Media, Writing

Making consumers out of human beings

TELEVISION, especially when it is in private hands, plays an instrumental role in creating a consumer society. Not only because it is a powerful medium that carries advertising and lifestyle messages but because of its very nature. In other words, as a technological form, television is designed to make consumers out of human beings. It is not a co-incidence that the Indian consumer revolution has taken off after the full-on advent of the cable channels. As a form, television resides in real time and displays all the gushing relentless of time itself; we are run over by the programming offered by television. Every act of watching is an act of rejection —of the 99 other options that have temporarily forsaken. It also operates primarily through our senses; we can watch television for hours in a benumbed state, for the mind can grasp enough while it idles in neutral.

Television trains us to make choices every minute that we watch it. Surfing is the name we give to the nagging feeling that we are missing something better, something which we will lose forever, if we stop looking out for it. We browse endlessly, in an orgy of window shopping, never knowing if what we have bought is good enough. We also navigate entirely on the basis of desire. We are quick to reject anything that does not instantly engage us. We want to be held in thrall perpetually. No wonder, every programming on television tends over a period of time to become entertainment; the news channel are today a prime example. Television re-assures us that our desires are legitimate; that it is ok to cut President Kalam off in mid-sentence to turn to something that holds our attention, say, the story about a driverless car or Rakhi Sawant’s latest brush with notoriety. Our opinions drive content; our eyeballs show channels the way.

What television is doing is also to universalise our benchmarks. No other medium reaches as many people this intimately simultaneously. In doing so, television creates a sense of the present, an urgent sense of a permanently transient present that is always slipping away from us. Depth is replaced by stimulation; the flickering image rivets us to right now. Television makes us value the surface appearance, the sound bite, the popular. In a television society, celebrities need to be manufactured for they are perfect in terms of a combination of attractiveness and vacuity. Overall, television helps create a world in which we are what we desire and thus we are what we consume.

While television is the centre stage in India today, every medium contains within it a distinctive stamp that it imprints on society. Every medium allows us to access the outside world through a distinctive combination of our senses. The use of the written word, which utilises the code-like alphabet ensures that we need to process all communication intellectually. The senses cannot directly receive messages; the brain is needed to decode them. The written word separates the senses, the eye sees something that is by itself meaningless. To that extent, everything that appears in the print medium is in part a rational message. The written word finds it difficult to evoke desire directly, it needs to work through the device of the mind recognising the need for consumption. The printed word is therefore dominated by the educated elite which controls the media and becomes the originator of all communication while the rest can only receive. The press centralises opinion and separates the readers from the message creators. The editor knows best; an office that television has little respect for.

Advertising works in print by appealing to both the rational and emotional sides; good advertising is that which allows the consumer to ‘get it’ with just a little effort. The kind of people crafting messages are those who are good with words. Print resides in a world of order; it comes to us in a discrete format and allows us control over how and where we wish to consume it. In this world, we consume knowingly; consumption is not yet our default mode of actualising all desire.

The Internet is already creating a new kind of consumer. As a technological form, the Internet is continuous, unbounded and seemingly infinite. There is no ordering mechanism, no hierarchy of the big and small. We can enter, exit and navigate at will. The Internet does not distinguish between buyers and sellers, speakers and listeners. Most importantly, size counts for nothing in this world. Unlike other media where the larger player can drown out others, on the World Wide Web only that which is interesting gets any attention. The Internet makes the consumer the hunter and the manufacturer the hunted. Brands will need to get better designed rather than promoted, for the ability of brands to hide behind promises is likely to run out sooner rather than later.

Media is one of the foundational forces shaping our world. We pay enough attention to what appears on media; but the real power of media lies in its structure. To understand the power of media we need to go beyond looking at what appears on it and focus a little more on what it inherently is. In other words, one doesn’t have to watch television in order to know what impact it has on society; an analysis of television as a form is perhaps more revelatory. Thank God for that.