Media Life (2012): Preface

In 2012 my book Media Life came out. The excellent external reviews of the manuscript (courtesy of my publisher, Polity Press) all but asked to include a bit of a roadmap, as I have tended to let the argument emerge organically out of my writing (I sincerely had no idea where I was going with the narrative other than wanting to explore a life in, rather than with, media and information). Below the full preface (in its second draft) of the book, additionally functioning as the introduction to the courses I have developed around the media life project (variously titled as Living in the Information Age, Media Life, and Living Information) at the universities of Indiana, Helsinki, and Amsterdam.

Updated version dated June 13, 2016. 

Media Life - Preface: In Media
You live in media. Who you are, what you do, and what all of this means to you does not exist outside of media. Media are to us as water is to fish. This does not mean life is determined by media - it just suggests that whether we like it or not, every aspect of our lives takes place in media.

Part of this kind of life is coming to terms with a supersaturation of media messages and machines in households, workplaces, shopping malls, bars and restaurants, and all the other in-between spaces of today's world. Over the last few decades, the key categories of human aliveness and activity converged in a concurrent and continuous exposure to, use of, and immersion in media.

It must be clear, that media are not just types of technology and chunks of content occupying the world around us - a view that considers media as external agents affecting us in a myriad of ways. If anything, today the uses and appropriations of media can be seen as fused with everything people do, everywhere people are, everyone people aspire to be. There is no external to media life - whatever we perceive as escape hatch, passage out, or potential delete key is just an illusion. In fact, we can only imagine a life outside of media.
In terms of what media communicate it is tempting to point to governments, companies and corporations for pushing an unrelenting, ever-accelerating stream of content and experiences into our lives. However, most mediated communication comprises of work done by you and me: through our endless texts, chats, and e-mails, with our phone calls from anywhere at anytime, and through our online social networks that function as the living archives of social reality.

With the majority of the world population owning a mobile phone, telecommunication networks spanning almost every inch of the globe, sales figures of any and all media devices growing steadily worldwide, dead media technologies and practices regularly resurrected, any and all media by default integrated into an always-on real-time live mode of being, an almost complete mediatization of society (link to PDF) seems a somewhat self-evident observation.
A media life is much more than media hardware, software, and content - it is also everything we do with and in response to media: how we build and sustain relationships and family ties, how we derive cultural status and social currency from the kinds of media we use (the music we listen to, the shows we follow, the games we catch live), and the various ways we more or less deliberately manipulate time and space by checking our email on mobile devices, listen to audiobooks with noise-cancelling headphones, and record our private participation in public proceedings (weddings, concerts, the weekend soccer game) with networked devices that simultaneously immediatize and immortalize our lived experience as they mediatize it.

As we merge our perception of ourselves and others with what can be mediated about us, media competencies, literacies and fitness become paramount to the human condition. Media benchmark our experience of the world, and how we make sense of our role in it. A media life reflects how media are both a necessary and unavoidable part of our existence and survival.

It certainly seems there is more media in everyday life. Media are ubiquitous - they are everywhere - and pervasive - they cannot be switched off. Furthermore, our near-complete immersion in media constitutes the majority of time spent in waking life. Media consumption studies worldwide consistently show over the years how more of our time on any given day gets spent using media, and that being concurrently exposed to media has become a mundane mark of existence.

The media life perspective recognizes one further quality of media: that they, as much as the human brain (or the cosmos), are indeterminate. Media are not finished, nor static - but plastic, and malleable. Media evolve. As hardware and software, they act upon each other next to their interactions with us. We emotionally invest ourselves into media as much as our media become an affective part of us. As platforms for communication media constitute as well as reproduce the world we live in.
Throughout the Media Life book and the various courses I teach related to these themes, I use media interchangeably with information and communication technologies, and with machines more generally insofar relations with humanity and society are involved.

Media, thus broadly conceived, are any (symbolical or technological) systems that enable, structure or amplify communication between people.

Life, on the other hand, is not just about surviving - it is about living a live life, a life worth living, a form of liveness that goes beyond simply making it work from day to day.

At the heart of the media life project is the question what a good, passionate, beautiful, and socially responsible media life looks like.

A dichotomous reading of the mixing of media and life identifies and maps ways in which human beings and behaviors steer the development of media in an attempt to make sense of people's everyday life and what can be done about it. Such media-centrism and technological determinism often boils down to benevolent or malevolent mechanistic fascination with the machinery of media and the technique of technologies. It tends to obscure rather than unveil the interdependency of humanity and technology - as it keeps insisting on finding ways of making sense of the world outside of media, of attributing primacy of the social over the technological.

In essence, media-centrism (and its attendant arguments about the real or perceived influences of media on ways of being alive) is a product of a live lived in media: it is a delusion we maintain in order to convince ourselves and each other that we exist not just next to, but in an intrinsically more central and indeed privileged relationship to our media. Maintaining an outside to media makes us, as human beings, feel special.

As French philosopher Jean Baudrillard remarked in response to the way the Wachowski's used his work as inspiration for their The Matrix film franchise (in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, July 2004): "The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce." Correspondingly, media-centrism and technological determinism can be considered to be the kind of theoretical stopgaps a media life perspective would produce in order to mask itself. The illusion that we can comprehensively control our media (for example by pulling the plug, pressing the 'off' switch on a remote control, by becoming 'mediawise' or developing sophisticated media literacies) in fact preserves media as the primary definer of our reality. If we let go of this deception - this dualist fallacy of domination of man over machine (or vice versa) - it may be possible to come to terms with the world we are a part of in ways that are less about effects, things and what happens, more about process, practice, and what can be done.
The heart of the media life project is the question how we can understand ourselves and the world we live in if we accept, if only for a moment, that we do not live with, but in media.

Media and information, to most people, belong to the realm of the unreal, or less real. What if this exclusive orientation to the otherness of (reality in) media acts as a crutch rather than a tool for living our lives more ethically and aesthetically? Instead of fusing the horizons of media and life, it seems as if we invest all our time in keeping them separate. By way of first step and chapter in the book (and the coursework I have developed around it), I therefore unpack this history of man-machine separation, while at the same time highlighting how throughout this discussion media life was always already firmly established in our sense-making practices of the world and our role in it.
The second dilemma I faced, was how to bring media back into our awareness without simply stating that one needs to look more closely at media - which would maintain their alterity. By adopting an archaeological approach to media in conjunction with a social history of dominant media species - the television and the mobile phone - I suggest that the key to understanding media is not to emphasize their difference but their disappearance from our lives. This amounts to a paradox: the more media dematerialize, the more people seem to be talking about media and what they mean to us. From a media life point of view I engage this enigma by emphasizing how, through our apparent need for media in order to express anything meaningful about them, the intense discussions about the role of media in people's lives are symptomatic of the mediatization of both individuals and society.
As we lose ourselves to technology, what happens next? The conflation of technology with technique, and of media with being mediated tends to be viewed with apprehension. Surely, the cold machines of media are alien to all that we consider as life? If so, an existence engulfed in media means we are perpetually caught in what has been aqueously described as a communicational 'bubble' filled with the 'foam' of media.

"We swim in an ocean of media," a headline in The Christian Science Monitor (of 28 September 2005) reads in a report on people's media use. Splashing around in open water makes it hard to notice what is going on around you, on shore and elsewhere, let alone taking in the plights of other human beings. Such liquid lamentations pervade much of the otherwise prudent thinking on media and everyday life. I try to take up this challenge in chapter three by arguing that there is no necessary relationship between the technological and the social. The relations that do exist are clearly both structural - machines are always social as much as they are technical (paraphrasing Gilles Deleuze) - and highly dynamic - living in media is not the same for everyone.

Just like human beings, media have both traits and states. In the everyday negotiation and symbiosis between media and life, it becomes possible to uncover these qualities and explore them to a fuller extent. One of the key qualities of our media is their uncanny capacity for recording and storing everything we do with them. As social media strategist Renny Gleeson (of advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Oregon) observes about the way people use mobile media in his TED talk of February 2009: "our reality right now is less interesting than the story we're going to tell about it later.
A media life can be seen as living in an ultimate archive, a public library of (almost) everything, a personalized experience of all the information of the universe. At the same time, in media life the archive is alive, in that it is subject to constant intervention by yourself and others, that it always remains incomplete as much as it is endlessly comprehensive. In the absence of all-seeing librarians and neatly categorized compendiums, the only way we can make sense of ourselves and each other in media is by carefully, and continuously, checking each other out. This is the theme of the fourth chapter, as the age-old premise of a Big Brother-like surveillance society comes full circle in a media world of mundanely massive mutual monitoring, where everyone is (or can be expected to be) watching everyone else.

If we live in media and information, we are in the process of co-creating a society particular to the media of our time that are always already remediations of earlier technologies and societies: never the same, always similar. In chapter five I address the constituent elements of a society in media by suggesting that it resembles a world after the zombie apocalypse. Like zombies, we lose our sense of ego and individuality as we are collectively lost in our technologies. Whether through watching the same or similar television shows regardless of where we are in the world, or simply by logging on to the global grid of the 'network of networks' that is internet, we are - again, much like zombies - irreducibly connected into a worldwide flow of data, information, techniques and technologies. Like zombies, we cannot seem to get enough of media - even though there does not seem to be a collective nor consensual agenda as to where we are going.

As Sonia Livingstone suggests (link to PDF) regarding the motivation of a society in media: "[f]irst, the media mediate, entering into and shaping the mundane but ubiquitous relations among individuals and between individuals and society; and second, as a result, the media mediate, for better or for worse, more than ever before."

Zombies are similarly driven - even the amputation of limbs does not tend to stop them - yet seemingly without creative impulse (other than feasting on our brains). Beyond the zombie metaphor, thinking about media zombies is instrumental to digging deeper, going beyond the surface of media and life: looking for ways in which we can theorize conjunctions of humanity and technology that highlight how a society in media is at once individual and interconnected as it is both embodied and virtual. This would hopefully open society up for the kind of plasticity and malleability of a world we are used to in media: whether by wielding a remote control or by re-arranging hardware, by clicking a mouse or by re-programming software, reality (in media) is open source.
If our sense of the real is experienced in media, how can we think of media as elements of our lives that can help us to get closer to reality than ever before? This dilemma is at the heart of the sixth chapter, where I question the kinds of connections we have with each other and ourselves in media, and try to move beyond either postmodern or existentialist frames for what is (or may be) real.

Our lifeworld - the world we experience most directly, instantly, and without reservation - is irreversibly mediated. It confronts us with endless versions of ourselves and everyone else. There certainly seems to be too much information available - to us as well as about us. Yet, as online social networks scholar danah boyd suggests, "in many situations, there is more to be gained by accepting the public default than by going out of one's way to keep things private. And here's where we see the shift. It used to take effort to be public. Today, it often takes effort to be private."
In media life it is pertinent to explore how one can derive value from mediated oversharing and overexposure. Such value may not only be symbolic. The seventh chapter explores evolutionary readings of media life, showing how contemporary discourse about the skills and competences one needs to navigate a mediated lifeworld signposts multiple media literacies as survival values. The solution is not, as has been suggested as far back as in the original responses to Charles Darwin's "On The Origin Of Species" (1859), to wage war on machines. It is by becoming media we enhance our fitness for survival.

In the eight and final chapter I tie all the elements of my exploration of life as lived in media together in the diagnosis of a 'Truman Show delusion' by American psychiatrists Joel and Ian Gold, who suggest that classical syndromes such as narcissism and paranoia in combination with pervasive information technologies in the context of a media culture where the boundaries between the physical and virtual world are blurring produce a new type of psychosis. What makes their analysis a fitting conclusion is the insight that this delusion, as diagnosed in patients and confirmed by colleagues elsewhere, can best be understood as an extreme rendering of what most people feel. In media life, the world can certainly sometimes seem like the television studio in the Truman Show movie (from 1998), with the significant difference that there is not exit.

The question is not how to avoid or destroy the media in our lives, but what Truman Burbank could do if he decided to stay inside of his fully mediated living arrangements. For one, he would be able to see himself live - and, if need be, adapt and evolve accordingly. This evolutionary process necessarily involves an awareness of how we are interconnected (in media), and therefore requires a sense of responsibility towards ourselves and each other that necessarily moves beyond the real or perceived manifestations of our divine machines.
Whether we like it or not, we are slowly but surely becoming information players and creators rather than simply those who are expected to work with the information that is given to us. We can indeed create art with life. In media, with information.