The Time Press

The message in a bottle afloat on our airwaves

It is time to recall the words of Marshall McLuhan. “The medium is the message,” he said, five words that media mavens have cited down the decades in contexts as diverse as what the word ‘media’ itself has come to mean. The context right now is a projection for India by GroupM, a global media business, that shows digital audience-engagers are set to get a bigger slice of the money spent on advertising in 2022 than television, with the overall pie expected to exceed 1 trillion. Last year, TV channels got a wee bit more, but they suddenly look past their prime as tools of commerce. Quibbles over data could arise from the way this math was done, given the complex ad-revenue models of Google, Facebook and others. Still, the signal that emerges from the noise is clear. Digital platforms are not just poised to earn more than other gigs designed to attract eyeballs and attention, the rapid pace at which their intake is rising could give them a dominant chunk of this market in half a decade or less. The very form in which we get messages shape how we process them, McLuhan had implied, and so the dazzle of novel forms was seen as a big shaper of society. Yet, the aura of agency that this formulation seems to confer on every eyeball-riveting new technology remains open to debate.

True, the covid pandemic has speeded up digital adoption and accelerated other online trends. Screens wired invisibly to the web have millions under what resembles a hypnotic spell. But if we take a tech-agnostic view of where media may be headed, our online shift looks much less dramatic. For one, a key user-benefit of the internet, interactivity, has not squashed our receptivity to one-way stuff. Much of what we all slurp off the web is pre-packaged content, even if it’s delivered as a stream of 0s and 1s. What’s watchable on TV or in a movie theatre holds roughly the same appeal on a hand-held screen. And what can be read on paper could be scrolled through on a phone. We may have learnt to lean forward for web activity, but like to stay in recline-mode for much else; it’s unlikely that we will stop being a passive audience just because we can opt to be active. Second, the cost benefit of an online outreach has gotten blurry in recent years, as digital advances cheapen other modes of delivery too. Broadcasters, for instance, can pack a lot more of their fare into airwaves than they could. Avenues to reach vast crowds at low cost may have eased to such an extent that technical protocols no longer favour one sort of audio-visual medium over another sharply enough to tilt the scales of rivalry. A grand convergence of this kind grants TV as we know it a clear chance to survive and thrive on the value it generates.

Where might all this leave the written word? Print was once India’s biggest revenue hog, but must content itself with only about a tenth of this year’s ad spend. Again, this says nothing of how text in itself is valued by readers, regardless of what it’s served on. Words are found to serve think-slow needs especially well—as in Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s analysis—and poets need not be our real legislators for us to acknowledge their edge on cognitive engagement in spheres where this matters. These may seem far fewer, as the web sprawls across the country to enrol our multitudes, but they remain significant well beyond academia. All in all, text-generative media need not worry either. We could bet being ‘well-read’ will mean what it does for ages to come.

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