THE ARCHIVES: 2002
media saturates, drenches, overflows our lives: an endless torrent
of words, images, sounds. This is not the "information age", a mere
channel to life, says Gitlin, but life itself. How do people make
sense of the onrush without being submerged by it?
will, I hope, have consulted the lucid debate in the Media strand
on the impact of giant conglomerates and whether they are a threat
to democracy. My own thinking about media has evolved toward a different
(not necessarily incompatible) set of questions about the experience
of media and their saturation of everyday life. They have created
a civilization obsessed with speed. What are the strategies which
everyone uses to try and cope with saturation and speed? And what
are the dynamics behind the spread of this way of life beyond the
borders of the United States -- indeed, beyond any borders at all?
swarming enormity of popular culture is obvious. Never have so many
communicated so much, on so many screens, through so many channels,
absorbing so many hours of irreplaceable human attention. And most
of this is itself about communications. Whenever strangers wish
to feel out common ground and establish that they are not altogether
alien to each other, they compare notes on stars and shows. They
deploy the latest catch phrases, and in America indicate that they
are West Wing, South Park, Oprah, Howard Stern, World Wrestling
Federation, or Rush Limbaugh types of people. In other
societies other soap operas, shows and stars fulfill the same function.
all their bits and chunks, the media are major subjects of the media
themselves, glutted as they are with reviews, profiles, commentaries,
gossip, trivia and bulletins about hits and celebrities, rising
and falling stars, blazing and cooling fads, trends and gadgets,
the ebb and flow of executive careers in the media, the latest in
media corporate acquisitions of other media corporations.
writers and talking heads are legion. The New York Times' weekly
section, "Circuits," devoted to new communications technology, has
been emulated elsewhere. Claims of "media effects" circulate through
television, newspaper columns, and the internet. Organizations galore
sponsor conferences galore on violence and profanity in the media.
Books and journals about the media stream off the presses.
for all the talk, and all the talk about the talk, the main truth
about the media slips through our fingers. Critics and commentators
miss the immensity of the experience of media, the sheer quantity
of attention paid, the devotions and rituals that absorb our time
and resources. Riding the torrent, they don't see it as a torrent
and instead talk and argue about the splashes and the spray. The
obvious but hard-to-grasp truth is that living with the media is
today one of the main things human beings do.
centrality of media is disguised, in part, by the prevalence of
that assured, hard-edged phrase "information society," or even,
more grandly, "information age." Such terms are instant propaganda
for a way of life which is also a way of progress.
in his right mind could be against information or want to be without
it? Who wouldn't want to produce, consume, and accumulate more of
this useful stuff, remove obstacles to its spread, invest in it,
see better variants of it spring to life? Even today's Luddites
want to obtain speedier internet access, put up more websites, promote
more extensive listservs, publish more tracts, and otherwise diffuse
more information about the dangers of high technology. "Information
society" glows with a positive aura. The very term "information"
points to a gift -- specific and ever-replenished, shining forth
in the bright light of utility. Ignorance is not bliss, information
feel, therefore I am
we diminish the significance of media and our reliance on them in
everyday life by classifying them as channels of information. Media
today are occasions for and conduits of a way of life identified
with rationality, technological achievement, and the quest for wealth,
but also for something else entirely, something we call "fun," "comfort,"
"convenience," or "pleasure."
have come to care tremendously about how we feel and how readily
we can change our feelings. Media are means to do this. We aim,
through media, to indulge and serve our hungers by inviting images
and sounds into our lives, making them come and go with ease in
a never-ending quest for more and better entertainment.
prevailing business is the business not of information but of enjoyment,
the feeling of feelings, to which we give as much time as we can
manage, not only at home but in the car, at work, or walking down
the street. We seek and sometimes find a laugh from a sitcom joke,
an erotic twinge from an underwear ad, a jolt of rhythm from a radio
playlist, a sensation of moving with remarkable speed through a
video game. Even the quest for information includes the quest for
the delight to be found in retrieving it -- a quest, that is, for
a society that fancies itself the freest ever, spending time with
communications machinery is the main use to which we have put our
freedom. All human beings play, but this civilization has evolved
a particular form of play: wedding fun to convenience by bathing
ourselves in images and sounds.
most important thing about the communications we live among is not
that they deceive (which they do); or that they broadcast a limiting
ideology (which they do); or emphasize sex and violence (which they
do); or convey diminished images of the good, the true and the normal
(which they do); or corrode the quality of art (which they also
do); or reduce language (which they surely do) -- but that with
all their lies, skews, and shallow pleasures, they saturate our
way of life with a promise of feeling.
if we may not know exactly how we feel --
about one or another batch of images, we feel that they are there,
streaming out of large screens and small, or bubbling in the background
of life, but always coursing onward. To an unprecedented degree,
the torrent of images, songs, and stories streaming has become our
familiar, our felt world.
and unintentionally, we allude to the biggest truth about media
with a grammatical error. We commonly speak of "the media" in the
singular. Grammatical sticklers (like this writer) cringe when the
media themselves, or college students reared on them (or it) speak
of "the media" as they might speak of "the sky" -- as if there were
is, however, a reason for this error other than grammatical slovenliness.
Something in our experience makes us want to address media as "it."
We may be confused about whether "the media" are or "is" technologies,
or cultural codes
-- whether "television" is an electronic system for bringing images
into the home, or the sum of its stars and channels; whether "the
media" includes alternative rock or the Internet.
through all the confusion we sense something like a unity at work.
The torrent is seamless: a collage of back-to-back stories, talk-show
banter, fragments of ads, soundtracks of musical snippets. Even
as we click around, something feels uniform -- a relentless
pace, a pattern of interruption, a seriousness about unseriousness,
a readiness for sensation, an anticipation of the next new thing.
Whatever the diversity of texts, the media largely share a texture,
even if it is maddeningly difficult to describe -- real and unreal,
present and absent, disposable and essential, distracting and absorbing,
sensational and tedious, emotional and numbing.
Unlimited I wrestle with the maddening difficulty. Take
one aspect only: the 24/7 wraparound spectacles we know as O. J.
Simpson, Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr., Clinton-Lewinsky.
They have a peculiar aspect that might help explain their appeal,
their hold and their consequences.
these episodes, people can feel not only enthralled, but relieved.
The wraparound saga has the virtue of sluggishness which allows
them to relax. The everyday onrush of lightweight fluff grinds into
slow motion as the anchor declares breathlessly, "This just in".
Commentators expostulate, epiphanies arrive -- moments of revelation
and showdown, partial resolutions, true and false leads -- but in
the main, padded by "backstory," the story moves glacially. Like
a soap opera, it does not require rapt attention. The "real" news,
the "latest," will recycle at the top of the hour, if not sooner.
for example, during the search for the young Kennedy's plane, the
screen read "Breaking News". But it showed boats crisscrossing a
placid Nantucket Sound, looking for debris as the camera showed
only open water. During the state funeral, the wedding, the hijacking,
longueurs take over. The impounded plane sits on the runway. The
reporter at O.J. Simpson's mansion reports breathlessly that nothing
is going on. Amid the stasis, a few iconic images recycle endlessly;
the Challenger explodes, O.J.'s white Bronco cruises down the freeway,
the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City stands as an instant ruin,
the fireman holds the dead child, Monica Lewinsky hugs President
Clinton at the rope line, Clinton points his finger and denies having
sex "with that woman," and now hijacked jets smash again and again
into the Twin Towers.
pundits, barking heads, hunt for amusing or pontifical sidebars,
striving to summon the nation to feelings all of us are supposed
to feel, trying to power the display with emotional bursts that
the pictures usually themselves do not engender.
a genuine ongoing emergency -- like the aftermath of the World Trade
Center and Pentagon attacks of 11 September, 2001 -- saturation
coverage can carry much practical information. But mainly, emotions
flow: grief, horror, anger, fear. No wonder steady viewers grow
numb. Yet this feeling of stasis may be not so much a dramatic flaw
as an attraction. The spectator's burden of choice is, for once,
lifted. You are riveted, your choices made for you. You duck in
and out, check "what's new." Your opinion is polled, your talk radio
calls and e-mails are solicited. You may feel privileged to be "a
witness to history."
communities form on the Internet, jokes fly around the world via
e-mail. The people you run into share an automatic agenda -- even
if high on that agenda is disgust with the excess of coverage, expression
of that disgust being itself a predictable feature of saturation
ritual of common preoccupation seems to justify the intensity of
the coverage in a self-justifying, ongoing torrent that takes us
along with it.
Gitlin is a nationally known authority on the media and society.
His articles have appeared in many publications including The
New York Times, Newsday, Los Angeles Times, Dissent, Observer (London),
and The Chicago Tribune, His books include: The Sixties:
Years of Hope, Days of Rage ; Inside Prime Time ; The
Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars
; and the prize-winning novel, Sacrifice. His latest
book is Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds
Overwhelms Our Lives. He is the North American editor of opendemocracy
and a member of the editorial boards of Dissent , The American
Scholar, and the Journal of Human Rights. He is also
a professor in NYU's Culture and Communication and Sociology departments.
by permission of the author.