The Medium Shapes The Message

Arnold Kling writes, “how would history have been different had television been available in the 18th century but not in the 21st century, rather than vice-versa? Second, where does the Internet fit in?”:

In the eighteenth century, the newly-independent United States held a Convention in order to bring its Articles of Confederation up to date. This contentious, deliberative process resulted in one of the most significant documents in human history — our Constitution.

In our century, we have seen attempts at historic Constitutions in the European Union and Iraq that so far have failed. The EU produced a bloated document filled with politically correct phrases embodying an unworkable vision, mercifully not yet ratified due to an outbreak of rebellion by voters in the Netherlands and France. The Iraqi Constitution failed to pacify key interest groups, and as a result it has been shattered by insurgents and armed militias.

What if the Constitutional Convention of the 18th century had been held in the media environment of today? My guess is that the outcome would have been somewhere in between what we have seen in Europe and what we saw in Iraq.

By the same token, had the European Constitution been written in a media environment dominated by the written word, perhaps it would have been a humbler, simpler, more pragmatic document. Perhaps if Iraq were not under the glare of television, the suicide bombers and terrorists would not have nearly as much impact on the public mind, there or in the United States, and the forces of peace could prevail.


The Internet has dramatically accelerated the balkanization of mass culture, a trend which was already beginning in the 1970s. Television and print news are increasingly a medium for the elderly–“newspapers are for people who remember newspapers”, as Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff recently wrote. And with Hollywood doing everything it can to diminish its power as the last mass medium, oddly enough, politics, and the shared interest in what comes out of Washington, is one of the last unifying elements of popular culture.


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