March 14, 2005


The Age of Egocasting (Christine Rosen, New Atlantis)

What ties all these technologies together is the stroking of the ego. When cable television channels began to proliferate in the 1980s, a new type of broadcasting, called “narrowcasting,” emerged—with networks like MTV, CNN, and Court TV catering to specific interests. With the advent of TiVo and iPod, however, we have moved beyond narrowcasting into “egocasting”—a world where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear. We can consciously avoid ideas, sounds, and images that we don’t agree with or don’t enjoy. As sociologists Walker and Bellamy have noted, “media audiences are seen as frequently selecting material that confirms their beliefs, values, and attitudes, while rejecting media content that conflicts with these cognitions.” Technologies like TiVo and iPod enable unprecedented degrees of selective avoidance. The more control we can exercise over what we see and hear, the less prepared we are to be surprised. It is no coincidence that we impute God-like powers to our technologies of personalization (TiVo, iPod) that we would never impute to gate-keeping technologies. No one ever referred to Caller ID as “Jehovah’s Secretary.”

TiVo, iPod, and other technologies of personalization are conditioning us to be the kind of consumers who are, as Joseph Wood Krutch warned long ago, “incapable of anything except habit and prejudice,” with our needs always preemptively satisfied. But it is worth asking how forceful we want this divining of our tastes to become. Already, you cannot order a book from without a half-dozen DVD, appliance, and CD recommendations fan-dancing before you. And as our technologies become more perceptive about our tastes, the products we are encouraged to consume change as well. A story in the Wall Street Journal recently noted that broadcasting companies such as Viacom are branching out into book publishing. A spokesman for Viacom’s imprint, which targets 18-34 year olds, told the Journal, “Our readers are addicted to at least one reality TV show, they own one iPod, and they are in love with their TiVo.” Companies are capitalizing on this knowledge by merging their products. Viacom’s contribution to literature are books that spin off of television shows: He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys, written by a former Sex and the City writer, and America (The Book), by The Daily Show’s faux-naïf anchorman, Jon Stewart, for example.

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein engaged this dilemma in his book, Sunstein argues that our technologies—especially the Internet—are encouraging group polarization: “As the customization of our communications universe increases, society is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving.” Borrowing the idea of “the daily me” from M.I.T. technologist Nicholas Negroponte, Sunstein describes a world where “you need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Without any difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less.” Sunstein is concerned about the possible negative effects this will have on deliberative democratic discourse, and he urges websites to include links to sites that carry alternative views. Although his solutions bear a trace of impractical ivory tower earnestness—you can lead a rabid partisan to water, after all, but you can’t make him drink—his diagnosis of the problem is compelling. “People should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance,” he notes. “Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.”

Sunstein’s insights have lessons beyond politics. If these technologies facilitate polarization in politics, what influence are they exerting over art, literature, and music? In our haste to find the quickest, most convenient, and most easily individualized way of getting what we want, are we creating eclectic personal theaters or sophisticated echo chambers? Are we promoting a creative individualism or a narrow individualism? An expansion of choices or a deadening of taste?

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.

It's obviously only a tiny measure, but I've always thought one nice way of combatting this was scheduling event telecasts--like showing A Christmas Story only on NBC and only one night a year--so that many of us share the experience and it's water coller talk the next day. That's actually the one redeeming feature of the NFL--everyone watches the Super Bowl and in groups.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 14, 2005 5:01 PM

I spit on the SuperBowl.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 15, 2005 2:44 AM


Is that because the Ohio teams live under the shadow of the Steelers?

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 15, 2005 3:15 PM