Images In Our Heads

The contemporary human condition appears to be outraged helplessness; victims of forces we do not understand and cannot control. If there was a recognition of this fact in the 20th century amidst the horrors of war and economic depression, the 21st century, with the rise of television, internet and high-speed communications delivering us images of these same horrors, has rendered this condition near inescapable.

Images are beamed into our living rooms, our studies, our city telescreens, and with the rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi; increasingly into the palm of our hands, travelling with us wherever we go. Images of war in Yemen, of captured schoolgirls in Nigeria, of terror attacks in London, of abused children in detention centres. Castrated by distance, we sit and wonder, sometimes in disgust, often in dismay, at the world we live in.

The globalisation and infatuation with media, of which our immersion in images is a consequence, was intended to knit the world closer together, in a weave of information and understanding. The more we knew, the thinking went, the more understanding the world would become. An injustice in Yemen would be known instantly and rectified by people in Melbourne. If knowledge is power, more knowledge was intended to give us greater power over the events in our lives’. The results, however, are not so clear. As the United States contemplates its next move in Iraq, people in Australia know more and sooner this information than those living within Iraq’s borders. Globalised media in an uneven world has created uneven media. The type of knowledge we receive of other countries, and even our own, is hardly endearing. Crime, terror, and war make good viewing. This is what we see, and these images become a lens through which we judged reality. Everyone I know has never seen a Muslim commit a criminal offence, but most hold negative opinions now of any Muslim they see. Media has given us knowledge, but a rootless knowledge often unconfirmed by lived experience.

Globalised media and technological integration have not created the human solidarity we had imagined. Brutal dictators continue to rule, imperial powers continue to exert hegemonic power; state leaders and their people continue to bicker about immigrants, refugees and terrorists. Whatever media’s effects, it’s hard to see much in the way of solidarity. In many ways, global satellite and internet have made the world a less understanding and less tolerant place. The media provides superficial familiarity, images without context, indignation without remedy. We are not told why crimes are committed with any serious discussion, and the binary of good vs. evil/ us vs. them, creates a warlike narrative, making antagonism almost inescapable. The average news story on television goes for about 45 seconds. How can one possibly convey the gravity of the implications of an event in 45 seconds? It can’t be done. Neil Postman writes,

It is simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute’s time. In fact, it is quite obvious that TV news has no intention of suggesting that any story has any implications, for that would require viewers to continue to think about it when it is done and therefore obstruct their attending to the next story that waits panting in the wings[1].

A flash before our eyes, and then poof, it’s gone. We don’t have time to think and act, only to know that something has happened. We must ask ourselves, when the seriousness and complexity of an issue, such as the Iraq war, is reduced to a 45 second interlude between celebrity news and the stock markets, are we really being informed? When this news is provided amid roaring planes, crumbling debris and crying children, with musical overtures, are we watching a movie or watching news? The news we receive about the world, fails to inform because we are immersed in images, not thought and it fails to provide context because it lasts for 45 seconds. What does the world look like to us in Australia? In one 45 second clip, you are told about a bombing in a market in Yemen; next, 45 seconds on a terror attack in London; next, 45 seconds on the plight of starving children in Melbourne, and now, the weather…

One day you will hear about the death of 200 Palestinians in Gaza; the next day, this news might go from a headline to a back page story, from a breaking news bulletin to a segment after an ad for Colgate toothpaste; the next day, nothing. Although the story of the 200 dead Palestinians in Gaza is gone, something remains; 200 dead Palestinians lodged as a memory in the deep recesses of the mind, where the exact a toll, ghosts of the past haunting the present.

The news has provided us with a superficial familiarity of the world. Our power to know about it has increased, but our power to act has remained the same. We feel angry that, in spite of all this knowledge of terror, injustice, and cruelty in the world, it continues, day after day. The pain of inaction is grinding, people often choose simply to turn off the news, to look away rather than face the problems of the world. Those who choose not to look away endure paroxysms of outraged helplessness. Globalised media, rather than bringing us closer together, has appeared to pull us further apart, and this may have a lot to do with all the images we now carry around in our heads.




N.P, Postman. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death. Penguin Books: United States.

[1] Amusing Ourselves to Death. 2985. 98.

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