What You See Is Not Always What You Get

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15-11-2014

4 min read

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One of the most powerful conveyors of messages today is the media – we use it to transmit what we want people to see and hear, even though what they actually see and hear might be quite different from what we intended.

In the book, New Media 1740–1915, Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree assembled 10 scholarly essays looking at the historical development of media – how we transition from one innovative medium to another, and how the availability and use of that media influenced the delivery, reception and meaning of the message.

Some media have been more affordable and easy to use, making it more available and accessible. At one time or another, however, all media was new to us – the zograscope, physiognotrace, optical telegraph, stereoscopes, typewriters, the telephone, vinyl record albums, eight-track magnetic tapes, CDs, the Internet, the iPhone and the Android – although their place in our world was often ill-defined at the time they were introduced.

Who could possibly have anticipated how the Internet would transform the way we communicate and do business?

No one fully comprehended its impact on our culture, its potential and limitations, nor the new challenges that have emerged in relation to both the piracy and privacy of content.

The Eighth Continent

The Internet has literally changed our world. Global web-marketing expert Donald DePalma describes the Internet as similar to “discovering the Eighth Continent”, that “confounds legislators and cultural purists worldwide who do not know what to make of the web-based globalisation phenomenon that threatens to make their geographic, political, economic, and cultural boundaries almost meaningless.”

Of course, there are many benefits of an interconnected world through the Internet.

Rob Salkowitz, author of Young World Rising, points out that there is a new breed of entrepreneurs where the growth and spread of their “social networks is helping to catalyse the potential seeded by capacity-building investments, bringing people into contact with ideas, opportunities, and markets.”

And while there are still many organisations that are trying to come to terms with how their businesses should interact with the Internet, what Gitelman and Pingree present is how the emergence of new media has redefined our culture in relation to how we related to one another throughout history.

This is why James Carey, a communications theorist and author of Communications as Culture, says, “Communication is culture”, and why the essays collated by Gitelman and Pingree provide a healthy discussion around the place of media: how it is introduced and managed, and how their meaning and function is shaped over time.

Other insights presented from this volume of work include how:

  • Communication and media frame our context and collective sense of time, place and space, and often defines what is public and what is private and what is or isn’t accurate.
  • Media provides a structure to organise and transmit knowledge.
  • Media has the power to discriminate. Historically, the hierarchy or “polite society” has used media as a means to safeguard class, age, gender or racial distinctions. Cory Doctorow talks about the implications of this in greater depth in his book, Content, where he states that many of the poorer economies in our “information economy” can’t afford such access.
  • Media raises questions about the status and reliability of vision.
  • The medium used to convey a message communicates a certain reality through a particular lens that has the power to inform and shape what is seen and heard. It is possible, however, that the medium can alter the meaning of what is seen.

A summary

On a practical level, let me summarise the importance of what Gitelman and Pingree are presenting, as they have sought to provide insight into today’s new media by examining media in their historical context.

1 Media per se is a powerful tool of communication, and awareness (rather than ignorance or resistance) of its benefits and limitations will enhance its effectiveness while reducing risk for an organisation.

2 Don’t assume that the message being conveyed through the medium is the message being received by all of its recipients.
The context of the content (including how other media can alter the meaning) can easily be distorted or misread by the degree to which recipients are familiar with the medium being used and the biases and perceptions they bring.

3 Establish:
(a) clear communication protocols for yourself and the organisation you lead and;
(b) create an intentional strategy to explore the breadth of new emerging media.

The absence of (a) and (b) conveys a lack of understanding and discipline, exposing your leadership and the organisation’s reputation to unnecessary risks, and ignorance of opportunities.

4 While media has been used by “the hierarchy” or those in privileged and powerful positions to control, influence and shape what they want people to know, it is wise to reflect on the power of the Internet and its potential to be a great leveller.

“People… communicate mind to mind. There is no race. There are no genders. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds… Utopia? No, the internet. Where minds, doors, and bodies open up.” (New Media 1740–1915. eds. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree, page 91. Cambridge: MIT Press.)

What’s the bottom line?

There are some excellent leadership models that contain specific characteristics helpful to leaders suited to a range of different contexts, including across cultures.

However, some leaders are running so fast in responding to short-term demands that they rarely have time to think about the type of leader they want to be.

Here are important questions:

  • What characteristics of leadership are critical to my current organisational context, and which ones do I need to focus on developing?
  • What changes do I need to make to transition from a Level three or Level four leader to what Jim Collins describes as a “Level five leader”?
  • As a leader, do I know who I am serving?
Dr Glenn Williams is the CEO of LCP Global Pty Ltd, an organisation that empowers leaders and organisations to grow their leadership capacity. For more Be A Leader articles, click here.

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