In my regular discussions and podcast conversations over the last few years I’ve started to understand how acute the feeling is that modern life lacks meaning, and that many of the activities and behaviours that we have collectively prioritised are no longer sustainable. I’ve come to this growing realisation, not simply from an ecological point of view, or from an economic point of view, but increasingly from a spiritual and personal developmental point of view. There is something about modern consumerism, working life, personal relationships, and so on, which is driven by social status-seeking behaviour founded on pointless consumerism and personal wealth building. The proclivity to grab and gain is at the expense of our natural instincts to care, collaborate, nurture, and to seek harmony in a creative, inclusive and resilient communitas.
We can see this dysfunction in the widespread use of personality-driven social communications. We have become adept over a very short period of time at using social media platforms, on-demand convenience media platforms, and individually tailored consumer services and shopping platforms that treat each of us as unique individuals. It is as we they are uniquely positioned to make an intervention in the world without any reference to the society or community that we are part of. We only need to purchaser the right media products, the right consumer goods, the right clothes, or holidays, or home furnishings, and so on, and we will be activated and fulfilled participants of the consumer society. The promise is that we are only ever one click away from achieving satisfaction. Yet, these persona-focussed interactions drain our spirits and leave many of us feeling hollow and frustrated.
We can say with certainty that this is happening, because it is widely acknowledged that we are living through a time of crisis for mental wellbeing. With increasing numbers of people reporting that they are unhappy, depressed, lonely and stressed, and who find it difficult to connect with others in meaningful ways. In the same way that we have record levels of malnutrition from cheap processed food – which has given us record levels of diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome – we have record levels of mental stress, personal and social anxiety, Many more people in this age when compared with previous generations are reporting a continuous feeling of existential dread associated with the arrangements of our daily lives. In part this comes from the precarious nature of our working lives, and the casualisation of the workforce, but it is also driven by symbolic expectations, and the lack of a sense of security, or a coherent sense of belonging to our communities, imagined or otherwise.
At worst, we live in a consumer society, for example, that prioritises industrialised convenience food. This industrial system gives us endless cheap carbohydrates, opportunities for alcohol abuse, gambling, unchecked personal mobility, and which is based on the reckless exploitation and destruction of the ecosystem. To the same extent we live in an exploitative mediatised world that prioritises facile and superficial relationships, wilful ignorance, the cult of celebrity, and the endless spectacle of entertainment and escapism. The high-carb diet supplied by the convenience food conglomerates finds an equivalence in mass, corporate media. It is the so-called social media ‘influencers’ who are left to demonstrate and enact the virtues and values of our culture, which too often, it seems, turn out to be narcissistic, shallow and selfish.
The driving processes of this mediatised anti-social behaviour, which is anti-social because it leaves us in an under-developed psychic and spiritual position, operates without concern for the impact that these pernicious media systems have on us. Many are prone to information overload and misinformation. Many are prone to excessive levels of illicit drug taking. Many to pornography, to gambling, to the fear of missing out, to pointless consumption, and so on. All of which are indicators and signs that can be correlated with a negative and destructive social syndrome. This is a psychic complex in which violence and antisocial behaviour are tolerated by being held just below the surface. They can break out, however, into disruptive behaviour when hostile triggers are lined up that destabilise the collective social equilibrium. Look at the ‘Karen’ phenomenon on social media to see how paper-thin our emotional state often is. Unsurprisingly, in leaving the Covid-19 Lockdown we are witnessing collective emotional eruptions. In these outbursts we see flashes of destructive collective behaviour that are themselves subsequently are reported as triggers for wider judgemental condescension in which people are characterised as Covidiots. With thousands of people filling up the beaches of Southern England on a hot day, or the spontaneous celebrations that bring football fans together when a team they support wins a trophy, there is plenty to make people indignant.
These destructive patterns of behaviour, which are entirely predictable, are the visible sign of the meaning crisis and the lack of preparedness for managing the public health response. Forget nudge theory, what we need is an empathetic acknowledgement that times are difficult, and that we will all be feeling a range of emotions which we may not all deal with in the same way. Some recognition, therefore, that there are different psychological needs at play, and that the frustrations of many people who may feel marginalised from the pandemic management process, need to be considered. If you aren’t consulted going into the lockdown, why should you invest in positive and pro-social behaviour when we come out of the lockdown? If everyone is telling you that the game has changed, but you don’t get brought into the conversation about developing the new rules, why should you play according to the rules that are imposed back on people?
While we have innumerable and unprecedented levels of social interconnectedness, we are still collectively prone, it seems, to indignant and pugnacious reactions to reported events. It seems that our level of connection with one another in the contemporary world is directly and inversely proportional to our sense of displacement and disambiguation. Hence the meaning crisis (Freinacht, 2017, 2019; Surwillo, 2017). The question, therefore, is what role does our media play in shaping and defining this crisis, and how can be go about building an alternative mediatized symbolic structure that anticipates and heads-off many of these difficulties, anticipates social change, and gives people a voice in the process of change?
This is why I believe that we need to shift the framework that defines how we think our media works. It’s essential that we explore and examine the potential contributory role that community media can play as a form of social value communication. The dominant way of thinking about our media systems is that they provide an atomised consumer with services or information-based service that are free at the point of use, and which part of a repertoire of choices in a market economy of other commercially available alternatives. The public sphere is therefore defined in terms of commercial alternatives, with the free market and the public interest coming together as one and the same thing. The problem with this, however, is that many of the resulting problems of this approach are glossed over, and that this longstanding media model is itself part of the problem. Our media isn’t defined by the wider social need to nurture positive and sustainable social change, it is defined by the archetypal dynamic of personal accumulation, wealth creation and personal aggrandisement.
My belief is that we must come forward with new or renewed models of community media, and other forms of social value communication. These values-based models must be refunctioned in such a way that they focus on different archetypal priorities. We must shift the balance from getting to caring. This will require a refunctioning and repurposing of the evaluative frameworks that we use when thinking about community media. It will also need a refunctioning and repurposing of the training programmes that are undertaken in media and communications systems. It is no good simply talking, for example, about an expressed wish for inclusivity and diversity of voices in our media, we must actively construct and establish platforms that enable people to take part in practical ways, at skill levels that are open and welcoming, and which recognise that not everyone wants to make a career in media, but many do want to talk with their communities and their neighbours.
Our present media system is incapable of challenging and changing the structural dynamics with which it is defined by. We need to embed and support models of community media that are decentralised and responsive to the interests and concerns of the people that are representing themselves and people like them. It is clear that the drift of media consolidation is creating an ever-centralised and distant set of silos which deliver convenience-style content to people. This process is what is driving the meaning crisis. It is disconnected from people’s lives. A centralise marketing strategy is not the same as people sharing and exchanging ideas, opinions and views about what concerns them in the places where they feel that they belong. People need to be able to share their experiences of walking along the same streets, sitting in the same cafes and bars, getting on the same busses, using the same shops, talking with many of the same people.
The heart of this process is human and interactive. It’s what creates and enables a meaningful sense of belonging. It is defined locally and is regulated by common endeavour. Media homogenisation will only end up creating dislocation and disassociation. We end up with soulless and robotic regurgitation of material that no one really likes, can learn from, can be offended by, can contradict, can challenge or can usurp. We are meaning driven, but much of our media is formulaic and driven by the need to produce efficient, and therefore, profitable content. What enriches our souls is the shared sense of humanity, of people talking with other people. Sharing stories and thinking about their experiences from different perspectives and viewpoints. There are some amazing examples of broadcasters and programme makers who do this, the challenge, however, is to open up these platforms and processes so that more people can have a go at sharing their stories and talking about their experiences.