Unlimited Media: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives
By Todd Gitlin
By John Glassie
(Wired, March 2002)
As a good grammarian, media critic Todd Gitlin winces when people refer to "the media" in the singular -- "the media is" instead of "the media are"-- but he nevertheless likes the meaning conveyed by the incorrect usage. The chief goal of his new book is to examine "the media" as a core, monolithic and unavoidable element of the current human condition. So he's okay with talking about "the media" the way we talk about "the air” and not about all those air molecules.
"The obvious but hard-to-grasp truth," Gitlin writes, "is that living with the media is today one of the main things humans do." And "the most important thing" about the media (plural here) is that "they saturate our way of life with a promise of feeling."
It's a vague and empty promise, and it has us hooked. As in our in least fulfilling love relationships, we want ever more what we can't quite have. And this, he convincingly if underwhelmingly argues, is, well, unfortunate.
Forget about individual modes of delivery and units of content. Distinctions -- between information, entertainment and advertising, say, or even between Flash animations, retail store soundtracks and TV commercials -- become less and less important. We're left, Gitlin says, with just the "prevailing human business" of experiencing the beast. The meaning of media is this experience; the point is that we have it.
Gitlin says his view (that the experience itself is the message) is in opposition with Marshall McLuhan's (the medium is the message). But content comes in last either way. If, as Gitlin argues, this media-experience addiction is responsible for a loss of feeling in our real lives, then this is indeed an unhappy truth. But at this point, it's one that's almost impossible to alter.