Communication : are we critics or consumers ?

The way we communicate is ever-changing. Communication, from the moment we start to babble as infants, is an inevitable and natural human phenomenon. Of course, it evolves, changing with our evolution as a species just as naturally as language changes in us – as individuals – over the course of our lives. But although human communication is wedded to change, modern communication is changing in such rapid and unprecedented ways that it is both important and timely that we step back and take note.

I am talking about written and visual communication, as opposed to spoken everyday discourse. The forms of communication that we go to for education, information, debate and (increasingly) entertainment. The past hundred years – and especially the past fifteen or so – have drastically changed the sphere of written and visual communication. Technology drives this change. Visual technology – cameras, production processes and publishing costs – were hugely cheapened and industrialised over the course of the 20th century, led by the switch from film to digital. Accompanying this change came a natural result: the proliferation of photographic content in newspapers and magazines, the rise of cinema and television, and a switch in attitude toward understanding the world – not just through words as before – but through images. Following this, the rise of the internet has changed the whole shape of communication, providing a platform for instant, free, global and (supposedly) democratic communication. Social media platforms sprung up, offering people a portal of access into this instant, connected and pluralist world. And as whole populations shifted online, so the markets for communication adapted.

With print in rapid decline, the internet became the marketplace for ‘content’ – that ugly 21st century term used to describe any loosely informative thing that people view online. Inevitably, the internet became established as a profit-making tool as soon as substantial numbers of people – consumers – were using it. A fleet of bloggers, new-gen news outlets and niche websites rode this wave, and were rewarded by the profits of pay-per-click advertising. The big, traditional publishing outlets – national news outlets, broadsheets, tabloids and periodicals – reacted slowly at first, but have long since followed the bandwagon onto the internet. Thus, humanity’s communicative hub is, almost exclusively, online – and, as a result, marketised and revenue-driven.

The problem, in this revenue-driven online era, is that published content becomes primarily a tool for boosting readership statistics and, in turn, profit potential. Though some outlets – the BBC, for example – are officially neutral on profit incentives, nearly all online publishers strive for some form of marketability (or at the very least, are driven by the need to be relevant). But unlike the newspaper stall or corner shop, the internet offers unparalleled variety. Publishers simply have to stand out – or risk drifting into the sad realms of loss and irrelevance. And significantly, what makes content stand out online are the visual features that the 20th century was so adept at facilitating. Social media channels and webpages are proliferated with images, short videos, memes, live feeds. These visual forms are enticing, engaging and quick to digest, completely appropriate for the fast-paced nature and appeal of the internet. They satisfy a candy-cane desire that is inherently human: a desire for sensationalism, entertainment and quick pleasure.

However, as our more informative, responsible outlets conform – at least slightly – to these standards in the quest for readership, our critical capacity as readers is being damaged. The appeal to entertainment makes ‘content’ increasingly simplified so that it can capture attention quickly and effectively. This shift to simplicity erodes conventional standards of journalistic depth, quality and sophistication. If sophisticated vocabulary is less attractive online, for example, precise words are not only used less frequently, but edged that little bit closer to irrelevancy – as is the function of these words in facilitating precision and clarity of thought.

This pattern perpetuates itself in all areas where traditional modes of communication are unfavourable, where the new media production process repeats itself over and over. Think click-bait and fake news, video reels and airbrushed Instagram feeds, where excitement and cheap aestheticism are favoured over honesty and truth. The supposed benefit of simpler communication is that the message is easier to access and appreciate. The negative, however, is that by favouring simplicity, we discard complexity - the element that can bring greater precision and depth to communication. This makes it easier to explain the meshing together of media forms, where short sentences summarise whole events by captioning a photo-series and short, punchy videos are the most popular and prevalent form of media. Articles and long form writing – the stuff that cultivates thoughtful deliberation and reflection – is crowded out. Maybe we can deliberate over images and videos, but, as Susan Sontag once suggested, “photographs do not explain, they [merely] acknowledge” – the implication being that our deliberations over visual content are limited by the limited capacity of images to tell us things about the world. A picture might say a thousand words, but it cannot match the clarity and direction of actual words themselves.

In allowing this shift in communication to continue unchanged – without pushing for a healthier, better alternative – we are dismantling quality, depth and nuance, and with it, the human capacity for attention and consideration. As Habermas feared, modern mass communication – fuelled by capitalistic market forces – is moving us away from being critical, deliberative members of society and towards becoming passive, unreflective consumers of ‘content’.

This article was written by Ben Dickenson Bampton