Reading Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated

05Dec16

A book review of Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated.

 “Saying it’s just more of what we had before is like saying a hurricane is just more breeze”.

Culturally, the media form the air we breathe. They have such a widespread presence in modern life that stepping back and form theory of media in society has become nearly impossible. It is like making a theory of the importance of bacteria for life in general, or the effect of the existence of matter for our psyche. Nevertheless, this is the project taken up by Thomas de Zengotita in his book “mediated”, who, in trying to answer this question draws out a powerful cultural critique of modern society.

De Zengotita argues the free availability of an abundance of representations for any event is a defining characteristic of modern life. To grasp what this means you might want to trace your behavior in case of a dramatic event like a major earthquake, war event or refugee crisis. First you read the news to be informed about what has happened. Soon you know, but you keep on reading: smaller side stories catch your attention and enrich your understanding of the impact of the event; possibly providing a bit of solace along the way. Analyses follow, one tumbling over the other – each highlighting a different side of the story. Soon, you have digested so much derivative stories that the reality of it all is fading. Maybe, like many, you compensate for this loss of engagement by seeking out more extreme and thrilling stories. But the overall effect is that you get numbed by the overwhelming amount of information thrown at you. We try to get moved picking out experiences that move us and we become indifferent because there are too many of them.

Zengotita argues the mechanism is pervasive. Not even the weather escapes from this representation generation machine. There are multiple 24hr weather channels, so weather forecasting has become a competitive sports of precision science up to the point natural chaos lets us down. Storms are covered as celebrities; including the modern practice of giving them a name. The weather no longer just is, it is whatever representations we choose it to be. De Zengotita:

 “We have been consigned to a new plane of being engendered by mediating representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity, a place where everything is addressed to us everything is for us and nothing is beyond us anymore.”

When representations become everything two distinct themes get to govern our lives: authenticity and performance. Media present us with so much fakeness that we gained a deep and strong longing to feel real, leading into us favoring things that seem authentic. And at the same time we started to value those who know how to play the representation system well. We love those who know how to perform, who know how to be in the center of attention: pop stars and sportsmen.

Let’s focus on our present day obsession with performance first. In a particular vivid vignette in the book, Zengotita illustrates how teenage girls rule the middle school. A small clique of girls sets the standards for everyone of how to behave. They are performers, picking up style, norms and especially attitude from the media. Anyone who does not know how to play this is left out, socially. Attitude is often learned from music: the song forms a nexus between the given,  the unmediated,  and words. Attitude, and popularity, are important assets, or ambitions, that media provide for. Dominant girls in middle school (so, around 12 years old) are the quickest to pick up the unwritten rules of the media and they enforce those vigorously – thus also enforcing the norm the media are the norm. Zengotita:

  “A child born into contemporary culture is in a perfect position to learn what she needs to know about life in a field of options and representations before her education gets underway”.

And so, when performance becomes the norm, old heroes disappear. The founding fathers – or whatever hero you’d like to celebrate from the past, cannot compete with today’s pop-stars. We cannot project ourselves into the heroes, make our own stories of them. In a mediated world everything is about performance, and the old heroes cannot perform anymore. In fact: Faust or Einstein, earn their heroic status because of a lack of representations rather than their performance in the media. In the modern media they might not have gained their current status.

The second issue is authenticity. If there are many representations of everything, each one gets less valuable. What stands out in this ‘representation commodification’ is the feeling to be real. This desire for authenticity leads into personal, idiosyncratic, media diets: people pick out the stories they can identify with. This makes Ladi Di’s story so powerful: she is a ‘normal’ woman thrown in an extreme situation (playing her role marvelously). Similarly, politics have become personal: Clintons ‘penis’, and what happened to it, is more important than his policy. In many ways it has been the only important thing.

We also seek out extremes for our own lives, to feel real again. Choosing a career takes longer than ever as we have more and more alternatives to choose from. Down time, relaxation, became stressful because it acts as a display of personality, with too many choices around. That is why we seek out to be ‘busy’, all the time. Zengotita:

“The agreement is this we will so conduct ourselves that everything becomes an emergency”.

Our search for reality has led to chasing in our own lives, what feels most ‘real’ in the media, which is, through the overflow of options, in fact, quite surreal.

What should we think of this analysis? Zengotita’s collection of vignettes makes up a fair characterization of what is currently happening in our media, but it also made me wonder. To what extent is this ‘new’? If authenticity and performance are the defining characteristics of our time, since when have they been so important? The rise of ‘the media’ and ‘modern times’ as Zengotita uses them has been a slow process running for ages – although possibly speeded up after the second world war. This question leads into the difficulty of teasing apart society and the media, which are so tightly interwoven. It is a difficulty that haunts “Mediated” from the first to the last page. The book forms a wonderful cultural sketch of our modern society, but reading the book I was in constant doubt whether the Zengotita’s observations were caused by to “the media” or by “human nature” – in particular to our social psychology.

One way to treat this difficulty is to say that media, social in their nature, strengthen our social psychological tendencies, and thus, make those more visible – and influential. This is in line of Marshal McLuhan’s view of modern media as an extension of our psyche and a ‘retribalizing’ cause in our lives. But it is an assessment which is hard to test. Social psychology and modern media are both complex, understanding their interactions, which have been slowly growing over time is merely impossible. I guess many accounts of these effects are needed to make some sense of this all, Zengotita, at least gives us one of those.

Reading more?

I did book reviews of Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Lev Manovich’ The Language of new Media, Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter and the Communication Age and James Gleick’s The Information, earlier.

I wrote about the connection between social psychology of new media in Cognitive Bias in the Global Information Subway, in Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter and the Communication Age and in A Short History of Social Media, before.

 

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