Among the interesting observations Luhmann makes in The Reality of the Mass Media is that of the manner in which the mass media construct a world. Here it’s necessary to proceed with caution. The point is not that the mass media produce the earth. Rather, the point is that the mass media construct a social world that becomes the horizon of how we relate to one another and the earth. As Luhmann writes,
…the contribution of all three forms of mass media communication [reporting, entertainment, and advertising]– and this is where they converge –can be said to be in creating the conditions for further communication which do not themselves have to be communicated in the process This applies to being up-to-date with one’s information just as it does to being up-to-date culturally, as far as judgments about values, ways of life, what is in/what is out of fashion are concerned. Thanks to the mass media, then, it is also possible to judge whether it is considered acceptable or provocative to stand apart and reveal one’s own opinion. Since the mass media have generated a background reality which can be taken as a starting point, one can take off from there and create a profile for oneself by expression personal opinions, saying how one sees the future, demonstrating preferences etc.
The social function of the mass media is thus not to be found in the totality of information actualized by each (that is, not on the positively valued side of their code) but in the memory generated by it. For the social system, memory consists in being able to take certain assumptions about reality as given and known about in every communication, without having to introduce them specially into communication and justify them. (RM, 65)
Put in Heideggerese, Luhmann is alluding to the manner in which the mass media produces “das Man” or the “everybody knows” that underlies shared social reality. This is not something that can be assumed to be there at the outset, but is rather something that must be produced or built. This das Man, in its turn, renders possible new forms of social relation. To see this consider two villages, existing prior to mass media, existing hundreds of miles apart. Here spatial difference is crucial. Under conditions of spatial distance such as this there’s no possibility of a world. The reason for this is that flows of communication are highly constrained in time due to these features of distance.
The construction of a world is thus dependent on both the emergence of certain technologies (printing press, radio, television, satellite, internet, etc) and the communications that flow across the flows rendered possible by these technologies. With the emergence of these technologies a new form of the Common begins to emerge. The Common, however, is not merely a shared content at the level of information, but is also a spatio-temporality that comes to characterize social existence. With respect to content, Luhmann is careful to emphasize that mass media do not produce the same in the form of shared propositional contents or beliefs. Indeed, the topics favored in the news, for example, are those that embody difference because these topics enhance the possibility of further communications, allowing the media system to autopoietically reproduce itself. We thus get a strange differential unity.
The Common produced by media technologies surmounts the time differentials produced as a result of space. If our two mythological villages in a pre-media period do not belong to the same world, then this is because the time that elapses to surmount their distance prevents them from interacting with one another. This point can be driven all the way home in the case of societies that are completely isolated from one another due to their remoteness as in the case of Easter Island. With the emergence of media technologies, by contrast, the nature of social space-time changes. What we get as a result is the emergence of new social hyperobjects. Now events that are geographically remote from one another can become nodes in a shared network, such that simultaneity is possible where it wasn’t possible before. We can live the meltdown of the Japanese nuclear power plants along with the Japanese, just as we can live the Libyan and Egyptian revolutions along with the Egyptians and Libyans. Indeed, the repressive governments of both Libya and Egypt revealed that they understood this when they attempted to shut down various communication technologies. If they could shut down these communication technologies, they reasoned, then they could shut down these revolutions. And if they could shut down these technologies of communication, they could shut down the Common or prevent it from taking place. Along these lines, debates about open access publishing, blogging, citizen media, etc., are also debates about the Common or what should or should not be a node in the network of the social world. They are questions about who should participate.
However, it would be a mistake to wax utopian about the production of the world or the Common. While the surmounting of time does indeed open the possibility of new forms of political engagement, organization, emancipation, and insurrection (think about the role that the Common is playing in Wisconsin), it also generates new forms of power and capital. Luhmann observes that,
A further reason for the reproduction of the difference of news/in-depth reporting, advertising and entertainment can be said to be that with these strands the mass media are maintaining different structural couplings at the same time and thus also reproducing different dependencies on other function systems. Advertising is without doubt a market in its own right within the economic system, with its own organizations oriented towards special markets. But that is not all it is. For advertising has to make it product a reality via the auto-dynamics of the social system of the mass media and not merely, as is typically the case with other products, via technological or phsycical-chemical-biological suitability for the satisfaction of a particular need. Within the strand of advertising, then, the economy is just as dependent upon the system of mass media as the latter is upon it; and, as is typical in cases of structural coupling, no logical asymmetry, no hierarchy can be detected. (RM, 66)
“Structural coupling” is Luhmann’s term (drawn from autopoietic theory) for what Harman calls “vicarious causation”. It refers to the way in which operationally closed systems interact with each other. Each function system is governed, according to Luhmann, by a code that governs how it relates to perturbations from its environment. Two systems are structurally coupled when they become dependent on one another for perturbations used in their own ongoing autopoiesis or operations. Like a vampire, one system draws irritations from another system so as to continue its own operations. In this case, economy becomes dependent on mass media for peturbations determining its own ongoing operations, just as advertising and reporting become dependent on economy for their own operations. In the case of economy, without the Common produced by mass media, a number of its operations are impossible.
We see exactly this dynamic in the case of Japan and Libya. Events in Japan and Libya are no longer “over there”, isolated in the region where they occur, but now resonate throughout a variety of different hyperobjects remote in space from these locations. Thus, for example, we see the price of oil rise in response to these events. This speculation on energy prices would not be possible without a system that produces the Common allowing these events to become simultaneously with other regions of the earth at great distances from one another. As a consequence, what we get are entanglements of objects (economy entangled with media, media entangled with economy) and the entanglement of human lives with these hyperobjects and the common. Now those looking for a freer life find that it is not enough simply to tackle the despots in their village, simply to vote for those candidates that might support their interests. No, insofar as we become entangled in the Common we find that we must target these hyperobjects massively distributed in time and space that seem to be everywhere and nowhere.