In a real sense the medium is the message, not in any erudite, sociological, McLuhanesque sense but merely in the kind of content that it brings—and how it brings it. In 1911, we had neither radio nor television. News from far away reached us more rapidly then than in 1811; the telegraph had speeded up communications immensely. But it reached us each personally as print on paper and thus had a predominantly conceptual, abstract, symbolic form. In a meaningful sense then the Chinese saying still held: The sky is high and the emperor is far away. Radio began to spread in the 1920s and had reached world-wide extent by World War II. Radio rides on sound and for that reason, possibly, still retains a certain mysterious quality (for me anyway). Sound whispers to us from the dark, and we’re quite skilled at parsing multiple sounds simultaneously, spontaneously. The image of women, their cheeks pressed into their palms, anxiously staring at a monstrous trumpet that topped my grandmother’s radio during the war in Europe has become for me an icon, preserved like an old sepia print, of the Greater World under deep clouds of advancing doom. Television dawned in the 1950s and rapidly became the eye by means of which we watch Big Brother, a very flexible fellow who is now Ed Sullivan in grey and all the kings, the kings’ men, the kings’ clowns, in bright flickering colors to this day.
The deceptive aspect of TV is that it seems to be the best source of news because it is the most visual of media. It’s vivid, now, and the camera moves, like our own eye, its focus seemingly drawn by what’s important. But what the bright eye shows is less, much less than is actually there. We see what we, in fact, can’t see. From Detroit I cannot really see what happens in Afghanistan, in Washington, or in Los Angeles. If I think I do, I am deceived. If I were there, I wouldn’t see that. But I’d see a whole lot else—and that would make me think quite differently about the images I’m fed. We’re accustomed to hearing what we cannot see, therefore radio is, oddly, more natural somehow. But to see what we cannot—not without days or weeks of arduous travel—give us a peculiar experience for which, in effect, millions of years of evolution have failed to prepare us. The images are sharp, vivid, dynamic, accompanied by matching sound. But they’re not happening to us. Not really. They are far away. And we can’t move that eye. We seem to—but others really move the view. A small, tiny square looks here, looks there. But when I move my gaze—why then all I see is the window of my living room and a gauze curtain still carrying its Christmas lights.
As through a glass, brightly—but certainly not face to face. The vast sociological mirage evolves from this radically diminished perspective. It deceives by its vivid sensory message, makes effort to acquire knowledge using symbols too costly and inefficient; we know less, feel as if we’re overwhelmed by information; but that information is shrunken and deformed into something primitive but made on purpose by many teams to shape somehow—even if competing with each other—a deceptive something we call the public will.