Totally Wired

Reviewed by Shelby Coffey III
Sunday, May 1, 2005


How the Media Shapes Your World and

the Way You Live in It

By Thomas de Zengotita. Bloomsbury. 291 pp. $22.95


The Search for Community in a Technological Age

By Michael Bugeja. Oxford Univ. 226 pp. Paperback, $19.95

"Let your mind alone!" wrote New Yorker humorist James Thurber in a broadside against self-help tomes by psyched-out psychologists and other well-meaning oafs. But the mind is, as the Zen masters say, a drunken monkey -- and does not want to be left alone. In an age of endless e-mails, tidy TiVos, cell phones, Blast-faxes, broadband and satellite channels by the hundreds, being left alone is not an option for many in the overdeveloped world.

That sounds dandy at first. But what's the psychic cost? And when do we pay it? Two new books look, in alternately amazed and mournful ways, at the bill for living with what one calls the Seven Habits of Highly Mediated People. (Washington wonks and wonkettes, beware; the enemy is all around and is, in fact, us.) Both authors are serious chroniclers of a bewildering, ever-new techno-world, at once godlike in its reach and addictive in its pleasures and demands.

Mediated , by Harper's magazine contributing editor Thomas de Zengotita, aims to "zap the Zeitgeist." It's a fine roar of a lecture about how the American mind is shaped by (too much) media -- aphoristic and brilliant in spots, way over, under and around the top in others. The dust jacket blurb by the bombastic Norman Mailer is no accident, comrade.

De Zengotita shows why we viewers are endlessly "flattered" by the way the world is brought to us by our many fiber-optic wires. You live, he writes, in "a world of effects" where you can be "a connoisseur of what moves you." "It's all about the options -- and they are all about you. No limits. You are totally free to choose because it really doesn't matter what you choose." Why? Because we live in a world where instant shifts by remote controls, mouse clicks and Verizon 411 make our own identities fluid.

"We are all Method actors now," writes de Zengotita, who actually did study Method acting. Because we see so many performances, we live in a Performance Culture, aided by a Therapy Culture. Ever notice how even "normal" people speak in sound-bite when interviewed at random? That's because our behavior becomes part of an ongoing narrative about ourselves, shaped by the thousands of narratives we are force-fed by our endlessly seductive media every day.

The upside of media saturation is that we are more tolerant of others because we see their stories, too. One downside is that childhood has become a cult, replete with options that often last into midolescence (kids in their twenties, unable to choose, living at home). The antique world view of a stable, instructive mom and dad on "Leave it to Beaver" has been replaced by "The Simpsons," where the world is "chaos. No one is in charge. It is absurd in small ways, teetering on the brink of catastrophe in larger ways. . . . . Adults in this show are weak, conniving, hypocritical, vain, confused, deluded -- at best they are well-meaning but inept." At the end "we know the Simpsons will gather again on their couch bathed in the glow of their giant television. . . . We understand why they immerse themselves in representations to shelter themselves from whatever reality there is out there -- may the saints preserve us from it. We do the same thing."

De Zengotita's is a book of provocative description. He is an adventurer of the digitized American psyche, telling you the strange and glittering concepts he saw looking at "the ids of our kids," the twilight of our heroes (about whom we now know too much), politics in the grip of crisis and scandal (the only time we care) and how even once-awesome Nature has to get "realer than real" to hold our vagrant attention.

By contrast, Michael Bugeja's Interpersonal Divide is a book of concerned prescription. An accomplished poet, an ethicist and a journalism professor, Bugeja aims to assess "changes resulting from the Technology Revolution of the 1990s." He's careful to note at the start of this admirably clear volume that he has not written a book of "social panic." But he has written one of social high anxiety. (Washington wonks and wonkettes, take two Prozac and don't call me in the morning. Or e-mail me or Blast-fax or. . . . )

Bugeja worries that media overuse is stifling emotional maturity, reducing face-to-face communications at work and at home, replacing connections to local (as distinct from virtual) communities. "We invite the world into our homes and lives," he writes, "but also neglect those who dwell in our homes and those who share our hometowns." If our sense of reality is warped by the media's need to reduce political figures in conflict to white hats and black hats, how, he wonders, can we make smart political choices?

The fuel of marketing is fear, Bugeja writes, and we Americans are driven by that fuel to buy and buy. He thinks that we allow parts of our precious privacy to be purloined because master persuaders target our greed. The Virtual Mall rules. Craving and aversion drive us. Seeking self-help, we turn to the very sources of our sorrow, the media, for glib videos and tapes and books to rectify our problems or numb us to their intensity.

Before you break into a chorus of "Rescue Me," Prof. Bugeja (Iowa State) aims to do just that. At the end of each chapter, he lists journal exercises and discussion ideas for those who feel inspired to examine their media habits. You could do a lot worse with your spare time (and probably will).

A few examples of these exercises: Take an inventory of your media appliances and technology devices; decide which ones have real utility and which take more time than they are worth. Assemble a marketing profile of yourself, then ask what important elements about you are left out (a sobering project). Log each lie told on a sitcom or soap opera; then log each lie, half-truth and exaggeration you spout for a week. (I told absolutely none the week I kept a log, except for telling my Book World editor I'd written the lead to this review when actually I had just remembered the review was due that day. But editors are "fair game," as Karl Rove once said, admittedly in another context.)

Bugeja largely lives up to the second goal he set for himself -- to produce a multidisciplinary work "to explain complex truths in plain language rather than to validate those truths via complex language." The desire for acceptance, the "need to belong," drives people, he writes. And since we're social creatures with a conscience, the effect of communications systems on our values is of great concern. (Check out the music video of, say, Nelly's "Pimp Juice" if you want to experience values anxiety.) And the effects of heavy media use on our consciousness are equally worrisome to Bugeja: shorter attention spans and shorter tempers.

Several of Bugeja's demons are not unfamiliar, however: suburban sprawl, relentless advertisers and medias ecosystems, as symbolized by AOL Time Warner, eroding "constitutional freedoms in addition to basic tenets of the American entrepreneurial dream." Confession: I worked for several media ecosystems, including Time Warner, and never saw them attacking the First Amendment -- rather, the reverse. As for the entrepreneurial dream, one scene will suffice: Once, as a high-ranking colleague and I sat watching our elders and betters at a large media company (not Time Warner) talk themselves into handsomely overpaying for a small rival media company, the colleague turned and whispered to me: "In our next lives what we want is to start a little company that these [expletives] want to buy."Of course, in our current lives my colleague would have messaged this small hymn to the entrepreneurial dream to me over our BlackBerries. No need to get caught whispering among the Highly Mediated.

So are all the media-saturated citizens of the over-developed world deranging their senses beyond the natural balance? Probably. But as Marshall McLuhan, the granddaddy of media studies, once noted, "We have never stopped interfering drastically with ourselves by every technology we could latch onto. We have absolutely disrupted our lives over and over again." Gutenberg and his heirs disrupted a lot of traditional family conversations with their alienating books.

When plain-vanilla Alexander decided to become Alexander the Great, recounts Leo Braudy in The Frenzy of Renown , he appropriated the already-old narrative of Achilles as his model, along with all current technology, including sculptures and poems, to give himself the luster of fame: Macedonian Idol, no kidding. His fans loved it, as they do in every age. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our superstars but in ourselves, the surging neurons that make us want to see and be seen, to know and be known. The price? Both authors responsibly note that they are writing about a side-effect of affluence, not affecting the millions mired in poverty. For the left-behinds, one has to wonder: How desperate are the housewives in Pyongyang? And who, in the highly Mediated world of intelligence analysts, should not have been watching "The Simpsons" when Mohamed Atta was charting his final flight plan? ยท

Shelby Coffey III is a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times and a former executive vice president of ABC News.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company