Local Media in a Postmodern World

Postmodernism's Most Important Gift

by Terry Heaton
Steam Engine LocomotiveWhile the academic and religious worlds continue to shake self-serving fingers at what they view as the absurdities of postmodernism (it is absurd to the linear, rational mind), the cultural shift just chugs along. Like an old steam engine with its cowcatcher pushing aside obstacles that might block its path, our culture is becoming more participatory and networked, with a subtle decentralization of power left glistening on the tracks as the locomotive rolls by.

The nature of authority is changing, because people don't have to blindly accept what others say anymore. We can increasingly find out for ourselves. Whoosh, the train pushes institutionalism aside. Reason, it's becoming increasingly obvious, isn't living up to its potential to solve problems — except for the established haves — so people are turning to each other. These problems are widespread and growing.

There is no unified definition of postmodernism, because by nature, it must resist codification. This is maddening to logic and reason, who then dismiss it as folly, or worse, try to explain it in logical terms. This is a shame, for there is at least one enormous intellectual upside to postmodern acceptance.

The first assumption about postmodernism is that it demands the challenge of assumptions, which is enough to strangle the ganglia of any left-brained, linear thinker. Postmodernism doesn't say there are no absolutes, assumption definitionsbecause, well, that would be an absolute statement, wouldn't it? This is what comes from the silliness of trying to wrestle with logic something that exists in the slippery and greasy pit of chaos. While there may well be absolutes, the source of that determination is fair game in the questioning of assumptions. This is why religion views postmodern thinking as anathema. Faith is the determining factor, but faith in what? And so it goes.

Postmodernism's great gift to humankind is this challenging of assumptions, and this is an important matter for our new century. Why? Because in every walk of life, our failed institutions are rooted in assumptions that need challenging, if we are to progress as a culture.

If you honestly believe things "work" in our modernist world, consider a recent Ben Stein column in the New York Times where he addresses the banking crisis brought on by foolish (or clever) executives who used the system to get rich with very risky loans.

I could easily be wrong, but I suspect that at the end of the day, you and I will be bailing out the hundred-million-a-year finance titans who messed this up in the first place. This is what happened with the savings-and-loan disaster. The S.& L. chieftains...became multimillionaires and billionaires by wheeling and dealing with government-insured money. When the loans went bad, you and I picked up the bill while the bankers went shopping for their Bentleys.

What is it about our world that enables people to get away with such? Why do we create rules that only benefit the haves, to the detriment of everybody else? The answers lie in the basic assumptions of how modernism can only serve the elite, for where the mind is god, those with institutional intelligence have the upper hand.

So postmodernism comes along and says, "The cultural narrative that allows this is flawed." This isn't demonstrated in some organized "program" or rebellion; it's played out every day in little ways that evidence the disenchantment of the masses. Web technology is aiding the mission, because every link that leads to discovery opens the mind to possibility — another link — and that includes the hows and whys of the ways things work in our culture.

The Electronic Freedom Federation, among other things, fights the ridiculous end of modernism's spectrum by refusing to accept the actions of certain lawyers. The EFF recently took on the complaint of Stephanie Lenz, the mother of 18-month old Holden Lenz, about which she had posted a 29-second home video on YouTube (below). The video had been seen by 28 people when she received notice from YouTube that they had removed the video for copyright infringement. Prince's tune "Let's Go Crazy" was playing in the background, and his lawyers filed a complaint with YouTube, which the website was obligated to honor.

When this kind of thing happens, people just scratch their heads in amazement, and what most people don't understand is the degree to which the cumulative rage over hundreds of such little things is blowing back into the faces of a culture that permits them in the first place. These kinds of things aren't necessarily happening more these days, but we are increasingly aware of them, thanks to the information explosion enabled by the Web.

Alan WattsTwentieth-century philosopher Alan Watts studied eastern cultures, not because he wanted to convince the West that the East was better, but because it helped him understand the assumptions of the West. "You don't understand the basic assumptions of your own culture," he told IBM executives in the early 1970s, "if your own culture is the only culture you know. Everybody operates on certain basic assumptions, but very few people know what they are."

The assumption of Judeo-Christian culture is that man in his nature is sinful and therefore can't be trusted. The assumption of at least ancient Chinese culture is that man in his essential nature is good and therefore has to be trusted. They say to us, "If you can't trust your own basic nature, you can't really rely on the idea that you're untrustworthy. Therefore, you're hopelessly fouled up."

When I first began writing these essays, I noted early on that I write because it is the most efficient way I know to challenge my own assumptions. Challenging your assumptions is a heady but necessary task, if one is to be relevant in a changing world. And the longer I've been writing, the more convinced I am of Watts' conclusion that very few people know the underlying assumptions of their own lives.

I have found this assumption business to be especially useful in studying matters of media in the throes of change. In working with traditional media companies, for example, all questions about the Media 2.0 world flow from certain assumptions that would best be set aside in the reinventing of business models for the future. I was in a meeting once with a major media executive who'd just seen my "unbundled" presentation and asked, "So how do you find mass quickly in this paradigm?" Mass marketing and all its concepts are this fellow's life, so it was a natural question to ask. He was looking at a different culture though the eyes of his own, and his view came from assumptions that aren't necessarily true.

Here are ten assumptions about media and marketing that need challenging:

  1. The best way to communicate with people is in a mass. It is, perhaps, the easiest and most efficient way to communicate TO people, but it is the least meaningful and efficient for communicating WITH people. This means that the entire mass marketing paradigm is built on one-to-many applications, which will result in serious tail chasing in the two-way world of the Web.
  2. Getting to mass quickly is needed only in an emergency that threatens the mass. This assumption affords us the time to shape and mold messages in a way that serves the best interests of the one. This is also the birthplace of "the tease," time-based news distribution ("film at eleven"), and the absurd notion that we can get away with routing people through the hoops and passageways of our web "portals" before getting what they want.
  3. The mass wants or, more often, needs to be approached. This is the great illusion that feeds all of mass marketing, an assumption that people are just sitting there — eyes propped open with toothpicks — waiting to be tapped on the shoulder or screamed in the face. It is this more than anything else that fuels the technology-enabled revolt of the people formerly known as the audience.
  4. Mass is the only means to achieving the desired communications end. This assumption, perhaps more than any other, needs challenging, because it's at the core of the advertising disruption of Media 2.0 and, subsequently, the paradigm that supports contemporary media. The reality is that mass may indeed be the best means for SOME communications, but certainly not all.
  5. Brand building is the most important element of selling. Fostered by the likes of Ries & Trout — who identified "immutable laws" of marketing — the concepts and practices of branding are so overused as to be ineffective. This contributes to marketing-over-product as the accepted means to profit in contemporary capitalism.
  6. Reach (the size of the mass) and frequency (the number of times you reach the mass) are the metrics that matter most in the buying and selling of goods and services, and that any behavior with the mass in its entirety is acceptable in the furtherance of commerce. This blindness to anything else stops innovation in its tracks and contributes to the difficulties that all media companies are having with regards to revenue.
  7. Listening to the mass is necessary only insofar as to further the goal of assumption number one. Research, therefore, which alleges to begin with no assumptions, may exclude data relevant to the interviewees but irrelevant to the task of reach and frequency.
  8. Money spent on marketing to the mass is as or more important than money spent on the product or service created to serve the mass in the first place. This is the fool's folly of the new millennium, because it assumes that brand loyalty can be purchased, regardless of the quality of the brand itself. The natural fruit of this assumption is hyperbole.
  9. People don't really mind being considered targets to be hit, an enemy to be battled, prey to be pursued, uninformed to be educated, misled to be guided, pedestrians to be driven, and valued only to the extent that they "consume." These, of course, are unspoken assumptions, but the exist nonetheless in the mind of mass communications world.
  10. People who are aware of our assumptions will function as though they are not. The great illusion of the world of mass marketing is that the people we fooled once can be fooled again and again, and that we begin each task with the assumption of a clean slate upon which to draw. Like The Emperor's New Clothes, marketers simply refuse to believe that they are marching the streets naked, their garments too transparent to be effective. And yet they march on.

The above list doesn't even consider the assumption that this is the way it has always been done and that therefore it will always be so. This is the kind of stuff upon which all of contemporary media and marketing is based, and it's about time we talked about it honestly. Postmodernism offers no answers, but asks questions that might lead to answers, if we're willing to ask them.

The greatest mistaken assumption about postmodernism itself is that it attempts to replace, is replacing or will replace modernism entirely. This all-or-nothing view is absurd, because logic and reason (and their offspring, math and science) are critical to the well being of our culture (any culture) in a hundred different ways.

But should logic and reason dominate the culture? Should the left brain rule the right? These are different matters entirely.