About a decade ago, when the internet had so recently transformed our homes and offices, sociologists spent a lot of ink worrying about the broader effect all this computer time would have on the way we associate with each other. There were a lot of fears of de-socialisation; the resonating picture of us sitting in isolation on our computers and mobile phones, pretending to engage with each other but having our discourse mediated beyond recognition through digital and cellular networks. What if we weren’t getting the real social connectivity we needed?
That dialogue died down swiftly as we came to accept our lot – the IT “revolution” (replete with scare quotes) couldn’t be stopped. So we discussed the minutiae of day-by-day developments in digital culture. While we may have missed the point earlier – the many more hours spent in mediated reality seems chiefly in aid of social pursuits, even just organising face meetings – we shouldn’t stop considering the effects of over-mediation. Within a generation, we have adapted to a world where much more of our surroundings are mediated by other people; tailored reality, tamed, commodified, distilled from the complexities of the world around us, subject to the tyranny of consensus and groupthink &c, &c. Plus, there are plenty of timely warnings about the attention-stunting effects of screen time on early brain development.
Now we talk about the me culture. Rising narcissistic personality disorders, encouraged by marketing gurus with their “my” this “i” that. What’s happening, can we blame the technology?
Thomas De Zengotita argues it’s not that simple. A cultural analyst foremost, he’s been arguing that celebrity culture and the media we spend so much of our time engaged with is about us rather than the content itself – and we’ve become obsessed with analysing content as though it meant something. He is not as interested in minutiae or incessant close readings of pop culture: he’s looking at the accumulation. What happens when we have so many screens, so much advertising space, so much targeted content all addressing us? All flattering us by speaking to us all of the time, paying us attention – as all media does. Screens pay us attention, not the other way around.
This has to have changed the way we think about ourselves.
Zengotita is concerned that it’s made self-interested performers out of everyone. But there’s something else at stake here – and it has to do with innovation.
Here’s the deal: the quickest to figure out the parameters of the mediated world in the playground – and replicate it – receives the dubious honour of being the schoolyard trendsetter, head of the “cool group” if you like. So we grow up taking cues from one another as to how to behave, and it is dictated by who learns the language first. We have to learn the pop culture references, accepted quick dialectic exchanges, or die a social death. Perhaps there is no greater torture for an adolescent.
We spend years learning the language of media content, and being driven by those who understand it best – or at least who understand how to replicate it.
Imagine how betrayed you would feel if it turned out all of that learning was smoke and mirrors. We defend to the death the assumptions we’ve grown up with, and that’s how media influence spreads.
It’s also how our cultural references get narrowed. We’ve been told through this flattery that we already know what’s important. We must demonstrate to others that we already know it (preferably implicitly, as if it were so real it were a part of us). Imagine if someone came along and said: you don’t know much beyond a media-distilled vision of the world, here’s a new idea.
What an insult! They’d get laughed down. That’s just not possible.
This is why we are in a culturally dead age – no one’s even trying for a new idea. It’s why we have a number of genres, time periods reduced to a few fashion image-symbols, tropes and stereotypes to select from when we choose to create something new. This is why when someone releases new art into the world, they choose from a list of pre-determined influences – references been and gone, genres long-set, agreed on. Even “experimental music” is a genre now, with its few ideas repeated over and over.
So we’ve got these cultural handles: if we didn’t know about it already we wouldn’t “get it,” and not “getting it” is the death of the social self.
But it gets uglier. Seen youtube? Of course you have. Youtube humour trends are very revealing about what we like to engage with, and so many online phenomena that aren’t just reiterating these pop culture handles are about laughing at those who don’t comprehend them, like ‘Dot Dot Dot.’ Funny, yes, but also flattering – cause where the object of ridicule doesn’t get it we do.
But it also broadens to general knowledge. Consider the rainbow videos: a guy excited about seeing a double rainbow, and worse, a woman obviously suffering from paranoid schizophrenia freaking out about a rainbow in her backyard. They’re funny because the subjects don’t understand basic things that we all should know. The publicly pilloried for not “getting it” have become as famous as public figures creating culture. At least we’re not them.
Why is that important to us? To locate people who don’t get it and laugh at them? Why is this what defines current “counter-culture” as well?
I posit it’s because we’re reaffirming all this learning we’ve done online, on TVs, through ads, through rhetoric disguised as arts and information, in the playground; reaffirming that it’s valuable. And real. We are in the in-group because we understand – they are in the out-group.
Thus our narrowed perspective – we just can’t encounter anything new without it being a threat to the self.
Nor does it help that in the culture of media competition, everyone is reaching for the jugular – the quickest way to grab attention. It’s like once we spent so much psychological analysis discovering the formula for generating interest, that’s all we could do. We simplify to the attention-grab, selling out the potential for deeper meaning in the process. And this is becoming the norm, like a 4/4 dance beat thrumming away until you can’t conceive of another rhythm.
Culture is one thing, but think of what this means for innovation and new ideas in other realms – such as politics. How do we find a place of real ideas exchange, how do we allow public figures to have bold, unrecognisable ideas again without shouting them down with our own self-protected knowledge of what is knowable?
And how will we adapt to this attention-seeking and attention span-lacking, flattered and mediated culture?
Ideas welcome here.