Contemporary media has cultural, technological, political, and social implications on modern society, domestically and internationally. Media and culture are closely intertwined since the olden days, and advancements in communication reflect cultural advancements. This review critiques the writings by Paddy Scannell, Ian Connell and John Thompson, which address the relationship between media, society and technology. Each of the writings is summarised before a comparison of the three is done.
Chapter 5 on communication and technology, in the book, ‘Media and Communication’ that was authored by Paddy Scannell dwells on the approaches to technologies of communication by Harold Adams Innis and Marshal McLuhan. The two scholars provide a historical perspective of the development of communication in Canada in the 1950s and 60s. According to Innis, communication and technology in Canada progressed because of the fishing, fur, and timber businesses. McLuhan advanced and popularised these ideas in the 1960s and beyond.
Innis observes that Canada was viewed as being peripheral to the western civilisation, which was centred in Europe and the United States. As a frontier of the European empire, Canada was valued for its natural resources such as fish, fur and timber, which were processed to feed, dress and house the western aristocracy. As such, the development of the railway network in Canada aimed at collecting the raw materials for export to the United States and Europe and the transportation of finished goods inland. Innis contends that efficient communication is essential for the proper functioning in and survival of empires and civilisations. Altogether, Innis and McLuhan contributed to the ‘understanding of the relationship between communication, technology and society’ (Scannell 2007, p. 142).
The article claims that communication seeks to control time and space civilisations and empires. Besides, communication is biased because its temporal and spatial influences are dependent on the type of media. Innis uses the Greek and Roman cultures to differentiate between oral and written communication and their social, economic, and political imperatives. McLuhan extends this thinking by arguing that technological advancements in communication, such as the invention of printing, opened up communication and knowledge to the masses (Scannell 2007). Therefore, information was no longer the preserve of the elite or powerful in society. McLuhanism can be used to explain the technological advancements in communication such as the radio, television, electronic media and the internet, and their globalisation of culture.
Chapter 11 on ‘television news and the social contract’ in the book, ‘culture, media, language’, was written by Ian Connell. The chapter discusses how news items are presented on television and the different perceptions created. Connell counters the notion about the impartiality of television news by arguing that biased television news is a creation of conspiracy theorists (p. 128). He makes his argument by explaining the social contracts between the viewer, the newscasters and media houses, and the news items.
Connell (2003) argues that there are various contracts between the viewers and newscasters. In one of the contracts, the viewers are onlookers of the happenings in the news because they are uninvolved in the live events. In another social contract, the newscasters are the involved parties in the news items because they present the views of the dominant social groups. As such, the relations between the event, broadcaster and view are dominant social contracts that are influenced by the representational conventions that exist in society.
To demonstrate the different positions of the social contract communicated through the television, Connell (2003) gives examples about the different bases of reality presented in the news. For instance, the government’s stance in many public matters is often taken to be the basis of reality and television journalists convey the information without interrogating the truth or reality behind the news items. Therefore, television journalists accurately repeat and transmit what has become the dominant public opinion, as stipulated in their operational policies. So the journalists cannot afford to be biased because they would be going against common sense and dominant opinion. From another perspective, the broadcast is seen as a neutral venue because it separates and fragments the news items from the actual events they represent (Connell 2003, p. 129). This allows controversies to be aired and dominance perspectives to be advanced without undue influence from the journalists. As such, according to Cornell (2003, p. 146), the television plays a representative and activist role depending on who is watching.
Thompson authored ‘The media and modernity: A social theory of the media’ as a continuation of ‘ideal and modern culture’, in which he attributed the cultural transformation in modern societies to the development of communication media. The book delves into the nature of communications media, its numerous forms and the institutional transformation in the modern world. Thompson (2013) highlights the importance of communication to the modernisation of society by tracing the progression from printing technology to the vast information networks of today and how they are intertwined with the military, political and economic power. Communication media is interactive and differs from face-to-face encounters because it allows individuals to represent others or respond to others who are separated in time and space. Therefore, communication media reorganises the temporal and spatial structure of social life by creating new ways of exercising power and new forms of interactions. After explaining communication media using social theory and performing its historical analysis, Thompson (2013) explores the advancements in communication media and modern societies. For instance, printing created a new symbolic power bases other than the state and church, and inspired the growth of the media industries by exploiting capitalism. Thereafter, news became a sought-after commodity in Europe that not only enriched the capitalists but also created the newspaper and its accompanying public space. Globalisation of communication is the ultimate liberalisation of communication modes, expansion of public space and the removal of spatial and temporal restrictions (Thompson 2013). Unfortunately, it advances cultural imperialism when, for instance, American multinationals dominate media networks, and American culture dominates media content. Moreover, it has blurred the divide between public and private domains and thus increased the visibility of power in society. However, Thompson (2013) contends that although such visibility helps politicians gain public admiration, it can damage the politicians’ image and diminish their constituency. Altogether, the advancements in communication media have disengaged individuals from the reality of events and feelings, and thus created a new form of self.
The three authors, Scannell, Connell and Thompson discuss the effects of media technologies, especially the advent of print media and the television, on the culture of modern society. The three authors agree that communication has expanded immensely from face-to-face interaction, which was restricted by time and space, to global interactions using technologies that have broken the temporal and spatial barriers. As such, the authors contend that technological advancements have liberalised information and knowledge, availing it to everyone in the modern age, unlike in traditional days, when such was reserved for the elite and powerful in society. Hepp, Hjarvard and Lundby (2015) contend that media and social advancements are inseparable and that one advances the other in the process of mediatisation.
However, they also agreed that the concept of self has been changed by media technologies with the viewers becoming detached from reality; from the events and emotions of the goings on in broadcasted matters. In this regard, the news reported in newspapers and the televisions were remote to the audience and did not allow the two-way interaction of the face-to-face mode. In this respect, although media technologies have increased the audience of particular topics and events, they had undermined the quality of communication, making it far below the quality of face-to-face interactions.
Scannell, Connell and Thompson agree that the emergence of print technology and television had contributed significantly to the liberalisation and globalisation of communication. Newspapers and television programs could be transported great distances. While newspapers required reading skills, making them reserved for the educated in society, television could be accessed by all members of society after the industrial revolution. Both technologies were able to relay events to far-flung audiences, thus immersing them in events that had occurred at great spatial and temporal distances. However, the authors observed that newspapers and television had relegated their audience to onlookers and not witnesses. But the newscasters could engage their audience by looking at them and talking to them directly. As such, although the media personalities and their audience were active partners in communication exchanges, they remained detached from the events contained in the news content.
The authors also agreed that communication media played the vital role of organising power in society. Their arguments are based on the perceptions of Innis and McLuhan, who studied extensively the link between communication, technology and society. For instance, the journalists, while conveying news, would advance the opinions of the majority and dominant in society and downplay contrary perceptions if they did not make ‘common’ sense. This allowed the capitalists and their allies in political, economic and social power to control the narrative and influence culture. Based on capitalism, the authors agreed that the use of communication media for societal control was a creation of the Western Civilization, and deeply rooted in the empire. Shirky (2011, p. 5) observes that this perception persists until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, where economic turmoil rather than American propaganda caused the fall of soviet communism. Before then, Americans had used media as a tool for advancing democratic ideals to no avail. Instead, the media had helped create opposition leaders in the soviet countries, while the state lost control (Shirky, 2011).
Besides, globalisation of culture was a product of modern media technologies and such culture was dominated by western ideologies, particularly those advanced by the American transnational corporations. Friedman (2002, p. 25) supports the cultural relevance of television when he observes that it served as a medium of immediacy, actuality, liveness and intimacy by injecting eliciting a feeling of hereness and newness into the viewers’ spatial and temporal experience. In other words, television displayed the most modern culture and inspired viewers to emulate the demostrated habits, practices and ideologies. Still, the authors also agreed that liberalisation of the media had weakened the western culture because it became exposed to outside influences. In other words, the cultural narrative could no longer be controlled from western centres as opinions that dominated other regions outside the western world found audience through modern media technologies.
However, although the authors acknowledge the role of modernism in the evolution of communication technologies, they diverge in various aspects of their arguments about media and technology. For instance, Scannell (2007) dwells in the historical progression of the communication technology evolution. He focuses on the chronological exposition of the events and ideologies accompanying technological advancements in communication. In contrast, Thompson (2013) focuses on the structural evolution of communication, while Connell (2003) focuses solely on television technology. For instance, Scannell (2007) views globalisation of technology as helping to re-socialise the world towards a global village, while Thompson (2013) discusses globalisation of communication from a visibility perspective. Meanwhile, Connell (2003) discusses globalisation from a political angle in which media technology has influenced the conveyance of government actions and the opinions they elicit in public. Specifically, Connell argues that television newscasters presented government actions from a perspective that garnered most public support and, therefore, made common sense. This may be explained by mediatisation in which a symbiotic relationship between political parties and media commentators exists such that one does not dominate the other but instead grows the other (Hepp, Hjarvard and Lundby 2015).
Scannell, Connell and Thompson show the complexity of the relation between media, technology and society. They observed that the advent of the printing press and television deepened the relationship between media and society by liberalising communication. In addition, these technologies broke the spatial and temporal limitations, and globalised communication. However, diverse outcomes complicate the political and cultural influences of media, some of which are downplayed by the dominant segment of society.
Connell, I 2003, ‘Television News and the Social Contract’, in Hall, S, Hobson, D, Lowe, A and Willis, P (eds.), Culture, media, language: working papers in cultural studies, 1972-79. London: Routledge, pp. 128-146.
Friedman, J 2002, Reality squared: Televisual discourse on the real. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Hepp, A, Hjarvard, S and Lundby, K 2015, ‘Mediatization: theorizing the interplay between media, culture and society’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 314-324.
Scannell, P 2007, ‘Communication and technology: Innis, McLuhan, Canada, 1950s-1960s’, in Media and Communication. London: Sage, pp 123-144.
Shirky, C 2011, ‘The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change’, Foreign Affairs, pp. 28-41.
Thompson, J B 2013, The media and modernity: A social theory of the media. Cambridge: Polity Press.