Does content and culture matter? This is a very relevant question considering the speed at which new media technologies are emerging. Is it the form of the media that gets us or does the content and cultural adaptations make us who we are?
Gentzkow (2006) argued that television is generally “bad” from the perspective of socio-politics. He argued that the emergence of television has caused fewer people to vote. And because the new media of television attracts so much attention on nation-wide events, local elections are severely affected. People are less likely to vote watching televisions. This reminds me of Neil Postman (2006) and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death where he feared that humans are moving towards a dangerous Huxleyan world drugged by entertainment. That he thinks television with its ability to entertain will lead us to death – drowned by amusement and fail to think critically is in a similar sense to Gentzkow’s fear that the new medium of television is having negative effects. Another article by Nicholas Carr (2008) Is Google Making Us Stupid expresses a likewise concern. The author suggests that the Internet as a new form of medium consists too much of images instead of deep, long texts that provokes deep thinking. He also fears that new technology forms will deprive us of the ability to think on our own. That is exactly what Turner (2015) says in his article The Politics of Virtual Reality where he expresses his concern that new types of media such as virtual reality may be a threat to democracy because the immersive nature of virtual reality will deprive the audience of their control and autonomy and independence, which is key to democratic values. They are so drawn into the virtual reality that they stop thinking on their own and are no longer in charge of it.
New screens of communication technologies will always be developed, either with the case of television in the last century or modern technologies like smartwatches, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality displays. These technologies convey contents, though, in different forms, that in a way can shape our knowledge and points of view. It is entirely true politically speaking. The content of what the media conveys, without regards to the form of the media can influence our political knowledge and behavior. This is the case when a study conducted by de Haas-Arbaoui (2014) showed that “the way politicians appear in television programmes can attract previously non-politically engaged citizens, but it engages them in a different way than traditional news programmes do. The political judgments of the non-politically engaged are likely to be more strongly based on an emotional impressionistic image built around the politician in television appearances where it is less likely that policy issues are analyzed in depth.” Similarly, another research by Boukes (2015) suggests that “framing news in a way that highlights personal consequences caused people to attribute responsibility to the government for the issue that is covered: The people who saw a mother argue against an ADHD health care policy reform that would hurt her child believed more strongly that the government should take care of this issue than people who saw a politician argue against this plain…soft news and infotainment may attract those who otherwise might be lost to democracy and allow them to form political attitudes.” So, what about the Internet? A study by Chen & Yang (2017) on Internet censorship in China found that “uncensored information persistently and substantially changes students’ knowledge, economic beliefs, and political attitudes.” It seems that content and culture is quite powerful at affecting our political views when it comes to news and the Internet. It seems that contents matter too after all.
So, what do we get from all this? That form and content both matter? In a way, yes. Content is based on the form. It really depends on what the contents are. If they were indeed what Postman feared it to be, filled with meaningless entertaining distractions, well then, it doesn’t matter what the contents are anymore. If the contents were nothing but the most thought-provoking, it doesn’t really matter where it is displayed, either. What Gentzkow said is true under that certain circumstance. But there was never a simple right or wrong answer. As with modern technologies like social media, streaming video, and everything on-demand, the contents are just limitless. We have to choose what we want to see because there is never room for us to see it all. Differentiating between contents is extremely important. It really matters in this situation. As with newer technologies like VR and AR, it is quite like the situation when television was first introduced. The form now is more important than what’s being conveyed. Because it’s a whole new media experience, way more immersive than any previous ones. It sure impacts us more than the content in it, currently. It hasn’t for now enough content as television or the Internet. But we’ll wait and see. It’s a fast-changing world for media after all.
By Zhenghao Pan, BU Emerging Media Studies Graduate Student, firstname.lastname@example.org
Boukes, M. (2015). Spicing up politics: how soft news and infotainment form political attitudes.
Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains (Vol. 1). July.
Chen, Y., & Yang, D. Y. (2017). 1984 or the Brave New World? Evidence from a Field Experiment on Media Censorship in China.
Gentzkow, M. (2006). Television and voter turnout. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121(3), 931-972.
de Haas-Arbaoui, B. (2014). Transformations of television systems: Implications for media content, political parties and political attitudes.
Postman, N. (2006). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. Penguin.
Turner, F. (2015). The politics of virtual reality. The American Prospect. Available at: http://prospect.org/article/politics-virtual-reality