The Media Are To Blame

The number of books in recent years documenting the downfall of civilization due to media - whether smartphones, social media, robots, algorithms or just 'the' media altogether - is astounding. Generally speaking, these are books not written by media scholars, but by concerned citizens, often 40+ years old affluent white authors lamenting what media are doing to, well, the stupid masses and particularly the YOUNG.

Okay. Here it is, from a media scholar: do media have effects on people? Hell yeah. Are these effects the same for everyone? No. Are these effects always there? No. Are these effects one-dimensional and one-directional? No. Is there ANYTHING particular to today's media effects as compared to, say, the invention of the printing press? Hell no.

In a nutshell: some people are affected by some media under some circumstances some of the time in some way.

Generally, though, we're fine and we will be alright. So what is the deal with all these books and their relative success? Three things: fear of young people, projection onto machines, and disrespect regarding nuance and complexity.

1. Ephebiphobia: fear of youth. We are scared shitless of the people we put on this earth to replace us, so we project all our fears about dying and having lived an utterly replaceable life onto the next generations with their silly gadgets and dumb behavior and irresponsible whatever. Get over it: once you're over forty, you're on your way out, and that is a good thing. Deal with it. I am way over 40.

2. The Influencing Machine: Ever since the mechanical evolution coinciding and correlating with the Enlightenment, we have projected all our own vulnerabilities and anxieties onto the machines of our time. Today its Facebook and an iPhone, in the 50s and 60s it was the TV set, in the early 1900s factory machines, and so on. Projection is so much easier than taking responsibility, because it makes us feel SUPERIOR and that is nice.

3. Media and Communication Scholarship: people who lament the impact of media and mediated communication on (other) people and society generally read a lot, EXCEPT the dedicated and sustained research done by scholars who study and understand media and (mass) communication. If they would, they would learn that filter bubbles - if these exist at all - tend to be temporary, that people - kids and teenagers alike - have complicated and creative and interesting relationships with their media but are definitely not programmed by them, and that the MAIN REASON why people are upset about powerful media is that these technologies enable those outside the mainstream (that is: youths and all minorities) to threaten and challenge the SOCIAL ORDER of things. That last insight is the legacy of the late and great Denis McQuail, one of the founding scholars of media and (mass) communication research in the world.

But hey, why would you deal with history and scholarship and critical self-reflection when you can blame machines, Silicon Valley and (your) kids for everything that is wrong in the world?

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.

On The Road 2014

[last updated: February 5, 2014] As always, if you are around these places and times, please do not hesitate to drop by and say hello. Please note these dates are tentative and will get updated as soon as possible.

Check this previous post for PDF versions of (more or less recently published) work that informs many of these presentations, workshops, seminars and guest lectures.

Speaking dates in 2014 (with first some final dates in 2013):

December 12: Talking about media life at the ZEMKI research seminar of the University of Bremen, Germany (from 6-8pm).

December 17: Talking about managing media work at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

January 23-24: On beyond journalism at the Rethinking Journalism II conference of the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

January 27-31: Seminar on media life as part of the Media and Global Communication program at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

January 28: Guest lecture on media life at Tampere University, Finland.

February 5 - May 7: Every Wednesday evening a lecture on media life for the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

March 11: workshop on beyond journalism for the Dutch Publishers Association in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

March 13: talk on beyond journalism for the annual ROOS conference of regional broadcasting organizations at hotel De Heerlickheijd in Ermelo, The Netherlands.

March 14: workshop "The Future of Journalistic Work" at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University, UK. [postponed]

March 17: guest lecture on media life and beyond journalism at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

March 21: talk on media life at the Labyrinth congress at Leiden University, The Netherlands.

April 25: inaugural lecture (part of my installment as Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam) in the Aula of the Oude Lutherse Kerk in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

May 1-2: talk on beyond journalism at the International Summit on Reconstruction of Journalism in 
New York.

May 8: keynote on beyond journalism at the CIR
COM conference of the European Assocation of Regional Television in Cavtat, Croatia.

May 18-20: talk on media life (and zombies) at the "Oh Man Oh Machine" conference of Tel-Aviv University, Israel.

June 5-6: talk on media work at the "Affective Capitalism" symposium of the University of Turku, Finland.

June 26-27: keynote on media work at the 13th International Conference on Research in Advertising (ICORIA) of the European Advertisting Academy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

[to be confirmed] August: keynote at the 5º Simpósio de Ciberjornalismo, Brazil.

Media (Life) Is A Threat To Social Order

[remark: an updated and slightly expanded version of this comment is posted at the group weblog Culture Digitally, where you will find a lot of excellent posts and dialogues by colleagues and friends in new media studies]

Media can reinforce and support agencies of socialization and agents of control - such as parents, educators, the state. At the same time, media can be viewed as potentially disrupting, undermining or otherwise threatening the established way of doing things in society. This fundamental premise - outlined most clearly in Denis McQuail's unparalleled work on mass communication theory - comes into play every time one tries to make sense of the lifeworld and the role media play in it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current twin developments of, on the one hand, global activism amplified and accelerated by the spread of cell phones, wireless internet access, and online social networking platforms (such as Facebook and Twitter), and on the other hand increasingly worlwide crackdowns by the political and economical establishment on just about everything people and their (social) media do: SOPA and PIPA in the United States, ACTA globally, the US Congress and the British government considering killing the internet (or, better yet, doing this temporarily thus turning internet into a zombie) under the guise of unspecified national emergencies, up to and including parents, priests, professors and presidents in supposedly 'free' societies openly telling you to censor yourself when self-expressing online.
As our lives gradually, invisibly, shift from living with media - in which case there are indeed things that can be effectively switched 'off' (by pulling a plug or developing sophisticated media literacies) - to living in media, the established post-WWII social order awakens, starting to display its power. Whatever people are doing in media, it clearly has become a threat to the establishment - even when it involves people expressing their unbridled embrace of the commodification of their deepest intimacies through commercial platforms for the public exchange of private information.
Let me express my optimist bias: the fact that governments and corporations are indeed openly attacking the freedom of (self-)expression worldwide is a hopeful sign. It suggests that whatever we are doing in media, matters. Let me paraphrase US President Barack Obama from his 2012 State of the Union speech: "anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that [you should not be living in media], doesn’t know what they’re talking about. (Applause.)" 
Living our lives in media opens social reality up for co-creation (like it has always been, but which has been made invisible in an anomalous age of mass communication). As one of my students recently remarked: the real question of a media life is: what would zombies do?