The torrent

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
19 March 2002

Readers of openDemocracy will, I hope, have consulted the lucid debate in the Media strand on the impact of giant conglomerates and whether they are a threat to democracy. My own thinking about media has evolved toward a different (not necessarily incompatible) set of questions about the experience of media and their saturation of everyday life. They have created a civilization obsessed with speed. What are the strategies which everyone uses to try and cope with saturation and speed? And what are the dynamics behind the spread of this way of life beyond the borders of the United States – indeed, beyond any borders at all?

The swarming enormity of popular culture is obvious. Never have so many communicated so much, on so many screens, through so many channels, absorbing so many hours of irreplaceable human attention. And most of this is itself about communications. Whenever strangers wish to feel out common ground and establish that they are not altogether alien to each other, they compare notes on stars and shows. They deploy the latest catch phrases, and in America indicate that they are West Wing, South Park, Oprah, Howard Stern, World Wrestling Federation, or Rush Limbaugh types of people. In other societies other soap operas, shows and stars fulfill the same function.

In all their bits and chunks, the media are major subjects of the media themselves, glutted as they are with reviews, profiles, commentaries, gossip, trivia and bulletins about hits and celebrities, rising and falling stars, blazing and cooling fads, trends and gadgets, the ebb and flow of executive careers in the media, the latest in media corporate acquisitions of other media corporations.

Entertainment writers and talking heads are legion. The New York Times’ weekly section, “Circuits,” devoted to new communications technology, has been emulated elsewhere. Claims of “media effects” circulate through television, newspaper columns, and the internet. Organizations galore sponsor conferences galore on violence and profanity in the media. Books and journals about the media stream off the presses.

Yet for all the talk, and all the talk about the talk, the main truth about the media slips through our fingers. Critics and commentators miss the immensity of the experience of media, the sheer quantity of attention paid, the devotions and rituals that absorb our time and resources. Riding the torrent, they don’t see it as a torrent and instead talk and argue about the splashes and the spray. The obvious but hard-to-grasp truth is that living with the media is today one of the main things human beings do.

The centrality of media is disguised, in part, by the prevalence of that assured, hard-edged phrase “information society,” or even, more grandly, “information age.” Such terms are instant propaganda for a way of life which is also a way of progress.

Who in his right mind could be against information or want to be without it? Who wouldn’t want to produce, consume, and accumulate more of this useful stuff, remove obstacles to its spread, invest in it, see better variants of it spring to life? Even today’s Luddites want to obtain speedier internet access, put up more websites, promote more extensive listservs, publish more tracts, and otherwise diffuse more information about the dangers of high technology. “Information society” glows with a positive aura. The very term “information” points to a gift – specific and ever-replenished, shining forth in the bright light of utility. Ignorance is not bliss, information is.

I feel, therefore I am

But we diminish the significance of media and our reliance on them in everyday life by classifying them as channels of information. Media today are occasions for and conduits of a way of life identified with rationality, technological achievement, and the quest for wealth, but also for something else entirely, something we call “fun,” “comfort,” “convenience,” or “pleasure.”

We have come to care tremendously about how we feel and how readily we can change our feelings. Media are means to do this. We aim, through media, to indulge and serve our hungers by inviting images and sounds into our lives, making them come and go with ease in a never-ending quest for more and better entertainment.

Our prevailing business is the business not of information but of enjoyment, the feeling of feelings, to which we give as much time as we can manage, not only at home but in the car, at work, or walking down the street. We seek and sometimes find a laugh from a sitcom joke, an erotic twinge from an underwear ad, a jolt of rhythm from a radio playlist, a sensation of moving with remarkable speed through a video game. Even the quest for information includes the quest for the delight to be found in retrieving it – a quest, that is, for a feeling.

In a society that fancies itself the freest ever, spending time with communications machinery is the main use to which we have put our freedom. All human beings play, but this civilization has evolved a particular form of play: wedding fun to convenience by bathing ourselves in images and sounds.

The most important thing about the communications we live among is not that they deceive (which they do); or that they broadcast a limiting ideology (which they do); or emphasize sex and violence (which they do); or convey diminished images of the good, the true and the normal (which they do); or corrode the quality of art (which they also do); or reduce language (which they surely do) – but that with all their lies, skews, and shallow pleasures, they saturate our way of life with a promise of feeling.

Even if we may not know exactly how we feel – about one or another batch of images, we feel that they are there, streaming out of large screens and small, or bubbling in the background of life, but always coursing onward. To an unprecedented degree, the torrent of images, songs, and stories streaming has become our familiar, our felt world.

E pluribus, unum

Obliquely and unintentionally, we allude to the biggest truth about media with a grammatical error. We commonly speak of “the media” in the singular. Grammatical sticklers (like this writer) cringe when the media themselves, or college students reared on them (or it) speak of “the media” as they might speak of “the sky” – as if there were only one.

There is, however, a reason for this error other than grammatical slovenliness. Something in our experience makes us want to address media as “it.” We may be confused about whether “the media” are or “is” technologies, or cultural codes – whether “television” is an electronic system for bringing images into the home, or the sum of its stars and channels; whether “the media” includes alternative rock or the Internet.

But through all the confusion we sense something like a unity at work. The torrent is seamless: a collage of back-to-back stories, talk-show banter, fragments of ads, soundtracks of musical snippets. Even as we click around, something feels uniform – a relentless pace, a pattern of interruption, a seriousness about unseriousness, a readiness for sensation, an anticipation of the next new thing. Whatever the diversity of texts, the media largely share a texture, even if it is maddeningly difficult to describe – real and unreal, present and absent, disposable and essential, distracting and absorbing, sensational and tedious, emotional and numbing.

In Media Unlimited I wrestle with the maddening difficulty. Take one aspect only: the 24/7 wraparound spectacles we know as O. J. Simpson, Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr., Clinton-Lewinsky. They have a peculiar aspect that might help explain their appeal, their hold and their consequences.

During these episodes, people can feel not only enthralled, but relieved. The wraparound saga has the virtue of sluggishness which allows them to relax. The everyday onrush of lightweight fluff grinds into slow motion as the anchor declares breathlessly, “This just in”. Commentators expostulate, epiphanies arrive – moments of revelation and showdown, partial resolutions, true and false leads – but in the main, padded by “backstory,” the story moves glacially. Like a soap opera, it does not require rapt attention. The “real” news, the “latest,” will recycle at the top of the hour, if not sooner.

Meanwhile, for example, during the search for the young Kennedy’s plane, the screen read “Breaking News”. But it showed boats crisscrossing a placid Nantucket Sound, looking for debris as the camera showed only open water. During the state funeral, the wedding, the hijacking, longueurs take over. The impounded plane sits on the runway. The reporter at O.J. Simpson’s mansion reports breathlessly that nothing is going on. Amid the stasis, a few iconic images recycle endlessly; the Challenger explodes, O.J.’s white Bronco cruises down the freeway, the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City stands as an instant ruin, the fireman holds the dead child, Monica Lewinsky hugs President Clinton at the rope line, Clinton points his finger and denies having sex “with that woman,” and now hijacked jets smash again and again into the Twin Towers.

The pundits, barking heads, hunt for amusing or pontifical sidebars, striving to summon the nation to feelings all of us are supposed to feel, trying to power the display with emotional bursts that the pictures usually themselves do not engender.

In a genuine ongoing emergency – like the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 11 September, 2001 – saturation coverage can carry much practical information. But mainly, emotions flow: grief, horror, anger, fear. No wonder steady viewers grow numb. Yet this feeling of stasis may be not so much a dramatic flaw as an attraction. The spectator’s burden of choice is, for once, lifted. You are riveted, your choices made for you. You duck in and out, check “what’s new.” Your opinion is polled, your talk radio calls and e-mails are solicited. You may feel privileged to be “a witness to history.”

Instant communities form on the Internet, jokes fly around the world via e-mail. The people you run into share an automatic agenda – even if high on that agenda is disgust with the excess of coverage, expression of that disgust being itself a predictable feature of saturation coverage.

The ritual of common preoccupation seems to justify the intensity of the coverage in a self-justifying, ongoing torrent that takes us along with it.

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