The Media Are To Blame

The number of books in recent years documenting the downfall of civilization due to media - whether smartphones, social media, robots, algorithms or just 'the' media altogether - is astounding. Generally speaking, these are books not written by media scholars, but by concerned citizens, often 40+ years old affluent white authors lamenting what media are doing to, well, the stupid masses and particularly the YOUNG.

Okay. Here it is, from a media scholar: do media have effects on people? Hell yeah. Are these effects the same for everyone? No. Are these effects always there? No. Are these effects one-dimensional and one-directional? No. Is there ANYTHING particular to today's media effects as compared to, say, the invention of the printing press? Hell no.

In a nutshell: some people are affected by some media under some circumstances some of the time in some way.

Generally, though, we're fine and we will be alright. So what is the deal with all these books and their relative success? Three things: fear of young people, projection onto machines, and disrespect regarding nuance and complexity.

1. Ephebiphobia: fear of youth. We are scared shitless of the people we put on this earth to replace us, so we project all our fears about dying and having lived an utterly replaceable life onto the next generations with their silly gadgets and dumb behavior and irresponsible whatever. Get over it: once you're over forty, you're on your way out, and that is a good thing. Deal with it. I am way over 40.

2. The Influencing Machine: Ever since the mechanical evolution coinciding and correlating with the Enlightenment, we have projected all our own vulnerabilities and anxieties onto the machines of our time. Today its Facebook and an iPhone, in the 50s and 60s it was the TV set, in the early 1900s factory machines, and so on. Projection is so much easier than taking responsibility, because it makes us feel SUPERIOR and that is nice.

3. Media and Communication Scholarship: people who lament the impact of media and mediated communication on (other) people and society generally read a lot, EXCEPT the dedicated and sustained research done by scholars who study and understand media and (mass) communication. If they would, they would learn that filter bubbles - if these exist at all - tend to be temporary, that people - kids and teenagers alike - have complicated and creative and interesting relationships with their media but are definitely not programmed by them, and that the MAIN REASON why people are upset about powerful media is that these technologies enable those outside the mainstream (that is: youths and all minorities) to threaten and challenge the SOCIAL ORDER of things. That last insight is the legacy of the late and great Denis McQuail, one of the founding scholars of media and (mass) communication research in the world.

But hey, why would you deal with history and scholarship and critical self-reflection when you can blame machines, Silicon Valley and (your) kids for everything that is wrong in the world?