Thursday, February 5, 2009

Waking the Watch Dog

One of my favorite parts of managing my Facebook profile is the section where I can list my favorite quotations. Some of them are funny, others rather serious, and some you wouldn't understand unless you were there. There is one quotation that I think has a lot to of depth to it, worth unpacking for you here.

I first heard this quote in a sermon about a year ago, and it is from the man who brought us the familiar phrase "The Medium is the Message", Marshall Mcclune. The quote of his that I have on my profile is basically a more interesting way of saying that:

"The content of all media is merely the juicy piece of meat held by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind"

It is quite the claim. There is so much fun, educational and useful content conveyed through media, how could it all just be a distraction? And what is it a distraction from? How is media like a burglar? What a negative metaphor for him to choose. What I usually think about media is something more along the lines of "There is nothing inherently wrong with [insert media], its just how you use it that can be good or bad." Marshall Mcclune heard people saying this and he thought that sort of thinking was "the numb stance of the technological idiot." Harsh.

So what's his deal?

One answer to this question is found way back in human history. All the way back when we had languages, but no formal writing system had been developed yet. Human relationships and the preservation of societal knowledge could only take place when people were physically in the same place. Then the medium of writing was introduced. It was no longer necessary to interact with another person to exchange information with them. Communication could take place over much greater distances in time and space. When telephones, radio and television each arrived, they brought with them the ability to exchange more and more information while allowing each individual communicator to stay closer and closer to their own living room. Now the internet, combined with cell phones and the 3G network, has time, space, and our own bodies playing less of a role in communication than ever.

Comparing the early state of human communication to its present state reveals a paradox. Long ago, human communication required physical presence, and so demanded full attention and a considerable amount of time to carry out, thereby limiting the number of events one could participate in during a given day. Today we have an abundance of communication events in our lives every day, each requiring very little time, and therefore less of our attention, and usually no physical presence at all. The paradox here is that as human communication grew, human interactions shrank.

I don't personally find this paradoxical trend to be appealing, but I have a hard time denying it is there. So how did it develop? Mcclune would say that while news stories, phone conversations, TV programs and wikipedia articles captivated us, the media that conveyed them went about the business of changing the way we live. The content of our media distracted our minds while part of our humanity was burgled away.

Now, Mcclune didn't mean to say that media are purely a negative force in society. There is no denying the incredible benefits of our communication technology. There are probably even many human relationships that are stronger today only because modern technology exists. The convenience of typing a short message to someone lengthens the list of people I am keeping up with, but every time I post on someone's Facebook wall, it also comes with the message "this is the way I relate to you." I have to admit that in my life I let these hidden messages be sent far too often. A may not see a friend who lives 20 minutes away from me for months at a time, even though I send them regular messages online, usually about how we should 'totally hang out soon'. The pressure to actually show up at their door and spend some of my time and energy enjoying our relationship is diminished by the soft, perpetual message from Facebook telling me "you are already staying close to them, thanks to me." I disappoint myself, but even worse, I have alreadt passed up several opportunities to make my life richer.

You can probably imagine other messages various forms of media are sending beneath the surface of their content. Most of them encouraging us to do more things, and to do them alone. And media are not only the obvious forms of communication that I have been discussing so far.
Clothing, furniture, buildings, food...they are all media, and they are all messages. What does a frozen dinner say? A glass skyscraper? A compact fluorescent light bulb? We do not acknowledge these messages very often, but it doesn't mean we aren't responding to them.

I think all we can hope to about this is be more aware of what we may unintentionally hear or say with media. We can keep the benefits without letting ourselves wander into the pitfalls. And this awareness can even be expanded into all areas of life, because after all, it is impossible to ever be doing just one thing. Which is actually another one of my favorite Facebook quotes...

P.S. I borrowed heavily from the sermon I mentioned earlier. Its awesome, so if you want it, let me know and I will send it to you.

1 comment:

  1. I love the irony of discussing this on a blog.

    Plus learning the word 'burgled' has dramatically improved my day.