21st Jun 2010

On flags, vuvuzelas and…T-shirts

When we use the term ‘media’, usually we mean mass media (newspapers, TV, etc.) or, less often, new media forms like blogs and Facebook. But media are actually all forms that communicate something from one source to another, and if said communication is solely enacted at a particular time and place (i.e. if it requires us to be co-present, there-and-now, at the scene), then so be it. Which is another way of saying that media technologies don’t all run on electricity!

The World Cup demands our attention just as spectacularly through co-present as through mass media. Flags – one of the oldest media in the civilised world – are hardly ever out of eyeshot. In days gone by, as old film footage confirms, flags made their omnipresence felt on special national occasions such as coronations, jubilees and wartime victories. All the technological wizardry ever invented could not begin to replace the timeless aura of a flag at full (or half) mast.

Nor could digitisation affect that age-old medium of divine simplicity – the horn, better known (in the last ten days or so) as the vuvuzela. Now there’s been a lot of criticism levelled at this ancient media device – it only blows one tone, it drowns out the chanting, it fools us all into adjusting the sound settings on our brand-new, HD-ready (ITV HD not-ready-for-Gerrard-goal), mass-mediated TVs – but I think most of this criticism is, quite frankly, out of order. Anything that deters the England brass band should be applauded – though the applause may well fall on deaf ears.

Flags and vuvuzelas are tribal media, belonging firmly to what McLuhan referred to as a pre-1500 oral age of ‘pure’ communication. T-shirts, on the other hand, hit the media sector several centuries later, thanks to the mass production of cotton clothing of course. Yet these most basic garments provide us with perhaps the richest array of media messages in our times. The best one I saw recently read BOMB SQUAD – IF YOU SEE ME RUNNING, TRY TO KEEP UP! Ah… priceless.

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