Mediating the new media

Colin James at Ian Templeton’s honorary doctorate, Massey University, 26 May 2011

Ian Templeton is an institution. He was well on his way to becoming one when I first fluttered into the parliamentary press gallery 42 years ago. Ian had been there 12 years already. He knew everybody and was known by everybody and still does and is. No one has commanded the degree of respect he has: Helen Clark, with whom he had a weekly catchup while she was Prime Minister, said she often felt the “audience”, as she called it, was for her rather than him.

Ian is of journalism’s old school. He is courteous. He watches and listens. He writes what he sees and hears. He is not the story. He practises the admonition written in huge letters high on the wall at the Otago Daily Times where he and I started: “Comment is free but facts are sacred.” We knew then the truth of the adage that what we wrote today was “tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapping” (ink and all).

There was something then called legwork: walking around, asking questions and listening to answers, collecting documents in hard copy because there were no soft copies or photocopies, reading a piece of paper upside down casually placed within eyeshot by a source and taking notes with a pen. Ian’s stories bore witness to a lot of upside-down reading.

It was a world of firmly-ordered mass media. Those at the top of the tree had done hard climbing, branch by branch. Ian was high up his tree when I reached the base of the one I have been struggling up and am now on the way down off.

In the past decade or so a great wind has torn through the forest, uprooting trees and opening spaces for fast-growing mutants and entirely new species. News is instantaneous (and often not made from facts) and comment and contest follows hard behind, fast and some of it fantastical.

The media are no longer mediated. Information flows in torrents: hundreds of emails a day, videos, social media, tweeting, texts, google, wiki-stuff and more to come. GPS tracks you and your gadgets and, soon, your car and GPS tells your iPhone the best route to the party and google sends a picture of the restaurant. The New York Times tells me what it has worked out I will want to read in it each day. Bar code readers record what I buy and marketers then try to sell me more or similar in a dozen different ways. Protesters in North Africa and would-be mourners in London for Christchurch organise a big event within hours. Thugs in Beijing get jumpy.

In the 1960s Marshal McLuhan said the medium is the message. After decades of thinking him wrong I have lately begun to wonder if he was just ahead of his time. The new media, plus the changes the new media are driving in the old media, do constitute a message: that we are becoming compressed like transistors into a human 3D mega-chip, intricately interconnected and with exponentially growing processing capacity year-by-year — yet each of these tiny human transistors also feels more distinct, more autonomous. There is simultaneously convergence and differentiation of technologies, platforms, forms, practices and personalities. We are also simultaneously local-and-physical — coffee has to be smelt to be known — and global-and-virtual (to the extent we have time, inclination and capability) and those global-and-virtual dimensions are evolving rapidly in ways not imagined 20 years ago and in forms non-existent five years ago. That rapid evolution shows no sign of slowing.

You who are graduating today know a great deal more about that emerging world than I can. It is your world. For those of you graduating from the media-related courses, your calling — whether in journalism or public relations or marketing or some new branch of communication being invented this minute or yet be invented — is to work out how to make it manageable and make money out of it and make new things in it and make humanity more prosperous, more at one with itself, more healthy.

Communication, like every other human activity, can ennoble or debase. Used in the best way the various forms of communication you have studied here ennoble. That is important to the good functioning of our sorts of societies — I would say all societies. Markets depend critically on good, useful and accurate information to operate to the benefit of both buyers and sellers and generate the prosperity we take to be our birthright. Democracies cannot be of, by and for the people without free flows of good, useful and accurate information for citizens and citizen-governors.

Good, useful and accurate information doesn’t self-select from cacophony. That requires that information media must be mediated. That requires wise heads like Ian’s. Now that Massey has educated you, go and get wise. It is your task to invent the new mediation for your new world.