Complexity, Complacency, or Collapse? Trump and Anthropocene Media Ecology
We live in a time when media dominates not only our attention, but perhaps even the physical planet itself. The impact of media’s ecology and flow is as significant to the planet as its biogeochemical cycles; an earthquake can shake the Earth, but the ways that media motivates humans to act also can shape the very land we live on.
With the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, we can see how so-called “reality TV” and sensationalist news reporting circulated Trump’s image/brand so effectively that over 47 million people were convinced he should be a world leader. Trump firmly believed in the adage “there is no such things as bad publicity.” His ability to manipulate media and public opinion simply by being ever-present and on every screen meant that US voters came to accept him while also becoming desensitized to his bullying, his bigotry, and his outright lying. The whole idea of valid information or “facts” has become irrelevant to a great number of people, what matters is the idea of Trump, a meme for the rage of many white Americans.
As a politician who denies the scientific facts of human-induced global warming, we can expect Donald Trump will try to make major changes to US policy that will result in increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as well as increased drilling and fracking for fossil fuels―actions that will physically (and not just metaphorically) transform the landscape. He intends to abolish the EPA (the environmental protection agency of the US) and pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. This is how the ecology of our media―specifically, the successes of spectacle and the failures of journalism―can be directly linked to the ecology of our planet, to our physical atmosphere and to climate change itself. Media ecology is inextricably woven into the conditions of the Anthropocene; Trump’s actions on climate, pollution, and fossil fuels may end up being inscribed in the geological record for millions of years to come.
Ecology is a complex system with feedback loops, with non-linear forms of cause & effect, and with non-intuitive consequences. If we plan to “design” it, then we need to think more complexly and more long term about what media structures and what educational structures we can try to put in place to avoid such unexpected, and potentially catastrophic, changes. Or is it that media ecology is just too complex for us to understand? Whatever “media literacy” is, clearly those of us who work professionally in media or education have not succeeded in cultivating that literacy. Or to be more specific, we have succeeded in doing that for only a fraction of society. Perhaps that fraction of society―the supposed “media elites” of which I (as a writer) and you (as a reader) of #Five# clearly belong―have lacked the necessary sophistication to grasp media’s and culture’s true complexity. It is not an ivory tower as much as a media bubble.
There is no better evidence of the extreme media bubble we all live within than the remarkable failure of polling by the New York Times and other news outlets to predict Trump’s victory. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on ineffectual advertising by the Clinton campaign also points out fundamental misunderstandings about what people care about and how media communication really works. For all the interconnectivity of the Internet, we are increasingly isolating ourselves by customizing what we hear and see.
Days before the election Trump repeatedly insisted that the voting system―the medium of democratic representation in the US―was “rigged” against his success. His election proves that he was both right and wrong. Wrong because he obviously won, but right because the US election system does not in fact reflect the views of the American people overall: only 56% of those who could vote in this election did vote, which means only 27% of all eligible voters actually wanted him as president. Media is not only a matter of visual or linguistic representation, but also political representation. The election system as a medium―indeed as its own form of media―seems very broken.
Perhaps we have lost trust not only in politicians or governments, but also the infrastructure of our various mediums (electronic, political, representational) to communicate what we feel is most urgent or crucial. The flow of media is yet another cycle and feedback loop that defines our planet’s sustainability. Trump barely won the election, but it was a landslide all the same, the creation of a geological fault that we must somehow overcome. Time to get to work.