Research, Scientific culture
Benoît Lafon is a professor at the Université Grenoble Alpes and the Deputy Director of the Research Group for Communication Challenges (GRESEC).

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 Question box 

This TV remote you brought to symbolise television also symbolises its consumption by viewers…

Benoit Lafon: In the 1980s, the TV remote was a symbol of channel hopping as the number of television channels multiplied. Today, it symbolises desynchronisation of the flow: the ability to choose what you watch and when you watch it. Some people wrongly think there is a growing individualisation of consumption leading to a break in social ties and a loss of collective identity. However, research does not show this. Despite the growing number of services offered and the formation of ad hoc communities, we see there is still a need for mainstream popular media. This is also true of the online offering, where a few major content aggregation platforms generate most of the traffic. I study the collective aspect of media, or in other words the praxis, the action, the social interaction which takes place through media consumption. Looking through the prism of mass media helps me understand what as many people as possible are statistically interested in at any given moment. It’s a kind of common denominator that can be found both in traditional media and, more recently, in social media.  What can this tell us about social interaction? B. L.: I think of media as a symptom of social change that can help me understand it. I’ll give you an example. I worked on TV fiction about cancer and media coverage of diseases. I had seen that, across all television, films about cancer were increasingly being shown at prime time (8:50 pm), including on TF1. TF1 has no interest in talking about cancer; in principle, it’s not a particularly attractive subject for a form of media that is associated with entertainment. We must seriously think about what fiction is. It’s not fake, it’s pretend, make-believe. Stories can be analysed and linked to scientific discoveries. Cancer is becoming a disease that we can talk about, a disease that may even be curable in some cases. We can also see developments in the attitude towards death, and a changing social context. Media is simply the expression of that. 

You have also focused on the attitude towards collective death…

B. L.: Yes, I have analysed corpora on television news that covered collective disasters over a period of 40 years: earthquakes, accidents, etc. Again, a change can be seen. The media, as a sounding board, helps us to see that it is becoming necessary for political stakeholders to go into the field and be seen as compassionate. We see that the role of psychological support units is growing and that rituals are changing – for example, with the concept of the chapel of rest. We turn to religion again, but with the subject of psychological support. We do not skirt around death – on the contrary, I have the impression that we are re-formalising it and that collective media like television is contributing to that. Coverage of the November 2015 Paris attacks also illustrates this well. For the first time, we saw images of a support group in several reports, of victims putting into words the tragedy following the attack at Le Petit Cambodge. The fact that the media filmed them and showed them to the public is indicative of a change in how society deals with this kind of trauma. When you look at the coverage of attacks in previous years, you realise it was very different. I analyse television and media from the perspective of distanced confrontation, irrespective of the types of programmes, ranging from the more legitimate (news) to the more trivial (game shows, reality TV, etc.). It’s distanced confrontation with suffering, with death, as well as distanced confrontation with militancy, political struggle and even romantic relationships or friendships. These are softened forms, acceptable by a non-specialist or inexperienced audience. Where an emergency doctor can deal with death directly because they have learned strategies to do so, the average person who has never seen a dead body will be able to face it through images. 

In the Digital Age, has television become obsolete?

B. L.: In fact, no, but it is changing. No form of media has ever disappeared following the emergence of a new form of media. What remains decisive for television is live broadcasting, which is what I found interesting in the analysis of televised funerals. How do we produce history live through a collective event? For television, the real change was the arrival of video and broadcasting via satellite networks in the 1980s. Today, it’s true, there are socio digital networks – all smartphones are equipped with cameras and there is an increase in the production of images. However, it would be wrong to think of these digital techniques as a recent revolution. The processes which have revolutionised communication actually span many centuries, and contemporary media is an expression of the industrial revolution currently under way. To make a TV remote, many new industrial players are needed. An image makes it possible to achieve that, to think about the materiality of communication and not the digitisation, which is nonsense. Let’s look at a modern city. Imagine that we lift it up to see what lies beneath – we would see hundreds of tonnes of cables and pipes, an entire infrastructure that has made the fortune of multinationals like CGE, now omnipresent communication groups like Vivendi (formerly CGE) or Numéricable. Pitting immaterial digital society against industrial society is utterly wrong. Only industrial society lives on and develops, while also contributing to current ecological disruptions. There is a feeling that the compressed equivalent of a film reel on a server is immaterial. But it’s just as material as it is immaterial – it’s simply miniaturised, stored on a few square microns or nanometres. Substantial computing power is needed to decode and encode these videos, which represent symbolic industrialised goods that have become necessary to the collective life of our societies.
Updated on December 13, 2016