
  • 25Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988), 187.
  • 26Ibid., 311-315.
  • 27Andrew Ross, "The Private Parts of Justice," Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, ed. Toni Morrison, (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 43, 45.
  • 28Downing, 166.
  • 29Ibid., 117-118.
  • 30Inglis, 167-172.
  • 31Heidegger, "On the Essence of Truth," 117-135.
  • 32Ibid., "The Question Concerning Technology," 287-317.

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