New Part Three - April 24:
James Fallows
Todd Gitlin

Part Two - April 12:
James Fallows
Todd Gitlin

Part One - April 3:
James Fallows
Todd Gitlin



Todd Gitlin is the author of eight previous books, including The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995), The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), Inside Prime Time (1983), and the award-winning novel Sacrifice (1999). He is the North American editor of the Web site openDemocracy.net and a member of the editorial boards of Dissent, The American Scholar, and The Journal of Human Rights. He is a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit jamesfallows.com.



Previously in Fallows@large:

Policies of Power (December 6, 2001)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Walter Russell Mead, the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

Beyond the Tech Bubble (August 29, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Michael Lewis, the author of Next: The Future Just Happened.

The Waste Land (June 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Alex Kerr, the author of Dogs and Demons.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on politics and society




Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.


Atlantic Unbound | April 3, 2002
 
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
 
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From: Todd Gitlin
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: The weirdness of being awash in media

Dear Jim:

I'm pleased that you find yourself reflecting on the downright oddity of this media-saturated life. If you're a weirdo, what does that make me? Mon semblable, mon frère.

I'm trying to insist on the weirdness of the image-and-sound torrent—the weirdness of spending so many of our hours awash in media. This is not the way humanity has busied itself for most of our history. Of course, that it is unprecedented in scale does not make it wrong (or right). But it does make our experience peculiar, worth reflecting about in the round. This torrential life requires more than thumbs-up and thumbs-down reviews of our favorites and disfavorites, or complaints about how busy we are, or a subscription renewal to Entertainment Weekly, or a lamentation to the effect that life was better when it was slower or television had fewer channels.

For now, I'm not going to make the finer distinctions (though I can't resist adding that the Internet has more promise than any other invention of the last decades, even if people once said the same about television). In the book, as you rightly see, I am a lumper more than a splitter. I'm concerned with what media do in common—produce a habitat conducive to Feeling Lite, civic disengagement, and a national attention-deficit disorder. In the ensemble, immersed in a moving welter of images and sounds—some of which we choose from our menus, some of which choose us in elevators, restaurants, airport lounges, and so on—we live a good piece of our lives in a habitat that invites rewards but has sizable downsides.

From the archives:

"The Soundtracking of America" (March 2000)
Music made sense when the world did. Now the sense is gone, but the melody lingers on—everywhere. We live surrounded by music, from torch songs at Starbucks to the Beatles in the elevator, and the barrage may be turning our minds to mush. By J. Bottum
Before I get to those, let me say that one thing I think distinguishes (if that's not too gaudy a word) my argument from others is that I'm interested in the rewards. We have aspired to them for centuries—the freedom, initiative, adventuresomeness that are promised by unlimited media. These pleasures make up the demand side of American popular culture's relentless thrust over our borders, in Disneylands and action movies alike. Abroad or at home, I think that the main rewards are in the realm of a certain kind of emotional experience, not information.

We flatter ourselves when we conjure an "information society"—the term's a tribute our nervous system pays to our rationality. Even when we collect information, we feel—feel excited, sad, frightened, bored, tickled, masterful, all sorts of things. As image- and sound-consumers, we feel and aim to feel—shallowly, for the most part. Engineers and consumers alike who race toward the next wave of technologies are also juiced up by feeling (much as the decisions of technologists and investors have to be dressed up as rational calculations). Much as we fancy ourselves rational choosers—well, at least lots of academics and media professionals do—we spend much of our lives feeling ready to yield to the next feeling, each demanding little of us but that we sit at the ready, remote-control or Walkman in hand, finger poised at the radio scan button, looking for the next new thing, or at least the next next thing. Here is what links Fox and PBS, National Geographic and Maxim. Disposable feelings give alibis for social and political disengagement. Robert Putnam's argument on this score in Bowling Alone seems to me irrefutable, though obviously there are other factors involved.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Lonely in America" (September 21, 2000)
Robert Putnam argues that the time has come "to reweave the fabric of our communities."
I don't think life was better before cathode rays, or gramophones, or photography, or movable type. I think life is better now for more people. I don't want fewer cable channels or slower modems. (Maybe I should, but I don't. But the fact that I don't want it could also be a datum about how we live now, not so much an argument for fast-is-beautiful). So I stand apart from the grouchy school that looks back (and forward) to perpetual decline and fall. Nor do I share Pascal's devotional idea of the better life for which he was trying to rescue distracted royals. Nor Marx's notion that the proper mission of the masses is revolution, and they should get off the couch (or out of the confessional box) to get on with it. Media saturation is a luxury. Today, even the poor of the rich world can corral distractions fit for the kings whose souls Pascal worried about. But to say too insistently that the present is better than the past invites complacency, resignation in the face of a gee-whiz future.

The media torrent is more than the message—it's the over-stimulated fast-forward life itself, as you say. By the way, I don't think McLuhan knew quite what he meant by "medium" in his famous message about messages. (Umberto Eco made this point many years ago.) I think he was closer to the truth in the tossed-off little book entitled The Medium is the Massage. McLuhan never shook his training as a literary critic. Everything, for him, is a text. Television and vacuum cleaners are texts to be read, sort of electric Beowulfs. He wasn't so interested in the human lives that go on around and about the texts, why people came to media, what they did with them, and how what they did with them connected with what they did in the rest of their lives. I'm deeply interested in what the images, sounds, and stories, the whole wall-to-wall carpet, do for (as well as to) us.

What's new in my book? For one thing, I don't think media saturation and speed just arrived. I think we've been headed toward it for centuries—it's a version of modernity's benign dream of personal liberation. The dream predates cathode-ray tubes, predates television, predates electricity and photography. What's mushroomed are the means we have to deliver on the dream, and the prosperity that permits many of us to indulge our desires. So I think I'm more ambivalent than either Pascal or Adams, though who wouldn't want to claim these guys as precursors?

For a second thing, my version of "kids today" has (I hope) some rather specific contents. I'm with you on civic disengagement and sound-bitten dumb-down. I worry about attention deficit, both in kids (fidgety, inattentive, or too promiscuously attentive) and in adults. I worry about the sort of disordered thought I see in student writing and speech—the lack of shape, the snippet thoughts, the difficulty distinguishing between argument and opinion, the impatience with matters of logic and evidence, aping punditry. The media have been their unacknowledged curriculum through years of school, and the school system is pretty well disarmed in the face of this big fat fact. (I argue this in a spin-off essay for a forthcoming book on schools edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viterriti.)

I guess here I'm in danger of State-of-the-Union diffuseness, lacking a Unique Selling Proposition, but so be it. I'm into anti-Thesis. But if you press me, which delicately you do, what I find most worrisome in the media torrent are psychological and philosophical effects, which are not, in the end, separate from social and political effects. I worry about the psychic or (if you like) spiritual imbalance that comes when media are so convenient for launching these little emotional epiphanies—feelings that, in the main, don't stick around to demand much of us. It's cool to zap, surf, float. But what happens when we need to be uncool—say, about global warming, terrorism, all kinds of avoidable suffering in the world? The quality of interest that David Weinberger suggests in the quote you offer (I haven't read the book but will look for it if only to see what goes in the ellipses!) won't stick to my ribs—or yours, I'm sure. Not for long. That's its point.

Jim Bohannon, a talk-show host with whom I spoke last night, spoke of "the gross national clutter." I like that phrase. And yes, I'm aware I'm circulating a notion I got from a talk-show host. We can't stand outside the torrent. I can't, anyway. Irony is one way to cope.

Best,
Todd Gitlin

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