Making Sense Of MeWorld

"Now megatechnics offers, in return for its unquestioning acceptance, the gift of an effortless life: a plethora of prefabricated goods, achieved with a minimum of physical activity, without painful conflicts or harsh sacrifices: life on the installment plan, as it were, yet with an unlimited credit card, and with the final reckoning -- existential nausea and despair -- readable only in the fine print."

-- Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (vol. 2)

Everywhere you look these days, there is some sign or sales pitch or message designed to grab you, to steal your attention, to reel you in. The young, alluring women on the cover of hundreds of magazines; the headlines, trailers, ads, promos and billboards you come across during the course of a week; the clever, sometimes funny, often inane TV commercials; letters you retrieve from your mailbox that read "time-sensitive material" or "URGENT"; lines like "in my new book I explain..." or "go to my website"; the stories on Internet portals that offer tips on health, hygiene, dating, finances and career; the "indelible moments" of pop culture (Janet Jackson's breast being exposed during a Super Bowl halftime show, Martha Stewart walking down the courtroom steps with a solemn look on her face); and on and on. All of it is meant for you.

Call it the mediated life. In his book Mediated, Thomas de Zengotita concedes that culture has "always filtered reality in some way and addressed people through representations of some kind." Today, however, the mediation is far more pervasive and thoroughgoing, far deeper and in some respects far subtler. For one thing, so much more is happening these days. There are more media outlets, more things that are being produced and consumed, more selves than ever competing for attention, so many more options available across the spectrum, from places to vacation to books to read, from gadgets to buy to websites to surf, from restaurants to try out to health spas to join, from hobbies to take up to spiritual avenues to entertain. There are endless ways to be distracted and amused and lost in this milieu.

But, as Zengotita points out, the biggest difference is that we today are acutely aware of all this. We know all about mediation and choices. We also know that our life is a performance, that we can construct any identity or persona we want for ourselves, attach ourselves to any cause, and become a brand in the marketplace of personality. We know it and we willingly play along.

A good example of this is what he calls "method acting". When President Kennedy was assassinated, for instance, everyone knew instantly that it was a big deal, an occasion for grieving and mourning. Kennedy after all was young and charismatic, with patrician roots and a glamorous and well-liked wife; for another, assassinations hadn't exactly been common in our nation's history, and it occurred when no one knew how the superpower rivalry was going to unfold.

But everyone also knew that the event was about them. The event put them in a situation in which they could act out their melancholy in a very open way (rather than internalize it and leave it private), mourn in front of the television cameras, construct narratives about the nation's loss of innocence, grieve over the legacy of Camelot, and feel that the loss was as much theirs as it was the Kennedy family's.

"Where were you when JFK was assassinated?" Notice the question comes back to the all-important you.

Forty years later method acting was taken to another level with the death of Princess Diana. Mourners everywhere realized the tragedy presented them with an opportunity "to be in the moment," to be the cynosure of the world's attention, to both create and participate in a global show. As Zengotita writes,

"Di's mourners were truly grieving and they were performing. Immersed in a world continuously represented from every angle, they understood Di's death as an opportunity to play a significant role in it, to represent themselves at levels of prominence usually reserved for the celebrated. But they already knew how to be representational.

"That's because the same dynamic operates in anonymous daily lives." (emphasis in original)

There would seem to be every difference in the world between receiving the news about your dead president, feeling sorry about it, and acting the whole thing out, making a public show of your tears and emotions, doing the whole hugging, hand-holding, skyward-gazing thing. But according to Zengotita, mediation has turned people into just such method actors, and it is not at all surprising, because everything nowadays is presented in a way that is both about and for them. So why shouldn't people act in public as though Diana had been their best friend, even though she was as much a stranger to them as the denizens of the Seychelles Islands?

The sum of all the messages and ads you see these days revolve around a single theme: a younger, healthier you, a richer, more powerful you, a you that is in touch with your spiritual side, a you that can be made as attractive on the outside as on the inside, a you that can be embellished by cosmetic surgery or reproduced via cloning. The signal characteristic of this mediated age is the flattery of selves.

Learning To Love The Blob

In his earlier reflections on the issue, Zengotita didn't hold so endearing a view of postmodern mediation. In his essay "The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic" (Harper's, April 02) he expressed his unease about a world in which there are so many options and distractions and frills: "Soap-opera politics. The therapy industry. Online communities. Digital effects. Workshops for every workplace. Viagra, Prozac, Ritalin. Reality TV. Complete makeovers." He wondered how people can just go on blithely with their life:

"How can we go about our business when things like this are happening? How can we just read the article, shake our heads, turn the page? If creatures from outer space sent a diplomatic mission to the U.N., how long would it be before we were taking that in stride? Before Comedy Central send-ups were more entertaining than the actual creatures? About six months?"

In Mediated he is in a more celebratory mood. He tells us that he is "learning to love the Blob." One wonders if his transformation is quite complete, or whether he has relaxed the edginess of his earlier prose to avoid coming across as a grump. If his concern is grumpiness, I think it is unfounded. Some of us only wish there were more hard-headed intellectuals in the world -- those who are not reluctant to challenge the prevailing assumptions of the affluent economy and not nervous about standing all alone, without the comfort of consensus, ever vulnerable to the charge of being uptight and uncool. Someone like C. Wright Mills or R.D. Laing or Lewis Mumford, or instance.

Perhaps this much can be said in favor of our super-mediated age: that it has relaxed the rigid moral boundaries of earlier periods and contributed to a more empathic world. Ten years ago the question whether gays should be allowed to serve in the military was controversial (gays have probably always served in the armed forces, but that is another matter). The idea that there would be an open tolerance policy miffed numerous lawmakers, including Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. They strongly opposed admitting openly gay people into the ranks of the military and eventually compromised with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Within just ten years our society has arrived at the point of accepting the legitimacy of "civil unions," and of even entertaining the plausibility of gay marriage. This is quite a transformation in the mores of our culture, and in so short a span of time. The change probably has a lot to do with the way selves are encouraged more and more to open themselves up, to experiment in new roles, to develop more of a group consciousness rather than a strictly private, autonomous point of view, to accept the otherness of minority groups.

The innumerable gains for women is another example. Less than a century ago women couldn't vote; today the prospects look very good that a woman will be president in either 2008 or 2012. No one is shocked that a woman can be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, or a leading governor of a state, or a billionaire entrepreneur, or a professional boxer for that matter. Zengotita is quite right to credit the Blob for this kind of progress. Living as we do in the McLuhanesque global village, stumbling on to others' web logs, having access to a wide range of social and political points of view, being able to plug in to others' streams of consciousness, ideological rigidity quickly dissipates, and we gain a better understanding of other value systems and perspectives.

On Not Learning To Love The Blob

I happen to be a member of the Friends of the Library, which means five or six times a year I'm invited to a special book sale. Paperbacks sell for a dollar, hardbounds for two dollars, and every book imaginable is available in a warehouse half the size of a gymnasium. Looking for all of Gibbon's volumes on the fall of the Roman Empire? They're there. Or a single volume that contains all the work of every English poet who has ever lived? It's there. Or maybe ten 20-volume encyclopedia sets? They're there too.

Despite the lure of the offerings, you could not imagine a less mediated place than this warehouse. There is no snack bar or coffee nook anywhere. Mozart isn't playing on a loudspeaker. The cash registers are the old-fashioned kind, where the cashier (a volunteer) has to pound keys to get the door to open. There's no scanning anything. You never hear somebody's cell phone ringing. Credit cards are not accepted, only cash. There are no special displays anywhere, nothing to grab your attention when you walk in. Possibly 90% of the books were published before 1980, another half before 1950. There is nothing sensational about the appearance of the books: they do not appear in 4-color glossy jackets and are not adorned by blurbs.

Contrast this with the Borders Bookstore experience. When you walk into Borders, you're instantly aware of the commercial surroundings -- coffee/snack bar, the hundreds of flashy magazines with the glamorous women on them, the displays and props all around, the classical music that is playing.

There is something almost dispiriting about it, and this has nothing at all to do with the overwhelming supply of books in the store, the "feeling very small" feeling that people get. It has to do with the realization that the game is all about money, about attention-grabbing, shoving so much glitzy, commercial junk right in your face. Whole shelves of books consist of appeals made to your vanities; media personalities turn up everywhere, and you know instantly that their "book" is more about building a brand, puffing up, than it is about communicating ideas or unearthing something important.

The point is not that the profit motive is bad; it is that there is a very important aesthetic and axiological difference between a minimally mediated environment and a super-mediated environment. There are as many books in the Friends warehouse as there are at Borders, for instance, but there isn't that commercial atmosphere. You are reeled in because you know there is something important or fascinating between the covers of the old books -- you are reeled in because nobody has made any effort at all to reel you in. The books do not tell me how to get rich or how to lose weight or how to influence people or how to communicate with God. I don't feel as though a con man is trying to flatter me.

In a minimally mediated environment, you are able to have a private reflection, to breathe and move around and explore all that is there. Zengotita's example of an unmediated environment is the person whose car breaks down in the middle of, say, Saskatchewan. The person has no radio, no cell phone, nothing to read, no gadget to fiddle with. He is forced to wait, all alone; soon he realizes that nothing around him was created for him. The realization that he is but a jot in an incomprehensibly vast universe will probably be unsettling, because he is, after all, only too used to his everyday mediated life.

Other Blob Issues

Is the endlessly self-celebrating aspect of this super-mediated culture something to laud? If we have arrived at the point where we can only really be interested in ourselves, how is this a good thing? Of what is it a consummation?

Isn't something lost -- call it transcendence, call it sacredness -- in a world in which so many of us are wired all the time, attached to this gadget or that, poring our energies into a screen, losing ourselves in one continual phantasmagoria after the next, and only wanting more pleasures, more moving moments, more media buzz?

Various media theorists have at one time or other expressed unease about the course of our mediated life. By the time he died McLuhan thought that the "electronic universe was 'a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ.'" Neil Postman worried that we were "amusing ourselves to death." Jean Baudrillard claims that the "maps of reality" (movies, television, Internet) have become more "real" to us than our own actual lives. "Everywhere, always," he writes in Simulacra and Simulation, "the system is too strong: hegemonic. The system is itself also nihilistic, in the sense that it has the power to pour everything, including what denies it, into indifference."

That may be the most serious criticism of the Blob. It flatters us, engages us, absorbs us, amuses us, allows us to escape, to be interminably self-involved -- but it also creates a "sick of it all" feeling, a certain weariness, a yearning to be free of all representations, all plastic smiling faces and sales pitches, a yearning to live a vastly simpler and more innocent life, where no book would ever have to be written explaining how bad it all is.

Interviews With Thomas de Zengotita

National Public Radio: "Inside the Mediated Culture." An excellent exploration of the issue.

Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC. Interview.

See Also

McLuhan's Philosophy.

Our Mediated Life.