Living In Media

Remark: this is a brief essay that I have been using to introduce my monograph, Media Life (Polity Press, 2012), at presentations and talks, as well as an introductory text for coursework related to media life, living information, and media convergence. It outlines the basic definition and approach underlying the exploration of what it means to live in, rather than with, media. 

Updated version dated June 13, 2016.

Living In Media

Media and information 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, and that our engagement with media in many ways contributes to our chances of survival. 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. Research in countries as varied as the United States, Brazil, South Korea, The Netherlands, and Finland consistently shows how through the years more of our time gets spent using media, and how multitasking our media has become a regular feature of everyday life. Consuming media regularly takes place alongside producing media, as the distinction between media activities such as zapping, zipping, viewing, reading, and downloading and actions like chatting, forwarding, remixing, editing, and uploading disappears from people’s active awareness of media use.

The fusion of media making and using activities over the last few decades can be considered to have taken place in the context of a socio-cultural convergence, where 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.

Ontologically, the media life perspective is part of a rich tradition in theorizing the relationships between nature, society (or: humanity), and technology as more or less integrated, symbiotic, and recombinant. Political theorist Jane Bennett (2010) makes the case for a vital materialism in our consideration of contemporary society, forcefully arguing for a fused perspective on life and matter as both possessing agency and potential for action. For Bennett matter has a lively materiality that is "active and creative without needing to be experienced or conceived as partaking in divinity or puposiveness" (93). She counters claims that "only humans and God can bear any traces of creative agency" (120), pointing to the active role matter such as food, metals, and electricity play in the transformation of the world and our experience of it.

Feminist theorist and particle physicist Karen Barad offers an equally intriguing way past the life and matter dichotomy by proposing that the relationship between matter and culture is one of "agential intra-action" (2004: 814), as everything in the world acts upon everything else all the time, regardless whether it is human or non-human (2007: 132ff).

Barad forcefully moves our thinking beyond the age-old distinction between reality (what something is) and representation (what it appears to be in media), remarking that there are only agential realist phenomena constituted out of dynamic relations between nature, the body, and materiality. This work posits that nothing is timeless or ahistorical, that everything is always iterative, performative and (thus) in a constant state of becoming.

Bruno Latours’ series of essays bundled in "We Have Never Been Modern" (1991[1993]) speaks similarly to the false dichotomy of life and matter. Latour offers that our proclivity of neatly separating the natural, technological and social worlds should be seen as a particular feature of the modernist project, disempowering us from making sense of (or effectively dealing with) phenomena such as global warming and biotechnologies. Instead, Latour advocates a 'nonmodern' Constitution, premised on a "nonseparability of the common production of societies and natures" (141).

With direct or indirect reference to media life, several authors have signaled the uncanny convergence of technologies and life in more or less similar ways as Barad and Bennett. Ned Kock’s (2005) media naturalness theory, and the work by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass (1996) on the media equation are examples of such crucial references, making us aware of how our embodied cognition does not distinguish between media and people when it comes to interacting with its environment. Sue Thomas in this context talks astutely about technobiophilia: people’s innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology.

A medial touchstone for this kind of symbiotic thinking about matter and life is provided by Friedrich Kittler. Like Latour, Bennett and Barad, Kittler is adamant about the agential potential of matter - which, in his argument, deliberately includes media. His ontology of media raises one's awareness about the fundamental force of media in shaping the social fabric and what we can say about it - power which only grows as we tend to ignore media when making sense of the world. To Kittler, "this crazy coincidence of forgetfulness with technological change" (2009: 26) that pervades the history of philosophy and social theory directly relates to "the exclusion of physical and technical media from questions of ontology" (ibid.: 23).

Epistemologically, American philosopher Don Ihde's key work "Technology and the Lifeworld" (1990) is an early appreciation of a media life point of view, where he proposes a de-essentialization of nature, society, and technologies, while building an overall argument that throughout history, human cultures and societies have been technologically embedded and that those technologies transform the human lifeworld. Although Ihde implicitly keeps media and life at some distance from each other, he does emphasize how their relations are mediated through a technological intentionality (141).

Dutch media philosopher Jos de Mul makes a similar point with specific reference to media in that "every medium carries with it its own distinctive worldview or metaphysics" (2010: 89). For De Mul, the essential worldview we get from our current media mix is based on their key characteristics of being multimedial, interactive, and capable of virtualizing reality.

Canadian e-learning expert Norm Friesen and his Austrian colleague Theo Hug (2009) explicitly postulate that media become epistemology - the grounds for knowledge and knowing itself - and therefore call on educators and educational researchers to take seriously what they call the mediatic a priori: "the contention that media play an important role in defining the epistemological preconditions or characteristics of cognition, such as the perception of time, space, and the shaping of attention and communication" (73).

In all of this one is reminded of how the offline world of practices and experience extends into the realm of media and vice versa, giving shape and form to what Manuel Castells (2010[1996]) describes as a culture of real virtuality, where the online world of appearances becomes part of everyday lived experience instead of just existing on our computer and television screens. Most recently, the work of Katherine Hayles on post-humanism (1999) and technogenesis (2012) carefully maps such co-evolutionary relationships between media, technology, and life.

Media as Artifacts, Activities, and Arrangements

On the level of praxeology – what people are actually doing when living their lives in media – scholarship tends to be exemplified by a tendency to keep media and what people do with them firmly separate. A comprehensive challenge to this paradigm, bringing media theory back into the empirical domain of media studies, comes from Sonia Livingstone and Leah Lievrouw, who preface their seminal Handbook of New Media (first edition, 2002) with a definition of media as “information and communication technologies and their associated social contexts, incorporating: the artifacts or devices that enable and extend our abilities to communicate; the communication activities or practices we engage in to develop and use these devices; and the social arrangements or organizations that form around the devices and practices” (7). The power of this definition is that it includes existing approaches that would externalize media, while recognizing how media have become an integral part – building blocks (to continue the architectural reference) – of everyday life.

Although a general review of the evolution of media as artifacts is beyond the scope of our paper, it is safe to say that media do meet the criteria of an evolutionary design: in the course of media history our artifacts have exponentially multiplied – every year there are more, not fewer media at our disposal – and these devices become increasingly diverse and complex all the time. Media converge and diverge at a rapid pace, often not necessarily progressing along neat linear trajectories, with different media ‘species’ becoming dominant not exclusively based on the objective quality of their features – their successful survival often better explained by fitness with their environment (one could think of the videotape standards war between VHS versus Betamax in the 1970s and 1980s).

Beyond their increasing complexity, media artifacts throughout history have also, generally speaking (and with numerous caveats), become both larger and smaller at the same time. Considering the two most widely used media artifacts on the planet, we should point out the increasing size of television screens set against the decreasing size of mobile phones. Interestingly, as screen sizes get bigger (and higher in definition), our physiological ability to take in all the information does not keep up. Effectively this means that we simply cannot ‘see’ everything that is available on wide screens. Similarly, it is possible to argue that touchscreen ‘smart’ phones refuse articulation and therefore active awareness as telephones – that in the past would notify users of their existence by pushing back at people pressing their buttons or rotating their dials.

The twin forces of media artifacts becoming both ubiquituous and somewhat invisible further collide in a contemporary environment of context-aware computing, next-generation networks, and intermedia communications - in other words, an internet of things, heralded in a 2005 report by the International Telecommunications Union as a new dimension to be added to "the world of information and communication technologies (ICTs): from anytime, any place connectivity for anyone, we will now have connectivity for anything" (2). The internet of things, defined as a global internet-based information architecture facilitating the exchange of goods and services, according to some will at some point come to dominate mediated interactions. Although global communication traffic is dominated by mobile phones, machines communicating with other machines already come in second in terms of data volume. All in all we contend that the evolution of media as artifacts suggest an increasingly seamless and altogether ambient lived experience of them.

In terms of what people do with all these media, the range of activities has become almost as multiplied and diversified as the media technologies themselves. A bird’s eye view of how people use media in this bewildering variety of contexts does suggest some commonalities, though. In media usage studies, the differences in time reported spent with media through for example phone surveys, personal written diaries, and participant observation are stark.

In most countries around the world, reports and studies on the amount of time people use media are more or less similar: almost every waking moment is either directly (paging through a magazine, making a phone call, tuning in to a show on the radio, surfing to a particular website, and so on) or indirectly (having music, images, and video in the background while traversing public spaces, a computer or mobile phone in always-on mode) spent with media. Yet when asked about it, people tend to forget most of their media use, mainly because they are concurrently exposed to multiple media at the same time, and most of their media use occurs in combination with other everyday activities such as working, hanging out, and eating.

The mundane nature of media use has additional properties beyond its concurrence and generally less-than-deliberateness. Consider the verbs deployed to describe people’s principal media activities throughout much of the offline 20th century: reading, listening, viewing, typing, zapping, and calling. In today’s online media environment, one has to add to this list verbs such as: cutting, pasting, editing, forwarding, linking, liking, chatting, texting, zipping, (re-) mixing, redacting, uploading (and downloading), sharing, rating, recommending, commenting – so on, so forth.

In 2008 US market researcher Jakob Nielsen coined the distinction between these two types of activities in terms of lean-back versus lean-forward media. Beyond its significance of articulating the embodied nature of our media use, Nielsen’s distinction marks a subtly shift in media activities from those that are primarily consumptive in nature, to a range of behaviors that seem more productive. In media life, media using equals media making – often without deliberate intent (or consent) of the user. This is not to privilege the kind of creativity on display by those who write or edit Wikipedia entries, create and share their own videos on Youtube and Vimeo, or are otherwise engaged in ‘hard’ forms of creativity. This is a relatively small group compared to the vast majority of media users that have become creative in one way or another without necessarily realizing it, participating in the creating and shaping of a social reality in media that is different from one that is simply consumed.

At the heart of our engagement with media is the reconstruction of the self as source, as Shyam Sundar codifies the mediation between technology and psychology at work in media life (2008). Based on his experimental work on people’s media use, Sundar higlights the importance of our own selves in the co-evolution of technology and psychology. This trend prompted Time magazine to make all of us – “YOU” – as its ‘Person of the Year’ in 2006, featuring a front cover with a YouTube screen functioning as a mirror. The person holding up the magazine would be looking at herself. The centrality of ourselves as having to take responsibility for reconstructing the world and our lives in it through (the way we use) media cannot be underestimated.

Writing in the Winter 2005 issue of The New Atlantis magazine, Christine Rosen sees in the way people use media to both consume and produce information for and about themselves evidence of an emerging age of egocasting, where sophisticated technologies give us "the illusion of perfect control", inescapably leading to a "thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one's personal taste" (52). For Rosen, contemporary media artifacts and what we do with them make us forget about our fellow human beings in general, as they allow people to focus only on things of interest to them. At the same time, it bears pointing out that the vast majority of people’s use of media is indeed social, in that media are used to connect to other people all the time. when the self becomes source it therefore does not necessarily reduce the world to our solipsistic experience of it. On the other hand, when the media thus quite literally become (all about) us, they become almost completely invisible to us as distinct or discrete praxis.

In the taxonomy of media’s definition, their existence as social arrangements can be articulated by imagining any of life’s fundamental experiences – undergoing processes of social change, seeking and finding love, becoming part of a community, being alone – existing (wholly or in part) outside of media. This type of thought is possible – but indeed, solely or increasingly, only as an imagined life. Whether it is the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street movement, the uncanny experience of attending a concert or marriage at which more people seem to be recording the event than in fact witnessing it, or simply by trying articulate a more or less coherent sense of self: media are inextricably linked, enmeshed, and involved with social reality. In this process, media come to arrange such realities: adding perspectives and dimensions (while obfuscating others), introducing (and excluding) others into events without necessarily being co-present, enable participation in otherwise (or formerly) utilitarian experiences of life.

Media Life

The conclusion is our lives as lived in media not only make media disappear, but also bring the self forth in relation to the world around us: nature, machines, and people. It is in this ontological, epistemological, and praxeological context that the media life/living information perspective can be made to work.