Monday, October 08, 2012

Are You Mediated?

Every now and then a book comes along that is hard to classify, but pulls a lot of disparate things together and explains them in a remarkable way.  Mediated is such a book.  The answer to the question of the title is yes, almost certainly you’ve been mediated.  Especially if you’re reading this blog.

Thomas De Zengotita is an anthropologist by training who teaches in New York City.  His book describes how the ubiquitous electronic media of the twenty-first century has made fundamental and far-reaching changes in human behavior and thought.  There’s enough material in the book for dozens of blogs, so I’m going to restrict myself to one little piece of it:  how we deal with our manifold options of spending mediated time versus time in old-fashioned reality.

Let’s start back in the thirteenth century, with St. Thomas Aquinas (although the roots go back to Plato and Aristotle).  Aquinas was the most famous of what are called the “scholastic” philosophers, and scholastics were known for making distinctions.  One of the more significant distinctions he drew was the one that separates the process of thought (what Aquinas called the “intellectual power”) from the processes of sensing, which Aquinas termed the “sensual power” (not in the modern connotation of “sensual,” but meaning just “pertaining to the senses”).  Now, sensing—meaning touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight—goes on in what we now call “real time.”  Once you aim your eyes in a given direction, what you see is not under your control, generally speaking.  But what you think about what you see is.  Using your intellectual power, you can think about things present, things past, or things to come, and swap these around at your will.  So as long as humanity has had the ability to think, we have experienced something in addition to “real time”:  what De Zengotita calls “unreal time.”

Unreal time was restricted to the human mind until modern media came along:  first analog means of recording and playing back experience (the phonograph, motion pictures) and ways of experiencing real time in another location (radio, television).  And of course it wasn’t long before recorded experience began to be broadcast so that the media brought you a kind of hybrid of real time and unreal time (e. g. “recorded live”).   Early forms of media such as novels and radio dramas still required some active thought (or imagination, which is a different but related thing) on the part of the listener.  But a few days ago I saw a banner outside the Texas State History Museum advertising a 3-D IMAX presentation of an animated film about flying dinosaurs.  It’s hard to imagine anything that would leave less work to the imagination than being surrounded by giant pterodactyls which appear to be flying directly at your head.

De Zengotita’s writing style reminds me of the late Catholic writer Walker Percy, whose Lost in the Cosmos was a similar unclassifiable work that was part social criticism, part personal essay, but highly readable and thought-provoking because of its original point of view.  In Mediated, De Zengotita strenuously refrains from moralizing or prescribing “solutions to the problem,” a trope which he says has become almost required these days.  But he wants us to think about the consequences of spending a larger and larger part of our time in mediated unreal time:  playing online games, cruising the web that so easily takes us from one non-sequitur to the next almost-unrelated site, and watching representations of all kinds that train us to expect to be flattered by increasingly customized and personalized treatment (count how many times you see the word “my” this or that in ads, and even software labels such as “my computer”).  One day, as he was in conversation with a techie type discussing the potential problems that could arise from spending too much time in mediated unreality, the man turned to him and said, “What’s so great about reality?”

If you are a secular humanist like De Zengotita says he is, maybe raw reality really is just one of an increasing number of options we have now, and it’s hard to answer the techie’s question.  But for people who believe in a God who created both reality in general and us in particular, the real has a prior call on our attention over anything we cobble together ourselves.  I realized an aspect of this over a year ago when, as a part of a retreat I was planning, I voluntarily gave up listening to my car radio.  My listening habits were fairly typical:  NPR, a classical music station, and a low-power AM station broadcasting Relevant Radio, an evangelistic effort of the Roman Catholic Church.  But the freedom to think my own thoughts during commutes came to be more valuable to me than whatever background interruptions the radio brought to me, and I haven’t gone back.  On long commutes to Austin, I sometimes play recordings of interviews with authors by former NPR correspondent Ken Myers, who has established a subscription radio network of sorts called the Mars Hill Audio Journal.  (Mars Hill was how I learned about Mediated, as a matter of fact.)  But the key to my approach to my car audio in particular, and increasingly media in general, is that I try to stay in charge whenever possible.

That means I try to avoid simply killing time by bombing around on the web.  If I get on the web I try to make sure that I know what I’m looking for—a journal article, maybe, or the definition of a word, or a review of a particular movie.  Because if I just take at random one of the thousands of little dangling baits that nearly every website hangs in front of you, I know I will eventually end up seeing something I regret, simply for the time wasted if not for the dubious nature of the content.

Am I still mediated?  Unquestionably.  But at least, after reading De Zengotita’s book, I’m aware of my mediated state and can try to do something about it.  And those of us who work in the media—everywhere from blogs like this to the most advanced techies at Google working on things we may not see for years—should all find out what being mediated is, and make up your mind whether you like it or not.

Sources:  Thomas De Zengotita’s Mediated:  How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It was published by Bloomsbury in 2005.  For more information about the Mars Hill Audio Journal, see

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