Everyone is a Media Organization

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Bell argues that Donald Trump is a media organization.

The new US President's behavior, according to Bell, can best be compared to that of a "loud, competitive, digitally attuned, populist media organization." During the campaign, numerous media outlets, pundits and commentators suggested that the key motive for Trump to be running for President was to set up his own media empire afterwards.

This may all be true, but it perhaps fails to grasp the significance of the near-complete mediatization of the lifeworld of everyone - not just high-profile people like Donald Trump. We do not live with media anymore - we live in media (and have been for quite a while now).

In media life, everyone is a media organization.

In order to effectively participate in society, we constantly have to market and upgrade ourselves - we have become commodities. In media, we are products catching the attention and attracting demand and customers on a global marketplace where we are "simultaneously, promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote” (Zygmunt Bauman in Consuming Life, page 6). No consumer unless a commodity. And the only way to be successful as a commodity, we have to perform upgraded versions of ourselves in perpetuity - in media.

Our homes become mediatized and mediated through AirBnB, our cars via Uber, our bodies through Tinder, our skills with Amazon Mechanical Turk. We publicize the music we listen to via Spotify, the people we talk to through Facebook's news feed, the information we ingest on Twitter and Tumblr, the things we see on Instagram, and the places we visit by checking in - everywhere. 

In doing so - whether voluntary or not - we participate in a near-perfect Panoptic prison, where omnoptic surveillance (Bauman would say: Liquid Surveillance) as everyone monitors everyone else is the benchmark for being.
We are all media organizations.

The thing is, Trump is just one of billions of media. And, like all of us, his spot in the flashlights is all too temporary. Sure, he can do more damage than most of us. But we all have Communication Power too. The question is not how to fight this, to unplug, or to surrender. At issue is how we will be (in) media both ethically and aesthetically.

For me, this is a renewed take on media literacy - one where we learn to love media, to come to terms with our desires and passions in media, and make sure those feelings contribute to a better, more just world.

One way to do so is to become a zombie (or embrace the fact that we already are), that is:

- Stop caring (and telling stories about) yourself, but focus on the collective, the social.

- Stop looking at society in terms of categories (such as used in the census) in order to compare and contrast, instead consider each other in terms of similarity, remixed and remixable.

- Embrace your passions (just let no authority, whether economic or political, ever exploit you for doing what you love) while accepting they may lead to nothing. Perhaps they are truly worthwhile only of they lead to nothing.

This is what zombies do: they do not care about categories - there are no distinctions between young and old zombies, black or white zombies, rich or poor zombies. Heck, zombies do not even recognize leaders or hierarchies. Zombies have a unique kind of zombie sociality, where they both are in it for themselves yet always seek out others to tag along and team up with. And finally: zombies are undeniably passionately driven at what they do. And when they are done and have won - zombies will always win out in the end - what do they do? Nothing. 

The solution for a world where we are all media organizations now is not an all-out war against fake news, post-truth politics, and fact-free journalism. Sure, all of these wars are noble endeavors.

However, our reality is now a media reality - one that we are all authors of. So perhaps it is not so much a renewed reliance on society's expert truth-tellers (such as quality news media, librarians and educators) that we should strive for, but rather a particular set of skills (that we should acquire and hone over a long career) that make us a nightmare to people like Donald Trump: skills to tell different, and better stories.

Quality of (Media) Life

[UPDATED version: May 1, 2012] As our lives get fused with media in all kinds of ways, we need to let go of age-old ways of making sense of our living environments and social arrangements. This is not because such debates - about proposed 'effects' machines in general and media in particular have on us - have become invalid. The reason why our sense-making practices need to evolve is exactly because that is what media do. Evolve.

Considering our lives as lived in media as an evolutionary step articulates media life with ever-increasing complexity rather than things getting better or worse. It equates what people do with media with what they did before (with other media), and recognizes the richness of communicative practices in today's media ecology.

In media life, the same power dynamics as before are at play, perhaps even more so (and in more contentious and contested ways): corporate enclosure and information commons, ambient intimacy and cloakroom communities, precarity and social solitude, participatory culture and multiple media literacies, bridging and bonding social circles online.

This is why the recent work of scholars such as the eminent Sherry Turkle is so striking in its expressed fearfulness of breaking through the boundaries of making sense of media and everyday life. Although her book "Alone Together" is rich in texture and detail, Turkle keeps coming back to publishable one-liners such as this one, recently, in the New York Times: "we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection."

The argument Turkle makes - a more grounded iteration of journalist Nicholas Carr earlier book "The Shallows" - sees communication as it gets enveloped in ubiquitous and pervasive media in terms of its transaction value: everything gets reduced to a cost-benefit analysis and in that process, the cost of connectivity in media is too high: we get distracted, we think superficially, we trust ourselves to machines rather than to community, so on and so forth. Whether all of this is caused by the technique of technologies, by the worldwide spread of capitalism or the alienation engendered by modernity... it all gets collapsed into arguments about mobile phones and online social networks.

Please note: I am not belittling concerns about the sometimes profound emptiness of everyday social engagements, nor do critiques of hyperindividualism, techno-fetishism, and our overstretched selves living inside personalized bubbles leave me cold.

But, I wonder, what is actually happening when our lives get lived in media? If we consider the consequences of a completely mediated lifeworld (that has already re-colonized the systemworld), how useful are frames of things being 'good' or 'bad' for us to advance our understanding? Sure, they make for easily digestible snacks in terms of our information diet. But the infocalories provided by lamentations (and, indeed, celebrations) of the role media play in the world are not a superfood.

In many ways, life after the mediatic turn is not all that different from lives as lived before. For me, the most significant distinctiveness of a life lived in media is the perception that we can see ourselves live. We can take responsbility for our lives, as life plays out - almost in realtime or in a culture of real virtuality - at a (slight) distance from us. This opens it up for intervention (and for fun).

So, instead of sticking with a fearful exploration for exits out of the studio that provides the primary playground for the performance of our life's show, perhaps we should accept the studio for what it is - everything and nothing - and ask how we can turn its cameras on ourselves and, in doing so, stare back into (the abyss that is) the world. It is increasingly,and perhaps only, through media that we can get back to reality. Anything else keeps the unreal running in the background, running our lives.

The end-goal of a media life is not to 'be yourself', as that would inevitably turn you into (a version of) everyone else. It is the realization that the self is always dancing with so many other versions of itself, and in a media life not only can we see ourselves dancing, but we can participate in the living archive of the life that we live, and that we see others live.

Of course, all of this needs much more careful working through. But be honest: what seems to offer more paths to knowledge: concluding that what people do with media is either debilitating or wonderful, or suggesting that the relationship between people and their media collapses the zombie categories of thing and not-thing, of man and machine, of artifact and activity, of product and process, of public and private, so on and so forth?