Communication and Super-Saturation of the Modern Sense of Self
"How does the design of information structure the information process? And how, on the other side of the equation, does the nature of audience engagement structure its reception?"
Communication by its very nature is a dialogue. One person or medium speaks. Another individual or an audience of individuals receives the word or the message being conveyed. As with any performance, particularly a live performance, the method of transmission of the message conveyed invariably affects the message itself.
This is demonstrated in its most raw form during an improvised performance piece such as that of a stand-up comic. The comic realizes that he or she is not getting a favorable reception from the audience.
They are yawning, or signaling to the waiter that they would like some new drinks. The comic takes stock of this information, realizing that he or she is not targeting his audience appropriately -- perhaps they are older or younger than originally assumed, during the preparation of the material. However, a skillful comic will be able to adjust his message to the audience -- or, adjust the audience to the material, using volume shifts and increased animation to gain their attention.
A web page cannot shift its message in such a fashion, however. It can only grab a viewer's attention very briefly, and then lose it if it is not interest to that particular individual. The only recourse of advertising and the Internet in mediums that so easily bend to the will of the consumer, is to bombard them with messages, hoping that one will 'stick.' As a result, today, individuals are supersaturated with information, from a multitude of sources. Once, only a few televised shows existed. Now individuals have access to myriad television sources from around the world. The Internet is yet another resource, a veritable information superhighway for the consumer of information.
However, this super saturation means that the way individuals have always consumed information and understood information likewise has shifted and changed. When reading a book, one must engage in the laborious process of finding it, opening it up, and either read it from cover to cover or at very least, consult an index to retrieve the information. Reading a printed document is linear in nature. One usually does not have access to varied translations and interpretations, immediately, upon perusing any bit of information. Even a performance must be seen to the end, else one risks seeming rude. There is or at least was a certain assumption of attention.
But unlike books or magazines, the Internet conveys information in a discursive fashion. One can click onto a website and be presented with one political opinion. One can click onto another website and be presented with a completely different set of facts.
Thus, the question is presented -- how does this new, less linear form of communication and the reception of information affect today's consumer of information? How has it affected the purveyors of communication and their responsiveness to the changed minds of consumers?
As early as 1991, the psychologist Kenneth Gergen lamented what he called a society where "truth" was in "trouble." In his text, The Saturated Self, Gergen asked "What is the truth about our economic condition, when a stockbroker friend says the market is going into serious decline, a television analyst predicts a bull market, and foreign investors view the situation as stable?" (85) Ironically, Gergen wrote long before the Internet's full impact had been felt upon the minds of American and international consumers of information. Gergen lamented the profusion of new information, as providing individuals with too many options as to their identity, stating that when different worlds can be accessed with a flick of a switch of the remote control, anything seems possible.
Gergen traced a direct line from increased access to nonlinear profusions of information to the growth of diversity education and women's studies in the academy, to the increased playfulness of assumed identities amongst the undergraduates in his midst. Through telephones and travels to TV, as individuals see more ways of living and 'being' in the world, ideologically, they wish to be all things at once, and end up being nothing. Gergen condemned the work of individuals such as Judith Butler, who stressed that the more one senses that one's own identity is 'performed' and socially constructed, the more one was apt to mistrust coherent cultural messages about the self that are communicated to an individual.
To take up Butler's line of thought -- for instance, a woman who understands that different forms of 'femininity' are being sold to her, in one advertisement where a woman is happily mopping the floor and in another when she is shown to be sweating 'like a man,' is apt to be a better, more critical consumer of information as it is communicated to her, of what it means to be a woman. Because she as a consumer is in control of the information as well, more visions of womanhood are likely to be presented to her, acknowledging that different segments of the female marketplace have different needs and visions of themselves.
However, other thinkers such as William O'Barr, author of a cultural review of advertising, suggests that the medium of transmitting a message may not nearly be important as one might think. When an individual gazes at an exotic woman in an ad, individuals have always been changed, often for the worse, he argues. This type of message was conveyed not just recently, but ever since the dawn of marketing, when individuals gazed at 'natives' advertising National Geographic, for instance. O'Barr states that to gaze at something it to render it 'other,' as well as to potentially identify with it. Advertising and marketing and the consumption of information, even through books, has always changed the self and educated the self for the better or for the worse -- it is not the interactive nature of the medium but the message conveyed in the visual design.
However, Gergen might counter that certain mediums are more apt to provoke identification than other mediums. Intensely visual mediums that require quick, attention-grabbing stimulus, like websites, are more apt to transmit false or misleading information, or to personalize the information for the itchy finger of a WebCrawler, rather than a magazine advertisement, as analyzed in Barr's Culture and the Ad.
Social, political, cultural contours of the problem
Gergen's dire, one might say almost hysterical psychological predictions of youth gone wrong may or may not have fully come to pass. But clearly, exposure to information sources of varying kinds increases both the sense of diversity and possibility of different modes of truth. The profusion of quick cuts in everything from MTV to popular movies shows a shortened attention span of the minds of consumers. Politicians have likewise been affected by this transition to shorter ways of understanding ideas -- it is sobering to reflect that The Federalist Papers, a weighty text, was common reading during the founding of the nation, while political 'sound bites' are today's information currency, where even a speech must be shortened for consumption. Culturally, individuals explore differing identities, assuming 'hip hop' personas, even in the whitest suburban enclaves, as if identity is something that can be purchased, rather than something that is experienced as a given.
Many postmodern thinkers, unlike Gergen, might suggest that this is a positive aspect of the Internet revolution and of the fragmentation of the postmodern self. Once race, gender, and other ideas are experienced as false, individuals will become more tolerant and ultimately better able to communicate. Racism and nationalism should decrease -- however, it could also be cautioned that the more individuals are taught to mistrust their sense of self and gender within a community,…