Media in Your Life

Essay for Cultureweek, dated March 21, 2005.

Ever stopped and considered when and how you use (and produce) media every day? From the moment your alarm clock starts blazing some commercial radio station’s idea of 'music' to falling asleep on the couch in front of the computer screen while drooling on the keyboard, you are constantly immersed in media. Indeed, it almost seems to make no sense at all to study or think about anything this day and age without at least actively considering and understanding media. Media are everywhere.

Scholars point out that media have become what they call the dominant meaning-making system of modern society. What this means, is that we increasingly - and most often: completely - make sense of the world and our life in it based on what we know about it through the Media (and less through other systems like the State, the Church, or the Family). Of course, this has consequences. For example, consider the percentage of Americans without a passport: approximately 80%. This means that the vast majority of U.S. citizens never travel to other countries and subsequently get most (if not all) their information about the rest of the planet via media. There is a wonderful study where researchers asked Americans questions about current events, using the answers to draw a picture of the world as existing in the heads of respondents. On the world map of the average American Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia have disappeared, while Australia is situated next to Moscow and South Africa is located right under the heel of the Italian boot, slightly off Israel's western border.

Another example. Those of you who travel tend to visit places that are well known for their touristic value. If you are in my home country, you go to Amsterdam. When in Rome, you visit the Coliseum and the Vatican. In South Africa, Cape Town is a must-see destination, and in the U.S. people inevitably visit New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. But what do travelers do in these places? They visit and take pictures of the media representations of those places. This means that in Amsterdam you go to the Red Light District and ask locals about the nearest coffee shop. In San Francisco you head to the Haight and see Fisherman's Wharf; in Cape Town you take the cable car up Table Mountain, and in Los Angeles you spend time on Venice Beach. The point is, that we do not even see these places as they 'really' are - we see what we have come to expect from them in terms of what media have shown and told us about them. In other words: we look at an ever-increasing number of places on the planet not through our eyes, but through the eyes of someone else: a writer, an anchor, a photographer, an editor, a producer, a director. The world is cut, spliced and reformatted to fit the mediated narrative of everyday life.

Now lets take the Media in Your Life as a final example. Think about how many times you've been to places or events recently where almost everyone - including you - seemed to be either on the mobile phone or taking pictures (or both). How many minutes of whatever it was that you were doing - seeing a game, attending a wedding, hanging out at a party - did you actually spend 'mediating' the event? My guess is: more than you did last time, more than you realize. This means that we increasingly shape our lives within the parameters and under the conditions of media. If it fits the medium, we'll accept it - otherwise we ignore it. That is why people's holiday snapshots almost always feature happy people in recognizable, postcard-ready locations.

The point is, that common talk about the effects or influence of the media, for example whether or not news media are biased, ignores a much more fascinating dilemma: your life is mediated to such an extent, that you cannot draw a line where 'real' experience stops, and ‘mediated’ experience begins. This is what movies like Existenz and The Matrix are about: the fine lines we like to draw between media and our lives are quickly becoming obsolete. Media influence not only what you know, but also how you know, and thus how you navigate reality. And if this 'reality' is just something we experience in (and through) media, the fact that only six corporations - AOL Time Warner, Disney, Vivendi Universal, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom - control the majority of the media industry in the world becomes a rather salient issue. Yes: no one is outside anymore.

Now, a final question: how many times did you analyze, discuss, or were told about the (role of) media in your life when you were in high school? My guess is: almost never.