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Media Landscape

Entry updated 28 March 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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The degree to which Communications technology (and foreseeable future extensions of it) was replacing the natural world with a "media landscape" was scarcely noticed until the 1950s. Coined to denote a world dominated by the images of Advertising and the popular arts (among which sf images, especially the iconography of movies and magazine covers, loomed large), the phrase was initially used to describe the obsessions of Pop artists and media critics such as Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), Andy Warhol (1930-1987), Rayner Banham (1922-1988) and Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) – whose The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) now seems uncannily prescient, and whose famous catchphrase, the "Medium is the Message", constitutes the title of the first chapter of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). The phrase "media landscape", and indeed the idea underlying it, may seem quaint today; but with the benefit of hindsight we can see how the proleptic fertility of that coining, so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, progressed naturally, through both developments in technology and the expansion of what human beings were prepared to conceive as feasible, to the Virtual Reality of the 1980s (in speculation) and 1990s (in fact).

Of course, the media landscape was there before the 1950s, and sf had reflected it in various ways. The idea that the media can be used to manipulate people had long been extant. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) this theme takes a directly political form: the media are represented not only by the ubiquitous posters of "Big Brother" but also by the "telescreens" which act as two-way channels for propaganda and surveillance. Similar political use of the media has featured frequently in sf; examples are in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (February 1951 Galaxy as "The Fireman"; exp 1953), Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" (October 1961 F&SF) and Philip K Dick's The Penultimate Truth (1964). More often, sf has portrayed future societies controlled by the media in more oblique ways. McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride (1951), a book about the psychological subtleties of Advertising, contains a passing tribute to Fritz Leiber, whose "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" (in The Girl With the Hungry Eyes, anth 1949, ed [anon] Donald A Wollheim) is about exploitation of the female image by ad-men. Leiber returned to the theme of advertising – a major theme in 1950s sf – in The Green Millennium (1953), set in a future when the walls of private apartments are lined with ads. Frederik Pohl's and C M Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953) is a more extended satire on the all-powerful admen; Pohl's much later solo sequel, The Merchants' War (1984), seemed an anachronism. Other 1950s stories about advertising include Pohl's "The Tunnel Under the World" (January 1955 Galaxy), Shepherd Mead's The Big Ball of Wax (1954) and (in part) Dick's The Simulacra (1964). Daniel F Galouye's Counterfeit World (1964; vt Simulacron-3 1964) is about a society which turns out to be a computer simulation generated for purposes of market research; many of Ron Goulart's stories satirize advertising techniques.

Manipulation to the extent that one suspects that one's very reality is a fiction (see Paranoia) can give rise to a belief in the "new demonology" – the idea that the artificial landscape has alien inhabitants with evil powers. Literal treatments of "demons" taking over the media include "Ether Breather" (September 1939 Astounding) by Theodore Sturgeon and "The Waveries" (January 1945 Astounding) by Fredric Brown, both stories about creatures which inhabit the airwaves, tampering with our communications. The writer who took the new demonology most seriously was William S Burroughs; in The Ticket that Exploded (1962; rev 1967) and Nova Express (1964) he showed the human race at the mercy of the "Nova Mob" and other Alien parasites who used the media (and Drugs) as their means of control. Burroughs asserted that life was "a biologic film" and that the purpose of his writing was to help us break out of the "stale movie" into the "gray room" of silence. This is not entirely different from the wishful conservatism of Brown's "The Waveries", in which the USA abandons electricity and reverts to a rural economy. Barrington J Bayley's "An Overload" (in New Worlds 6: The Science Fiction Quarterly, anth 1973, ed Michael Moorcock and Charles Platt) is about computer-generated demons who adopt the personage of gangster-movie stars.

Not all media-men are demons, however, and some stories deal with those who attempt to use their power to good effect. Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron (December 1967-October 1968 New Worlds; exp 1969) concerns the compere of a phone-in chat-show in the 1980s who finds himself in a position to challenge the political and industrial powers that be. Much of the action actually takes place "on the air", before an audience of millions, making this a novel set almost entirely within the media landscape. Spinrad returns to this area in several of the stories in No Direction Home (coll 1975), and, much later, in Little Heroes (1987), an sf novel about the music business in a Dystopian urban world. Several of Dick's novels deal with media-men, such as Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965), in which a Post-Holocaust world is held together by a disc-jockey's broadcasts from an orbital satellite, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), in which a famous television personality is thrust into a world where nobody recognizes him. Algis Budrys's Michaelmas (August-September 1976 F&SF; exp 1977) concerns a roving newsman who, through a secret Computer link-up, is in fact the benevolent dictator of the world (see Secret Masters).

One of the ways in which the media create news is by invading the privacy of individuals in order to gratify the curiosity of others. D G Compton's The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974; rev vt The Unsleeping Eye 1974; vt Death Watch 1981) is about a television-man with "camera eyes" who follows a dying woman in order to record her last indignities for the entertainment of a mass audience; at the climax the ethically awakened reporter elects to become blind. The story is continued in Windows (1979). Many other tales deal with pornography, violence and vicarious suffering; e.g., Arthur C Clarke's "I Remember Babylon" (May 1960 Playboy), Robert Silverberg's "The Pain Peddlers" (August 1963 Galaxy) and Thorns (1967), Robert Sheckley's "The Prize of Peril" (May 1958 F&SF), Dan Morgan's The Richest Corpse in Show Business (1966) and Brian Stableford's The Mind-Riders (1976). A particularly gruesome example is Christopher Priest's "The Head and the Hand" (in New Worlds Quarterly 3, anth 1972, ed Michael Moorcock), in which a television entertainer has his limbs amputated and climaxes his "act" with his decapitation. Anything is grist to the media mill, from violence to Time Travel: McLuhan's "global village" – which he first articulated in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) – extending through time as well as space. This has been dramatized in sf stories in which the media literally invade the past in search of material. Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past" (April 1956 Astounding) features a woman obsessed with watching her dead child on the "chronoscope" (see Time Viewer), Harry Harrison's The Technicolor Time Machine (1967) is a humorous treatment of a film crew's adventures in history, and J G Ballard's "The Greatest Television Show on Earth" (Winter 1972/1793 Ambit) is a satire on the television companies' attempts to film such events as the parting of the Red Sea "live". These sf exaggerations point up the extent to which the media have brought about la société du spectacle.

In such stories as Ballard's "The Subliminal Man" (January 1963 New Worlds), in which vast hoardings are erected alongside motorways to flash Subliminal messages into drivers' brains, even the unconscious is annexed by the media landscape. Of course, manipulation of the desires of the unconscious has long been recognized as part of advertising, and the media use a complex language of signs in order to speak to it. Semiotics, as applied to popular culture by Roland Barthes (1915-1980) in his Mythologies (1957; trans 1972), testifies to this. All human creations are, in a sense, media of communication, since they are coded with latent "messages" – particularly such everyday things as architecture, furniture, clothing and vehicles. This is the conceptual territory that Ballard has made very much his own, particularly in the "condensed novels" collected in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970; vt Love and Napalm: Export USA 1972; rev 1990). In these nonlinear stories he juxtaposes elements of the media landscape of the 1960s, from the architecture of motorways and multistorey carparks to the bodies of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, from the styling of cars and kitchen gadgets to the televised violence of Vietnam and President Kennedy's assassination. He blends these external "facts" with the private memories and fantasies of his characters, and with the neutral language of medical reports and astronomical data. The Atrocity Exhibition is a selfconscious book (Ballard has been much influenced by the Pop artists) but it is the most sustained attempt in sf to deal with the media landscape and its massive influence on all our lives. Later Ballard stories have also dealt with the media, such as "The Intensive Care Unit" (Summer 1977 Ambit), which concerns a society in which marriage and family life are conducted entirely by television: nobody ever meets anyone else in the flesh. This technological distancing is prefigured in such Dystopian sf as E M Forster's "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 The Oxford and Cambridge Review) and Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun (1957).

Other sf works which have to some extent been influenced by McLuhan and the ideas about the media which became fashionable in the 1960s include John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Dean R Koontz's The Fall of the Dream Machine (1969), Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels, John T Sladek's The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970), J M G Le Clézio's Les Géants (1973; trans as The Giants 1975) and Barry N Malzberg's The Destruction of the Temple (1974). The Girl Who Was Plugged In (in New Dimensions 3, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg; 1989 chap dos) by James Tiptree Jr is a savage story about the creation of a jet-set member of "the beautiful people" for purposes of Advertising; in reality the woman is an Android with no independent intelligence, controlled through the nervous system of a horribly exploited "ugly duckling". The language of the story cleverly reflects the chill of a society whose cruelties are largely unconscious and affectless.

About the end of the 1970s traditional sf about the media seemed to wither away almost overnight: during the 1980s harsh satires about the world of admen, once almost commonplace, became scarce (although some of sf's satirical spleen transferred itself to the closely related field of rock Music in search of new media targets). One or two films – such as Le Prix du Danger (1983), based on Sheckley's "The Prize of Peril", and the very similar The Running Man (1987), based on The Running Man (1982) by Richard Bachman (Stephen King) – focused on the theme of social violence institutionalized by television game-shows, but they looked curiously old-fashioned. The best sf media (or anti-media) films of the 1980s were John Carpenter's They Live (1988) and David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1982), especially the latter – but perhaps more typical of the new attitude towards the media was Blade Runner (1982), where the vast, seductively moving Advertising hoardings form a ubiquitous and insinuating backdrop – but nevertheless a backdrop, against which the story proper is played.

In general, what happened in the 1980s was that sf about the media became more fascinated with potential real futures than with satirical ones. Stories like The Space Merchants were never intended to be serious predictions of a possible tomorrow: they exaggerated aspects of the present in order to comment upon, not the future, but that present itself. By the 1980s sf writers were becoming aware that the communications of the future would be qualitatively quite different from those of the present, and they threw themselves into the virgin speculative territory with abandon. The theme of the media became absorbed into the broader theme of a wired-up world, with the media being seen as only a part of a vision of vast communications networks of such complexity as to be almost autonomous, out of control – a vision of a world in which humans could (perilously) swim but which they could not repudiate. In short, the media-landscape story was supplanted by Cyberpunk, with its focus on Virtual Reality (further relevant stories are discussed under both those headings). This was a logical development, for the entertainment industry has always been hell-bent (as many of the earlier sf writers realized) on creating virtual realities – if primitive ones – for its captive audiences to occupy, and the cyberpunk writers simply envisaged the technologies that would develop from, at least in part, this very phenomenon. Of course, many such stories contain direct comments on the media world, as in William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), one of whose four protagonists is a "stim" star for Sense-Net, the giant entertainment corporation which prepares virtual-reality scenarios of impossible glamour into which the proletariat can tune and which, for a time, they can inhabit. It is this kind of engulfing media future that now preoccupies sf. [DP/PN]

see also: Black Mirror.

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