Originally published in:
Neither the Second God Nor the Message
— Nirmala Mani Adhikary
When the place of medium or channel is considered in the light of Hindu world-view, it is a means, not the end.
Ask someone raised in the religious traditions of the Western world to describe God, and this, with idiosyncratic variations, might be the answer:
“God is all-knowing, and all powerful. He is a spirit, not a body, and He exists both outside us and within us. God is always with us, because He is everywhere. We can never fully understand Him, because He works in mysterious ways.”In broad terms, this describes the God of our fathers, but it also describes the electronic media, the second god, which man has created.
Tony Schwartz (Media: The Second God, 1983, p. 1)
We live in mediated world. Mass media play a significant role in present society. However, understanding this significant entity is not easy. The term “mass media” encompasses a countless array of institutions and individuals who differ in purpose, scope, method, and cultural context. It may refer to the people, the policies, the organizations, and the technology that go into producing mass communication. Sometimes, the term is used just to mean various artifactual and/or mechanical means, such as books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, film and the Internet, emphasizing the single components of the mass media. Often, the term refers to the media industry, also called the content industry. Mass media in general have complex relationship with various aspects of society such as cultures, ideologies, political systems, economic systems, technologies available, and so on
Controversies exist in the field of mass communication and media studies as in many other areas of academic fields/disciplines. There are differing ideas among scholars about understanding communication, its process and medium. Mediated communication is not an exception. Over the years, different theories have risen and then faded into the background and other theories and methods of studying mass communication have gained attention. Some theorists even argue that the mass media actually are declining and heading towards their demise. But other theorists argue that, despite the changing technology, the phenomenon persists within the whole institutional framework.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), the “archpriest” of media analysis, argues that medium is the message. “What is most important are the media people watch or listen to, not the programs or texts carried by the media”, he opines. And, Tony Schwartz terms electronic media as “the second god.” However, this is to note that electronic media are experienced differently in societies with ‘non-Western’ characteristics. The dissimilarities are not just a matter of difference in economic development, since profound differences of culture and long historical occurrence are involved. The study of mass communication media cannot avoid dealing with questions of world-views and values and norms.
In one of the traditional thoughts in Hinduism, communication is the sharing among/ between sahridayas. Communication according to this concept is a relationship based on common and mutual understanding and feeling, for sahridaya literally means ‘of one heart’. Here, communication is for communion. Thus, communication is an inward search for meaning, a process leading to self-awareness, then to freedom, and finally to truth. The intra-personal dimension is of greater importance than the interpersonal (and other forms like mass communication) in the Vedic Hindu approach.
According to the orthodox Hindu belief, the body is only a temporary abode of atman, and it is an instrument for the attainment of moksha. The bodily self is not the ultimate truth though it is essential for the worldly existence. In fact, all worldly things are considered ephemeral, and the mundane world is just a transition on the way to the spiritual one. Understandably, medium or channel could be a constituent of a process of attaining mutual understanding, commonness or oneness among people: no more, no less.
When the place of medium or channel is considered in the light of Hindu world-view, it is a means, not the end. Certainly, the channel/medium is vital, but not more than the humans and the messages involved in the communication process and the ‘communication goal’ itself. Thus, the notions – medium as the message and media as the second god – do not seem in consonance to Hindu world-view. However, they may influence human conditions, and may even force to bring changes into human environments.
Present day mediated world is indeed a two-edged sword. Media are setting up new exchange systems, completely changing the conditions governing the transmission of knowledge, opening up a whole range of possibilities for making formal and non-formal education generally available, bringing culture to the people at large, and promoting knowledge and know-how. They are creating conditions that allow constant individual enrichment and enable the people of all nations to take part in their own advancement and to broaden their outlooks. At the same time, the ‘disembodiment’ or ‘de-personalization’ that McLuhan warned about just a few decades ago has, seemingly, become widespread. Some say that media have made us more violent and weakened our moral character. However, this issue needs more extended discourse than is intended here.
In brief, the mass media have both positive and negative dimensions. If we consider media as the second god or the message itself, we cannot be intelligent consumers of media. Rather, such notion promotes the idea of passive, tame and helpless receiver once claimed by the hypodermic needle theorists. But, the situation alters when we understand mass media just a means for our ‘communication goals’. The sadharanikaran model of communication (SMC), which underscores the notion of sahridayata as fundamental to profound understanding and warm co-existence among people, can substantially contribute in this regard.