Media-related change affects more of us than ever, writes Rick Instrell
A FRIEND of mine relates this story about his granddaughter. A few weeks before Christmas she accidentally dropped her iPhone. The device was promptly picked up by the pet dog who then dropped it into his water bowl. The distraught girl was comforted by her mother saying: “Christmas is coming soon. You might get a new phone then.” The still distressed granddaughter replied: “But you don’t understand, mum … it’s my whole life.”
This tale neatly encapsulates how, for many people, everyday life has come to centre round the use of screen-based digital devices. And it’s not just the private sphere which has been transformed. In the public sphere, too, all fields of activity have been transformed by our uses of technology.
Within the academic study of media this phenomenon has been termed “mediatisation”. To an English speaker, this is an ugly neologism, but the main thrust of theorising has come from Germany and Scandinavia where the word has a more familiar ring. Although the term is applied to the contemporary social scene, it is important to acknowledge that human life has always been mediatised to some extent, especially since the development of printing.
Viewed historically, mediatisation simply emerges from the human need for more effective communication. In the western world, 20th century life has always been heavily mediatised. My youth was mediatised via comics, rock ’n’ roll records, radio, film and, much later, television. Most of my time outside school was spent in activities influenced by various media. Influenced by war films and stories in DC Thomson’s prose-dominated Adventure comic, we would play “Japs and Commandos”. On the football pitch we would try to emulate Melchester Rovers’ Roy of the Rovers from Tiger comic. Influenced by Brylcreem ads endorsed by Johnny Haynes as well as by rockers like Eddie Cochran, we would stand on street corners trying to perfect our quiffs. Needless to say, none of this popular culture contaminated our schooling.
My own field, Scottish secondary education, remained relatively “unmediatised” until the mid-1990s and the introduction of the publication of tables of examination performance. Suddenly head teachers started to focus on league position. Anything which negatively affected examination performance was expunged.
So how do we get our bearings when considering the dizzying impacts of our media-saturated world? Media scholars are not proposing the mediatisation concept as a grand “theory of everything”. Rather the aim is to use the notion to try to understand contemporary media’s relevance for the whole of society in all its complexity, and to acknowledge that each medium and each combination of media interact with diverse fields of human activity in different ways.
A useful starting point is to use ideas from German sociologist Winfried Schulz, who identifies four kinds of media-related change: extension, substitution, amalgamation and accommodation.
First, the media enable humans to extend their natural communicative capacities by extending their range in space, time and expressiveness. We are indeed fortunate to be the first to live in an age where we can instantly access information and cultural products from any place and any historical period.
Secondly, the media partly or completely substitute social activities and institutions. An example of this is the technological transformation of children’s play via video games and the subsequent continuation of such play into adulthood.
Thirdly, the media amalgamate or intermingle with non-media fields of activity. For example, consider the way top-flight football has merged with the television industry.
Fourthly, individuals and organisations accommodate their actions to take account of the influence and routines of the media. An example is the way in which political parties adapt to media formats and routines, with rival spin doctors battling to outwit each other.
As this brief overview shows, mediatisation has a mixture of positive and negative impacts in private and public spheres. So as well as gauging the nature and extent of media-related change, we also need to consider perhaps the most important question: does our use of media enhance or threaten our common weal?
• Rick Instrell is a member of the management committee of the Association for Media Education in Scotland.