The other day, I had a conversation about the events of September 11, 2001, with two other gentlemen, one of whom was on the ground in Manhattan when the towers fell.
Of course, the fact that the other guy and I were not physically there did not stop us from also sharing our experience of that awful day, as transmitted by television.
It brought to mind the book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live It by Thomas De Zengotita. It’s a fascinating read that makes the case that, thanks to media in all its formats, we have no idea what this thing we call “reality” really is.
It makes the Robin Williams joke in the image even funnier. Our sense of reality has indeed become a concept, which is a representation of a thing, not the thing itself.
De Zengotita says that things changed with the advent of mass media, specifically television. For example, ask someone of a certain age where they were when JFK was assassinated, and get prepared to hear a story — even though relatively few people would start by saying they were on the scene in Dallas.
Compare that with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Other than the participants, people of that generation wouldn’t have a story to tell you, because they weren’t there. They didn’t feel that they personally experienced it, so there was nothing to say.
Media representations of events create removed experiences that make us feel involved. We become performers in a narrative that isn’t an actual aspect of our personal reality.
Thing is, we don’t even consciously acknowledge most of our mediated experiences, because they’re so prevalent. We now spend the majority of our time in digital environments, “getting high on information” as the Red Hot Chili Peppers put it in the song Californication.
Thanks to the internet, we now develop world views based on mediated information that may have no factual basis in broader consensus reality. Worse, we then seek readily-available information that validates those beliefs thanks to confirmation bias, and suddenly we’ve made a fairy tale world of our very own.
Social media may be the most damaging mediation of all. Now we “experience” the world of people we know and work with, even as we understand it’s a carefully edited narrative designed to focus only on highlights. Our conversations are digitally mediated, giving us the perception of connection without considering how people might alter their speech as public performance.
I look at tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram photos, and catch myself thinking all of this digital chatter is “happening” in my life. I only have to put the phone away and look around at the real world right in front of me to realize that none of it exists in my personal reality at all.
Now we’re on the cusp of virtual reality (an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp). Just yesterday, the news broke that Google Earth is now compatible with Oculus Rift, the VR headset from Facebook. A Fast Company article proclaimed that you could now “travel the world.”
Looking at pictures or video of places, no matter how realistic, is not the same thing as being there. You haven’t legitimately experienced Vietnam just because you watched Anthony Bourdain eating pho in Hanoi, right? And while virtual reality may be cool technology to play with, you’re just placing yourself one more step removed from the real.
I suspect that people will divide into two camps in the near future. The majority of the masses will reside constantly in virtual environments, experiencing safely sanitized versions of places they’ll never physically visit and people they’ll never truly know.
The other group will insist on living in the real world. To experience the joy and wonder of nature. To immerse themselves in other cultures, warts and all. To un-mediate themselves in order to make their life journey more authentic.
Which group will you be in?
Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It (Amazon Associates)
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