Perception and the Mass Media in 1967
It’s 1967, the year that; Apollo 1 exploded during launch; The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s; the UK gained its first ATM; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created; and the year that Guy Debord and Marshall McLuhan released their forward thinking publications exploring the impact of mediated images on society.
52 years later, both thinkers are considered leading media theorists of their time, with views still relevant in the digital age. In Society of the Spectacle Debord develops Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, by demonstrating how the modern cultures of production and mass media have shaped Western civilisation. In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan similarly argues that the dominance of new technology and mass media have the power to transform human behaviour. He advocates that the medium of technology itself influences its user, instead of the content it projects.
In the 21st century, the same concerns have been arising about the rise of AI, smartphones and the Internet of Things. Everyday technologies don’t just give us access to the media, they help us organise, communicate, socialise and navigate. What can we learn from Debord and McLuhan about the impact of technology on perception?
McLuhan’s use of perception is central to his analysis of technology’s impact on its user’s body and sensory experience. He describes how ‘all media are extensions of some human faculty - psychic or physical’. Just as he claims that clothing is an extension of the skin, and the book is an extension of the eye, electric circuitry is an extension of the central nervous system. In 2019, smartphones have become an extension of our relationships, laptops an extension of the office, and smart devices such as Alexa an extension of our knowledge. In this sense, perception is a condition that can be maximised, transformed and extended with the help of a tool.
Debord’s interpretation of perception is concerned with the transformation of thought, arguing that society has been reduced to a collective way of thinking. Using the term ‘spectacle’ to represent the democratisation of images in the age of mass media, he describes how ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images’. The spectacle in this sense represents the perception of life itself, the way we relate to each other, and how we position ourselves in society. For Debord, mass produced images cast representations of life, transforming human experience into a commodified impression:
‘The more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of the need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires.’
It is clear that Debord felt that modern life was stripping individuals of their unique thought, identity and culture, a process he deemed influenced by the government. This is relevant in today’s social media climate, which has famously been manipulated by large companies and political campaigns. In 2018, it was revealed that the company Cambridge Analytica had abused the rights of millions of individuals by stealing data from their Facebook profiles, and using the findings to shape political advertising.
McLuhan similarly analysed the transformation of one’s perception of life, but instead of viewing technology as something that could reduce an individual, he saw its potential to extend them. Before electric technology was introduced, he describes the public as ‘separate individuals walking around with separate, fixed points of view’. Now living in an information megalopolis, he argues that individuals have the potential to learn, discover, gain perspective about the world, and must abandon this ‘fragmentary outlook’.
This foresight is hugely relevant in today’s digital landscape, where the information revolution has given us unlimited knowledge of our world. Our perception has been maximised to a worldview perspective, making us constantly hungry for information – the faster, the better. McLuhan’s idea that we must abandon our individual way of looking is about the expansion of one’s thought, but also gives the impression that we must align our minds together as a collective community. I would argue that with so much information at our hands, instead of thinking en mass, the power of thought lies within the interests of the individual. Gone was the time where our television channels and news broadcaster was selected for us, we have the option to choose who we pay our attention to.
Another aspect of perception that McLuhan and Debord reflect upon is the presence or absence of connectivity between an individual and a mediated image. In Debord’s analysis, he insists that there is no connection between the two, and describes the spectacle as an engulfing omnipresence that absorbs reality:
‘The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned...The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply .’
The image of this one-way communication enhances Debord’s opinion that it is the spectacle’s desire to transform an individual’s perception through the content it projects. It gives the impression that perception and the sensing of one’s environment is a passive activity, rendering the viewer impressionable but also unable to respond.
Constrastingly, McLuhan senses a dynamic pathway of stimulation between a user and mediated images:
‘In television there occurs an extension of the sense of active (and) exploratory touch which involves all senses simultaneously, rather that of sight alone...Television demands participation and involvement...It does not work as a background. It engages you...In television, images are projected at you. You are the screen. The image wraps around you. You are the vanishing point. This creates a sort of inwardness, a sort of reverse perspective’.
This description reinforces McLuhan’s perspective that the medium of technology is the element which impacts the user. He doesn’t reflect upon the content, nor does he allude to the companies behind it; his sole focus is its psychological impact. Although the user doesn’t physically engage with the television, he argues that all their senses are working simultaneously in the perception of its content. This idea of the reverse perspective of perception does in fact allude to Debord’s ideas, as it reinforces the power of technology to affect an individual, but for McLuhan there is potential for the individual to become empowered, not silenced.
Television in the 21st century has transformed to suit the preference of the individual. Dictated pre-programmed channels have been abandoned by most, and replaced by platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Virgin Media, giving users the power of selection to suit their desires. Perception in this sense has not been reversed, it flows in the direction from the individual to the environment.
However, phenomenologically speaking, you could argue an alternative perspective which fits more with McLuhan’s model. Two years after The Society of the Spectacle and The Medium and the Massage were published, a researcher called Herbert Krugman discovered that in less than one minute, watching television causes one’s mind to switch from beta waves to alpha waves. Beta waves are present when the brain is active and focussed on a task, whereas alpha waves function when the brain is relaxed and free from problem-solving. This means that when watching television, the parts responsible for logical thought become weak .
With this knowledge, advertisers have taken full advantage of television as a tool to induce messages to the viewer. This reinforces both McLuhan and Debord’s theories around mediated images, as it holds both the medium and its content responsible for influencing the viewer through psychological experience.
There are many examples in McLuhan and Debord’s publications that give insight into the power of the media. In many ways, both writers state similar information regarding the relationship between the viewer and a mediated image, but present different opinions around the positivity of these effects. Although technology is a universal experience, we don’t all use it in the same way. And for this reason, I’m sure that aspects of Dubord and McLuhan’s theories can be applied to different people. Nevertheless, I can’t deny the highly influential effects of digital devices and their content, and their ability to shape behaviour. I therefore urge readers to consider the weight behind McLuhan and Dubord’s views, and question how they might relate to your own habits and practices.