Who To Trust?

Essay for Cultureweek, dated June 29, 2005.

It used to be so simple. If you were born into a family of peasants, you would grow up working the land, paying your taxes to a landlord somewhere in a castle or mansion close by, and your social life would revolve around the regional marketplace, where you heard about places and peoples far away during conversations with traveling salesmen in local bars. Cornerstones for keeping this type of society firmly in place where social institutions like the Church, the Family, the Aristocracy and the King. Upward mobility was almost impossible, and those in the upper classes always reminded you of their status and wealth by commissioning art, waging wars to show off their powers, and staging circus-like spectacles in their name. The strange thing is, today’s situation in the United States is not that different. If you are born into a lower-middle class family, chances are you will work hard all your life, which life will revolve around two types of agora: the local pub and an online chatroom or multiplayer game on the Web. Instead of the aristocracy we now bow our heads to multinational corporations and media giants like Microsoft, Universal, News Corp, and Viacom. Instead of the King the US now accepts the President as ultimate authority (who goes to war to… well, you know), and instead of the Family – that entity which sociologists call a 'zombie institution' because it still (though barely) exists but it is dead at the same time - we now accept our (online) circle of friends (read: people so similar to us so that we never can be expected to make a real effort to get to know or understand them) as the social group from which we get our cues as to what is good and bad. And yes: upward mobility - the American Dream - is for 99% of the people stuck into their class system exactly what it is: a dream.

What is strikingly different, however, is the role of media in our everyday life. Whereas the old social system would remain largely the same over centuries primarily because people just could not learn of any alternative to the status quo, today we live in what some call the Age of Universal Comparison: by simply switching on the television, surfing the Web or scanning the pages of magazines in a supermarket all of us (regardless of age, class, gender or race) are immediately exposed to a bewildering array of different lifestyles, choices, options and challenges. In other words: we can compare ourselves with anyone, anywhere, anytime. This makes determining who we are an ongoing project. It has become such an important part of our identity to figure out what that identity is vis-a-vis all the other ones media continuously expose us to, that sometimes it seems most of us don’t do anything else. Indeed, in 2003 researchers found that the average American spends an average of twelve (12) hours a day using media.

For a long time this intense use of media to figure out who we are worked extremely well to keep society in check. If people spend most of their time zapping, surfing, reading and listening, they will not use that time to act upon the information they are gathering. This is called the construction of people (like you and me) as 'audiences': generally speaking, media organizations only expect us to shut up and consume. This does not mean media are evil - it just means that as long as we consume media, the political-economical power system remains intact. Indeed, politicians and their parties also do not see us as real people, but as 'voters' who once in a while may show up at the polls to participate in the circus that is called representative democracy.

All of this, as you may have guessed by now, is changing. People increasingly do not vote anymore. People have almost altogether stopped consuming news media, and recent Gallup polls find that media and big business (which tend to be synonymous) rank lowest when it comes to institutions in society that the American people still trust. The President only does slightly better. Indeed, the only institution US citizens still believe in is the military. So what seems to be going on is that people increasingly refuse their forced passive identities as consumers, audiences or voters and become active citizens: making their own media (community broadcasting, independent newspapers), starting their own community groups and getting involved in voluntary work (studies show this kind of civic participation is hugely popular, while engagement in formal politics is in rapid decline).

The reason why this is so interesting for media culture, is that one could argue that the massive success of media - and spending most of our waking life with media indeed can be called a success - is now slowly but surely turning back on itself: media have become an accelerator of civic participation and social change. But at the same time, media also provide the fuel for widespread feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and powerlessness. I guess my point is that by thinking about media (culture), one is able to observe the tremendous shifts taking place in our time. If you sometimes feel you do not understand what is happening to the world, think about how you use media and what this tells you about what you know about what is happening to the world – and how well you think you are able to make sense of that knowledge. The huge discrepancy between these two feelings – what you know and what that knowledge means - explains the anxiety of our time. Ergo: media culture makes sense.