The Subliminal Effects of Mass Media. Part 1

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Part one:

The Subliminal Effects of Mass Media.

"The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves... You give your disciples not truth but the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing." -Socrates. "Phaedrus"

Socrates never put his teachings into print. Why would someone as wise a Socrates be against writing and by extension books? Even Christ refused to write although he could have. Saint Thomas Aquinas in question 42 of his "Summa Theologica" wrote:

"I answer by saying that it is fitting that Christ did not commit his teachings to writing. First on account of his own dignity; for the more excellent the teacher, the more excellent his manner of teaching ought to be. And therefore it is fitting that Christ, as the most excellent of teachers, should adopt that manner of teaching whereby his doctrine would be imprinted on the hearts of his hearers. For which reason it is said in Matthew vii, 29, that, "he was teaching them as one having power'. For which reason even among the pagans Pythagoras and Socrates, who were most excellent teachers did not want to write anything."

It is more than obvious that these wise men were very concerned that the written word would somehow change their message. In short that the medium would change their message. Let us go back before the written word to even before there was language. What was it like to think before words were invented. Like most of us I can't remember anything before the time I learned to speak.

Aldous Huxley in his book "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" considers the fact that in the few rare cases of children who were lost and raised by wolves; once they learned to speak lost all memory of their time spent in the wilderness. Huxley continues and proposes that without words we would not be able to think at all; and that words are what make us a higher life form. The first medium, language, changed us from an unconscious being into a conscious being. Try to think any complex thought without words, it would be impossible.

In 1961 Prof. John Wilson of the African Institute of London University published "Film Literacy in Africa" (Canadian Communications v1 #4 summer 1961) describing his experiences in trying to teach non literate tribes to read using film. The following are some excerpts from that paper:

"We showed this film to an audience and asked them what they had seen, and they said they had seen a chicken, a fowl, and we didn't know that there was a fowl in it! So we carefully scanned the frames one by one for this fowl, and, sure enough, for about a second, a fowl went over the corner of the frame. Someone had frightened the fowl and it had taken flight, through the right hand, bottom segment of the frame. This was all they had seen. The other things he had hoped they would pick up from the film they had not picked up at all, and they had picked up something that we didn't know was in the film until we inspected it minutely. Why? ...

  • Question: Do you literally mean that when you talked with the audience you came to believe that they had not seen anything else but the chicken?
  • Wilson: We simply asked them: what did you see in the film?
  • Question: Not, what did they think?
  • Wilson: No, what did you see?
  • Question: How many people were in the viewing audience of whom you asked this question?
  • Wilson: 30 odd.
  • Question: No one gave you a response other than "We saw the chicken"?
  • Wilson: No, this was the first quick response- "We saw a chicken."
  • Question: They did see a man, too?
  • Wilson: Well, when we questioned them further they had seen a man, but what was really interesting was that they hadn't made a whole story out of it, and in point of fact, we discovered afterwards that they hadn't seen a whole frame they had inspected the frame for details. Then we found out from the artist and an eye specialist that a sophisticated audience, an audience that is accustomed to the film, focuses a little way in front of the flat screen, so that you take in the whole frame."

When showing photographs to the Dowayo tribe in Africa, noted anthropologist Nigel Barley reported similar difficulties. Pre-literate people cannot see the image until they have "learned" how to focus above a flat surface. Without realizing it we teach our young to see photographs when we show them the pictures and say, "Look there's Daddy!" or "That's Aunt Mary."

An excellent illustration of "learning" to see in new ways is to look at a "Magic-eye" image. There is one at the bottom of this web page. Magic-Eye images are patterns that you will sometimes see in the Sunday Comics, on cereal boxes or in advertisements. You can also view some at their web site. ( When you first see one of their images it appears to be a meaningless montage of colors and patterns. You place the image near your face and move it away slowly, the trick is to "unlearn" linear sight and look through the picture as if it were a window to a three dimensional world. This is exactly what Pre-literate cultures have to do in reverse when confronted with Western linear images such as photographs and moving pictures. They have to learn how to focus in front of an image and with Magic Eye you have to learn how to focus behind the image.

Marshall McLuhan said, "1984 began in 1928" that was the year radio came of age. Radio has the ability to generate hysteria as was made clear by the Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" hoax of 1928. Radio is a "hot" medium as Adolf Hitler must have understood, his fiery speeches and shouting tribalized Germany and turned into a violent experience.

In the 1950's Senator Joe McCarthy tried to use radio to spring himself into a position of power. He was seen by the public at large as a knight in shining armor defending the American ideal, hunting down traitors and unearthing conspiracies. Things were going so good for Sen. McCarthy that his committee hearings were soon brought to the new media of television. Sen. McCarthy's tactics didn't change just the media which carried him. When his media changed so did the Senators message. The knight in shining armor was now the Spanish Inquisition complete with thumbscrews and hot irons. Seeing those angry faces right there in their own homes turned people off. The accused were no longer horrible faceless villains but ordinary Americans with ordinary faces full of anguish and fear. Sen. McCarthy's career went ka-put and the word "McCarthyism" was entered into the English language as a synonym for "Witch Hunt". You cannot use a "cool" medium like television to convey "hot" topics and images.

The United States Military has clearly learned from the media mistakes of the Vietnam War. The Gulf War and Somalia News coverage was clean and bloodless, no images of bodies or burned civilians no public outrage. You can show violence on television you just can't show "real" violence.

Magic Eye Image
3d image
best seen on a desktop.

-R. Carrozza © 1998, © 2016

Part 2. The Internet and Democracy!