It’s ten years old now, written before the rise of social media, but Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It remains a crucial text of our era. Written by Thomas de Zengotita, an anthropologist who teaches at the Dalton School and New York University, was a bracing read for me, unfolding revelations of such head-slapping astonishment that I would say, “Yes!” and “Of course!” and “That’s right!” out loud instead of scribbling in the margins. His premise was that media in general was in the business of dealing narratives while flattering us that each of us is at the center of a universe created and continually modified for our gratification. One reason young people ignore politics, De Zengotita argued, is that they are accustomed to much more attractive people acting out stories for them and that jowly old politicians just can’t cut it.
De Zengotita, born in 1944, has been an irregular blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor at Harper’s, but mostly about politics, and his most recent HuffPo post is from March 2014. That same month, The Atlantic published a rare commentary by him strictly about media, “We Love Screens, Not Glass,” in which he speculates on the sputtering of Google Glass. It could be that viewing both the world and media simultaneously through the same literal lens is a media bridge too far, one most people are uncomfortable crossing. “With Glass,” he writes, “a developmental logic built into the very nature of representational technologies may be reaching an intrinsic limit.” So we’re stuck, in more ways than one, on screens.
De Zengotita allows that smartphones and tablets allow us to both be and do, in the way a “first person shooter” game-player enters a reality that is both real and fictional. “But the smart phone ups the ante,” he notes. “It introduces just enough distance, just enough lag time, between you and your doings on the screen to allow for an endless cascade of tiny moments of arrival, of recognition. Each prompt, each response, intercedes between you and the representations of yourself and your world that you are both producing and contemplating.”
If I am reading him correctly, De Zengotita is saying that the tap-and-swipe screen enables us to be “aware” of ourselves doing what we’re doing, shifting from app to app as we edit — or “curate,” in the fashionable term — the life we perform for others and the fragments of others’ lives we absorb.
Somehow this helps me make something like sense of Wednesday’s live murder of two young journalists and its social media aftermath. Other writers have already noted that the horror show orchestrated by their murderer has propelled us into a new realm of mediated mayhem, beyond the ordinary “disgruntled” ex-colleague slicing himself a sliver of fame; beyond, even, the savvy of terrorists who behead victims and blow up World Heritage sites and brag about it on Twitter.
In the Washington Post, Abby Ohlheiser and Elahe Izadi chronicled the social media cascade that included the murderer’s grievance posts and the uploading of his Go-Pro video, as well as the shocked and dismayed posts of people imploring others not to watch the video or to help him achieve virality. (As if.) Several tweets worried we were getting a preview of a nasty future.
Amid the mediastorm of the awful morning, the anchor the slain reporter had been dating felt compelled to announce on Twitter — not quite three hours after her death — that they were in love and had moved in together:
She was the most radiant woman I ever met. And for some reason she loved me back. She loved her family, her parents and her brother.
— Chris Hurst (@chrishurstwdbj) August 26, 2015
This might be another case of a contemporary media practice that seems off-putting to an older person but that anyone under 40 accepts — like my students who insist they mean no slight and are indeed paying attention while playing with their phones in class. And most of them no doubt find the anchor’s tweet touching. But it reminds me that all of the principals in this disturbing episode are, as journalists, performers. And I don’t mean because they are in broadcast — print journalists, particularly in the social media age, perform, too.
I found myself performing throughout the day. As a journalism instructor, especially as one connected by social media with a few former students working for media outlets, including one who works at the same station as the murdered journalists, I felt I had a “role to play” by sifting through stories, tributes and commentaries, posting and liking and commenting on posts. Enacting curation.
But eventually in the evening, after a journalist I follow on Twitter had scorned The New York Daily News’ tasteless front page, I decided to post my own condemnation of it. Then I found myself wondering why. The tweet I’d read did not link to the page; I had to track it down online and be suitably outraged. Why would I oblige anyone else to do this? I tweeted, “Actually, I’m sorry for drawing attention to it. You don’t want to see it,” and went to bed.
Why? For reasons tracing to the gratification Marshall McLuhan identified fifty years ago in the very play of media, regardless of content. For the need to be “seen” on other people’s screens and to see myself being seen. To connect myself to something larger that really did not involve me at all, except that screens had drawn me in and impelled me to strut and fret.
Writing about how the smartphone triumphs over larger screens, De Zengotita evokes “the special intensity, the devotional glow you see on the face of a stranger in some random public place, leaning over her handheld device, utterly absorbed, scrolling through her options or matching twitter-wits on a trending topic, feeling the swell of attention rising around her as she rides an energy wave of commentary, across the country, around the world…”
It was this sort of prose — lyrical yet caustic — that made Mediated such a riveting read, even on paper. I had wondered for a while if De Zengotita might update the book, and his Atlantic essay does so, in a way. If anything, the mobile world has intensified the me-ness of media. “Watch closely the next time you see someone doting over that precious device,” he implores. “It is as if a defunct genetic program for primate grooming behavior has been hijacked and all that fingertip care is being lavished now on the body of a mini-me — my most faithful companion, my abiding reflection, my self, my other.”