The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a poem composed by Gil Scott-Heron for his 1970 album. Although Gil wrote the poem about half a century ago, it still resonates today. Maybe its resonance is not strongest in the literal sense (“televised”), but in the figurative one (its technological equal of today – social media). We will also explore how the economic system affects the media we “consume.” This article lays out the limits of mainstream (and social) media to empower the broad masses of people to take part in a democratic society. In the last section, we will show how to take action today to make a change for the better.
Table of Contents
I want to take some action! What are some things I can do? For a start, go to the bottom of the article to learn more.
To learn more, please continue reading Part 1 of the article.
We Need To Understand The Meaning Of The Words “Televised” And “Revolution”
Before we dive deeper into the article, we need to define the two key terms, “televised” and “revolution.”
Televised, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, means “to broadcast by television.” At the time of the first public recital of the poem by Gil Scott-Heron, color TV was gaining popularity in the US.1Technology Adoption in US Households, 1860 to 2019. Our World in Data.
If Gil Scott-Heron were writing the song today, he would probably write “The Revolution Will Not Be Facebooked” [or you can enter your other favorite social media outlet, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or other]. Instead of “staring” at TV screens, currently, many of us are glued to the little screens. In 2019, the average US person spent over 3 hours and 35 minutes a day watching TV and 3 hours and 43 minutes using mobile devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets).2US Adults Are Spending More Time on Mobile Than They Do Watching TV. (n.d.). EMarketer. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.emarketer.com/content/average-us-time-spent-with-mobile-in-2019-has-increased.
Although, as of 2019, time spent on mobile devices is greater than that of TV (and continues to rise), content consumed on TV still has strong relevance even to this day.
Revolution, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, refers to “a sudden, radical, or complete change” or “activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation.”
The word revolution has an appeal among people who feel disenfranchised, but also among the privileged. When evoking the word revolution, some people may think of the French Revolution or the American Revolution, both struggles of the common people against undemocratic governance regimes, one monarchical and the other a colonial one. However, there is also the Industrial Revolution, the 4th Industrial Revolution, or the Artificial Intelligence Revolution that catered and may cater more to those of privilege.
What helps give rise to revolutions? Certain anthropological or natural or some combination of both types of events creates better or worse conditions for seeding revolutionary change(s). For example, the COVID-19 virus caused a pandemic that helped create the ideal conditions for seeding revolution(s). But there are many actors with diverging interests and ideas for what makes a revolution. The key questions to ask are: “Whose revolution and for what purpose?”
All Revolutions Start With An Idea
For a revolution to happen, first, a change in the minds of people needs to take place (Check out Gil Scott-Heron’s brief interview in the 1990s on this topic). In this article, I will focus on revolutions that would benefit those who feel disenfranchised by the system, as these types of revolutions are most democratic in their spirit, i.e., they seek to empower the “demos,” the people.
Revolutions have one thing in common, some unifying idea that large numbers of people believe in or can identify with.
Conceiving a revolutionary idea is easier than starting and sustaining a revolution.
For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement started around a single idea; the protest of the 99% (the majority or the demos) against the 1% (the elites). Specifically, it was a protest against the vast income and wealth inequality that the system generates and perpetuates through global financial institutions like those typically found on Wall Street. Although the movement had vigorous protests during the first couple of weeks after it started on September 17, 2011 in New York City, the movement fizzled out and now, about a decade later, there are no serious indications of its revival.
One of the key reasons is that there was no unifying idea or approach on what to do afterwards. The people who have lost homes and jobs because of the Great Recession and then saw executives on Wall Street awarding themselves large taxpayer funded bonuses, experienced the unfairness in the system and took to the streets. However, this amorphous mass of people had no unifying operational goals and means of what to do afterwards. Revolutionary ideas that involve large groups of people with diverging approaches will fail to be sustained.
Common Operational Objectives Or Indicators Can Sustain Revolutions
Unlike diverse groups of people, businesses all over the world have the same operational goals and objectives: increase return on investments, raise shareholder value and maximize profitability. Business people from all over the world are familiar with metrics used to measure their organizational performance such as the values of assets, liabilities, equity, net income, EBITDA (Earnings Before Income, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) and others.
In the world of business, there is a common language and unified set of metrics to assess organizational performance. Therefore, business people of any background, of any language, of any culture can work together in achieving shared business objectives. There are codified accounting standards, the two major ones being:
Unlike business people, most people do not have shared standards, operational means and set of metrics to achieve a common vision. Most of us can agree about the importance of a clean living environment, access to water, food, shelter, decent living wages and so forth. However, we will not agree on the best approach.
Many of us have distinct sets of values that drive our decisions. Although values are important, I do not believe they are a major handicap to sustain a revolution.
Businesses, like people, have widely different values. However, businesses have a unified set of metrics, the most recognizable and powerful one being profitability. People have no such unifying metric. This “important” metric depends on the person. For someone who is asthmatic, probably the level of air quality is most important. For a (video/computer) gamer, the speed of the internet connection is of greatest concern. For parents, it may be the cost of quality education (be it private or public) for their children that matters most.
Maybe the human experience cannot be distilled into a single metric or an index that can measure the success or quality of life. Maybe what we need is a set of visions where many people, with different values, can agree on, and then define some indicators to measure the success in accomplishing these visions. Perhaps, we, as humans, could benefit from having a framework of visions with a set of shared values and indicators that we would like to achieve. Over the years, we can vary our approach, but we need to focus on achieving the common metrics that we, as a society, defined.
It would be just like in business. Whether Bill Gates is running Microsoft as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft as of 2014), the indicators that are used to measure the performance of either CEO are largely the same. New CEOs do not change the metrics used to measure operational performance. They change the targets bounded by those metrics.
How We Developed A Vision For Our City And Our Country
I am a member of the Global Shapers Hub in Skopje and as a member of the initiative we developed a guide, a framework for visions for our city where we live, Skopje, and our country, Macedonia.
I come from Macedonia, which declared its independence on September 8, 1991. For about three decades there has been limited progress. Tired of seeing most young people (over 50%) aspiring to leave the country because of the poor living conditions and opportunities, we, at the Global Shapers Hub in Skopje created a guide for visions for the city in 2070, 50 years from now. You can check it out here:
The reason for choosing a 50-year milestone is that our country (and city) have not been planning for the long-term. Because of the lack of long-term vision, each governing party has created its own short-term strategy (usually 4-years long), which is not sufficient when large infrastructure projects or policies are involved (such as education, healthcare or research & development). Usually, the winning party would discontinue major projects the previous administration started.
If the average mortgage is 30-years and expected work-life is 40 years, how can a city or a country plan sustainably on a shorter time horizon than an individual?
Our aim is that, as a society, we work together in achieving the visions, regardless of ideological or religious beliefs (e.g. political left, political right, Christian, Muslim and so forth). Our belief is that we can agree on common visions, values and metrics but we can differ on the approach how to get there. Our conviction is that a shared vision will help ensure continuity across the changing governments and political parties, so we rise in the ranks and reach the most developed cities and countries of the future.
The first step to get there is to share this vision. We hope that this will inspire a spark of change.
We Should Protect Our Mental Attention And Dedicate Time To Think
If we want to be part of a revolution that benefits the masses and serves to empower us, we shall not outsource our thinking. We shall not give out our attention for free.
In business, it is common to say that “time is money.” Business people are conscious that every moment an employee spends on an activity can be classified as “productive” or “non-productive.” Either the employee uses the time to produce something (that hopefully surpasses the value the employee costs the company so that the employer can earn a “profit”) and “non-productive” (when the employee uses the time for activities such as browsing social media on the phone and results in no surplus value generated that can cover the employee’s expenses). On balance, the employees need to produce more than employers spend on them in order for the business to be profitable.
Even though the system is set up in a way that encourages employers to “exploit” the workers to maximize shareholder value, the same is happening with our leisure time. There is an increased “assault” from social media companies to occupy our attention and help businesses make an additional sale. This “assault” diverts our thoughts and attention away from ideas that would truly advance us as society.
As shown in the graph, we reserve our prime thinking time for work (see light blue on the graph above), leaving little time and energy for other pursuits or deferring them for the weekends. Leisure is the free time remaining after subtracting sleep, work, household activities, commute to and from work, and average TV time per day. This leaves, less than 2 hours of free time that can we can dedicate to thinking, going to the gym, or taking part in the democratic process of our societies.
The current system awards and incentivizes companies to maximize their profits. Rather than focus our attempts and human efforts of some of our most creative and intelligent people in developing solutions to address core issues, we divert attention to produce algorithms that automates the work that studies our preferences and purchasing habits and recommends us the product or service that we may be looking for. It is just not the best use of our time, thoughts and efforts.
Amazon, Facebook, Google, YouTube and other major corporations are perfecting their algorithms and can target us with specific ads, some of them useful, some of them not. For example, Target, one of the largest retail chain-stores in the United States, has predicted that one of their customers is pregnant and estimated the delivery date, based on the shopping data they could mine. This was about 10 years ago! Technology has advanced since then.
Another example that points to this is YouTube. In 2020, YouTube was the second most visited website after Google globally and a popular entertainment platform. At the start, YouTube did not have invasive advertising. Now, it is impossible to watch a video or listen to a song without being bombarded with ads. If you have used the YouTube app on your mobile device, you probably have noticed that you could not “minimize” the app (run it in the background) and still listen to music. This point and this feature may seem trivial, but they are not. This feature is a deliberate omission because of its huge commercial potential. In 2019, YouTube generated about $15 billion in ad revenues.3“YouTube Says It Paid the Music Industry More than $3 Billion Last Year.” MSN, https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/youtube-says-it-paid-the-music-industry-more-than-dollar3-billion-last-year/ar-BB100BZB. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.
Personally, I dislike the inability to do anything else on the phone while using YouTube. I guess many of you dislike the lack of this feature. It does not make my phone feel “smart.”
For a high-tech company such as Google, with some of the brightest programmers from around the world, the “inability,” more so the “lack of will and incentives” to make such feature “free” speaks to the company’s drive (and pressure) to commercialize leisure time.
Today, this feature is available in the paid version of YouTube.
It is important that we question the dominance of major corporations such as Google. We need to question their features. Whom they seek to benefit, and for what purpose?
The good news is that there are ad-free ways to enjoy YouTube without handing over data for free to Google. This may not be the earth-shuttering discovery for you. But that we need to be control of our attention and consciously choose where we want to allocate it.
There Are Alternatives, And This Section Is Just A Start To Act In That Direction
There are alternatives, but as I will explain in the following section, they are deemed “risky,” “dangerous” or “unsafe.” There is always some element of doubt looming when exploring these options.
It may seem trivial to dedicate time to this section, but if we want to imagine a different world, we need to think of it and demand those changes from the major actors in our society.
For those interested in exploring alternative ways to enjoy videos online (typically accessible via YouTube), listen to music without ads and “minimize” (play in the background), I recommend NewPipe. It is free (no paid subscription), ad-free Android app to watch videos. Unfortunately, there is no iOS version, but there are some other apps similar to NewPipe that could work.
NewPipe is available from F-Droid (an Android marketplace that is an alternative to Google Play). If you wonder why NewPipe is not in the Google Play store, my assumption is that the app probably “violates” some terms and conditions of Google (most likely because it competes with its flagship app, YouTube).
Before we jump to the conclusion that this is malware or that everyone is out there to steal data, I believe that there are people who genuinely want alternatives and are creating them. Instead of relying on ad-sponsored funding, these types of initiatives rely on donations.
On my desktop, I use Mozilla’s Firefox browser with Ublock Origin ad-blocker extension. In both devices (my computer and my phone) I can enjoy music without diverting my attention to ads. I believe that as users we need to do our best to limit the invasive of ads assaulting our leisure time. By the way, none of these links are affiliate or sponsored links.
For those who want to explore alternative options or extend the functionalities of their smartphones, there are tools and techniques that exist that receive little publicity (because there are no large corporations sponsoring them). If we want to see more such human-centered apps that care about our attention and protect our privacy, I believe we should support FOSS (Free and Open-Source Software).
I believe that we, the people, should fund such initiatives collectively. This way we collect funding to support developers to create applications and software that will have the human development in mind, not perpetuating endless and mindless consumerist habits that seek to reproduce the “not-so-great-parts” of our capitalist societies.
We should protect our attention from invasive advertising. All of us will not become philosophers and use our spare time for thinking about improving the human conditions, but neither should we allow invasive advertising to turn us into couch potatoes and impulse shoppers.
The Non-mainstream Is Labelled As “Risky,” “Dangerous,” “Unsafe”
Non-main stream opinions are immediately categorized and stigmatized.
Following the example in the previous section, given that many of the readers of this article would probably read it on a smartphone, it is probably safe to assume that either the user would be Android or iOS.
If you are an Android (or iOS) user, you may be surprised to learn that there are other mobile application stores (app stores beyond Google Play or Apple Store) available out there to legally install applications that would give you more freedom to use your phone (without artificially imposed restrictions by the major vendors).
For Android users, there is F-Droid, which I mentioned earlier. It is a little known brand and a non-mainstream app store. There is also Amazon app store, which is a mainstream brand, but non-mainstream app store for Android users. I have used both.
For iOS users there is AltStore. I have no personal experience with this store. However, there is an article on Engagdet about it and also a direct link to the Patreon page of AltStore’s developer, Riley Testut. As of the time of writing, he has a relatively large number of supporters on Patreon (over 4,500) and generates over 13,000 USD per month in donations to support his work. It seems like there are people who believe and benefit from the work he is doing.
However, when the casual users try to install non-mainstream apps, with both Android and iOS users, the phone will give a notification that this is an unwanted application. Although some apps may genuinely be dangerous, we can attribute some of the same risks to apps installed through Google Play or the Apple Store. Since Google Play is the dominant player (in the Android world), they can set the terms of what constitutes “a safe” or “unsafe” application, and it not always is related to security, rather business (revenue loss) risk.
Labels Can Dismiss And Discredit Alternative Thoughts
Just like the two major app stores discredit “non-mainstream” apps, the mainstream media does the same to alternative opinions. The mainstream media focuses on viewpoints that perpetuate the status quo, or ensure its controlled reformation or transformation. The economic models can change, as long as the underlying power structures are not severely affected. Once the prevailing power structures are affected, they retaliate, often violently.
A case in point are the violent responses of governments to citizen protests that challenge their power: such as in the United States to protest police brutality, in Belarus to protest Presidential electoral results in 2020, in Bulgaria to protest ingrained corruption among top-ranking politicians, including other countries. These are all events that made headlines in 2020 alone.
There are terms that are essentially “labels” to categorize and dismiss someone or someone’s opinions as unfavorable to the mainstream. Probably some of you, when reading the section about alternative app stores, thought that I must be a “rebel” or a “pirate” since I am promoting something that is alternative.
Depending on the context, some words serve as dismissing labels such as “communist,” “socialist,” “conspiracy theory,” “hippie,” “hipster” and so forth. They often stifle meaningful debate and thought. Sometimes, the label may have some element of truth, but its mainstream intent is to to discredit and disarm. These labels not only stifle others but also contribute to self-policing.
Because of the constant bombardment and feeding of our minds with “junk” information, we are conditioned to think, even in the privacy of our thoughts, in particular ways that are socially expected and normative. For example: “Oh, If I think of [something non-mainstream], then people will probably consider me a conspiracy theorist, therefore I will keep my thoughts to myself.”
Often, especially in some countries, people put the disclaimer first: “Let me tell you something. It may sound like a conspiracy theory, but I am not one of those. [You know me, I am no conspiracy theorist.]”
These labels can range from the seemingly benign to the harmful. If I advocate strongly that people in cities should ride more bicycles, walk or take mass transit, and I advocate that car owners should always pay for parking or make car ownership more expensive, then I may be considered “oppressive,” “extreme,” “tree hugger,” or “hippie” by those who are used traveling by cars, prefer cars or simply need them.
If we believe in democracy and freedom of speech and critical thought is one of its key tenets, then we should encourage debates and diversity of ideas. We should spend time in school and outside of school how to debate and discuss ideas in a respectful and non-violent way.
If we ignore or discredit people, just because they propose alternative ideas, these people will either alienate themselves and group themselves with other like-minded people. It will exacerbate the effects of echo-chambers and extremist groups.
Currently, there is news for the liberals, for the conservatives, for the democrats, for the conspiracy theorists and so forth. There are news channels designed to feed information that we like to hear, not what we need to know.
Not all of peoples’ ideas are great and some opinions may be harmful, but if we do not hear these opinions, we will not know what those people think and understand where they are coming from. Today the idea may sound crazy, but maybe there will be a time for that idea.
We need to learn to live with people who have different opinions and points of view, at the same time respect and not endanger their livelihoods. Many people in the United States would be fine having a Quaker (religious group known for its strong belief in non-violence) as a neighbor, even if they are ardent atheists, but in recent times, people are not willing to even share the digital space (be friends on Facebook if they support opposing political parties). If we want to live in a democratic society, we need to learn how to debate constructively.
Just like Gil Scott-Heron has said, “The revolution will not be televised” because it is supposed to take place in our minds. No revolution can take place in our minds if we allow others to fill our thoughts with invasive advertising and mind-numbing content. No revolution can take place in our minds if we are stuck in our echo-chambers where we are fed information that we like to hear.
The struggle in the current system is that there is no financial incentive to televise opinions that challenge the current economic model, even if they are in the best interests of the people. The ideas that prevail are ones that are in line with the current economic model based on infinite growth, which clashes with our finite natural boundaries.
This article has two parts. For the second part, follow the link here.
If The Economy Focuses On Growth, Business Focuses On Profits
There cannot be a premise on infinite growth on a finite planet. Our current economic model and incessant focus on growth is like tumor cells for a human body. As long as there is food, cancer cells will produce even more tumor cells. Either has to give. Either the body will fight off the cancer and tumor cells or the cancer will consume the human.
The issue we as a society face is that we celebrate the biggest and the richest as the most successful ones. Basically, the companies and enterprises that are emblematic of the type of growth-focused economy and society that we live in.
Just like other businesses, media is also a business industry. The mainstream media, just like the overall economy, focuses on growth, rather than development. Professor Edward D. Hess from the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia produced a class on entrepreneurship called “Grow to Greatness” on the popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform, Coursera.
In the course, Professor Edward D. Hess dispels several common myths of the “American mindset” about business. He bases his counterarguments on principles observed in nature. For some, these myths will also seem illogical, but let us go over them. The first common myth is that “bigger is better” and the second common myth is “grow or die.”
Regarding the first myth, “bigger is better,” he gives the example of a tiger. In its natural size, the tiger is the perfect predator. However, if he grew to the size of an elephant, he would not be a “better predator.” He would not be a tiger, nor an effective predator. What does this mean for business?
That point brings us to the second myth: “grow or die.” Again, the primary aim should not be about growth. A business can stop growing, but continue to develop. Rather than focus on size, we should focus on the human and problem-solving objectives of starting a business.
The aim should not be on growing revenues, profits, number of employees, offices, or if we talk about the media industry, the number of articles, shares, likes and so forth. We need to account for our overall well-being, such as our physical, emotional, psychological ones when growing and developing a business.
This is not a call that all companies should be small. Inevitably, some will be small, others medium, yet few will be veritable giants. This is a call to rethink how we measure the performance and success of businesses and our economy.
Fortunately, not every human, not every businessperson is interested in infinite growth. Just like our “giants,” we also need to celebrate the small businesses and hear their stories too. In fact, most businesses are small. Most challenges that people face daily are the same for people, regardless of how deep their pockets are. Not every business can and should become a unicorn (a financial term that refers to privately owned companies that have a $1 billion valuation).
The pandemic has taken our growth out of the economic equation, and we immediately fell into a recession. It shows how fragile our economies are when the growth mechanisms stop. Politicians and economists discuss the return to the new normal, meaning when the growth is back or exceeds its pre-pandemic level. The holy metric for mainstream economists is the GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
As a society, we need to understand and question the merits of infinite growth. This focus on growth affects how we operate businesses (workplaces). Our workplaces become areas of stress once we do not achieve these growth targets, regardless of the cause of the failure, be it internal (e.g. poor management) or external (e.g. natural disaster). It also dictates the research and development projects we focus on as society, not always in the best interests of our overall well-being.
In the world of media, where most of us get information about others and the world, the temptation to fall prey to technologies that exploit human attention is too great to resist. I refer to these tactics as “black holes.”
Technology And Its Attention Sucking “Black Holes”
If during Gil Scott-Heron’s time, TV was the biggest media, now social media is one of the largest and most dominant media outlets that occupy the leisure and non-leisure time of its “consumers.”
When we base our economy on infinite growth in a finite planet, social media companies logically would develop features to reflect that in their apps. They boast features such as “infinite scroll,” “related content” and others to ensure users’ continuous engagement and addiction to their platforms; a black hole sucking attention.
Capitalism’s focus on incessant growth does not allow our minds to rest. Even when we rest, we need to think of our rest as a “commercialized” activity. We need to consume. The language we use reflects that: “to buy time,” “to consume content” and so forth.
With the pervasiveness of social media, there is limited discussion about enlightenment, empowerment, or simply relaxing and enjoying. A “free” walk in the park is a “lost economic opportunity” to increase the growth rate of some individual entrepreneurs or business and thus contribute to the overall GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the economy.
Although there is no such thing as “free lunch” and each of us needs at least some money to get by and satisfy our necessities, there is a point after which each added dollar does not add additional value. According to a Purdue University study, the ideal income for people in North America was about $95,000 a year. Beyond this amount, there were little gains in terms of happiness of emotional well-being.4Service, Purdue News. Money Only Buys Happiness for a Certain Amount. https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2018/Q1/money-only-buys-happiness-for-a-certain-amount.html. Accessed 31 Jan. 2021.
This is the law of diminishing returns. Collectively, as a society, we need to consider taxing those dollars that are causing diminishing returns at higher rates to ensure the more fair distribution and help those who may struggle to meet their basis human needs.
Mainstream Media Is Turning Into A Reality And Entertainment Business
With the introduction of the infinite scroll and the “news feed” social media is using its ever-improving algorithms to serve content that resonates with the user. The infinite scroll was designed to addict people.
To spicy up the addiction, content matters. Infinite-scrolls combined with click-bait content aimed at grabbing and keeping attention does not really make up for praise-worthy endeavor. Some developers express regrets to have worked on addicting features on major social media platforms.
The content resonates with the impulses of breaking news, just sending signals and appealing to emotions, but not really educating or empowering the readers for what matters. It is content that elicits a knee-jerk reaction without understanding the underlying causes of the social or economic problems.
Rolf Dobelli, a writer, has published an elucidating article on improving mental well-being by cutting out news (those focused on “breaking news”) from the daily routine. Even though he spent years reading newspapers and watching the news (“consuming”), he felt like he grasped nothing. Probably he is not the only one who feels the same.
His brain was filled with information with no understanding of the underlying issues. This is a big problem in democratic societies, because adept and charismatic politicians exploit can manipulate people and even convince them of facts that are contrary to the truth.
For example, in a 2016 interview with the CNN, Newt Gingrich, a popular US politician, stated that “people feel more threatened” in the US. The interview was about crime and violence in the United States. Statistical and factual evidence showed that violent crimes have been in decline in the United States for over two decades.5 (2016, August 29). The Absurdity of Newt Gingrich’s “Feelings Over Facts.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2o0mAdRUpo However, Newt Gingrich insisted that the American people felt more “threatened.”
Regardless of political convictions, we need to discuss and debate with facts. Feelings matter, but feelings can be stirred up with misinformation and can distort the truth. We need to have discussions on solid footing. Unfortunately, feelings appeal more to people. It is feelings that win people’s hearts. It is feelings that cause a lasting change of mind.
Content makers appeal to feelings when producing and/or promoting content; often losing sight of what is valuable and meaningful, while focusing on what is entertaining.
News stories such as Melania Trump, the First Lady, pushing away former US President Donald Trump’s hand received more attention than a substantive debate about health care in a country that considers itself as “the greatest country in the world.” The United States has over 13 million uninsured people.6 Inc, G. (2019, January 23). U.S. Uninsured Rate Rises to Four-Year High. Gallup.Com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/246134/uninsured-rate-rises-four-year-high.aspx In 2020, according to Pew Research, over 63% of Americans preferred a single government program to provide health care.7NW, 1615 L. St, et al. “Increasing Share of Americans Favor a Single Government Program to Provide Health Care Coverage.” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/29/increasing-share-of-americans-favor-a-single-government-program-to-provide-health-care-coverage/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2021.
Being one of the most developed industrial countries without affordable and universal healthcare is not exactly praise-worthy. The United States is great for many things, but it is worthy to note where it falls short. It is not for lack of money, skills or talent to provide adequate health coverage for the uninsured, but for lack of will. Probably the uninsured feel the same way.
The media should focus on making discussions about core issues, such as healthcare more engaging. With all the green rooms and simulation technologies, with its armies of top developers, the mainstream media has not kept conversations about key issues engaging. This does not mean that we should all talk about core issues such as health-care, but the major media outlets spend too little time creating and sharing engaging content that empowers people.
Just like people are increasingly becoming aware about healthier eating choices and there are countries and states that consider taxing soda, I believe that mind-numbing (or “junk” content) should also be taxed at higher rates than content that serves to do public service. The difficulty about implementing this proposal would be what would make up “junk” content and who would judge it? At least we should think about the idea.
Entertainment is important, but the balance is skewed towards attention grabbing “innovations” such as Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and others, while discussions about alternative are considered taboo.
In defense of mainstream media and social media startups, they just follow the rules of the game. The system incentives and awards profit-maximizing behaviors. Therefore, we need to rethink our performance metrics and reimagine the ownership structure of businesses.
Whose Interests Do Being “Televised” And Social Media-zed Serve?
To understand the interests, we need to understand the ownership of media companies. The media and entertainment industry is big and growing. There is plenty of interest to have a piece of this large and ever-growing pie.
In 2020, the US media and entertainment industry was valued at about $720 billion, almost as much as the military budget $730 billion.8U.S. entertainment and media industry 2011-2020. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/237769/value-of-the-us-entertainment-and-media-market/ To put it in relative terms, the United States spends more on military than the next 10 countries combined.9Ranking: Military spending by country 2019. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/262742/countries-with-the-highest-military-spending/
Part of the overall rise in the media industry can be attributed to the rise of social media. Some hailed the rise of social media and saw it as a force of spreading and deepening our democracies.10 Ritu_Sharma, ContributorCEO, & Nonprofits, S. M. for. (500, 12:21). Social Media as a Formidable Force for Change. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/power-of-social-media-dem_b_6103222
Social media can help give voice to the disenfranchised. As a tool, social media can help grow social movements. For example, social media helped galvanize and organize supporters during the Arab Spring in 2011.11Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., & Sheafer, T. (n.d.). Social Media and the Arab Spring. 23. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1940161212471716 Just to clarify, it was not social media that generated the support for these movements. The people were frustrated by the poor governance across the Arab countries. Social media was a tool that helped them organize.
But we need to know the limits of social media. Even though they can mobilize people quickly, the sustainability and impact of these movements can be limited.12Malchik, A. (2019, May 6). The Problem With Social-Media Protests. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/in-person-protests-stronger-online-activism-a-walking-life/578905/ Protest movements tend to fizzle out quickly.
Social media is in the entertainment and marketing business. It has not purpose in promoting and fostering stronger democracy. If it helps foster, it is a positive side-effect of its work.
The underlying driver for social media companies is the same for all traditional companies, creating value for their shareholders. Each employee in the company needs to ensure the company’s profitability, either by producing goods and services that add surplus value or by creating an enabling environment to create surpluses.
Yes, some social media companies may start off with solving (and actually can solve problems for people and businesses), but afterwards the choices the business makes are heavily influenced by the metrics that businesses need to achieve and as agreed during board meetings, growth, profits and market share.
For Most, Social Media Posting Is Like Standing On A Soapbox
When it comes to social media (owned by an affluent minority), we are given the illusion of participation. Anyone can make a post “public.” The entire world can see it (at least half the world that is connected to the internet and social media, because the other half has no internet access)!
Most of us know that our posts are mostly seen by our small circle of family, friends and acquaintances who follow us, but there is this hope that our “post” will become “viral.” If we pick the right keywords, maybe, we will achieve some “internet fame.”
The challenge is that, for movements organized by people, there is no consensus that can easily be built on social media. The Arab Spring of 2011 did not lead to transformative lasting changes. Little has changed in substance.
The challenge with these movements is that there are many visions and conflicting ways of measuring success. In movements that seek to deepen democratic representation, each person is “empowered” to share his or her own view. If the movement moves from the digital to the streets, then it can take a life on its own. But protests, either digital or on the street wear out.13Naím, M. (2014, April 7). Why Street Protests Don’t Work. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/why-street-protests-dont-work/360264/
Most people have limited free and vacation time. Either people will protest or work overtime to pay for their bills or children’s education. Either they will be obedient workers, or they will risk losing a job by building a movement around a cause they care. As shown in the graph below, from the first part of this article, the average person in the US has limited time to protest (see free time in red). Protesting is unpaid, voluntary activity and happens usually during the “leisure time.”
Fervent supporters who are willing to give up material (and emotional) well-being and are firm believers in the cause can help start and sustain a movement. The problem is that these people are rare. Governments know this.
Unless someone has a strong passion and money to finance people to be out of work, mass protests will eventually fizzle out. People need to go to work, feed their family, pay the bills. There were massive pro-democracy protests in Belarus that started around August 2020. However, they have started to fizzle. The protestors have failed to dislodge the standing president from power.14“As Belarus Protests Freeze over, Lukashenko’s ‘Terror’ Targets Journalists.” Newsweek, 26 Jan. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/belarus-protests-freeze-over-lukashenko-terror-targets-journalists-1564148.
Mass protests are formed by an amorphous group of people who have different expectations for the outcome and different personal issues and needs. Governments and private interest groups can co-opt movements using the “divide-and-conquer strategy” because they have more time and money in their hands.
Paid employees in the government and media follow the instructions they receive and “do their job.” Media companies pay their employees to perpetuate ideas that serve the interests of their shareholders and customers. People who take part in protests volunteer their time, and if they get angry or disagree with some protestors, they can just stop showing up. However, for paid employees working in some state agency or media companies, getting angry at the employer may cause personal frustration and losing employment at worst.
Employees are paid full time for their work and efforts. Employers have the advantage because their employees are using their prime thinking to further their interests. If we consider that the attention is a form of a resource (just like energy) that diminishes over the course of the day, then employers (on average) are tapping into the best thoughts of their employees. It is difficult to come up with a grand strategy after eight hours of engaging work.
Therefore, it is difficult for someone who volunteers their limited leisure time for a societal cause to compete with someone whose full-time job is to “manage” a protest.
Without mass audiences and support, it is impossible to effectuate change. Those who control the creation, storage, dissemination and promotion of ideas hold power.
The revolution of the people, let us call them the “working class” will fail as long as the visions of their revolutions live within their own heads. As long as there are no shared standards (or indicators) how to measure the success of the achievement of a common vision, no revolution will succeed.
To have some chance at success, we need to support membership based media and journalism. We need to support media and journalism that is owned by the workers and the users.
How many times have you watched a channel and then the report said: “Sorry we have to go,” “We have to make time for ads” or “Let’s take a commercial break.” The mainstream media is too quick to skip to the next breaking news. The mainstream media is uncomfortable asking the important and tough questions around their employer’s interests and ownership.
Just like there are global organizations and associations to further business interests, there should be peoples’ organizations that advance peoples’ interests. Rather than have large, corporate monopolies, there should be a federation of news companies across the world that are funded by their individual readers (not corporate advertising).
We need to pay and own the media information we use (not “consume”). I understand that advertising is an important element and an important industry in business, but we need to rethink how we do it.
Some people may say that social media can help democratize access to information. However, it is important to know who owns social media? Who finances it? Whose interests does it serve? Do access to digital technologies and social media enable the disenfranchised to revolutionize the world in their interest?
Social media posting is like standing on a soap box on a busy street. Some passerbyers will walk by, few will stop, and even fewer (if none) will follow the advice given.
If we, the people, want to have power and influence, we need to have meaningful participation in government positions and the private sector industries that impact our lives. Given the current economic setup, this is not feasible or practical. Therefore in this blog we will explore ways how to make democracy actionable in our daily lives.
Without people funded social media accounts designed to serve and promote the well-being of all people, social media will not be the tool for the people’s revolutionary transformation.
We need to understand that ownership matters.
Ownership Matters For Democratic Participation
Media is driven by supply and demand. What gets televised is what will attract the viewer’s attention, not necessarily what the viewers want or need to hear.
For example, Aunt Jemmima, popular US breakfast company, changed its racist branding because now popular support has shifted.15Business, J. V., CNN. (n.d.). The Aunt Jemima brand, acknowledging its racist past, will be retired. CNN. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/17/business/aunt-jemima-logo-change/index.html Media responds to popular swings. Tipping point. Aunt Jemmima change in marketing is as much opportunistic marketing as it is an attempt to rectify historic wrongs. But the time when it the company chose to do so, rings more of opportunistic marketing, than genuine reflection about the racial connotations of its marketing. As some say, better late than never.
Media that is owned in the hands of few generally has no interest to perpetuate democratic form of functioning. In the words of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, the mainstream media works to “manufacture consent.” It is not to empower.
Empowered media and empowered journalism means member-funded and/or worker-owned and directed media and journalist companies.
It matters who and how journalism is paid for. It matters who owns the companies. If we want to get our attention back, we need to fund the journalism we believe in and that serves our interests.
This blog is ad free. It’s user supported because it aims to serve its users. To ensure democratic access, there will always be free blog posts, while some additional features and researched content will be offered to the paying members to support the development of this blog.
Action Steps I Can Take
In the spirit of praxis, practical application of a theory, we propose several action steps that one can take to turn the theoretical thinking in this blog, into actionable steps.
- 3“YouTube Says It Paid the Music Industry More than $3 Billion Last Year.” MSN, https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/youtube-says-it-paid-the-music-industry-more-than-dollar3-billion-last-year/ar-BB100BZB. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.
- 4Service, Purdue News. Money Only Buys Happiness for a Certain Amount. https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2018/Q1/money-only-buys-happiness-for-a-certain-amount.html. Accessed 31 Jan. 2021.
- 5(2016, August 29). The Absurdity of Newt Gingrich’s “Feelings Over Facts.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2o0mAdRUpo
- 6Inc, G. (2019, January 23). U.S. Uninsured Rate Rises to Four-Year High. Gallup.Com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/246134/uninsured-rate-rises-four-year-high.aspx
- 7NW, 1615 L. St, et al. “Increasing Share of Americans Favor a Single Government Program to Provide Health Care Coverage.” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/29/increasing-share-of-americans-favor-a-single-government-program-to-provide-health-care-coverage/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2021.
- 8U.S. entertainment and media industry 2011-2020. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/237769/value-of-the-us-entertainment-and-media-market/
- 9Ranking: Military spending by country 2019. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/262742/countries-with-the-highest-military-spending/
- 10Ritu_Sharma, ContributorCEO, & Nonprofits, S. M. for. (500, 12:21). Social Media as a Formidable Force for Change. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/power-of-social-media-dem_b_6103222
- 11Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., & Sheafer, T. (n.d.). Social Media and the Arab Spring. 23. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1940161212471716
- 12Malchik, A. (2019, May 6). The Problem With Social-Media Protests. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/in-person-protests-stronger-online-activism-a-walking-life/578905/
- 13Naím, M. (2014, April 7). Why Street Protests Don’t Work. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/why-street-protests-dont-work/360264/
- 14“As Belarus Protests Freeze over, Lukashenko’s ‘Terror’ Targets Journalists.” Newsweek, 26 Jan. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/belarus-protests-freeze-over-lukashenko-terror-targets-journalists-1564148.
- 15Business, J. V., CNN. (n.d.). The Aunt Jemima brand, acknowledging its racist past, will be retired. CNN. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/17/business/aunt-jemima-logo-change/index.html