Media Life [abstract]

As I've blogged before, I'm currently working on a book titled "Media Life", further exploring the argument in the opening chapter of "Media Work" - suggesting our lives are lived not with, but rather in, media. See also some of my tweets on the topic, as well as posted items on my Facebook profile (only visible to friends, so friend me...).

In the run-up to actually writing the book, the plan is to condense the overall media life argument into a more or less coherent paper. Right now, that particular piece is a work in progress, but for a couple of upcoming talks and book chapter commitments, I'd like to offer a draft extended abstract. Comments, as always, are deeply appreciated!

“Media Life” abstract (dated: 28 January 2009)

Life in today's liquid modern society (Bauman 2000) is all about finding ways to deal with constant change, whether it is at home, at work, or at play. As I have argued elsewhere (Deuze 2007), Over the last few decades, all these key areas of human existence have converged in and through our concurrent and continuous exposure to, use of, and immersion in media, information and communication technologies. Our media environment has become a key site of how we give meaning to the converging context of how we live, work, and play, as media connect us to each other, to our entertainment, and to our work - all at the same time.

Media are both the directors and reflectors of human behavior and social organization. Manuel Castells (2001) for example suggests that “We know that technology does not determine society: it is society. Society shapes technology according to the needs, values, and interests of people who use the technology.” Yet somehow, this pluralism of viewpoints does not seem to do justice to the different ways all those taken for granted products and experiences that make up our day-to-day existence have become automated, augmented and organized through media. A secondary problem is the (often implicit) insistence on maintaining some kind of conceptual or even normative boundary between “media” and “society”. In this contribution, I therefore argue for a perspective that seeks to dissolve such boundaries, suggesting that the whole of the world and our lived experience in it can be seen as framed by, mitigated through, and made immediate by media.

This world is what Roger Silverstone (2007) labels a mediapolis: a mediated public space where media underpin and overarch the experiences of everyday life (where, in his words, “technologies don’t care”). Instead of continuing to wrestle with a distinction between media and society, I propose we begin our thinking with a view of life as lived in media – media that have, as Lev Manovich (2001) argues, pervasive, ubiquitous, remixed and remixable properties. This paper addresses the most fundamental aspects and themes of everyday life - such as work, family, love, play and work - such as these can be understood in the context of a life lived in media.

A media life is analogous with living inside our very own Truman Show: a world characterized by pervasive and ubiquitous media that we are constantly and concurrently deeply immersed in, that dominate and shape all aspects of our everyday life. As a case in point, I will discuss the recent suggestion by psychiatrists Joel and Ian Gold that the combination of pervasive media, classical syndromes such as narcissism and paranoia, and an emerging media culture where the boundaries between the physical and virtual world are blurring produces a new type of psychosis (as documented in patient case histories): a “Truman Show Delusion” (TSD).

TSD is coined after the motion picture “The Truman Show” (1998), in which actor Jim Carrey portrays the life of a man who does not know his entire life is one big reality television show, watched by millions all over the world. People who suffer from TSD are more or less convinced that everything around them is a décor, that the people in their lives are all actors, and that everything they do is monitored and recorded. McGill University’s Ian Gold attributes TSD in an interview with Canadian newspaper the National Post to “unprecedented cultural triggers that might explain the phenomenon: the pressure of living in a large, connected community can bring out the unstable side of more vulnerable people […] New media is opening up vast social spaces that might be interacting with psychological processes” (July 19, 2008, p.A1). In a background story in the International Herald Tribune several experts confirm TSD and suggest that “[o]ne way of looking at the delusions and hallucinations of the mentally ill is that they represent extreme cases of what the general population, or the merely neurotic, are worried about” (August 30, 2008, p.7).

The British Journal of Psychiatry describes the common symptoms as follows: “First, there is the sense that the ordinary is changed or different, and that there is particular significance in this. This is coupled with a searching for meaning, which, in this case, results in the ‘Truman explanation’. The third feature is a profound alteration of subjective experience and of self-awareness, resulting in an unstable first-person perspective with varieties of depersonalization and derealization, disturbed sense of ownership, fluidity of the basic sense of identity, distortions of the stream of consciousness and experiences of disembodiment” (Fusar-Poli et al. 2008, p.168).

The Truman explanation can be considered an example of looking at the definition and role of media as completely woven into the fabric of our lives. This is not so much a normative warning against the presupposed “effects” of media on society, but rather an investigation of the integration of media with society. This perspective ultimately begs the question: given the “open source” nature of a lived reality through pervasive, ubiquitous, and remixed/remixable media, what do people and insititutions do with this newfound power and emerging read/write literacies in what John Hartley describes as our contemporary “redactional” society?

References

Zygmunt Bauman (2000) Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Manuel Castells (2001) The internet galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mark Deuze (2007) Media work. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Paolo Fusar-Poli, Oliver Howes, Lucia Valmaggia, Philip McGuire (2008) ‘Truman’ signs and vulnerability to psychosis. British Journal of Psychiatry 193, p168.
John Hartley (2000) Communicational democracy in a redactional society: the future of journalism studies. Journalism Theory Practice & Criticism 1(1), pp39-47.
Lev Manovich (2001) The language of new media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Roger Silverstone (2007) Media and morality: on the rise of the mediapolis. Polity Press, Cambridge (UK).