As a sociology professor with an interest in contemporary society and media, John B. Thompson made significant contributions to how media is shaping modern society and how modern society is shaping various forms of media being used by people and organisations for different communication purposes in his 1995 book, “The Media and Modernity,” published by Cambridge University Press. Thompson develops a communication media interactional theory that distinguishes three basic types of interaction: face-to-face interaction, mediated interaction, and mediated quasi-interaction. Through these interactions, Thompson stresses the place of various forms of media, especially technical media with constant reference to television, in a modern society. Thompson argues that each type has inherent benefits for social life transformation within space and time. While the book has eight chapters, in this paper, our analyst reflects on Chapter 1, which focuses on communication and social context. Like other chapters, this chapter also has different themes explored using various examples to illustrate the interplay and overplay of media and modernity with respect to social contexts.
The first critical assumption Thompson made was that social phenomenon can be viewed as purposive action carried out in a structured social context where power and knowledge are desirable in knowing who wins and loses a communication battle or game. Thompson succinctly captures this with the exemplification of four forms of power that are needed for accomplishing one’s aims and interests. From economic power to symbolic or cultural power and coercive power to political power, Thompson argues that purposive communication and action exist in structured social contexts. These powers, according to Thompson, are interrelated and contribute to the enactment and maintenance of any communication act. Thompson further illustrates how these powers could be discerned from the attributes of technical media such as films, books, and television programmes among others. Our analyst stresses that his degree of fixation on the symbolic form as one of the attributes resonates with the symbolic or cultural power, which indicates the possession of certain cultural elements or values by someone that others do not have. When such a person further fixes or preserves the elements or values in any technical medium for commercial purposes, he gains more. However, Thompson notes that when the person pays attention to the copyright aspect of the commercialisation for sustainable revenue capture, commercial exploitation emerges, and those who lack the power are more likely to suffer for it.
Social interaction evolves and sustains in line with space and time. This is another critical assumption Thompson makes. He uses space-time distanciation to illustrate the level of outcomes or effectiveness of a communication act that is driven by technical media. For instance, space-time distanciation hardly exists when face-to-face social interaction occurs. Whereas, communicating using mass media usually generates high space-time distanciation. In this regard, our analyst notes that the high space-time distanciation leads to the conclusion that ‘mass’ in mass communication is elusive to define, having used technical media to illustrate how communication shapes society and society shapes it as well towards people’s everyday life experiences. He argues that the term ‘mass’ is misleading because of its fixation on the idea that any technical medium is actually targeted at a heterogeneous audience. He questions the relevance of this to a book or magazine being read by an individual.
However, he was quick to mention that the term could be appropriate for describing the audience of television programmes. But, in our analyst’s view, this position is still not valid for broadcast content because, in some situations, one person might be the audience. This largely explains why some television presenters in the current era of using technical media address the television audience as ‘viewer’. The second assumption he makes about the misleading nature of the term is its inability to challenge audiences’ critical thinking faculties. In other words, audiences cannot be seen as “passive onlookers whose senses have been permanently dulled by the continuous reception of similar messages”. The term ‘communication’ is also misleading because communication is of different types. Our analyst points out that in order to avoid being always seen as “passive onlookers”, users of technical media need to consciously or unconsciously adopt encoding and decoding rules by bringing knowledge and background assumptions about any message or symbolic form to bear, as Thompson suggests. This is imperative as it ‘unfixes’ media content ‘and frees it up to the ravages of time’.
The little attention Thompson pays to computer-mediated communication channels despite having modernity as a key term in the title of the book points to the need to be cautious in using some of his critical assumptions for appreciating contemporary media in relation to people’s actions and communication acts. Therefore, the notions of mass communication he exemplified need further exploration with respect to demarcating overlap terms towards understanding how purposive action and interaction occur in a structured computer-mediated social context.