Misunderstanding Media

We all swim the torrent.


Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, by Todd Gitlin, New York: Metropolitan Books, 260 pages, $25

You may remember Joe Clark, an autocratic high school principal who briefly became famous in the late 1980s. Along with the other measures he brought to his school, from a strict dress code to rules regulating how students may walk in the halls, he played popular music over the institution's loudspeakers. Asked in an interview to defend this, he explained that while he didn't care for all the music that was played, it was better than the alternative: kids listening to their own tunes on Walkmans.

Joe Clark does not appear in Todd Gitlin's Media Unlimited. His spirit surfaces, though, when Gitlin, a radical student activist turned middle-aged liberal sociologist, discusses the modern "soundscape." There are places, he observes, where music has been engineered to influence an audience that has no choice but to listen to it, usually workers on the job or consumers on the prowl. (Whether such muzak actually works as advertised is a separate issue.) At the same time, "Wired, nomadic individuals play defense against institutionalized auditory control, drowning out the public soundtrack with their own Walkman or Discman." And between the completely public and the completely private, there are private noises that spill into public space. Joe Clark knew about those too: His school banned boomboxes as well as Walkmans.

Put all those sounds together, and you get neither a sonic Panopticon nor a series of free-floating musical bubbles. You get a glorious din—or, in Gitlin's favored phrase, a "torrent."

Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at New York University, has already written several much-cited books about the media, but in this one, he declares, he intends to do something new. Instead of discussing the content, effects, or institutions of the media, he will write about the media as an immense and unavoidable experience. The world, he argues, is saturated in an ocean of constantly shifting images and sounds, a condition that has strong historical roots but has lately reached new extremes. The first half of Media Unlimited describes that world, and it has three central observations to make. Entertainment, news, advertising, and electronic communication are now 1) everywhere, 2) a lot speedier than they used to be, and 3) aimed more at conveying sensations than at conveying ideas.

Gitlin's argument is not as simple as my summary of it. He goes into considerable detail about just how quick and ubiquitous the media have become, how and why they got that way, and where the exceptions fit in. Some of this, like his description of the public soundscape, is fairly interesting. Some of it, like his efforts to measure the lengths of the sentences in the bestsellers of different decades, is silly. Most of it is plausible, and much of it, unfortunately, is dull. Our media-glutted world is, as Gitlin notes, very weird. But this book doesn't convey that weirdness very well. If anything, it feels excessively familiar.

Or, more exactly, the first half of it does. Gitlin changes course midway through Media Unlimited, identifying eight strategies people use to navigate the constant torrent of sights and sounds: those of the fan, the critic, the paranoid, the exhibitionist, the ironist, the jammer, the secessionist, and the abolitionist. These, he stresses, are ideal types, not cleanly segregated categories, and most of us probably fit into two or more of them.

The fan selects the portions of the torrent that he likes, attaching himself to them and to other fans who have made the same attachments. The critic selects the portions that she dislikes and credits them with terrible social effects. The paranoid takes this further, adopting "the folk mystique that They are programming Us."

The exhibitionist responds to the torrent by joining it. The ironist enjoys the spectacle without taking it seriously; he is a "more playful and less suspicious" version of the man who, in the sociologist David Riesman's words, wants "never to be taken in by any person, cause or event." The jammer attempts to reconfigure the torrent from below, prankishly altering public images to make a point. The secessionist attempts to withdraw from the media storm. And the abolitionist wants to wipe it out.

Gitlin's descriptions of these social types are perceptive and witty. The critic, for example, is dissected with sympathy but no mercy: "In particular, political critics, convinced that the media are rigged against them, are often blind to other substantial reasons why their causes are unpersuasive. Is there not the unspoken correlate that if only we, the righteous and smart, could man the gates, then it would be our version of true facts and correct ideas that would flood the popular mind, and we would prevail?"

So it's an enjoyable discussion, filled with interesting observations. But something else is going on, and it undercuts the author's stated purpose. As he describes these strategies for navigating the media, Gitlin makes a point of noting the ways the media have in turn coopted each one. Fans and exhibitionists, of course, intend to join the torrent—as, in a different way, do the jammers. But others also have been absorbed: Films such as Pleasantville reflect the critic's point of view, while The Matrix presents the paranoid's. Meanwhile, most who would withdraw from the media secede only in part, picking and choosing the elements they want to avoid—making the secessionist, in the end, not so different from the fan.

Irony, too, has become a strategy for media producers as well as media consumers. Citing David Letterman and Saturday Night Live (a younger writer might have pointed to Jon Stewart and The Simpsons), Gitlin concludes, "Thus is knowingness, which began as a defense against the clutter that is the sum of all the image makers' attempts to break through the clutter composed of all the other attempts, itself a style that clutters the media stream."

What an odd thing to say. Despite its alarmist subtitle—"How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives"—Gitlin's book is not a jeremiad: He displays no desire to roll back the clock to a romanticized past, and he understands that such a reversion would be impossible anyway. But here he seems to regard the media as a monolith one resists rather than a context one adapts to. Worse, he apparently assumes the people he is writing about see it that way as well, even when that's far from obvious. Must irony inevitably begin as a "defense" against clutter, or do the ironists—presumably hip to this sort of paradox—see themselves as a part of the storm? For that matter, does it negate the paranoid's outlook if he sees his fears enacted on the big screen, or does that just inspire him further? And if secessionists hypocritically enjoy their favorite media as much as the rest of us do, does that mean the media have overwhelmed them? Or have they simply found an agreeable niche in the mediasphere?

The trouble here is Gitlin's notion of a media "torrent." The word suggests a force outside us, something from which we should seek shelter. But Gitlin has been describing the media in the largest sense. It includes not just TV networks and Hollywood studios but Web sites, e-mail, telephones. We all participate in it, and not just as consumers. It's not a thing that's outside us. It's not a thing at all. It's a process, and we're a part of it.

So why is it a problem if our reactions to the media themselves add to the "clutter"? A complex civilization is nothing but clutter: a tangled mess of overlapping, competing, and utterly unrelated subjects, objects, and relationships. Seen from the ground, some of this doesn't look like clutter at all: One man's world is my background noise, and vice versa. In his effort to describe the media in their totality, Gitlin sometimes can't see the trees for the forest.

Other times, he wanders out of the forest altogether, especially when he forgets the book's purpose and slips into writing about the media's content after all. "Since conservatives tend to be more Manichean than liberals, and more zealous about their politics," he declares, "conservatives play better on the air, and so, for commercial reasons, television and talk radio will be disproportionately right-wing." Such gross generalizations undermine themselves: For evidence that the left can be just as Manichean as the right, one need look no further than that very quote.

A final question: Why is this book packaged as something it clearly is not intended to be? I've already mentioned its dire subtitle. Its even more frantic jacket advertises a polemic about "distraction and inattention," "celebrity cults, paranoia, and irony," "disposable emotions and casual commitments," and how "the media torrent…threatens to make democracy a sideshow."

The answer, I suppose, is that the publisher feels there is more of a market for that sort of book than for the one Gitlin has actually written. The country is filled with people who fret that political declarations have been gradually compressed into seven-second soundbites without stopping to consider whether the longer versions had much content either; people who wail about the ways the media distract us without asking, with Gitlin, "Distraction from what?"; and people who view the media as an evil monolith, rather than a mixture of good elements, bad elements, and themselves.

Our illusions about the media are almost as interesting as the media themselves. Not that that's surprising—after all, they're part of the media too.