15 August 2009


By Rupert Read

The media has been a hugely powerful set of institutions for several generations, and especially in this last generation or so. It has achieved a level of influence and even dominance in contemporary culture that would have surprised most citizens of the Victorian age.

But is it time to write the media's obituary? It seems the media may be in decline, perhaps terminal. Its mediation of the messages we receive is under threat. A process that we might term dismediation is seemingly underway.

What is happening is that the ostensible products of the media are being increasingly made available free via the internet, and are simultaneously being broken down into bite-size chunks. (When one looks for a podcast, one needn't look for the rest of the programme / of the series / of the paper.)

The process of dismediation, that might spell the end of the media, is fairly widely (though by no means universally) seen as inevitable. Those who think it is inevitable typically worry about some of its consequences (such as the end of newspapers, unless they can find an alternative funding stream, such as philanthropy), but typically welcome its vehicle: consumer-choice. It's widely seen as a good thing that media-consumers can bypass media to go directly to the stories / information / infotainments etc they desire.

I wish to challenge that assumption. While there is clearly something superbly democratic and levelling about the process of dismediation, I wish to suggest here a powerful reason why the end of media would be a bad thing:

There is good reason to think that such maximisation of consumer-choice is not good. Excessive choice leads to extra unnecessary time trying to make such choices; it involves usually a net loss of information; it leaves us less able to negotiate our world.

There is a good reason then why many people regret and warn against the threats to media. The loss of the Guardian or the BBC would be a genuine loss. These 'mediators' have a style; they hang together in a particular way; they help us know our way around. They embody a wisdom. They help us 'navigate' the world. In simple terms: they make us feel at home, for a reason.

Printed newspapers and public-service broadcasters bring together all that they've decided is worth looking at in one place, and force me to be aware (at least briefly) of a lot of stuff I wouldn't have gone searching for on the web. They make me step outside my information comfort zone (a little).

The welcomers of dismediation ignore this truth: that the collective 'social mind' of communities is very frequently superior to the individual mind that consumerism as an ideology elevates for highest praise. The 'social mind' of something like the Guardian or the BBC or the EDP may be flawed; but it also contains much wisdom. And obviously, alternative media can sometimes contain still more: look at something like Z magazine, and Znet.

But isn't my argument one-sided; won't it be an unalloyed benefit to lose Fox, or the Daily Mail? No; because even these help us know the world. They provide a lens, a gathering system. We come to know our way around them, and to understand something of their biases. Without media, there will only be the individual pitted against an incalculably vast array of sources of information and entertainment.

Mediation is not then prima facie a bad thing, insofar as it helps us to navigate our way about, to a greater extent than we could ever do as isolated individuals. The media must not and will not end, for that reason. Because actually we are wise enough to know that we are not as individuals wise enough to know all we need to know about…

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