Thursday, September 30, 2021

When "New Media" Was the Big Idea

The study of media technology, and of its impact on the way we experience events and relate to one another, has been a preoccupation of mine for a very long time. I am a child of the first great electronic media explosion, and as I grew up and grew older I became aware of how much it shaped my perceptions of so many things. My brother and I are both “late boomers” (he was born in 1961, me in 1963). There is a significant gap between us and Anglo-Americans born 10 years earlier: the classical boomers, upon whom “the Sixties” fell like a hammer. We "late boomers" didn't really experience these turbulent times as times of radical change. The West's "Cultural Revolution" had already entrenched and established its ideology and values by the time we were old enough to understand the world around us. (I use this term Cultural Revolution in an analogous and qualified sense; it was very different from the awful drama that took place during this same time in China, but what happened in the West was profoundly uprooting and deeply problematic in its own way, and its consequences are still unfolding.)

Overall, the time period of the Sixties requires a less sentimental, more clear-eyed historical appraisal, which boomers cannot provide and which I'm not likely to see in my lifetime. My point here, in any case, is not to evaluate that period in terms of "what was good" (and there was much that was good) and "what was bad" (which requires precise discernment) and "what was ugly" (which, well... ugly is ugly). My point is that someone born in 1963 didn't experience the particular earthquakes of those times, but simply understood their social and cultural consequences as their given milieu.

This is certainly true about the media revolution. We first opened our eyes in a world in which every house had at least one television set, many (including ours) had two TVs, and more and more were acquiring a fascinating new thing: the color television. Every household also had one or more record players (increasingly “stereophonic”), numerous portable radios, and coffee tables with magazines full of color photographs. 

These were widely distributed new things in the early Sixties, but we were also new, and we grew up with their ubiquity as something taken for granted. I have been told that the first complete sentence I spoke in toddlerhood was, “Winston tastes good” (TV was full of cigarette commercials back then).

Something happened in those years that involved more than just the technology of “talking and moving pictures.” My parents’ generation found all of that in the local cinema. TV brought the audiovisual experience into our homes and placed it at our fingertips. By the time I was born, TV had adapted to the domestic intimacy of its position and had begun to shape the environment of every home. We were not simply given “shows” at times and in places; we had a box in the living room that was “alive” with continuous audiovisual content, and watching “live” news and entertainment at home made us not only spectators but also participants “drawn into” the event and activities of the global village.

In 1965, when Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the New Media,” he was speaking about television. TV was a window in our homes that was open to the world, and it made us feel more and more “involved” with what we saw of that world (for better and for worse).

As a child I saw through that window an astronaut’s boot touch the surface of the moon for the first time. I also saw bombs and fires burning in the jungles of Vietnam, and heard machine guns popping on video footage from the evening news while I played with my toys. And, of course, we watched situation comedies, Saturday morning cartoons, and we remember the advent of children's educational TV: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and all that.

As I grew older, we moved from New York to Pittsburgh, and in the early 1970s my father finally purchased that magic-box-of-my-dreams - a COLOR television set. It was a huge piece of furniture with built-in analog speakers and (I think) a 17 inch screen. No doubt the quality of the image on a 1972 color TV would be considered appallingly bad in today's world, but for us it was mind-expanding. The "world-coming-out-of-the-box" looked nearly like the living room where we watched it.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that we watched TV "all the time" when we were kids. Certainly not! For one thing, it was impossible. Television stations didn't even broadcast 24/7 back in those days. They "signed off" around 1:00AM (here in the U.S.A. with the playing of the national anthem). There were only three commercial networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) along with PBS ("public broadcasting" - largely privately funded) and these were spread across 8 or 9 "local affiliate" stations within the range of your antenna. (There was no such thing as "cable" back then.) Still, this was plenty.

And my parents put lots of wise restrictions on our TV time and content, of course (though we did find a few ways to cheat, harmlessly). We also had plenty of other things to do, like play outside, play games, hang out with friends, do experiments, read. I attempted to play many sports, which I loved passionately. Sadly, my lack of talent was only exceeded by my excessive overthinking (even then...😳). Music and art came much more naturally to me. Nevertheless, sports still played a big role in my growing up... thanks to television. My father and I bonded over watching sports on TV in the 1970s. And what a decade it was for sports, especially if you happened to be a Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers fan.⚾🏈😊

But this is not a personal memoir: I am mentioning all these things to exemplify how this "New Media" technology, especially television, accustomed us to regular and convenient access to "extended experiences" of the world, people, and events. The images and sounds of "New Media" had entered the domestic and personal sphere of human beings and had established themselves (as if they had always been around, like trees and mountains) from the time of my earliest memories.

"Winston tastes good," said the toddler JJ in 1964. There were no regular smokers in the family. Print ads for cigarettes were abundant, but I couldn't read yet. It was a television advertisement (the full jingle was "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should") that I had seen and heard... but no, that's not a sufficient way of describing it. It was an audiovisual phenomenon that appeared repeatedly, that "came into my home" and "settled in" along with my toys and our furniture and the people I saw and heard all the time. Not that I mistook the televised image for something that was "really" in the room. Television had its own way of "inhabiting" the environment (today we use the word virtual to describe media communications of all kinds, but I don't think this word clarifies much the peculiar experience we're indicating).

Indeed, television had changed (perhaps even radically) the structure of the home environment. Of course, people would say that you weren't forced to watch TV; that you had control over the medium; that you could choose to turn it on or to turn it off. But human beings don't exactly work this way. Human freedom and human choices are usually made within a context, a realm of accessible possibilities to which people become acclimated. Moreover, humans are social and communicative beings who "extend themselves" (actively and receptively) through the "means" provided by the interaction between their capacities and the resources of their environment.

Television was (and still is) a medium of audiovisual communication that draws us in to certain types of connections with the larger world. It gives a partial presentation of external phenomena, focused on sight and sound while leaving tactile sensibility out entirely. You can climb Mount Everest with National Geographic while sitting on the couch in your warm living room. Indeed, a plethora of experiences are now available by means of a mediated, partial participation. Live events or recorded material of the actions of others can also be "shared" on a much wider scale than ever before. Wider possibilities have also opened up for dramatic presentations.

There is the danger of becoming "unbalanced," in our way of perceiving things if we live like couch potatoes. We need to put our feet on the ground, literally, and engage reality in an integrated fashion. This is all the more true in today's interactive media environment. We must also find space for silence and interiority. The perennial challenges of human living may require more conscious attention and commitment.

The artificial nature of these kinds of media, moreover, cannot be overcome. It will always be a little strange to have access to such vivid images of things that are not immediately present to our sight. That is why communication is implicit to the process. The enhanced visibility of the colored feathers of a Bird of Paradise is possible for me only because it is mediated - not simply by television, but also by the intelligence, intentionality, and hard work of camera people, producers, etc. We depend on the producers of audiovisual content to be honest and trustworthy, and we must therefore assess wisely what is presented to us and the resources that are worthy of our trust.

That was true in the days of my youth, when the New Media was television. We have a double sense of responsibility with today's interactive media, where we not only perceive what others show us, but also share what we choose to present to them. A lot is riding on mutual trust. A lot is riding on the respect we have for one another as persons, and a common commitment to seeking the truth and the fullness of life.