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What are Audiences for?

Good mate Guy Dickinson posed an interesting question the other day. Or rather, he repeated a quote that purports to be a fact, and asked me to discuss it. The quote was:

“Radio’s really big in the UK. A few years ago, in terms of hours listened per week, it overtook TV.”

It does not matter where the quote comes from or what the evidence is for it. All that matters is that it got my gray matter spinning in an unusual direction.

The problem with engagement is that it is very difficult to measure. There is a big billboard that I see on my drive to work. I do not “look” at it, but I do see it… I see the adverts between television shows, and hear the adverts on the radio – am I watching them and listening to them or not? How much attention is enough? When should you “count” me as a listener? When am I paying enough attention to be counted as someone who is paying attention? Right now, in the background, a film is playing on my home screen. The actors are saying words which are audible above the music. Guy is sat to my left, browsing the web on his iPhone and telling me things he is reading. I am typing this. Which, if any, am I paying attention to, and when am I paying attention to them? All at the same time, or does my attention swap backwards and forwards between them? By the way, to be completely honest, I did interrupt typing this to look up at the screen when a snippet of a sex scene played out…

[Fact, the relevance of which will become clearer later on:] hypnotists find it easier to hypnotize intelligent people, because intelligent people tend to be able to concentrate harder.

[Other fact:] robins (the little bird so beloved on Christmas cards) supposedly see red vividly, hence the redbreast… but they do not have cognitive faculties to see the world like we see it.

[Other fact, and question:] sunflowers are aware of sunlight in some sense, because they respond to it… but in what sense are they aware?

[Other fact:] Leonardo Da Vinci reportedly could look at an object or scene for an instant, then reproduce it perfectly from memory.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote about the subjective element of consciousness in his famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?” If his arguments are right (and I consider them to be very persuasive) then it follows it would be impossible to have a totally objective externalized measure of whether one kind of species is “paying attention” or not. A bat would pay attention to its environment in a different way to how I would. Constructing an argument about different species – bats and humans, for example – is a neat way of recruiting our knowledge of different animals to an argument about the subjective nature of experience. Bats hear the sounds reflected back from the walls and objects around them, giving a very accurate account of where they are. If I was in a dark cave, my attempts to navigate by whistling, then listening to the echo, would be unlikely to succeed! So my experience and the bat’s experience of the cave are very different. But may it not be the case that I have a different experience even to other people?

None of us can truly imagine what it is like to be a bat. We can only imagine what it would be like to be ourselves, although we might successfully imagine flapping around and screeching. We may not be able to imagine, with complete success, what it is to be another person. It may be that one person can “pay attention” to a degree that another person simply cannot. If Da Vinci’s powers are not exaggerated, then I do not believe I can concentrate in the way he did. We do not even have a yardstick for comparison – is the difference between me and Da Vinci greater or less than the difference between me and a robin, or me and a sunflower, or me and a severely mentally handicapped individual judged to have a reading age of four, or between me and an ordinary child of reading age fourteen…?

What we can measure, as Wittgenstein might have pointed out, is the exterior. According to Wittgenstein, the person’s subjective “interior”, like the contents of a box that can only be seen by that person, cannot be described to others because language relies on what people have in common. The subjective aspects of each person that serve to make them unique would hence be ineffable – incapable of being stated in words. To measure whether I pay attention, the question should hence be reduced to: “do I look like I am paying attention?” Are the external responses in sync with the stimuli that provoke them?

So what do we expect from someone listening to the radio, or TV or whatever? Presumably the best measures of attention would be (1) facial and bodily reactions that coincide with the content and (2) their memory of the events. Neither is a perfect measure, but the meaning of words is not perfect either, so that is not a reason for complaint.

This turns the question about the numbers listening to radio into something objectively testable: how many hours do people spend having the appropriate responses? As television includes a visual sensation, but radio is solely oral, there can never be a perfect comparison – television will prompt some responses, enable some memories and require some behavior that radio does not. But we may find an appropriate analogue for comparison of whether people paid attention.

Sadly, I doubt anyone has gathered any data on this. So the question cannot be reliably answered.

But the seeming absurdity of the argument so far brings the real point into relief. The measure itself is meaningless. What prompts debate is not whether people pay attention. People want to measure how many pay attention to mass media because they want something from them. They want to influence people, and to influence as many people as possible. The reason to measure numbers of people would be because the goal is to maximize influence. Influence might take many forms: increased sales, popularity, votes. But this only shows that the real point is missed totally by the measure as to whether people listen or not. I am open to influence, because I have an open mind. Very stupid people cannot be reliably influenced by clever arguments they do not understand. I cannot be influenced by information presented in Urdu, because I do not understand that language. Some people are only influenced by what happens to immediately make their lives easier and more pleasant. So influence is specific to the individual, and not something measurable for a mass medium at all. The sun influences the sunflower, redbreasts the robin… we consider them simple because of the mechanically reliable nature of influence in their cases. Humans are interesting and complicated – they cannot be so reliably influenced.

A number of listeners may be one measure, but not a very interesting one. Suppose none of the listeners could be persuaded to buy a product promoted by an advert – then it hardly matters how many listeners there are. Spammers work by sending adverts to huge numbers of people, at no cost and on the assumption that a tiny proportion will respond. It hardly matters that most recipients hate and despise the spam they get. All that spammers care about is the number who do respond, which presumably is enough to justify their actions, at least to themselves. The same is true when selling a product or electioneering. What matters is not just the raw numbers of listeners, but the extent to which those people are pliable.

I would argue that when we use the word “human” we mean a species that we expect to exhibit individuality in a way not expected from animals. The word “human” gets its meaning in part by contrast to the word “animal”, and also to the word “machine”. The more individual we are, the more human we are. In contrast, the more standardized we are, and the more standardized the measures we comply with, the less human we are. Standardization is a way of removing our liberties, and of oppressing people. The irony with mass media is that it offers choice, but also seeks to identify and manipulate what we have in common, in order to influence us to act the same. If successful, we become a little less human, a little more like animals, or machines. We push the buttons to choose the channel, but the suppliers of media push the buttons to control our choices… My recommendation is that you avoid being measured by being ineffable. If you cannot control what you cannot measure, then it is best for a person not to be measured.

One Response

  1. A thought: Cocktail party effect. Apparently (according to my brother who did psychology A level) we take in everything, oral media certainly, that is said at a cocktail party and we can hear. This is evidenced by the fact that if someone were to say “Eric” in a conversation you weren’t involved in but could hear, your attention might well be pricked. In order for you to achieve this feat you would have to be listening to all conversations simultaneously, filtering out the rubbish and only when hearing a trigger would you pay attention. So my point is that you may be fully concentrating subconsciously but not consciously.

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