It's Not the Media, but the Medium, that Rules Your Thoughts

Welcome to the Digital Age

Barack Obama very recently clarified the most important debate suffusing our political life. In an interview, he said that the “single biggest threat to our democracy” was the challenge to authority the internet posed to the professional class that sees its vocation as informing everyone what’s true and false and right and wrong.  

To me, it’s not just fair but instructive to hear in the former president’s carefully chosen words the clear claim that the internet is the enemy of the people. Of course, the claim perfectly contrasts with Donald Trump’s notorious charge that the enemy of the people is the “fake news media.”  

Some observers might want to make a political point out of this contrast. To me, the key point to make is at a higher level, in the realm of media theory. The radical disagreement between Obama and Trump, the leaders of their respective parties, evinces a deeper agreement: which regime and which way of life prevail in America, both suggest, depends on which communications medium dominates and defines our psychological and social environment.  

The Obama position, which increasingly defines the Left, is that democracy is at root a dream. Justice and virtue are to be found in the imagination, not in the incarnate world; the just and virtuous rule justly and with virtue by transmitting into the imagination of the ruled the pure and perfect knowledge obtainable only through expert rectitude in dreaming of what should be. 

Justice and virtue, in other words, requires a ruling class of experts at imagining in the best possible way and a ruled class that is constantly, consistently imbued with what the ruling class imagines. That class must be officially established as the authoritative source of both new and prior imaginings. It must be the ultimate, controlling source of information about which novel dreams express requisite ethical progress and which established ones conserve settled interpretations.

This position expresses a theory not just of justice but of media. To work, it requires that a certain type of medium dominate and define our psychological and social environment—one that, in its very form and shaping effect on our souls, causes the imagination to be the paramount human faculty or potency, in our social experience as much as our psychological sensibility. Without this kind of medium, a Barack Obama does not become president. Neither does a ruling class rule that supports and identifies with such a president. 

The ruling class we have today is of this kind, stretched in thick latticework across academia, Hollywood, PR and HR, the advertisement and social media industries, and what we call in misleading shorthand “the media,” namely, the professional class that pursues the self-appointed vocation of informing everyone what is true and false and right and wrong through its mastery of the medium of video. Anything that can be put on screens—e.g. text and audio as well as video—is a resource used by this class to rule us by creating what seems to be a single authoritative discourse and ruling us through it. 

This mode of rule proved very effective in America, right up until, as Obama implies, a new medium arose to shape our inner and outer lives in a radically different and more powerful way than the medium of video.  

That’s the digital medium—one where the potency of the human faculty of imagination was overthrown or obsolesced as our foundational formative influence by the potency of the machine faculty of memory. 

The super-powerful memory of our digital machines breeds a new kind of disenchantment: we sense and know that human imagination is no longer the ultimate in authority when it comes to what we think, how we talk, what we long for, and what we do. Even the most expert imaginings lose their claim to mastery over our souls. Rather than being and representing the ultimate in reality, imagination, and the video medium that best transmits it into the souls of all, become palpably fake.  

Whatever Trump’s personal reasons for declaring political war against “the media,” Obama’s counterattack against the internet helps show us how the source of this conflict is the unfolding sea change in our ruling medium, from the visual to the digital. 

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.