Entertaining the Masses in Developing, Poor Countries
The cramped offices of Toper, Macedonia’s leading publisher of reference works, are a shrine to the book. Thickset tomes – mainly translations from the English – are strewn everywhere. The proud owners show us their latest crop: two beautifully bound, quality paper volumes - the Concise Britannica with more than 14,000 entries.
To translate this massive work to Macedonian (using the Cyrillic alphabet) took years. That the outcome is so updated, so visually appealing (with thousands of photos, maps, and tables), and so comprehensive defies belief. Macedonia is a tiny country of 2 million people and it is in dire economic and political straits. Toper hopes to recoup its investment via sales to institutions: schools, universities, and firms.
Macedonians – like all other East Europeans - are still enamoured of the written word and hold education and the educated in awe and deep respect. This is unlike the West where things digital reign supreme and where higher education and expertise are scorned as “crowdsourcing” and “mob wisdom” took over (for instance, in the form of the Wikipedia “encyclopedia”).
YouTube has already replaced Yahoo and will shortly overtake Google as the primary Web search destination among children and teenagers. Its repository of videos - hitherto mere entertainment - is now beginning to also serve as a reference library and a news source. This development seals the fate of text. It is being dethroned as the main vehicle for the delivery of information, insight, and opinion.
This is only the latest manifestation in a plague of intellectual turpitude that is threatening to undermine not only the foundations of our civilization, but also our survival as a species. People have forgotten how to calculate because they now use calculators; they don't bother to memorize facts or poetry because it is all available online; they read less, much less, because they are inundated with sounds and sights, precious few of which convey any useful information or foster personal development.
A picture is worth 1000 words. But, words have succeeded pictograms and ideograms and hieroglyphs for good reasons. The need to combine the symbols of the alphabet so as to render intelligible and communicable one's inner states of mind is conducive to abstract thought. It is also economical; imposes mental discipline; develops the imagination; engenders synoptic thinking; and preserves the idiosyncrasies and the uniqueness of both the author and its cultural-social milieu. Visual are a poor substitute as far as these functions go.
In a YouTube world, literacy will have vanished and with it knowledge. Visuals and graphics can convey information, but they rarely proffer organizing principles and theories. They are explicit and thus shallow and provide no true insight. They demand little of the passive viewer and, therefore, are anti-intellectual. In this last characteristic, they are true to the Internet and its anti-elitist, anti-expert, mob-wisdom-driven spirit. Visuals encourage us to outsource our "a-ha" moments and the formation of our worldview and to entrust them to the editorial predilections of faceless crowds of often ignorant strangers.
Moreover, the sheer quantity of material out there makes it impossible to tell apart true and false and to distinguish between trash and quality. Inundated by "user-generated-content" and disoriented, future generations will lose their ability to discriminate. YouTube is only the logical culmination of processes started by the Web. The end result will be an entropy of information, with bits isotropically distributed across vast farms of servers and consumed by intellectual zombies who can't tell the difference and don't care to.
East Europeans still pride themselves for being dyed-in-the-wool bibliophiles. Still, these traditions aside, the East may be succumbing to the West. Yet, while in the West it is the Internet and its visuals that is decimating the book, in Eastern Europe it is television.
June 2005 IREX report, quoted by the Southeast Europe Times (SE Times), analyzes the media in countries in transition from Communism by measuring parameters like free speech, professional standards of quality, plurality of news sources, business sustainability and supporting institutions. It concludes that "most transition countries in Southeast Europe have made progress in the development of professional independent media". The Media Sustainability Index (MSI) for 2004 begs to differ: "...(F)ully sustainable media have yet to be achieved in any of the countries.
Karl Marx decried religion as "opium for the masses". Yet no divine worship has attained the intensity of the fatuous obsession of the denizens of central and east Europe with the diet of inane conspiracy theories, gaudy soap operas, cruel reality TV, and televised gambling they are fed daily by their local media. There is little else on offer except the interminable babble of self-important politicians. It is the rule of the abysmally lowest common denominator.
In Macedonia, it is impossible to avoid a certain entertainer, a graceless Neanderthal hulk with a stentorian voice, deafeningly employed in a doomed attempt to appear suavely quaint and uproariously waggish. The natives love him. Private, commercial TV in the Czech Republic - notably "Nova" - has surpassed its American role models. It has long been reduced to a concoction of soft porn, soundbite tabloid journalism and Latin American "telenovelas". Jan Culik, publisher of the influential Czech Internet daily, Britske listy, once described its programming as "sex, violence and voyeurism ... a tabloid approach".
The situation is no different - or much improved - elsewhere, from Russia to Slovenia. As Andrew Stroehlein, former editor in chief of Central Europe Review, so aptly put it: "Garbage in, money out". This sad state of affairs was brought on by a confluence of economic fads (such as privatization, commercialization and foreign ownership) and technologies of narrowcasting: satellites, DVD recorders, cable TV, regional and local "stealth" TV stations, podcasting, Internet broadband and HDTV.
Writing in Central Europe Review about the Romanian scene, Catherine Lovatt observed that "television was one medium through which Romanians could vicariously experience the 'Western' dream. The popularity of programmes such as Melrose Place indicates a preference for certain lifestyles - lifestyles that are as glamorous as they are out of reach. The seemingly unabating craving for commercial TV has been fuelled by the need to escape the Communist past and the stresses of today's reality."
Grasping its importance as a tool of all-pervasive indoctrination, television was introduced early on by the communist masters of the region. Still, tortuous stretches of personality cult and blatant, laughable, propaganda aside - monopolistic, state-owned communist TV, not encumbered by the need to compete, offered an admirable menu of educational, cultural and horizon expanding programming.
It is all gone now. The region is drowning in cheaply produced mock talk shows, hundreds of episodes of Latin American serials, hours on end of live bingo and lottery drawings, tattered B movies, pirated new releases and sitcoms and compulsively repeated newscasts.
From Ukraine to Bulgaria, commercial channels are prone to featuring occultists, conspiracy theorists, anti-Semitic "historians", hate speech proponents, racists, rabid nationalists and other unadulterated whackos and have taken to vigorously promoting their pet peeves and outlandish conjectures.
The intrigue-inclined postulate that this visual effluence is intended to numb its hapless recipients and render them oblivious to the insufferable drudgery of their dreary, crime-infested, corruption-laden and, in general, rather doomed, lives. It is instigated by unscrupulous politicians, they whisper, eyes darting nervously. It is a form of state-sponsored drug, also known as escapism.
How to reconcile this paranoid depiction of a predatory state with the fact that most private television stations throughout the region are owned by hard-nosed, often foreign, businessmen?
The suspicious point to the fact that "local content" and "cultural minimum" license requirements are rarely imposed by regulators. National broadcasting permits were granted to cronies and insiders and withheld from potential "troublemakers" and dissidents.
It is also true that, as Stroehlein puts it, there is a massive "repatriation of profits generated from newly private stations to Western firms." As a result, "local production companies are losing out, and the loss of funds damages the domestic entertainment and arts industry and the economy as a whole."
And the collusion-minded have a point. The dumbing-down of audiences is as dangerous to newfound political and economic freedoms as are more explicit forms of repression. Both democracy and the free market will not survive long in the absence of an informed, alert, intellectually agile public. It is hard to retain one's critical faculties under the onslaught of televised conspicuous consumption and the unmitigated folly of mass entertainers.
Many scholars and media observers believe that the battle has already been lost.
Péter Bajomi-Lázár, associate professor at the Communication Department of Kodolanyi University College, Budapest-Szekesfehervar in Hungary, wrote in January 2002 in a comparative study titled "Public Service Television in East Central Europe":
"The transformation of public service television from a tool of agitation and propaganda into an agent of democratic control has been but a partial success in East Central Europe. Public service television channels have failed to find their identities and audiences in a market dominated by commercial broadcasters. Some of them are underfunded and their journalists encounter political pressure."
But even where public broadcasters enjoy the proceeds of a BBC-like television tax - like in Macedonia - they fail to attract spectators. The stark reality is that when people are faced with a choice between intellectually demanding and challenging programs and easily digestible variety shows they always plump for the latter. It is easy to condition people to complacent passivity and inordinately tough to snap out of it once exposed. The inhabitants of central and east Europe are mentally intoxicated. The hangover may never happen.