Understanding how visual media influences us.
Interview by Ryan Hamm
We recently had the chance to chat with Shane Hipps, author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (and a FaithVisuals.com consulting editor). We talked about the importance of understanding how electronic media works, Marshall McLuhan’s four laws of media, and how the power of visual media can also be used to manipulate. And that’s just in this first half! We hope you find Hipps’s insights as prophetic as we did—either way, feel free to comment and discuss below.
How can we be better about perceiving the power of media in both our churches and our lives?
Probably the best orientation that I’ve discovered to help me understand the real power of media was when I read a quote by Marshall McLuhan where he says, “The content of any medium is the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” What he’s saying is that the medium itself has a power, a bias, and a meaning regardless of what message you put through it. He’s challenging the metaphor that we often assume: Media are simply pipelines, a neutral conduit through which information can be put through. I think it’s crucial for Christians to begin to perceive the media forms themselves, rather than just looking at—and understanding—the content. We’re too easily distracted by the content, and we miss the power of the medium.
You mentioned Marshall McLuhan. In your book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, you talk about McLuhan’s four laws of media a lot. Could you explain those a little bit, and how they are useful for thinking about the media we use?
Sure. The only difficulty with the four laws is that it feels a little unnatural at times. It can be hard to answer some of those questions. The point is not to get the right answers; the point is to ask the right questions. McLuhan offered four questions he believed were crucial to understanding media.
First: What does the medium enhance and extend? For instance: The wheel is an extension of the foot.
Second: What does the medium obsolesce? And “obsolesce” doesn’t mean get rid of. It means change the function of. So, for example, the automobile extends our speed of transportation, but it obsolesces the horse-drawn carriage. The horse-drawn carriage doesn’t disappear; it simply changes its function. It’s now used for romance and entertainment, but it is still used.
Third: What does the medium retrieve from the past? This is the conviction that nothing is new under the sun. And so every new medium retrieves some older medium. For example, security cameras retrieve the medieval city wall which simultaneously protects and imprisons its citizens.
Fourth: What does the medium reverse into? This means that every medium will always reverse into some form of its opposite when it is overused. So for example, when the automobile, which is designed to increase speed, is overextended or overused, it actually reverses into traffic jams and even fatalities.
There is no single answer to these questions; they can be asked of any medium almost endlessly to deepen our understanding. So that’s one way of understanding the complexity of how media shape us.
So what do you think are some changes that would happen if people started to look at how we present our message? Like if we use McLuhan’s four laws to think more about how we’re presenting a message.
I think people will begin to use our media rather than be used by them unconsciously. The power of our media become less powerful when we actually understand and become aware of them. Right now, most people are distracted by the content of our media, while we miss the power of the form. Thus we encounter our media with the proverbial slip on the banana peel. We end up being used by the media we think we’re using. My hope isn’t that people will stop using technology in a church but rather, that they’ll begin to understand so they can make more discerning decisions about how to use media.
If we ask ourselves these questions, how can video and visual multimedia do their best work? What kinds of messages do you think are best communicated by video or multimedia?
The messages that are best conveyed by video or multimedia are almost exclusively emotional and entertaining. The bias of these media is that they exercise the right hemisphere of the brain, which evokes emotions, impressions, and intuitions. Regardless of what you’re conveying, these are the things that your brain uses to engage, perceive and understand the content of images. At the same time, when overextended, images erode our capacity for logic, abstract thinking, and complex discernment. Perhaps the most unintended consequence is that images too often become a form of manipulation.
Can you explain that a bit further? What do you mean by “unintended consequence?”
Well, visual multimedia are probably the favorite medium of the greatest manipulators in world history: advertisers. And I know because I was one! One of the things we discovered was that the absolute best way to move people against their better judgment was through emotion, not reason. Everything we did was to try and give emotional experiences, evoke emotional impressions, and basically ignore the nuts and bolts of the superiority of our product. Nobody cared about the superiority of our product; they cared about the kind of emotional empowerment they would experience. And so, regardless of whether they had the money to buy what we wanted them to buy, we could find ways to manipulate their emotions against their better judgment, because emotions are not things you argue with. They’re simply an experience that you have. Whereas if you try and go through reason, people will argue with it.
So that’s the thing I’d be concerned about in terms of how we use video and multimedia in church. We need to understand that we’re dealing with an incredibly powerful medium that all too easily leans towards manipulation—a subtle form of coercion. It’s not at all something that people who work and create this medium are necessarily doing on purpose. I know that. It’s just a matter of helping us become aware of how immensely powerful images are.
Can you give me an example of that kind of manipulative use of visual media?
Let me give you an example from when I worked in advertising. On one campaign, our goal was to sell Porsches. And we didn’t do it by convincing you that our car was better than a BMW because it had higher RPM or it could do 0 to 60 faster, but because it promised you freedom, sex, and power. And so we showed you a gorgeous woman with the car. So emotionally viewers experienced an unconscious message—buy the car and get the girl.
Another print ad we did was a shot of the Porsche Turbo running in the Salt Flats of Utah and the headline over the photograph read “Pins the logical side of your brain to the back of your skull.” It’s an ad that basically says, This is not a rational decision so don’t over-think it; go out and buy this $120,000 car right now, but also exposes a greater truth about our methods as advertisers. Everything we did was an effort to pin the logical side of the brain to the back of skulls, so that we could simply manipulate this soft and highly malleable emotional response and experience.
How do you help filmmakers know how they can best avoid the unintentional consequence of manipulating? Especially because we obviously want people to be moved through videos, but not in the sense that we want to manipulate them into anything?
It’s really hard to say to a filmmaker or an artist “Here’s how you should create your art so that you’re not manipulating.” Part of it is the context. It’s the context in which it’s shown—who the audience is.
But the questions I would ask of a filmmaker or someone who is involved in creating a show video piece are:
- What is your intended goal or outcome? In some ways, if your goal is too clear or concrete as an artist, you may be at risk of inadvertently using your film manipulatively.
- What is the means by which you’re trying to achieve that goal? Does what I depict exploit the senses or emotions, or does it awaken them? This is very fine line, so ask it prayerfully and honestly.
- Only after I heard answers to these questions could I give some more meaningful direction. It’s hard for me to say specifically for filmmakers what they should or shouldn’t do, other than ask the hard questions and answer them as honestly as you can.