In Defense of Intentional Media: Understanding Media Fifty Years Later

Part one of a three part essay entitled In Defense of Intentional Media: On Consciousness, Entertainment, and the Detriments of Streaming, “Understanding Media Fifty Years Later” examines recent developments in media technology and the decreasing levels of engagement and creative stimulation that result.

In the beginning there was television, a device that assured the imminent collapse of the human attention span with its rapid-fire presentation of images, information, and thoughtless storylines. As a medium related to film in concept but different in content, television introduced a new era in the young life of the moving image, which perpetuated the distant relationship between audience and subject over the course of a mere thirty minutes. As television’s dominance over our free time grew, our brains became more accustomed to the screen’s quick images as it became a common fixture in our homes, ultimately giving the smartphone and all of its internet-reliant applications a fruitful future in our interminable quest for quick-and-easy information, entertainment, and communication.

The black-and-white areas of film and television began graying in the early ‘60s with the disorienting inauguration of the made-for-TV movie, the agoraphobic response to the once-communal cinematic experience. Pioneering the concept of stay-at-home cinema, later to evolve into home video, syndicated movies, and online streaming, the marriage of television and film begat a fatal byproduct: the viewing public’s tendency to see the two mediums as interchangeable. Though the filmic well was far from pure before small-screen seepage, quickness-and-ease became a deadly disease afflicting former moviegoers in the decreasingly intentional act of committing oneself to two hours of sensual monogamy.

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Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), the first made-for-TV film ultimately considered too violent to air

In the time since television has made movie-watching unintentional, other mediums have picked up on the financial benefits of spoon feeding an audience with sufficient motoric capabilities. Regardless of how many crumbs services like Spotify and YouTube are removing from under their artists’ noses, it’s just as important to be aware of the fact that they drastically change the way the consumer listens to (or views) music. These services mimic television’s revenue-based-on-advertisements business model and swap the individualistic aspect of owning a collection of music based on personal preference and implicit meaning for the collective trough of “channels” in an homage to radio, founding father of background media. Similarly, the fact that books are becoming increasingly unbooklike in their tendency to actually be small television sets may change the way we read them. It seems from this point forward all impending media revolutions will, in fact, be television-ized.

In order to better understand our relationship with media it would be difficult not to refer to the writings of Marshall McLuhan, the man who comprehended the twentieth century better than anyone else. Prophet of all things communicative and source of infinite aphorisms, McLuhan accurately diagnosed the medium, or the physical form the content takes, as the message as opposed to the content itself. He would refer to Mad Max, Mad Men , and m.A.A.d. city as the juicy sirloin steaks distracting the “watchdog of the mind” while the burglars – streaming services, eBooks, and any other electronic straws utilized to more easily guzzle information – sneak by unnoticed.

Though most of his predictions were spot on, what McLuhan may not have foreseen was the blatant shift in public attention from steak to burglar. At some point the thief was spotted and has since achieved celebrity status (making headlines with every genetic enhancement he undergoes), causing his act of distraction to be the event that slips by unnoticed. McLuhan may attribute this to the ever-growing series of Russian Dolls swallowing up the content, or basic idea, hidden inside the language (used in the article (written for a website (accessible by app (in turn accessible by phone)))). But then again I may know nothing of his work.

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“Diaper backward spells repaid. Think about it.” – Marshall McLuhan

Returning to the thought of changed listening habits, music has taken a similar trajectory to that of film, vinyl being the first in-home ambassador. But after numerous experiments in physical distribution – compact, quadrilateral, or both – music has settled on being an unpossessible abstraction freely and invisibly permeating our daily lives through the miracle of the internet. Nestling the pure content of music further into the bowels of its encompassing mediums, Spotify is the most television-like presentation of music imaginable, and in being so has predictably captured the attention of over seventy-five million listeners.

What McLuhan once called “hot” and “cool” mediums have suddenly divided themselves into “intentional” and “unintentional” with recent developments in accessibility. For example, once very much an intentional practice, listening to new music required financial commitment and a certain amount of faith. Now, with the unthinkable ease of streaming services, that faith has dwindled to agnosticism as we shuffle between the infinite amount of new music readily available for free. Clicking through playlists, radio stations, or albums on Spotify has become analogous to impatiently flipping through channels on television – with so many options we tend to heighten our expectations, usually resulting in a lowering of standards. Before the internet, recorded music – like home video – was available only as a one-time individual purchase. Again, having adopted the television business model, Spotify has televisionized music by implementing a monthly payment plan for unlimited streaming, as well as content exclusive to the medium.

The benefit of Spotify over a premium cable package, though, is that non-paying parties may still access the audio equivalent of HBO and its competitors, only suffering through commercial interruption, a limited number of channel-changes, and imperceptibly worse image quality. Since most chart-topping albums are uploaded to Spotify immediately upon release, the only off-limits pay-per-view channels are those of the outspoken advocates of intentionality, whose music can just as easily be streamed anywhere else for free. Whereas free artist- or label-based streaming platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud encourage engagement with the artist through comments sections, artist statements, personal recommendations, and optional direct financial support, Spotify assimilates all of its artists into the infinite and anonymous network of broadcast programming.

But the side-effects of free streaming are potentially much more severe than those of television. While television was designed as a medium permitting of its viewers’ unintentionality with its uniquely uncontextual storylines and frequent commercial interruptions, the shift from playing records to streaming content from Spotify has begun to yield similar results. Gone is the attachment to an album which collectors and even pay-per-tune streamers enjoy after the (presumably) intentional process of spending money on a new addition to a limited collection of content. After all, what’s the point of a pricey private art collection when Google Images instantly satisfies viewing needs for free?

Further, like a televised movie, albums lose momentum when they’re split up by someone who’s not affiliated with the artist or label. The act of flipping a vinyl over not only adds to the engagement with the music as more than a means of covering up uncomfortable silences, but serves as an intermission purposefully placed mid-album. With Spotify ads, a break will likely occur interrupting the flow of two songs that are specifically meant to be heard back-to-back. Perhaps the way artists organize their albums will change in the future – like with made-for-TV movies we’ll begin to hear cliffhangers before every ad.

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“…this is like the last fart, the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” – outspoken advocate of intentionality Thom Yorke poetically, disgustingly on Spotify

Accurately dubbed the “album of the streaming world,” Spotify’s heavy promotion of playlists certainly hasn’t helped eradicate the popularity of the album’s favorite severed limbs commonly known as their “singles.” Another form of weak engagement with the medium, personal and artist-curated playlists encourage the listener to strip an album of purpose by creating a random collage comprised only of the musical equivalent to a story’s climax. Though more than appropriate for parties, restaurants, and other settings of plateaued climax, a playlist doesn’t provide any context for its components, making it entirely suitable for an unintentional culture (or a postmodern culture welcoming of the pissing contest that is re-attribution of artistic credit).

What Spotify signifies in the development of listening mediums is the advocation of lowered standards in the quality of our listening experiences. Enticed by the low-hanging fruit “free,” the streaming service promotes an explicitly accidental form of listening tailored to a generation of media consumers who insist on stumbling upon, as opposed to searching for, and further impedes immersal with numerous distractions. We’ve made music as “easy” as television, and it seems that every advancement is merely another step away from “intentional.”

And this seems to be the trend in all facets of daily life: the purpose of most phone apps is to make things easier, sucking intentionality out of everyday tasks such as commuting and communicating (the term “last minute change in plans” can now be taken very literally), as well as potential long-term decisions like dating and self-diagnosing life threatening diseases. Within a single medium of communication there are now dozens of social sub-media to choose from, and in a way the medium has now become the message for countless tools as banal as flashlights and levels that never had mediums before, as they existed for a single purpose.

Even the way we take in information has been affected by this “stumble upon” approach, as social media, clickbait, and related articles fill our brains with trivial information irrelevant to our interests that we would never have consciously sought out. Our information intake resembles the act of flipping through channels, as we scan through webpages until we stumble upon something worth reading, before proceeding to change the channel when we lose interest (or if the eye-catching advertisement on the side of the page makes you want to grab a Coke). It seems that in this post-McLuhanian era, the majority of the knowledge and experience we gain results from an escalating series of purely accidental encounters.

Meanwhile, in the world of cinema, the past few decades have seen a constant evolution of viewing standards since the normalization of home viewing in the 1970s. Like music, every improvement has been based on quality and ease, as the jump from videocassettes to digital video eliminated the hassle of rewinding and improved the sometimes-shaky image, and the more recent evolution from digital video to streaming content eased the struggle of having to open and close your disc tray. The biggest jump, the leap from theaters to living rooms with the development of home video, slowly depleted our viewing experiences of their ritualistic exceptionality resulting in a casual routineness on par with the dreaded convenience of television. With an even more convenient “pause” feature in lieu of the sixty-second grace period for reapportioning liquids, the VCR and its analogic ancestry allowed for unrushed intermissions, along with the infinite number of benefits attached to the boob-tubular options of multitasking.

Though it certainly doesn’t necessitate it, streaming video presents viewers with a whole new range of opportunity for multitasking, as making dinner and folding laundry are still doable multi-tasks, but we also now have the internet dangerously close to our fingertips. With the looming possibility of IMDb corroboration, Wikipedia wormholes, and urgent social media affairs, it’s becoming more and more unlikely to take in an entire film in one sitting, as a ninety-minute feature spans the frame of three hours.

While the term “media” has been meticulously defined over the course of three hundred pages by Marshall McLuhan and redefined with the addition and improvement of every medium of information and entertainment conceived of since 1960, at its core media is simply the key to an infinite series of doors populating our subconscious, accessible only when a certain event, such as a novel, piece of music, work of art, or film, is experienced. Though we have no knowledge of an individual room before a certain media experience opens its door, the thrill of discovering it is what keeps us returning to the experience (mentally and physically) and to its medium. If the experience is powerful enough, this door may remain open for the rest of your life.

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Artistic representation of various infinities enclosed behind subconscious doors (Suburbs of the Paranoiac-Critical City; Afternoon on the Outskirts of European History, Salvador Dali, 1936)

Yet for a medium to possess the strength of immortal doorstop, the human brain must be fully present to absorb the ineffable meaningfulness of certain details, such as the singer’s voice cracking, proving that being human is still sometimes a thing that happens in music, or the recognition of Adam Sandler’s oversized suit as a way of making him look like a child whose irrational and stubborn behavior can be attributed to an understanding of identity that is nowhere near fully developed. Unfortunately, it’s these same details which are often missed when we’re not fully invested in the art we’re consuming.

When we strip away the labels of the various mediums obstructing the content’s purpose we’re more easily able to immerse ourselves in our newly-obtained mental space. But the keys to these spaces have become increasingly harder to locate – or increasingly harder to want to locate – as we’ve begun viewing all media more as an infinite series of empty rooms we thoughtlessly poke our heads into, refusing to commit ourselves to any single space we could potentially furnish with our unique perspectives.

Much like the term “background music,” which has inexplicably slipped into our lexicon, referring to an artist’s work as a “background film” experienced in the periphery of performing daily chores would be more insulting than any scathing review or full-theater walkout. But as offering our full attention to the moving image for a mere ninety minutes becomes harder to do, the more likely we are to view the “hot” medium of film as also being predominantly “unintentional.”

This is likely a result of the “fast food culture” we live in, based on easy and instant gratification, which is quickly spilling over into the industry of entertainment media. As an unavoidable side-effect of our rapidly shifting culture which values deliberate ease over offsetting diabetes, it’s become custom to put little thought into decision making so long as the end result abates hunger. Similarly, our means of consuming media have welcomed easier satiation through instant streaming services for movies, television, and music which provide a seemingly unlimited database of options easily accessible at the click of a button.

It’s hard to believe that McLuhan’s century was the same one that billeted Edison’s quip about opportunities missed due to a guise of overalls and Yeats’ claim that “to articulate sweet sounds together” is to work harder than white- or blue-collar workers, who demeaned poets as “idlers.” But in this century, what’s the point of working hard to articulate any sounds together when everyone’s mind-watchdog is too preoccupied with celebrity culture and drive-thru menus to enjoy a nice steak dinner?

Author: Mike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he currently holds the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Assistant at Facets.

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