Comments for Debate on the Media and the Charlie Hebdo Murders

On Tuesday February 10 (2015) I will participate in a debate with researchers Marieke de Goede, Francesco Ragazzi, Jolle Demmers, and Julien Jeandesboz to discuss the role of the media, Islamophobia and the temptation of vigilantism in Europe in the aftermath of murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7th of 2015. The debate takes place at SPUI25 in downtown Amsterdam, The Netherlands (this is a debate center operated by the University of Amsterdam).

My contribution to this debate focuses on two particular issues: the attacks on journalists as exemplary of the mediatization of society, and the problems  white, middle-class Western news media have covering an increasingly diverse, complex global culture in their societies. 

The Charlie Hebdo attacks signal the significance of singling out media in general, and individual media professionals in particular, as victims. See also the horrific beheading videos featuring freelance journalists by jihadist groups (since 2002). This fits in a broader 'mediatization' of society, where media as institutions have become central to the way we live our lives and, in particular, how we see ourselves and each other live. As Zygmunt Bauman commented after the Hebdo attacks: "In our media-dominated information society people employed in constructing and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to be played."

A second observation deals specifically with the role of journalists covering such events: the problems western media have effectively (and with nuance and credibility) covering topics such as religion (in general, Islam in particular), minorities, migration, and class struggle. As a report by the Dutch NRC Handelsblad on February 3, 2015 showed, Dutch newsrooms employ almost no minority reporters and are otherwise extremely homogeneous, failing to address and reflect the complexities of today's society.

Looking forward to the debate and seeing you there.

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?