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Informing ourselves to death?
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Published in 2005 ... will find the volume really soon and reference it ...
The main news item in the Norwegian press in early summer 2004
the time of the Engelsberg symposium where these reflections were first
presented was a celebrity marriage. Two unusually prosperous individuals,
somewhat past their first youth, made their solemn vows in the presence
of a crowd incorporating an exceptional amount of economic and political
power in the country including, prominently, the prime minister,
a Christian Democrat known chiefly for his willingness to make pragmatic
compromises on most issues. Presumably he had nothing else to do on that
cool, but sunny Saturday in June.
The bride, Ms. Mille-Marie Treschow, was heiress to a large family fortune
and thus represented old money. The groom. Mr. Stein Erik Hagen, was a
self-made man whose significant wealth was a result of his success in
the retail trade. His chain of budget supermarkets, RIMI, has in the space
of less than two decades spread like cancer in the country, making pennies
by the truckload for its founder, instead of the odd pound.
The celebrity marriage is interesting in two ways. Of course, its press
coverage reminds us of the priorities of the media. Since the event happens
to feature Mr. Hagen of RIMI fame, moreover, it also inspires a reflection
over the values that presently govern society. In fact, it can be argued
that the successful business model of RIMI (and similar shop chains) accurately
reflects the dominant values of contemporary society, with very serious
results indeed in the area of news.
Every year, the market share of a few large grocery chains increases,
and locally owned shops face bankruptcy everywhere. This, of course, is
a trend in all of Europe and beyond, and it has four consequences which
seem metaphorically relevant for a discussion of the news media. Firstly,
because of standardisation and bulk savings, the food prices decrease:
ever taller piles of industrially produced food are rolled out of the
storerooms at an ever higher speed. Efficiency increases. Secondly, variation
is reduced as a result of standardisation. Each supermarket in a chain
looks pretty much like the next, and limits itself to carrying foodstuffs
that can be mass-produced cheaply. Thirdly, food producers are under pressure
to reduce costs, usually by increasing volume and speed. In the same way
as local grocers are phased out or metamorphosed into branches of RIMI-like
corporations, small producers amalgamate or disappear. The consequences
for the quality of life for pigs and chickens are outside the scope of
our topic, but they deserve at least a couple of angry books. Fourthly,
customer preferences are influenced, so that properly cured ham or properly
smoked salmon become niche products available only from a handful of expensive
specialty shops in the largest cities most consumers have to make
do with surrogate products injected with salt water to create the illusion
of a process of maturation. One becomes accustomed to a situation where
salt and sweet are the only tastes one can expect to encounter.
The logic of production governing the retail trade can be found in surprisingly
many parts of our societies. Its main characteristics are increased productivity
for its own sake and the primacy of quantity before quality, as well as
a loss of variation because of mass-production and ensuing standardisation.
A further trait is acceleration as a main device to increase productivity.
I spoke about groceries, but the example might just as well have been
taken from our universities and colleges, which have for years been undergoing
policy-directed transformations from quality to quantity, from
slowness to speed, from intangible to tangible values. Most university
subjects, however, can only be learnt in one way, that is slowly. And
most interesting research is a result of trying and failing, fuelled by
existential concerns and a work regime which fails to conform to regular
working hours. A colleague of mine, an elderly professor committed to
the old regime, said that he did not object to prolonged absences which
were not accounted for, provided the staff member in question returned
with an interesting manuscript. Such a staff member would have difficulties
finding a job today.
In general, those of us who are successfully coping with the new regime,
probably slightly more than half of the population, have become musicians
in a symphonic orchestra who have just been told to play twice as fast.
The rest the more or less superfluous part of the population
are offered television, valium and lotteries as a compensation. In Norway,
about a quarter of the population recives welfare benefits of some kind.
In order to assess the role of media, and in particular news media, in
society, it is necessary to distinguish between mass media and elite media
between the budget supermarket and the specialty shop. Magazines
like Axess and Prospect, weeklies like The Economist and the obligatory sprinkling of quality dailies, are Serrano ham to RIMIs
salted meat. If we wish to take democracy seriously not only as a principle
of government but also as an ideal for communication, it is necessary
to look seriously at the mass media.
In Austria, the Kronen-Zeitung is read by almost a third of the
population; in Norway, VG is read by more than a fourth, and the
two Swedish tabloids have a circulation that the two national quality
papers could only dream about. In other words, if we are interested in
what the average citizen reads, we might as well admit that the British
press is not The Guardian, the American press is not The New
York Times, and the Italian press is not La Reppublica. That
is not where a majority of the citizens are informed about the state of
Michael Moore knows this, and this is a main reason for his success. His
films and books are not superior to other social criticism in any way
if we look at content, but Moore is a master of the telling one-liner,
the shocking image, the telling anecdote. He seduces more than he convinces,
and that is why he has become the most significant critic of the Bush
Some years ago, I regularly took part in an extended news programme on
Norwegian radio. The channel was P2, which is considered more high-brow
and upmarket than P1 and P3. For a long time, I was thrilled at the opportunity
to expound at length on issues of public importance, believing that I,
and the others discussing current affairs on Dagsnytt 18 (News
at six), were addressing the country. One day I accidentally discovered
that the average number of listeners to this programme was around sixty
thousand, which is minuscule even in a country of less than five million
inhabitants. From believing that I was part of a national discourse, I
rediscovered myself as a member of a counterculture struggling to escape
the feeling that it was moving steadfast into a cul-de-sac.
We should be talking more about the way the popular media transmit news
if we are interested in the enlightenment of our fellow citizens. And
we should probably be looking at speed first. If news becomes obsolete
too fast, even the simplest messages are difficult to take in; if each
news item flickers across the screen at CNN speed, the message is lost
on the way, in which case form becomes more important than content. It
must be many years ago that we last saw an ugly presenter on a television
news programme anywhere in the world. And as the late Neil Postman told
us two decades ago, in his Amusing Ourselves to Death, context
is lost in a situation of accelerated news programming. In a telling example,
he describes the so-called Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.
Most Americans had an opinion on what should and should not be done at
the time, but Postman suspects, probably correctly, that few Americans
knew which language Iranians speak, what the term Ayatollah
refers to, who the Shah was, or even had any degree of familiarity with
any details of the tenets of Iranian religious beliefs.1
As I prepared to use this example in my talk at the Engelsberg symposium,
I was half-heartedly watching television in my hotel room. A BBC presenter
flickered onto the screen to tell us that although no evidence of any
links between Saddam Hussain and Osama bin Laden had been found, more
than half of the American population still believed that Saddam was somehow
implicated in the 11 September attacks on the USA. That is the kind of
cultural ambience Michael Moore is rather successfully trying
to connect to.
Multi-channel television is a peculiar medium for conveying information.
The producers are aware that viewers are nowadays armed with remote controls,
ready to switch channels at the first indication of inertia on the screen.
Programmes must therefore be made as continuous series of cliff-hangers,
presented in a restless, intense mode, but with no real internal development
or cumulative argument. The soundbite rules.
There is another serious problem with the popular media seen as a means
of enlightening the public about current affairs, namely the seeming lack
of criteria for prioritising between different kinds of news. At the time
of the aforementioned RIMI wedding, the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur
was under way, which was well known to politicians and NGOs worldwide.
The RIMI wedding may have received 200 times as much attention in the
Norwegian media as the Darfur crisis. And even if the two events had been
granted approximately the same amount of column space or airtime, a reader
or viewer would get the impression that they were of roughly the same
importance. (As an NGO worker darkly commented in the summer of 2004:
The starving children in Darfur should have had the good sense to send
a delegation to the World Trade Center.)
But I cannot take on all the shortcomings of the popular media here. So
let us return to speed and its consequences. Bourdieu wrote, in his scathing,
and perhaps overly pessimistic, pamphlet Sur la télevision,2 about a category of people he described as fast thinkers (using
the American term for effect in France). The demands of multi-channel
television, and in particularly its need to get to the point fast lest
the rating drops, stimulates, he argues, the emergence of a new kind of
intellectual the well-groomed, quick mind able to expound instantly
for a minute or so on virtually any topic presented to him. Now it can
be objected that fast thinking is better than no thinking at all, but
the point is well taken. Before the advent of multi-channel television,
politicians were quite clearly slower in arguing their points of view
than they are now. As late as the 1970s, we Scandinavians were governed
by sallow, ageing politicians who might take as much as five minutes to
develop an argument. However, those of the viewers/listeners who had not
fallen asleep at the end of their droning monologues would, as a reward,
have had the opportunity to understand that political decisions are a
complicated kind of thing which necessitate compromises, long-term planning,
balanced consideration for different social groups and an awareness of
possible unintentional side-effects.
The typical contemporary politician, attuned to the demands of multi-channel
television, tends to be fast (if not necessarily a fast thinker)
and well rehearsed before he or she enters the studio. If they want to
be successful, they should ideally present a memorable one-liner, confidently
and self-assured, of the generic kind Either you are with us or
you are with the terrorists, which could be quoted by other media
The traditional path towards presenting a new policy in a European political
party, such as the Norwegian Labour Party, was slow and cumbersome. The
proposal had to be discussed in the politburo and its extended networks,
and it would usually have to be sent on a hearing to local party organisations
before a policy proposal was finally drafted by a central committee. In
the late 1980s, coinciding with the spread of the remote control in Norwegian
homes, a new breed of Labour politician, impersonated in Rune Gerhardsen
(ironically the son of the postwar nation-builder Einar Gerhardsen), appeared
on the national arena. When he had a political idea, be it about the future
of a sports stadium or the way the State treated immigrants (with too
much kindness in his view, incidentally), he went directly
to the mass media instead of taking the long detour through the party
organisation. As a result, lots of people noticed a new freshness about
Labour, a willingness to take risks and to set new debates in motion;
Mr. Gerhardsen seemed attuned to the here and now; he was colourful and
engaged, a far cry from his tedious and responsible colleagues.
The temporal regime represented in Mr. Gerhardsens hands-on approach
to politics conflicted with the old regime. Its merit consisted in its
urgency more than one commentator noted that he seemed to be the
only major politician able to match the right-wing populist Mr. Carl Hagen
in direct appeal through the media. The disadvantages of this fast temporality
are no less evident: it lacks the thoroughness, cohesiveness and evenhandedness
of policies developed slowly through discussion and compromise.
Mr. Gerhardsen had many detractors in Labour, and failing to be nominated
for a secure seat in Parliament, he left politics (temporarily, as it
would later turn out) to become an information consultant, thus entering
a profession specialising in making the concerns of their clients seem
Bourdieus essay recalls Bruce Springsteens admittedly catchy
oneliner theres fifty-seven channels and nothin on,
a comment on the American media very much in the spirit of Postman. An
even darker vision than Bourdieus is apparent in Paul Virilios
writings on contemporary mass media. Virilio, a theorist of speed (he
speaks of his own science as dromology), has many anxieties about
the contemporary era, and above all, he is worried about the infantilisation
of contemporary culture.3 Positing
Bill Gates, le dieu-enfant (the god-child), as the symbol of our
era, Virilio suggests that our present mass culture is unwilling to leave
its eternal childhood as in a collective Peter Pan syndrome. Differing
slightly from Virilio, I would argue that it is puberty, not childhood,
which is presented as an ideal for everyone. A result of an all-encompassing
presentism, the cult of youth disdains both past and future. The adolescent
is ashamed of the past (when he was a child) and unconcerned with the
future (he has not yet discovered his own mortality, thus the future is
open and vague), but as a compensation, he has a very intense experience
of the present, which is filled with excitement and immediate rewards.
It is the seventeen-year old adolescent, not the child, that is the icon
of our time.
The temporal structure of an eternal puberty actively discourages cumulative
growth and responsible compromise, instead boosting fragmentation, compression
and stacking. When communication is free of friction, information has
become almost free (in the sense of gratis), seeping into all available
holes and cavities of the human body twenty-four hours a day, there is
no shortage of information. There is enough to go around for everybody.
Yet, are people better informed? That depends, of course,
on who you are talking about, but there can be little doubt that the instantaneity
and exhilarated excitement typical of adolescent life-experience is represented
comprehensively in contemporary media.
The only American newspaper which has been successful in breaking into
the market in recent decades, is USA Today, a newspaper imitating
Consider the contrast between an old-fashioned black-and-white kind of
television serial and a more recent soap opera. In the early 1970s, A
Family at War was an immensely popular drama serial in many European
countries. Based on John Finchs novel, it was a deeply serious and
emotionally gripping story about a Liverpool family, the Ashtons, during
the Second World War. Now, if one had been unfortunate enough to miss
an episode, the ensuing episode made little sense unless a helpful family
member updated one before the show. The reason is that the story unfolded
in irreversible, cumulative and linear time. In order to understand what
the characters were up to in episode 32, one had to know what they had
been through in episode 31.
Now think, as a contrast, about any popular soap opera from the 1980s
or 1990s. My main reference is Dynasty. When it was first screened
in Norway in 1983, my friends and I watched the first few episodes: this
was our first encounter with American soap opera, and we were curious.
After a month or so, we drifted off to other activities. Six years later,
I embarked on anthropological fieldwork in Trinidad. It quickly became
apparent that Trinidadians had a soft spot for American soap operas, and Dynasty was among the most popular shows. Realising this, I had
to start watching Dynasty again, speculating on how it might be
understood in the Trinidadian cultural context. I had been absent from
the programme for six years, and was now taking in surrounded by an unfamiliar
cultural ambience. Yet how long did it take me to get into it again? Less
than thirty seconds.
Examining examples like these, and they are potentially innumerable, we
encounter a transition from the linear, cumulative time of development
and growth, to an instantaneous, ahistorical time lacking direction and
duration. In the realm of news transmission, the result is catastrophic.
If the temporality of our culture has reached a point where it stands
still at a frightful speed, then all news transmissions must begin at
point zero, where nothing has been learnt before, nothing can be taken
for granted, no sediments of prior understanding can be assumed in the
audience. Everything becomes Chapter One, page one.
The popular media offer answers to questions nobody in their right mind
would dream of asking. They remind us every day of the importance of limiting
ones information out of consideration for ones knowledge.
Whenever something fast meets something slow, that which is fast is bound
to win. Depth and understanding lose; efficiency and the superficial tidbit
wins. Unless, of course, one has a premeditated strategy to prevent it
Nobody who reads these lines would be likely to disagree with this argument.
There is nevertheless a profound dilemma here. We can, naturally, try
to persuade the media giants the RIMI of the post-Gutenberg world
to encourage reflection and depth, to make socially responsible
priorities in order to enlighten and not just entertain the citizens (who
increasingly appear to have been transformed into customers). But it is
difficult to see how we can force them without compromising the liberal
principles our societies ought to be founded on.
The dilemma could be described as the Solzhenitsyn paradox. When the famous
author lived under constant surveillance and harassment from the Soviet
state, the world went silent and listened whenever he opened his mouth
to make a public statement. Eventually, Solzhenitsyn escaped to Switzerland,
and suddenly he could say anything he liked anywhere and anytime. At the
same time, interest in Solzhenitsyns opinion immediately waned.
His views were drowned in the white noise of democratic cacophony. All
of a sudden, sports results, traffic accidents and royal dresses seemed
to get all the attention.
In Milan Kunderas beautiful novel La lenteur (Slowness),4 an unemployed Czech entomologist is watching television in a hotel. Having
grown up in a society where information was portioned out with caution,
carefully filtered before it reached the masses, this man was accustomed
to digesting information critically, pondering its significance and relating
it to a greater picture. Catapulted into the multichanneled information
maze of the West, he found it impossible to make sense of what he saw
on the screen. As soon as a topic had begun to build up, it was stopped
short and replaced by something else. (Postman reports somewhere that
the average attention span of Californian schoolchildren is seven minutes.
That is the time between commercial breaks on television.) Kunderas
scientist speculates that Beethovens symphonies will be compressed
for efficiency, until one plays only the first eight bars of each movement
ultimately, perhaps, playing just a single note. Kundera may not
have been aware of the fact that Paul Hindemith did something similar
decades ago, in his Christmas Cantata, which consists of a potpourri of
familiar Christmas songs, but only a few bars of each. Possibly intended
as a celebration of modern efficiency, or as an ironic comment, the Christmas
Cantata assumes that much is already familiar, and the listeners
time is scarce anyway.
This, the RIMI logic of speed and efficiency, seems increasingly to be
the values according to which newsdesks present their goods. People are
still killing each other in the Middle East. There is famine somewhere
in Africa and floods in England. The weekend is going to be hot
remember sunscreen! Man U are still undefeated. The Minister of Integration
is concerned with the below-average school achievements of immigrant children.
Following a news programme of this kind, a poll agency rang up a representative
sample of the Norwegian population. Their first question was, Have you
seen Dagsrevyen (the main televised news programme) this evening?
If the respondent affirmed that they had indeed done so, which more than
half did, the follow-up question was: Could you please mention at least
one news item from that programme? Most of the respondents were unable
to do so.
But, one might object, isnt there a great acknowledged need out
there for depth, thoroughness and contextualised knowledge? Will citizens
be satisfied forever with unsatisfactory, shallow infotainment? Will not
the old fable about the hare and the tortoise get the final word: is it
not the case that perseverance and thoroughness usually gets the better
of superficial enthusiasm in the long run? Let us hope so, but one cannot
entirely rule out the possibility that there is no longer such a thing
as in the long run. As long as editors and newscasters choose
the path of least resistance, and their regimes elected or not
are rather pleased with the state of affairs, lest the general
public begins to interfere with their politics, it is difficult to see
how things could change. In my hometown, which is graced with a rich variety
of newspapers (eight dailies and several weeklies), there is an unambiguous
inverted correlation between circulation and thoroughness. In the last
month, anybody in the country has had ample opportunity to read long analyses
of the financial crisis in the UN, Don de Lillos latest essay, knowledgeable
articles about the weakened social mobility in the Norwegian working class,
and critical assessments of the Norwegian states oil deal with Iran.
But none of this was printed in a paper with a circulation exceeding ten
thousand. The others? The front page of Dagbladet (circulation
300,000) today announced the personal crisis of a local sports journalist
and a reference to a feature story about group sex; VG (circulation
450,000) revelled in the possibility that Norway might win a gold medal
in Athens tomorrow. So as long as citizens are accustomed to high speed
and willing to opt for the path their mainstream media tell them to follow,
there is no reason to assume that the mobile phone will not be the main
news medium in the near future. When that revolution occurs, we may be
writing wistful articles about the glorious past, when it might take upwards
of four minutes to read about the latest developments in Iraq.
The consequences for democracy of the ongoing compression of news should
be fairly evident. Democracy presupposes an informed public sphere which
forms the basis of the moral community of society. While rights can be
claimed instantaneously, trust and commitment take a long time to build.
In the segregated media reality of today, only a minority are adequately
informed about the forces that shape their lives and are thus in a position
to make informed strategies to influence them. The majority are offered
so-called discussion programmes on television where, at the end of the
debate, they are invited to vote for or against something by SMS. The
form of these programmes favour simplistic populism. Regrettably, they
are not an aberration but conform quite closely to the norm of political
discourse in our society.
Perhaps the most telling icon of our times is not Bill Gates, but the
seventeen-year old girl who was interviewed about her life in an Oslo
newspaper some time ago. She was an ordinary girl, picked out as a typical
representative of her generation. Speaking about the pros and cons of
life, she ended by expounding at some length about her greatest dread
in life. She said something like this: Suppose you go to the movies
with your boyfriend. Inside the cinema, you have to turn off your mobile.
Thats okay by me. But then, suppose when you leave the cinema, you
switch on your mobile, and there are no new messages! God, thats
terrible! What she said was, in effect, that if nobody had reminded
her of their existence, and confirmed their recognition of hers, in a
two-hour period, she felt that the rest of the world had forgotten that
she existed. That, if nothing else, is acceleration.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, New York: Penguin 1985,
Pierre Bourdieu, Sur la télévision, suivi de lemprise
du journalisme, Paris: Libér 1997.
Paul Virilio, Cybermonde: La politique du pire, Paris: Textuel
Milan Kundera, Le lenteur, Paris: Gallimard 1997.