Saturday, November 2, 2019

On Media

Spoiler: It's fucking long. Go make a pot of tea.

The Metaphor of The Pond

Consider a pond. Not a big pond, nor a particular symmetrical pond. It has tiny bays and peninsulas. There are rocks and mounds of mud poking through the surface. This part of the shore is grassy, that part is stony, and there’s a muddy bit over there.

For some reason, every now and then, a ladle of water is added to the pond. Sometimes a mere drop, at other times a cupful. Sometimes the water is poured in here, sometimes there. Sometimes it enters forcefully, other times it’s eased in gently. Each ladle generates ripples that jitter across the pond, bouncing off the shore, bending around obstacles, finding one another again in ever-changing patterns.

This is a metaphor, at the moment it is a metaphor for your mind. There are many things about ponds that we don’t care about here, what matters for our story is the ripples, and the ladle, the shoreline, the rocks and mud in the pond.

Each ladle filled with water is an idea, a sight, a sound, an experience, a photograph, a video, a sentence, a piece of media.

As the ripples move around the pond, like an idea sparking a new idea, a sequence, a network of concepts and notions spreading out through your mind, these ripples effect tiny changes. If they spend their force on the rocky parts of the shore, they might only erode a few molecules of stone. On the soft earth, they might make even a visible change, if they lap lap lap with enough force. Occasionally, rarely, the ripples might shift the last few grains of earth, and a little part of the shoreline might collapse into the pond sending its own vigorous ripples out into the water. Perhaps a boulder is loosed by the collapsing earth, and itself tumbles into the water! Cataclysm!

The ripples shape the pond, usually infinitesimally, sometimes in minor cataclysms.

At the same time, the ladle upon ladle of water gradually changes the level of water in the pond. Perhaps this little spoonful is the one that finally submerges the little muddy island, so long awash. Perhaps the island will re-emerge tomorrow in the hot light of the sun, perhaps not. Perhaps, though, the boulder tumbled in at last by the ripples, raising the level of the pond by a full inches in a moment will submerge it forever.

So it is with our minds, our opinions, our ideas. Nothing changes in a moment. No chain of carefully reasoned rhetoric changes the shape of the thing in a day, except as the last tiny step of a lengthy, steady, series of tiny steps. This is not to say that the sudden, spasmodic, epiphany of understanding, conversion of the faithless, or conversely the loss of faith does not occur. It does, they do. The point is that these things never occur as the result of a single violent incursion of a new idea from the outside. The boulder does occasionally fall into the pond, but not because a giant appeared and hurled it in.

The boulder falls as the result of million ripples, a thousand spoonfuls of water, working one by one to wear away the supporting earth and sand until, finally, one day, in an instant, there is a splash. It is easy to believe that the last ladle filled with water is the cause, but it is not, Not truly.

There are several ways that ladling a little quantity of water into the pond alters the pond.

First, the ripples, by mechanical action, shape the physical properties of the pond. They erode this part, they toss up a few grains of soil there. They subtly reshape the pond. The ripples themselves die out, but the tiny changes to the form of the pond remain.

Second, the added water slightly raises the level of the pond, covering up this, creeping infinitesimally up the edges of the pond, changing the shape of it again in subtle ways. The new, altered, level remains, as does the new shoreline.

In almost every case, the visible change wrought by a single ladle is nil, and yet, without the thousands that preceded it the final ladleful that tumbles the boulder into the pond would have been for naught.

This is how our minds are shaped by ideas and media. It is not the single picture, the single idea, the single sermon, that tips us over. It often seems like it is, but that one was only the last one, the one that triggered the event long in the making. Our politics, our religion, our attitudes about Love, or Art, or Music, change not because of a single brilliant speech, a single brilliant poster, a single brilliant song, but because we have seen, we have read, we have heard, much. The ground has been prepared infinitesimal change by infinitesimal change, without our much noticing.

And then one day we notice that we have become different, or sometimes one day we feel the cataclysmic change within, and in a single painful spasm we find ourselves becoming different and new, and then there we are, drenched in sweat and a little bit frightened.

We find that the still waters of our mind have, somehow, assumed a new and not entirely familiar shape.


Anything can drop into the pool of your mind and generate ripples. An idea, a movie, a text message from a friend.

Let us consider the photograph. Let us consider the character of the ripples it generates in the mind. That is, let us consider some of the character of the thoughts looking at a photograph can evoke. And let us also consider something of the character of the changes those thoughts might work in your mind.

The photograph has an essentially dual nature. First, it witnesses that-which-was. Second, it expresses an opinion about that-which-was. Each of these natures is fenced about with caveats, conditions, exceptions, about which any decent academic would be happy to bang on about endlessly. But generally this is the shape of the thing.

First, to witness, and second to opine, about that-which-was.

Sophisticated commentators and theoreticians, in this day and age, question the role of the photograph as witness, but if we have reason to trust a photograph we accept it as evidence of what was in front of the lens at the moment of exposure. In this era of machine learning and of pixel editing of pictures we are perhaps decreasingingly trustful of the contents of a photo, but still most of the time and for most purposes we accept that what we’re seeing is truthful enough.

The nature of this acceptance in important ways resembles that of a personal experience. If it begins to rain while you stand on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, you do not question the rain. It simply is. Only lunatics and philosophers ask whether it is truly raining. A photograph has a similar, albeit not identical, quality of irrefutability. We simply don’t bother to question the banal details of what is depicted, because they obviously just are. The photograph is qualitatively different, therefore, from a remark made by a friend, a magazine article, or a painting, and that quality is similar to the quality of a first-hand experience.

As for the second nature, the opinion expressed by the photograph, I dare say not every photograph does, but most do express such an opinion. The photographer selected a point of view, a framing, and a moment in time, and so on, and not usually by accident. Perhaps the photographer only wants to express as closely as possible the truth of the scene (as the photographer understands it,) or perhaps the photographer wishes to wildly misrepresent the truth of the matter. Either way, the photographer has some notion, even if it be nothing more than this flower is very pretty or this cup of coffee is worth looking at.

Indeed, it may not even matter what the photographer opined, what matters is what we see in the photograph.

If we see in the photograph that the man is cruel, it hardly matters if the photographer intended to portray the man thus. What matters is that we see with our own eyes that the man is cruel. The truth of the photograph, entangled with the opinion of the man, is evidence of his cruelty. Nobody need tell us, this is no unreliable witness but our own seeing which reveals his cruelty to us!

Of course, this is not entirely true. The photograph yields up to us, at best, the truth of an instant of time. Perhaps the man’s expression is fleeting, and that a moment before and a moment after he did not look at all cruel. Perhaps the photographer selected this frame from dozens shot, to express to us the misrepresentation of the man as cruel. In a very real sense, we are indeed merely under the influence of another unreliable narrator, testimony from a dubious witness.

And yet, we see it with our own eyes. The evidence, unreliable as it may in reality be, feels strong. It is not an accident that advertising uses the photograph. We have known for a century that the advertising photo is a lie, and yet its power continues to sell us detergent, cars, shirts, and apps for our phones.

The photo, when it lands in the waters of our mind, carries with it some of the weight of a real experience. It falls, maybe, somewhere between an event occuring at first hand, and an account at the second or further hand.

The ripples it makes are a little like the ripples of actual life lived, and the long term effects it leaves take on something of the nature of a true memory. Indeed, photographs seem to replace memories. Not infrequently, a person’s memory of a person or a personal event is in reality the memory of a photograph of same.

The ripples made by a photograph can be, in some sense, a little more insistent. A little more vigorous in sculpting the shape of our mind. They have a little more power, and a little more resonance. They vibrate with more strength, more firmness, and perhaps for a little longer sometimes, than something that is more fictional, or further removed from the world of experience.

A photograph adds maybe a little more water to our pond, and thus raises the level maybe a little more than an anecdote told by a friend, or a story read in a magazine.

The Working of an Argument

It may already have occurred to you, but I should state it now as obvious, that our minds are not still pools, occasionally disturbed by the entrance of an idea. That was a simplification to present the metaphor clearly. The true situation is that during our waking hours the mind is constantly a-jangle. New inputs arrive and fire off ripples of emotion and thought-chains that reverberate and evolve even as new material arrives. Much of the time, these things are disordered. The barista asks for your order and the sound of the fire truck’s siren dopplers past. A minute later you read a tweet, and then a facebook post, and then the headline of the newspaper.

Sometimes, you hear or read something with which you agree, perhaps profoundly. This idea, this emotion, this event, resonates in a way that the everyday welter of ideas and emotions does not. I visualize this as a kind of standing wave, a pattern of ripples on the surface of the pond that does not move, but reinforces itself in-place, only slowly fading away. This is in contrast to an idea, perhaps, with which we disagree: a helter-skelter of disorganized ripples, rushing back and forth and rapidly dying away. An idea we disagree with makes little sense to us, it seems disordered, or silly.

A persuasive argument is a series of ideas, images, emotions, which reshape the pool of your mind subtly, allowing that resonance of agreement at the end. Bit by bit, as the argument unfolds, a little mud is nibbled away here, a tiny rock is thrown up there. Perhaps, even, a cataclysmic event occurs, a boulder is toppled and your mind instantly assumes a new dimension, a radical new aspect to its form and character. Whether by tiny increment, or cataclysm brought about by tiny increments, or both, the new form of your mind accepts the conclusion: resonance, where there was none before. You are persuaded. Your mind has a new shape.

We tend to classify arguments as sound, as persuasive, almost entirely on the basis of whether we agree with the conclusion. A collection of blathering, ending with a statement with which we already agree, we tend to bless with the imprimatur of “a convincing argument” whereas a rigorously argued case which leads to a conclusion we disagree with is “obvious bollocks” or similar. We are judging the argument based largely on the resonant gong of agreement at the end, rather than on the argument's capacity to alter the shape of the pond.

An argument is persuasive if it actually has the power to change the shape of the mind. No argument can work great changes, except by the kind of cataclysm that is ultimately the result of long-term incremental change. A persuasive argument only works small changes. Ideally, it works small changes on most people. While the result may not be agreement, it might be a small change toward it. Where a wavering leftist might be persuaded to the new case, a radically conservative mind might only be slightly softened toward the idea, without actually agreeing. The entire spectrum of opinion moves slightly in one direction, with only a few people slipping over the edge from “disagrees” to “agrees.”

This is the state of affairs, this is the way in which a genuinely persuasive argument works. This is the best we can hope for. Over time, many such arguments can shift the spectrum of opinion farther, bit by bit. The shape of the mind of each person changes, tiny bit by tiny bit, gradually more and more people agree with the new idea, while others are simply less vigorously against it. It is thus that society evolves.

What does a persuasive argument look like?

A persuasive argument, in this sense, appeals to emotion, to things we already know to be true, to our personal mythology. Logic and deduction are, surprisingly, almost irrelevant here. We think inductively, for the most part. We think by analogy, we think emotionally. An argument which persuades, in some ways, may be imagined as taking place over days, weeks, or years. A simple idea and obvious idea is planted, repeated, and gradually expands and evolves. This is the nature of marketing, and its twin, propaganda. It is how people are persuaded, how the shapes of the minds of humans are re-shaped to suit someone’s needs or desires.

Consider the visual book, perhaps one with a bunch of photographs in it.

You leaf through this thing, perhaps front to back, perhaps not, and encounter one photograph, and then another, and another. In some books you might also encounter words and read them, or reproductions of documents, or drawings, maps, and so on.

In our overarching metaphor of the pond, each of these things generates a pattern of ripples, a set of thoughts and ideas bouncing around your mind. As you turn the pages, the pattern from the previous page has not quite died out while new ripples are being made.

If you stick with the book for 10 or 20 or 60 minutes, the pond vibrates continuously, with the intensity of activity rising and falling. Perhaps little parts of the pond erode and change subtly. If the book is well made, and if you are receptive to it, a larger pattern of resonance may emerge.

The effect of the book on your mind gradually changes from a plop… plop… plop… of individual photographs, individual bites of media, to a single long pour of a singular nature. Keith Smith refers to the composite image produced by a visual book, a sort of notional picture that is built up from the disparate elements of the book.

The whole thing might merely be something you already agree with, it might simply resonate within the current state of your mind. Most photobooks, to be honest, are made with this in mind. The intention is not, truly, to persuade, but rather to resonate with the like-minded, to be agreeable and pleasant to them. While not a bad thing in and of itself, it is not an argument.

It is not persuasion. Its nature is such that it cannot effect change in the world, regardless of its visible pretensions.

Our Cultural Milieux

We live each of us in a set of overlapping and interlocking cultural milieux. We have family, we have friends, we might attend a church. We live in a region, in a nation. We might identify with a specific ethnic group.

Our mind aligns, to one degree or another, with each of these cultural contexts. We might disagree with our family about politics, but on the subject of whether mashed potatoes should contain sour cream, we are adamantly aligned. Our religion might differ from the majority of our region, nation, or ethnicity, but it aligns pretty well with other members of our church.

Each of these things shapes the mind, it shapes the pond in which ideas land. The “pond” which is our mind is largely a product of these things. From birth, spoonfuls of water from every kind of source have been ladled in there, and the ripples and the sheer volume of water have produced this little pond, this person, this mind. It is no accident that the shape of our pond closely resembles, in this way or in that way, the shapes of the ponds of our family’s minds, our congregation’s minds, our political party’s minds. Each has been shaped by, to a degree, the same forces.

My mind is not shaped in the same way as my mother’s mind, but it shares certain aspects of the shape of hers, because she put many things into my mind as I grew up. In certain ways, at certain times, my mind will react much as hers might have. In other ways, at other moments, it will react quite differently.

The reaction of each of our ponds to a new spoonful of water will sometimes be much the same as that of someone else in one of our several mileux. Because in this way or that our mind is shaped much like that of our friends’ the ripples formed by this or by that will echo across the surface of our minds in much the same ways, and will work much the same infinitesimal reshaping. In other cases, of course, if a (let us say) a photograph happens to land in some part of our mind that differs radically from our friend’s, it might work on us quite differently. Perhaps, though, it works in the same way across our political compatriots, or across our church.

It is in this way that media of all sorts can be made to work for more than one person. Art is not subjective, it is intersubjective: a subjective experience that is nonetheless shared across a group of people. Our minds are shaped by our lives, by our communities. While each of us is unique, each of us also has much in common with the other people in the communities in which we live, in which we have grown up. Our minds, shaped by the same forces, assume something of the same form, and therefore tend to react along something of the same lines.

We all belong to the largest community, that of humanity on the planet, and therefore share some few things with every human. As media has homogenized, and as access to media has been universalized, we probably share more and more with our fellow humans. Of course media is not the only thing which shapes our mind; tradition, histories from family to national, stories, the very world we live in also contribute. Media, though, is by definition widely replicated. A broadcast news story, a movie, a printed novel, these are identical wherever they are consumed.

Media is what I am interested in here, and it is also an interesting case. It provides a repeatable input, we can in effect, ladle precisely the same water, in precisely the same way, into many many ponds similar and dissimilar, and observe the effects. This is exactly what media is, what it does. It is the purpose of media.

If you’ve been paying much attention to the world, you have quite likely noticed at least some instance or another of some controversial photograph, widely published, provoking intense reactions. Usually the reactions will divide into two loosely aligned camps. Each camp will be quite certain about what the photograph depicts, with small variations, and each camp will be convinced that the other camp is simply making up their reading for nefarious purposes, probably political. The general conceit displayed will be that everyone on earth sees the picture the same way, but some people are choosing to lie about what they see in the picture. Both sides will go to the mat on this point.

Part of what is going on here is simply signing on with an already-formed group. The photograph lands in your mind. Ripples form on your pond, echo across it, and you develop ideas about what you are seeing that depend as much on the shape and character of your pond, your mind, as they do on the content of the photograph. In some cases it seems that the content of the photograph is largely irrelevant, only one or two key features matter.

Shortly, you observe members of one of your affinity groups making strident statements about the photograph. These statements, loud and vigorous, echo around your mind, blending with the longer term effects left by the photograph. You tend to align your ideas with the ideas of people you already tend to agree with, and in opposition to people you already tend to disagree with. You pick a side, and the side you pick is generally the same one you always pick. Your ideas were already similar, because the form and character of your mind is similar, and now your ideas have quietly adjusted slightly to align perfectly. You may issue your own strident statements.

If you are unable or unwilling to comprehend that other minds have, in some ways, different forms, then you will imagine that any disagreement has the form of a lie. You might even reason that, because you share much with the minds aligned against you, that they must secretly agree with you on this point as well.

This is not true. The metaphorical ponds that make up each of our minds share many features, but not all. The ripples that form thus in response to that are indeed the same because we share that much; but the ripples which form so in response to this other are quite different, because we do not share that. The longer term effects, the subtle, infinitesimal, reshapings of the mind are likely also different, although they might by accident be similar. Two different patterns of ripples might, by happenstance, erode in similar patterns.

Marketing professionals refer to the concept of a target market, which is salient here. A market is a group of people who have the same needs, who have the same list of criteria upon which the base purchases, and who talk to one another. This is nothing more than another way to say that, with respect to buying some product or another, their minds have similar form and character. We can therefore, with a bit of care and tinkering, create media with land in the minds of each person in the market in the same way, and produce the same mental effects.

Marketing materials do two quite different things: they can generate a buy decision (hamburgers are half price today only!) or they can reshape the mind (BMW is the ultimate driving machine) with an eye to preparing the ground for later buy decisions. In the metaphor of the pond, the first generates ripples for the sake of the ripples themselves, and the second generates ripples with an eye to reshaping the pond itself. The first is one-shot, the second is one of a 1000 ladles.

Fomenting Social Change

Let us suppose that you wish to produce some social change. Perhaps you are selling cars and wish for your cars to be viewed by the general population in a positive light. Perhaps you are seeking to increase, or decrease, government funding for certain social services.

Consider a notional print ad. A narrow road winds through a beautiful landscape. A lone car, slightly blurred by speed, hits the apex of a tight curve. The copy read “BMW. The Ultimate Driving Machine.”

There are a couple of points to make here. First, the position taken by the advert is pretty neutral. Sure, there will be a few Ferrari nuts who will angrily object, but across a large spectrum of people, most will find the ad copy to be more or less neutral. Perhaps silly, perhaps a little overwrought, but not outlandish. The photograph backs up the copy, one can see with ones own eyes that the car is indeed delivering an agreeable experience.

A large group of people, spanning driving enthusiasts to mildly anti-car folks, will be moved. The ad will tend to resonate in that agreement kind of way, tending to produce a slight change pro-BMW. Or at least, toward the notion that if one desires a great driving experience, BMW is the car to buy. The ripples produced on the surface of the mind take the form of agreement, of that pleasing resonant quality that comes when we agree with something.

Consider another ad. A buffoonish picture of a world leader, with the text “The President is a Buffoon” written on it.

Here the evidence of the eyes is also present, but the statement made by the picture, the text, and the combination is more controversial. The text, not being essentially neutral, will set some readers on edge, irritate them. Others, it will excite and delight. This will tend to flow onto the picture. In spite of the evidence of their own eyes, supporters of the president will attempt to reject that evidence.

This advert does not land in a zone where broad agreement is possible. In fact, it is divisive. For some people, this ad lands in a zone of great agreement, resonance occurs, but very little change. For others, the ad sparks disagreement, no resonance, and the ripples jitter about for a moment and die away. No change occurs here, either.

Now consider the famous photograph by Dorothea Lange, of Florence Thompson.

Again, the evidence of our own eyes tells the story. The woman has suffered, she has worked hard, she has a certain nobility, she is of good character. The line is vague between the simple witnessing of that-which-was, and the labor of Lange as the photographer engaged in representation, in expressing an opinion. Regardless, this photograph lands, like the BMW ad, mostly in areas of the mental pond where we have similar shape and character. Many people, perhaps even most people, across a spectrum of opinion, will agree with what our eyes tell us, we will read in much the same collection of notions.

Thus, again, gentle pressure in a direction is exerted across a wide spectrum of opinion. While a bleeding heart liberal might merely bleed a little more, a moderate on the fence might elect to vote for greater funding to help distressed farm workers. A staunch conservative still would vote against that, but might find it more difficult to hew to the notion that the poor deserve their lot, being lazy and a low moral character. Of course, some few will find some radial disagreement anyways, and might see Florence differently, might find a way to blame her for her troubles. These, I submit, will be few.

Here we see a difficulty with much of contemporary social documentary photography. There is a trend toward photographing the banal. Here is the street corner at which a bad thing happened. On the one hand, the evidence of the eyes indeed reveals the street corner. The evidence of the eyes, however, reveals nothing of import, or political significance.

Everyone across any conceivably spectrum of opinion will agree that this is a street corner. The accompanying text will remind them of the event, and most people will believe that the event took place at the street corner. There is no reason to disbelieve, because there is nothing here to refute. The photograph by itself expresses no opinion on the event whatsoever, except possibly the oh-so-twee notion that such events are themselves banal.

The BMW pictured on the road expresses an opinion about the driving experience. The buffoonish president expresses an opinion about the nature of the president. The face of Florence Thompson expresses an opinion about the poor, about farm laborers. The street corner? It expresses nothing. It is dross, irrelevant to the argument at hand. To produce social change, the photograph has great potential power, being as it is the evidence of ones own eyes, and thus hardly subject to refutation. It simply is, the facts are plain.

But to be enabled, to be empowered, the photograph must simultaneously do two things:

First, it must express an opinion, it must represent.

Second, it must find a home in the minds of its audience that allows that resonance of agreement across a broad spectrum of humanity. It cannot land in a divisive corner, where one mind reacts this way and another in the opposite way. It must land in some common area where many of us will tend to read the picture in much the same way.

To meet this second criterion, the photograph cannot take too radical a position. At least, not too radical a representation. The photograph’s opinion as separate from the facts it witnesses, should not be too radical, too far removed from the witnessed facts. This opens the door to, this permits, acceptance of the photograph as a whole by a broad range of people with a broad range of ideas.


How, then, to do good, important, work? There is a mighty puzzle here, to make a series of pictures (or words, or drawings, etcetera) which are both agreeable to a broad range of people, but which are not so agreeable as to lack the capacity to incrementally shape the mind.

I visualize humanity as a little like the Wood Between the Worlds, from C.S. Lewis's book, The Magician's Nephew. In that book, there is a forest, filled with small ponds. The extent of the wood is not mentioned, but it is large, perhaps infinite. Each pond is a gateway to another world. The ponds all look similar, which leads to confusion and difficulties for the characters in the novel, but each pond is different from all its companions in the forest.

We each of us possess a remarkable capacity to understand other people's minds. In part because their minds are shaped like ours, but also in part because of our big fat brain's ability to imagine other minds, to read body language, facial expressions, and myriad other cues to estimate what it going on in another's head.

It is this faculty which allows us to make work the reaches beyond our own skull. It is unreliable, sketchy at best. If one keeps at it, from time to time, you'll hit something that works.

Much of the time you'll make things loved by you and people like you, work that bounces off everyone else without effect. Other times you'll make something that nobody loves.

You should nurture your capacity for empathy. You should stroll the Wood Between the Worlds, and learn the shapes of ponds other than your own. Embrace people who disagree with you, try to understand them. Walk in other moccasins, feel other people's trials, sympathize with the unsympathetic. Try on new ideas for fit and color, even if you're pretty sure you'll reject them.

None of us has much capacity to do more than wash back and forth with the tides, but what little impacts we can have, we ought to. Sometimes, one of us is selected more or less by chance to be some lynchpin, some vital voice or personality. By our tiny efforts, positioned in space and time by fate, we effect the last infinitesimal change that induces the cataclysmic change we need.

Go make some stuff.


  1. Well. I will continue with the spiritual drudgery [karmic cleansing?] of modelling balanced, rational, analytical thought in Yahoo Comments, one of the really terrific epicentres of not-me. [stone seal]

  2. This just in: Lewis Bush reckons the "photobook" is a fail, and "augmented reality" is the next big thing because...he's started dabbling in it, I guess.

    1. Yep, little accessibility bias there, I'd say. He published a little clip of his prototype and I found it un-watchably terrible. Pointless material springing to jittery life hovering over and concealing the pages of a perfectly innocent book.