Critiques of modern mass media in terms of depth and accuracy of reporting are commonplace. They are also completely wrong. They are wrong for the simple reason that mass media, including practically all content created by individual publishers, is not merely “media” as such, but “consumer media”, which, given its distinction from media in general, cannot be criticized on the quality of its content because content, in the context of consumption, is wholly irrelevant. The only thing that matters in the context of consumer media is how effective it can keep an audience captive for a duration of time that it is consumed.
To understand the difference between consumer media and media in general we must first distinguish the difference between objects of use and objects of consumption. A use object is instrumental, that is, it is designed to be used for the pursuit of some goal other than the object itself. For example, a writing instrument like a pen is used for writing, which, every time it is used, is not consumed in the process, but remains intact to be used in the future as long as the materials and structure remain intact. In contrast, a consumption object is consumed wholly in its use, acting not as a tool for the production of something else but as part of the process of life’s cycle of metabolism with nature. Food is a simple example of a consumer good, however, in modern times many objects that were historically use objects have now been turned into objects of consumption, for example a dress that is worn only once for a particular event.
This distinction between use objects and consumer objects, as well as the historical transition from instrumentality to consumption is described in Hannah Arendt’s famous work The Human Condition. One of the key themes in Arendt’s work is the distinction between work and labor, the results of each being use objects and consumer objects respectively. A distinction is further drawn between the condition of man that creates each type of object: homo faber, man as fabricator, and animal laborans, man as a laboring animal. Homo faber can be effectively illustrated by the craftsman, someone who creates the world of man-made objects, whereas animal laborans can be illustrated by a laborer like the farmer, cook, or cleaner, whose work is consumed right after it is produced, restarting the whole process from the beginning. Where homo faber produces objects that are durable and instrumental, animal laborans takes part in a never ending process of labor in order to sustain life.
Arendt further shows us how the human condition has undergone a transition from a life of action in the ancient world, to the capitalism of homo faber in modernity, and finally to today’s postmodern world of animal laborans. In the ancient world of Greek city states, labor was a greatly despised activity, reserved primarily for the slaves. The slaves were used not as means to increase production, but rather as means to relieve the free citizen from the yoke of necessity, in turn allowing him to participate in the public realm, that is, the political realm. The craftsmen who were free men, however, were also despised, albeit to a lesser degree. This was because the fabrication of objects was a private activity, unlike action and contemplation—great deeds and words—which were activities of the public realm. The private nature of craft meant that the free craftsman was seemingly turning his back on the very thing his freedom allowed him to do, namely, participation in the political realm.
For various reasons, which are not relevant for our current purposes, modernity saw the rise of homo faber, whose domain became the exchange market. Action, with its inherent uncertainty, became despised, and the free life of politics turned into the tame activity of public administration. With the bourgeois uprising during the French Revolution, homo faber installed himself and his mode of life, capitalism, in control of the Western World, but the victory was not to last. After the two brutal wars of the last century, it is not homo faber that remains, but rather, animal laborans, who lives now not in the two historically separate realms of the private and public, but in the realm of the “social”—a mass society that is neither private nor public. As Arendt points out, Marx’s big mistake was that he believed that given free time, the laboring class would use it for productive means, i.e. “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner”, however what actually happened was that given free time the animal laborans uses it the only way he knows how—he fills it up with consumption. The victory of animal laborans has led to a society of consumers with a “consumer market”, the only purpose of which is to fuel a never ending cycle of consumption, or, as Marx put it, the cycle of life’s metabolism with nature.
If we look at mass media from the point of view of the human condition, specifically from the point of view of a world of animal laborans, we can see that our media is not merely media as such, but actually consumer media, the purpose of which is not to offer information or ideas to be used for the creation of something else, but consumption of the viewers or readers time in a pleasant way. Where traditional media, e.g. a book, is instrumental—that is, it offers material for the audience to take and build on, educating them and giving them the tools to create better work—consumer media is consumptive, that is, it keeps an audience captive for a duration of time after which it is wholly consumed.
The evolution of media on the Web offers strong evidence in support of this thesis. Unlike the early Web, with its explosion of personal websites, today’s Web is becoming ever more centralized, with new content being published through large social networks rather than on separate websites. Search was the dominant mode of operation in the early days of individual sites scattered across the vast canvas of the Web. Today, it is the centralized feed, with a never ending stream of new submissions. Whether it is a social network, a social news site or a publishing network, the feed is the central feature that provides a passive form of consumption. This is why the TV is so popular. The consumer doesn’t want choice, they don’t want to search and choose, they just want to sit down and be entertained.
All consumer media is a basic form of entertainment, whether or not it is presented as such; things like news and documentaries are merely veiled forms of the same basic product of time consumption. As a result, modern mass media cannot be criticized in terms of the quality of its content, i.e. the depth of its ideas or the accuracy of its facts—its only purpose is to keep the audience captive, and so the only measure of its “quality” is how effective it is at doing this.