Television-Dependent to Internet-Engaged Culture

During the early days of television, modern society was steeped in a value-rich environment with an abundance of meaningful cultural experiences. The spirit of modernism was alive and well in art galleries, museums, classrooms and around the television every evening. The television console, with its cathode ray tube technology, was an iconic symbol of modernism. For over half a century society gathered around television sets in an evening ritual that reaffirmed cultural bonds and values. People settled back in their favorite chairs to unwind in a state of apathetic suspension with no active involvement required. The cool glow of the TV screen warmed society with a sense of belonging.

Corporate America smartly took advantage of the television mystique and cultivated a nationwide market of avid consumers. The television audience was an easy mark for the guile of commercial advertising. Reliant on the viewing ritual and sense of community it provided, habituated viewers were captivated by an endless parade of programs, commercials, commodities and role models designed to keep them immersed in consumer culture. Over time, the complacency of the television mystique and society’s obsession with consumerism would have devastating effects on the value systems that gave meaning to Western culture.

The public was led down a primrose path as they identified with consumer ideals represented in commercial television. The hallowed traditions of Western culture were depleted of their subjective value as they were appropriated by commercial advertising. The typical advertising strategy relied on evoking the emotive content of cultural symbols to enhance their products. Famous Beatles' recordings, once held sacred as symbols of the cultural flourish of the 1960s, were drained of subjective value as they were recast as background music in Nike shoe commercials. Consumer society, striving to live the commercialized American dream, never noticed as the transcendental experiences of modern culture gave way to the shallow gratifications of consumerism and the television mystique.

As modern culture was drained of subjective value by advertising duplicity, capitalism took on a life of its own. Consumerism offered church-sanctioned, media-driven materialism as an end in itself. Avid shoppers became obsessed with the cycle of buying and owning. With waters chummed with cheap pastiche, consumer society went into a decades-long feeding frenzy -- coming up for air just long enough to vote for more of the same.

Capitalism may be as old as the dawn of causal consciousness, but it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that it took on attributes of a cultural discipline for acquiring personal values in the all-encompassing manner we find at the height of consumerism. The influence of commercial television on developing value systems increased as the number of viewing hours increased. At some point in the growing obsession, consumerism and the television mystique replaced the cultural experiences of family, religion and the arts as the foundation for developing social skills and ethical codes.

America became a television-dependent consumer society of pop culture junkies with personalities reflecting the banalities of a television totem (Neilsen ratings). As developing personalities followed in the path of their pop culture heroes, they found cultural fulfillment through buying and owning products of media-produced fads. The family-oriented television audience was caught up in a search for personal fulfillment through product consumption. Success was no longer about upward mobility and middle class values. It was about consumer hedonism and corporate profits.

Following the economic collapse of the corporate banking industry in 2008, television-dependent consumer society found itself underemployed and overextended. Compulsive shoppers were forced to go cold turkey as the era of wasteful spending came to an end. Society abandoned product consumption as the path to personal fulfillment. Families would still gather around flat screen equivalents of the television console every evening, but as the internet took over as the ‘medium of the masses’, television lost the ability to perpetuate consumer myths. Consumer confidence has revivied along with the economy, but consumerism will never again reach the feverish pitch of the past few decades.

After the economy collapsed and the buying spree ended, people found themselves in a lifeless culture with few of the meaningful experiences responsible for propagating civility within society. Who were they to blame? In an irony already exploited for political gain by culture war antagonists, the right half of the political spectrum blamed the left for declining cultural values.

Television news programming provided a window on the world for a nationwide audience in the 1950s. Three channels covered the news without a strongly-differentiated left/right political bias. As three broadcast networks were joined by an array of cable alternatives, competition for audience share intensified. People gravitated toward channels catering to their particular interests. Following the success of televangelists in the 1980s, culture war themes provided opportunities for competing cable networks to increase their audience share.

The political bias of each network was determined in a top down scenario and remained more or less constant as cable networks consolidated segments of the television audience into a consumer base for advertisers. Economically-motivated, politically-slanted editorial imperatives influenced the flow of information and coverage of news events. The narrowed political view of competing cable networks, while profitable, was instrumental in polarizing society into a culture with divergent and seemingly irreconcilable value systems.

Reporters and journalists, their humanitarian values considered a liberal bias, had little choice but to conform to the prejudices of mass media. Corporations owned the networks and corporations were the principal source of advertising revenue. Only political views that protected corporate interests reached the evening news. This would appear to have been the case regardless of the political bias of the network. With few exceptions, centrist and left-leaning networks were complicit in polarizing society and perpetuating the political stalemate by their unwillingness to represent journalism critical of reckless corporate practices or to make the connection between right-wing terrorism in America and the rabble rousing of right-wing media.

The television audience has been inundated with news coverage dramatizing hot button social issues, but has not been so well informed on events and trends conflicting with the interests of corporate advertisers. Typically, when a developing situation (whether domestic or foreign) threatens quarterly profits, it is brought to the front burner and characterized as unamerican and anticapitalist. With programming content tailored to corporate dictates, it seems unlikely commercial television will play a significant role in bringing about cultural and political changes in the 21st century.

Our once vibrant culture went into a downward spiral in its obsession with consumerism and the television mystique. The quality of the cultural experience diminished as advertising duplicity siphoned off the subjective content of symbols and traditions. It was not until after the rise of social media that a new way of being would emerge to pull society from the doldrums of disenfranchised culture (and the clutches of nihilism). In a grassroots revival of cultural values, society started coalescing into subgroups displaying a renewed sense of community.

The internet has taken over as the medium of the masses. Social media has established itself as the voice of the people independent of mass media. As people incorporate new technologies into their lives, they have the opportunity to develop beliefs and practices free of the dictates of media boardrooms and the ideology of consumerism. The key lies in continued access to social networking venues and the alternative information sources of the internet. Here, the impact of news events is content driven; that is to say, the importance of events is determined by the response of the web community (number of hits and reposts), and not by corporate policy.

People are finding their own way out of the discord of late modern society as they open up to influences outside their cliques. In the process, the irreconcilably divided camps of late modern society are becoming coexisting subcultures of internet-engaged neo-modern culture. Every organization with a hat in the ring would like to take credit for increased civility in their area, but the shift in values seems to be taking place everywhere and supersedes local efforts to reduce crime or revitalize neighborhoods. While the vehicle for change is social media, the motivation comes from the people themselves; from society’s ability to generate existential values in the grassroots cultural movement.