So there's this customs officer who keeps seeing the same truck pull up to his border crossing week after week. Now, he just knows the driver's carrying contraband, but his searches never turn up a thing. Years pass, and the officer finally says to the driver, "Mister, I know you're smuggling, but I can't figure what it is. Look, I'm retiring. Swear I won't tell a soul. Come on. Tell me what it is you're smuggling."
"Trucks," says the driver.
Todd Gitlin, sociologist and noted 60s activist and historian, uses this joke to start off his book Media Unlimited as a way of conveying just how "supersaturated" American lives are with mass media. "The media have been smuggling the habit of living with the media" for so long now that we don't recognize their presence even when they're right in our faces. The uniformity of the media's presence, Gitlin tells us, is such that we tend to speak of "the media," as I just did, the way we might speak of "the sky—as if there were only one." We don't just watch media; we're not merely informed or entertained or bored into betawaves by media—we live with the media. And "living with the media is today one of the main things Americans and many other human beings do."
Gitlin goes even further: contemporary life goes beyond "living" with the stuff. Risking a rare dive into the ontological, Gitlin tells us life now means "being with media." Megabytes of stats back him up. A TV is turned on in the average American home more than seven hours a day; each individual within that home watches an average of four hours apiece. In one study, 43 percent of Americans reported that they watched "whatever was on," that they didn't tune in for any particular show: the presence of image and sound seemed to be reason enough. TV viewing takes up a whopping 40 percent of the average person's free time—and that's when it's her primary activity, when she's really watching. When people are otherwise occupied–talking on the phone or doing the laundry while peeking at what's on—the percentage goes up to 50.
"Constant television households"—meaning homes where the thing is literally on all the time that people are awake (and maybe when they're asleep, too)—make up a monumentally depressing 42 percent of households where children are present. The poorer and less educated you are, the more you watch. The more you watch, the less likely you are to vote. And we haven't even begun to talk about all the other media that sucks up contemporary brain space: radio, movies, recorded music, Internet use for entertainment, video games, and the rash of communication gizmos we carry around that threaten to invert Marshall McLuhan's famous formulation: media seem to be less "extensions of man" than we are becoming extensions of media.
"It is in symbiotic relation to [media] that much of the world happens for us," Gitlin says. Fair enough. Scary enough. The question, of course, is why we subject ourselves to this dubious "torrent" of electric sound and image. Why willingly bob neck-deep in a media soup that we know systematically deceives us about the world; that emphasizes the shallow, the bizarre, the sexual and the violent; and that conveys its messages through the fairly narrow ideological window called free-market capitalism? "Because it's fun" only gets you two points out of 10. Gitlin's answer gets him (to pursue this awful grading metaphor) five—which is to say, Gitlin's thesis is half-interesting but pulls back just when a deeper and more obsessive thinker, a less academically judicious and "balanced" thinker, would plunge, as I remarked earlier, into the ontological. And if contemporary life means "being with media," as Gitlin says it does, I don't see how you can avoid it.
Gitlin's training is in sociology, so he naturally gravitates toward thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Georg Simmel to explain phenomena that arise out of capitalist society. Gitlin genuflects toward other, far-more-interesting thinkers—like Pascal, Nietzsche or Heidegger—but when he does, it's a brief grace note, an academic ass covering, before going on to considerably less compelling arguments. (For instance, Gitlin cites Heidegger's deeply resonant and influential argument that modern technology distracts modern man from the central existential experience of "being" itself before dismissing it with the lame anecdote that, hey, Heidegger liked to watch European Cup soccer matches on a neighbor's TV, so how serious could his argument be?) So Gitlin ends up explaining our everyday mass media experiences—which, when you really consider the statistics, are about as strange as late David Lynch—with some fairly banal theorizing. Following Weber and Simmel, Gitlin claims that men and women living in advanced capitalist society have to learn to live rational, utilitarian lives just to survive the urban jungle. We still feel, of course, but we sideline our emotions, reserving them "for convenient times when they may be expressed without risk to workaday life."
Gitlin claims that the various forms of mass media provide these "convenient times" where our deepest "hungers" can get expressed without risk, to be felt intensely for the moment and then disposed. "If the argument of my book is even approximately valid," Gitlin writes, "unlimited media are exactly what an urban-based, industrial society with a money economy and a division of labor requires. The whole panoply and soundscape of everyday life are compensation, recreation, tranquilizer, partial transcendence—a realm of felt freedom and pleasure."
Gitlin isn't always as bullish on mass media as he sounds here, but he clearly sees no need for real alarm. The fact that mass media don't address our desires (and fears) directly but sublimate and re-create them through a consumerist lens doesn't strike him as particularly egregious, nor does the fact that, as Gitlin puts it, "the essence of capitalism is broken promises ever renewed" through media.
Though parts of the book are useful, especially his enumeration of the multiple ways media supersaturate us, the overall argument is vapid—and it's vapid because Gitlin never gets close enough to the actual subjective experience of media exposure to analyze what it does to us. And he never goes beyond vague talk about "feelings" and "emotions" and "hungers" that mass media supposedly sublimate and distract us from. What are these feelings and hungers, anyway? In a characteristic move, Gitlin first quotes Pascal to the effect that all forms of entertainment, even the 17th-century ones Pascal saw practiced by those around him, were "efforts to divert [ourselves] from the inescapable fact of human mortality."
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Aha: the fear of death makes us panic; thus we employ all means at our disposal to forget we're mortal. There's an idea (and it's not just Pascal; it's everywhere in philosophy and literature). But Gitlin rushes away from it. He rushes, too, from the idea that our deepest "hungers" might be for love, communion, a relief from loneliness—and that the "love" that media provide us is fatally simulacral, fake, as false a connection as the ones that form between lonely viewers and the characters on Friends.
It would help, I think, if Gitlin had consulted, seriously and sustainedly, writers and theorists who think deeper into what "being with media" actually means. I'm thinking of Heidegger, of course, who would say "being with media" is essentially a contradiction, since media are forms of technology whose very nature removes us from a true feeling of being alive. And I'm thinking of two American novelists—Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace—who've trailblazed for anybody who's brave enough to follow how mass media can both impoverish our inner lives and addict us to its offerings. How Gitlin can write a book with the subtitle "how the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives" without examining White Noise or Infinite Jest—the late 20th century's greatest imaginative treatments of these themes—is baffling. Of course, both DeLillo and Wallace are, according to Gitlin's categories, "paranoids," those who believe that media "is an addiction . . . an all-around agent of stupefaction" which keep us from feeling the pain of being alive in postmodern times. Gitlin is too sane for this kind of talk. He prefers to think that the consumerist sheep, the political passives, the entertainment junkies that we see all around us—that we perhaps are—are more or less okay, that they might be "overwhelmed," but they're getting the pleasure and freedom they need.
But look into the eyes of a sullen 12-year-old flicking the buttons of his Gameboy while bobbing to Jay-Z on his headphones. Tell me he's getting anything close to what he needs. Tell me he's getting anything resembling "transcendence." Give me paranoia any day.
Media Unlimited by Todd Gitlin, Metropolitan Books. Paperback, 260 pages, $13.