We eat, we drink, we commute, we punch the clock. But, according to a new Ball State University study, what we Americans do more of than anything else is plug into our technologies. We spend around nine hours a day on our iPods, cellphones, computers, and televisions, more time than we spend doing anything else. While we’re learning the social and health effects of such technofetishism, do we understand how our perceptions of the natural and social world are affected by constantly experiencing them through technologies that contextualize and distance? It’s a question that requires more than just a look at the media or its technologies; it requires us to look into our very humanness.
In his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, Thomas de Zengotita argues that because of mediation “reality is becoming indistinguishable from representation in a qualitatively new way.” He describes the gradations of representation from “real real” to “unreal real” and suggests that an effect of witnessing—and internalizing—such tiers is that we don’t need TVs or laptops to be affected by mediated imagery. When we get dressed, we may consider our outfit’s impact on others or unthinkingly compare the look to models we see in magazines. When we drive our VWs we might wonder if we look as quirky as the guy in the commercial (we’re blasting Aphex Twin too!). When we go on vacation, experiencing isn’t enough: we photograph, videotape, blog, post to Flickr. But why? Isn’t direct experience enough? Or do we need technology to validate our experiences?
Exactly, says Zengotita: mediation flatters us. We’re the one pushing the buttons, whose life is so important it must be chronicled, transmitted, and repurposed. (I blog therefore I am.) “The flattered self is a mediated self,” Zengotita writes, “and the alchemy of mediation, the osmotic process through which reality and representation fuse, gets carried into our psyches by the irresistible flattery that goes with being incessantly addressed.”
But what happens to us as we live more and more through our technologies? Lowell Monke considers the question in terms of children’s education. He pairs some startling statistics: between 1990 and 2000, US school spending on technology increased by over 300%, and by 2000, more than 40% of American primary schools cut out recess altogether. More kids, it seems, are learning “life skills” by peering into a monitor instead of playing games where there’s no “restart” button and navigating the land of scuffed knees, live bugs, and hard pavement. “Structured learning certainly has its place,” Monke says. “But if it crowds out direct, unmediated engagement with the world, it undercuts a child’s education.”
More alarming is how mediation shifts perception about the physical world. Monke writes that the Discovery Channel and computer simulations compress time and space giving kids false expectations that in nature fish are always jumping and bears constantly trundle across streams. “Their electronic experiences have led them to expect to see these things happening—all at once and with no effort on their part. The result is that the child becomes less animated and less capable of appreciating what it means to be alive, what it means to belong in the world as a biological, social being.” As adults, this boredom can be manifest in channel-surfing, net porn, “therapeutic shopping,” and even a culture where divorce rates are so high—we want gratification now and can’t wait for the good stuff.
But the answer isn’t to shun all media: we are engulfed by it and, short of hermitic isolation, we can’t get out. So maybe the answer isn’t out there, but inside. In Technopoly, Neil Postman writes that every technology is “a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing.” Unmediating requires vigilant awareness of those contexts. Examine your desires and how you came by them. Exorcise the jingles and Photoshopped images. Watch your interior terrain and be aware of what doesn’t belong, ideas someone else planted there. When moved by the plot of The O.C. ask: what myths or products are they selling? When you watch the news, question: What aren’t they telling me? Or, better yet, visualize the structures that exist just beyond the camera’s frame, the elaborate systems that create the unreality you’re responding to. Postman writes, “A technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.” Good advice considering the alternative—inhabiting a world we longer recognize, with a head full of someone else’s thoughts.
My contribution to Adbusters Big Ideas 2006 issue. Image by Banksy.