Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Age of Ego-Casting

In the Age of Egocasting, Christine Rosen offers a very detailed and insightful history of popular media and the trend towards greater personalization. I share the author's concern over some of the effects that this trend is having on our individual psyches, particulary in regard to the Tivo phenomenon, as expressed in this section:

TiVo Nation
The enthusiasm for TiVo is at times absurd. “TiVo is the greatest thing since wheat,” former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young enthused. “TiVo is the most amazing thing ever invented!” says Rosie O’Donnell. Documentary filmmaker Pete Jones recently declared that, “TiVo has changed my life more than children. It’s the only thing in my life that I can count on week after week.” During a question and answer session at an electronics show in 2003, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell described TiVo as “God’s machine.”

Far from the madding celebrity crowd, TiVo zeal also runs high. One man told Knight-Ridder news service, “Omigod, you can have my TiVo when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!” “I’ve converted. It’s my new religion,” another said. “I was a Jew, but not anymore. I’m now a TiVo.” A TiVo spokesperson described how devoted users send in photographs of TiVo snowmen, jack-o-lanterns carved to resemble the TiVo logo, and, in perhaps the most chilling image, a snapshot of an infant dressed up as the unique, peanut-shaped TiVo remote control. “There’s such a unique emotional connection between people and this product,” a TiVo spokesperson told the Contra Costa Times, in a comedy of understatement.

TiVo enthusiasts on one community listserv unabashedly refer to themselves as the “TiVo Army,” adopting military-style ranking based on the number of hours of TV they have stored on their devices (0-19 is a private, 20-199 a lieutenant, and so on, until you reach 5000 hours and are deemed a colonel). After their names, many contributors to the listserv include detailed listings of the models and hours programmed on each of their TiVo units. Many TiVo users on the forum own more than one TiVo, which appears to be common among users. A writer for the Chicago Tribune noted that he and his wife each have their own TiVo, so that he can watch ESPN’s SportsCenter upstairs and “my wife can be downstairs zipping through hours of home-designing shows,” prompting one to wonder what, exactly, they ever do together in their leisure time.

Speaking to Newsweek in 2003, TiVo’s CEO, Michael Ramsay, noted the device’s “amazing evangelical following.” “People say it changes their lives and helps them manage their children’s time. What we have tapped into here is really a lifestyle phenomenon where people believe that TiVo is ... giving them more control and more choice. And that’s a good thing in this busy day and age.” One man, interviewed by the New York Times, even credited TiVo with an improvement in his son’s academic performance. “Before we got the TiVo, my son was getting C’s and D’s in school because he was staying up late to watch his shows and going to school half-awake.” With TiVo, however, he’s now getting more sleep and his grades are improving. TiVo undoubtedly changes children’s experience of television. One blogger, whose daughter was three months old when the family purchased their first TiVo, “gets quite confused when we are watching a non-TiVo TV, and she asks to watch ‘a kids’ show,’ and we have to explain that this TV won’t do what ours at home does.” She thinks the television is broken. Another mother whose child has grown up watching DVDs said of her four-year old, “She just takes for granted that you can always cue up the song or scene that you want, or watch things in whatever order you want.”

In a survey of their subscribers, TiVo found that 98 percent of them “couldn’t live without” their TiVo and “another 40 percent said they would sooner disconnect their cell phone than unplug their TiVo.” It is butler, boyfriend, playmate, and therapist manqué.The company’s goal is to make TiVo the “focal point of the digital living room,” although it hastens to add that this “doesn’t make the television the centerpiece of our homes.” In fact, television has become the centerpiece of many American homes. One company is now manufacturing a hi-tech television mirror so that we can watch TV during our daily bathroom routines. Another recent
advertisement pictured a family gathered around the fireplace, although not in a traditional scene of family conviviality. Rather than looking at each other, their gazes are all fixed on a point above the fireplace: they are staring at the large, flat-screen television that now dwarfs their hearth.

If our advertisements are any guide, we are using devices such as TiVo less as efficient, multi-tasking, modern assistants than as technological enablers that help us indulge in excesses of passive spectacle. TiVo does not free us to watch less TV by eliminating waste; it seduces us with more TV by making television a more perfectly self-centered experience.

Clearly, if most Americans were polled as to what activities they should spend more time doing, it is unlikely that a majority would say "TV watching". We would mostly all agree that we should watch less. Everyone is intimately familiar with the addictive quality of TV, even without the remote control and the DVR. Yet what should we be doing with this time? Are these media addictions truly bad, or are we merely reacting to that inbred Puritan conscience in the American psyche that tells us to make a good accounting of every hour in our waking lives?

There are several arguments that can be made against these technologies. One is that they rob the viewer of communal experiences. We could be engaged in joint activities with family members, friends or community members. The original broadcast TV model, while keeping people at home more, at least fostered an atmosphere for joint family viewing, and provided shared mass audience experiences for the nation as a whole. The new media technologies, by allowing the individual to break free of the restrictions of schedule and content, destroy this communalizing function of broadcasting, it is argued. The more that we retreat into our self-selected domains of interest, the less we are conditioned to identify with the larger community.

While I have some sympathy for this argument, I feel that it is a tad overwrought. I believe that for most people media obsessions tend to be self-correcting. The alarmist scenario would paint a picture of a nation of isolated Narcissi, entranced by their psychic image in their electronic reflecting pool of choice. This scenario does not account for the lack of novelty or ultimate satisfaction that such a monotonous diet provides. Media diets cannot be sustained without novelty, and the individual must look beyond himself to find the elements of surprise and wonder that alone can satisfy his need.

The author delves into a second, perhaps more esoteric consequence of self-directed media techlology:

The Shallow Critic

Questions about the erosion of cultural standards inevitably prompt charges that the critics are unduly pessimistic or merely hectoring. After all, most Americans see no looming apocalypse in the fact that some of our favorite pastimes are watching television and downloading music from the Internet. Aren’t our remote controls, our TiVos, and our iPods simply useful devices for providing us with much-deserved entertainment? “Americans love junk,” George Santayana once noted. “It’s not the junk that bothers me, it’s the love.” But few Americans have ever shared this sentiment. We like our cheesy reality TV shows and our silly sitcoms. We love the manufactured drama of The Wire and The Sopranos. What could be wrong with technologies that make our distractions more convenient? But as the critic Walter Benjamin once noted, “the distracted person, too, can form habits,” and in our new age of personalized technologies, two bad habits are emerging that suggest we should be a bit more cautious in our embrace of personalized technologies. We are turning into a nation of instant but uninformed critics and we are developing a keen impatience for what art demands of us.

In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argued that technological change (particularly mechanical reproduction) fosters a new perspective he called the “progressive reaction.” This reaction is “characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.” Benjamin compared the live stage actor to the film actor to demonstrate this point: “The film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing.”

Today, an increasing number of us consume culture through mediating technologies—the camera, the recording device, the computer—and these technologies are increasingly capable of filtering culture so that it suits our personal preferences. As a result, we are more willing to test and to criticize. As we come to expect and rely on technologies that know our individual preferences, we are eager as well to don the mantle of critics. And so we vent our frustrations on and are in turn ranked by others who opine on the helpfulness and trustworthiness of our views. We are given new critical powers to determine the fate of television plot lines; recently, the show Law & Order: Criminal Intent allowed viewers to vote on whether a character should live or die (the masses were lenient—53 percent said the character should survive). Programs such as American Idol encourage a form of mass criticism by allowing millions of viewers to phone in their choice for a winner.
But although our media for viewing culture, particularly TV, encourage us to be critics, they do not require much critical judgment or even focused attention. As Benjamin suggested, “the public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.” Benjamin correctly feared that this avid but absent-minded criticism would lead to a lowering of culture and a public increasingly vulgar and simple-minded in its ability to understand art. “The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.”

This brings us to the second tendency fostered by our personalized technologies: an impatience for what art demands. The more convenient our entertainments, the weaker our resolve to meet the challenges posed by difficult or inconvenient expressions of culture. Music and images are now delivered directly to us, and we consume them in the comfort of our own homes. You can see reproductions of major works of art by perusing the Internet; even literature has been modified for easy consumption. As critic Dubravka Ugresic has noted, “we can find it on CD, on the Internet, in interactive computer games, in hypertext.” But to what effect? As Benjamin argued, “one of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” This is the difference between the canvas and the screen. “The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations,” Benjamin wrote. “Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped the scene than it has already changed.” The qualities of the canvas—uniqueness, permanence—are the opposite of the screen, which fosters "transitoriness and reproducibility.” And the canvas cannot be consumed in one’s home, at will. It requires that we venture forth into the world that lies beyond convenience.

Benjamin feared that our impatience would eventually destroy the “aura” of art and eliminate the humility we ought to bring to our contemplation of it. But we haven’t destroyed art’s aura so much as we have transferred it to something else. Aura now resides in the technological devices with which we reproduce art and image. We talk about our technologies in a way (and grant to them the power over our imagination) that used to be reserved for art and religion. TiVo is God’s machine, the iPod plays our own personal symphonies, and each device brings with it its own series of individualized rituals. What we don’t seem to realize is that ritual thoroughly personalized is no longer religion or art. It is fetish. And unlike religion and art, which encourage us to transcend our own experience, fetish urges us to return obsessively to the sounds and images of an arrested stage of development.

If I had limited sympathy for the first argument, I have even less for this one. Rosen's critique drips with the condescension of elitist snobbery. It is a snobbery borne of the inflated sense of importance of the overly intellectualized artist, that creature of modernity who sees his role as the originator and mediator of culture and meaning in society.

Rosen's concern is that the individual consumer of art has gotten uppity. He doesn't know his place. He doesn't know that he is not informed enough to pass judgement on the work of the artist. The Mountain no longer comes to Mohammad to receive the blessings of the artist. With the new technologies, the Mountain stays home and fancies himself a prophet, putting his needs for enlightenment up for bid to a host of sychophantic, mercenary priests.

The key to understanding this critique is precisely in this conflation of art to religion. For the "High Church" artist, that artist who creates work that is demanding, difficult to digest and requires the presence of an informed viewer at the location of performance, art is a sacrament. The artist sees himself as a shaper of souls. He imparts meaning, a meaning inaccessible to the individual left to his own devices. He offers a salvation, of sorts. An aesthetic salvation, a cultural uplift. However, as practiced by the artistic priesthood of the 20th & 21st centuries, it is strictly a religion of aesthetics and tastes. It is not a religion of morality.

To what end does this religion of art acheive? Or to put it more bluntly, why do we need art? Does art transmit meaning unattainable by other means, or is it merely a medium for pleasure? Can one live the "good life" without art? Is the unartistic life worth living? In my own opinion, yes. The one quality that every human life must possess to make living it worthwhile is meaning. Meaning must be discovered by each individual, it cannot be imparted by an external source. We find meaning in our relationships, in family and community, and in religion. Art can impart meaning, but only by echoing fundamental human truths. Moral truths. Art cannot create truths, it can only represent them.

The 20th century artistic priesthood sought to create new truths devoid of meaning or morality. By abandoning representational form, by dehumanizing art, the priesthood inserted a personal agenda of their own. Art became a projection of the artist's ego. A monochrome canvas was imbued with great esoteric meaning. An ordinary object was transformed into a great work of art by the will of the artist. Modern day Midas's, artists could create artistic gold from their mere touch.

A perfect example of this is a work by the late German "conceptual" artist Joseph Beuys. Entitled "American Hare Sugar" it consists of sugar packets that he collected from a diner in Minneapolis. Another of his works, entitled "Noiseless Blackboard Erasers", consists of 3 blackboard erasers of the same manufacture as one he used to erase the blackboard that he used during a lecture in Minneapolis.

Rosen would chastise us for being impatient for what art like this demands of us. The meaning is there for the individual with the patience and desire to venture forth into the world that "lies beyond convenience". If you are not too embarrased to ask what that meaning is, there is certainly someone skilled in the art of freeform exegesis to draw the abstruse associations and convoluted connections to some political or social cause celebre. But it is an empty exercise. It is meaningless in any fundamental way. It provides no enrichment, entertainment or betterment.

Good art is still being produced, but in the most part it is produced via the popular, comercialized media channels of consumption. The common man and woman still has a firmer grasp on the true and the meaningful than the priestly elites of the artistic establishment, and it is their tastes, while responsible for producing much of the "junk"that is the daily throwaway fare that entertains them and keeps them sane, that will also recognize and reward the rare masterpieces that seed the cultural heritage of mankind.


Anonymous Jeff Guinn said...


Reading your post reminds me of Monty Python's tag line: And Now for Something Completely Different.

On two different levels.

First, the obvious: no small amount of intellectual flexibility is required to shift from Berlinski to art.

Second, the line goes directly to the charge that TV somehow diminishes human interaction. You undoubtedly read that tag line and, through it, quickly reviewed in your mind a set of experiences with which it is associated.

As did I. And no doubt millions of others. All of whom possess a shared cultural experience.

Just as with Friends, or Survivor, etc. They provide platforms upon which people who don't otherwise know each other can form a common basis for interaction.

Or something like that.

BTW--I am a TiVO owner. I like it, because it allows me to watch what I would have done anyway, but on my clock.

And, thanks to skipping ads, I do it more quickly, so I spend less time in front of the one-eyed brain sucker.

One more BTW--the second article you cited rather slammed such things as The Wire.

I beg to differ. There is absolutely no way I could have gained anything like the impression of what ghetto life must be like in the absence of such programming.


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Blogger Amon said...

Well done on a nice blog Duck. I was searching for information on astronomy charts and came across your post The Age of Ego-Casting - not quite what I was looking for related to astronomy charts but very interesting all the same!

Well, it's a new year - in fact it's almost the Chinese New Year. I'm still putting together astronomy lesson plans for the first and second semesters. This year the budget allows us to purchase a new telescope for the science group. That's great so we're still juggling the numbers how to get best bang for the buck! Not the 'big bang' you understand LOL. I'm coming down on the side of the Meade LX200GPS 12" Schmidt-Cassegrain. Let's wait and see.

If you do have a moment, please take a look at my new site on: Astronomy for Kids .

A happy new year to everyone!

January 27, 2006 9:25 PM  
Blogger Amon said...

Well done on a nice blog Duck. I was searching for information on astronomy for beginners and came across your post The Age of Ego-Casting - not quite what I was looking for related to astronomy for beginners but very interesting all the same!

Well, it's a new year - in fact it's almost the Chinese New Year. I'm still putting together astronomy lesson plans for the first and second semesters. This year the budget allows us to purchase a new telescope for the science group. That's great so we're still juggling the numbers how to get best bang for the buck! Not the 'big bang' you understand LOL. I'm coming down on the side of the Meade LX200GPS 12" Schmidt-Cassegrain. Let's wait and see.

If you do have a moment, please take a look at my new site on: Astronomy for Kids .

A happy new year to everyone!

January 28, 2006 2:10 AM  

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