The fact that Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, a critique of the media and deconstruction of how it drives our desires, was written in 1961 only underscores how little the big picture of media consumption has changed despite the advent of VCRs, 24 hour news, and (oh yeah!) a little thing called the internet in the time since its writing. The book focuses on the idea of a “pseudo-event,” simply defined as an event that has been designed solely to be reported on. Pseudo-events include press releases, interviews and debates: some of the core elements of what compromises news today. Boorstin writes that “pseudo-events thrive on our honest desire to be informed, to have ‘all the facts,’ and even to have more facts than there really are.”
Spawned from ever-shortened news cycles (even before 24 hour TV news there were, newspapers that would release as many as eight editions every day), pseudo-events are tied to our misguided conception that “more information” means more knowledge. Boorstin goes on to argue that this creates a cycle: we define more pseudo-events, and more pseudo-events get created. He also goes in to ideas such as the relationship between fame and greatness, the dumbing-down of complex works to appeal to a wider audience and the “image:” the associations that drive us to brand products, ideas and people.
The book is as relevant now as I assume it was when it was released. Today, it’s easy to see how the spread of information is driven not so much by anything we have done, but rather the story we tell about what was done. The presidential debate, a pseudo-event created to give newspapers something to report on in an otherwise boring election cycle, gives the candidates more than anything else a chance to firm up their images and tell their “stories.” In the way that Coors Light brands itself as cold and Volvo brands itself as safe, people can similarly be labeled.
Ultimately, I think it is our responsibility as consumers of media to know when we are being advertised to, not necessarily by commercial brands, but by presidential candidates, news networks, friends and family, or by any form of purported “information.”