By Sagarika Satapathy
2nd September, 2020
Welcome to the Information Age! You are an integral cog of this machine of giving, receiving and distribution of information. As a matter of fact, you're doing it right now! You're consuming media. Media that has been tailored to catch your attention. This has been personalised to an extent that you feel like this article is having an actual conversation with you! Unfortunately, this is only a tool. The article has 'tricked' you into paying your attention, creating for our viewership, and subsequently creating media giants their big bucks. Personalisation of anything would mean making something palpable and tailored to fit the flavour profile an individual seeks. And a foolproof way of doing just that using the big bad tool of sensationalism. However, this isn't something that was birthed in recent times.
(Art work by Sagarika Satapathy)
Mankind has craved entertainment since ancient times. Large media companies are captured by the chains of capitalism and competition and hence promise to deliver just that. This is a clever little tool, allowing newsmakers to use their creative juices to the fullest extent, to raise the level of importance of any given issue, let's say the meal plans of your favourite movie star's nephew's dog's pet mouse. Nevertheless, the same can be said about the media in the opposite sense, in that, it is a useful tool to make things look trivial and unimportant. So, it's safe to say that instead of 'what you see is what you get' the reality is closer to 'what we show you is what you get'. Even if it is at the cost of morphing reality into something that is significantly unlike itself.
Now, to understand this simply, let's consider an imaginary scenario wherein the only contact a person has with the rest of the world is through a 'trusty' old television. It's obvious, if presented in a nonthreatening way, complete with real looking facts, numbers and testimonials, the person will find everything they see rather believable. That doesn't make it true. It simply makes that particular idea of the world true in the mind of the lone viewer. But since we're rational people, getting away from hypothetical situations such as this one and observing reality will probably be the best thing to do to get some accurate answers about the extent to which the media influences us. The truth is shockingly similar.
A series of academic essays written by Jean Baudrillard, released one after the other titled 'The Gulf War Will Not Take Place', 'The Gulf Was Is Not Taking Place', and lastly 'The Gulf War Did Not Take Place' analyses a real-life example of how a simulation was successfully created in the minds of people who were exposed to news media during the Gulf War. Baudrillard explains in great detail how far the corporate agenda can taint reality and present it, specifically tailored to meet their requirements from human behaviour. The war, as Baudrillard suggested, was merely an atrocity that paraded itself as a war. The actual people at the ground level participating in the war itself were made so emotionally detached from those they were ordered to kill. This disconnect gave people a ticket to justify and to an extent even praise the war. Here, Baudrillard explains that the televised nature of the war dehumanised the targets that the United States Military were expected to 'eradicate'. By saying 'the war didn't take place', Baudrillard doesn't mean that the horrible atrocities of war, including the mass displacement of hundreds of Iraqi citizens, destruction of thousands of households and loss of life of thousands on both ends didn't happen. What he intends to explain here, is that the channelling of information watered down the intensity of the war itself to such a large extent that it was never actually presented in its truest form. A huge daunting question that hence arises; can we trust the media, especially now that it's such a huge part of each of our lives? Considering that we are expected to contain ourselves within our households because of the pandemic, our consumption of new media has increased greatly. With hurdles like quick access and linguistic barriers disintegrating even in the most remote areas, can we still say that the lack of access to information is the only thing that leads to misinformation and ignorance? Baudrillard states that it isn't the lack of access to information but rather the proliferation of images that renders the news presented by the media as useless. By virtually eliminating the mind's ability to think and visualise on its own, modern media has got us to a point where we feel starved if hot new content isn't served to us regularly, especially with a side of shiny conspiracy and scandal. And now with increased access to both receive and impart information, it's almost possible to not find the opposite of any event that takes place. This can be clearly exemplified by unscientific conspiracy theories fully believed in by millions. At a time of the COVID crisis, it's alarmingly dangerous to know that staggeringly high numbers of people are attempting to justify theories like vaccines cause autism and wearing a mask is not necessary, both of which have no substantial scientific proof, and both are potentially guaranteed to cause a serious threat to humanity as a species. Hundreds of thousands of media organisers compete to sell the premise that 'life indeed is taking place and meaningful things do happen'. They're so consumed by fulfilling this promise that the lines between reality and simulation, morality and power and news and marketing get blurred.
Baudrillard also pins a hard blame on the masses. We've been trained to consume shiny, appealing and comfortable information for generations. This deception is something that the masses want. They want to be distracted from their realities. And now with social media, we not only consume but create, edit, morph and present it to others. We're not just the innocent consumers, but we're also participants in this process of dramatic presentation.