Reality in the Media Age

Since its invention there has been tremendous concern about how TV may or may not alter human reality. Films such as Fahrenheit 451, Wall-E and even the Batman franchise have all presented themes of mind control, lost mental and physical capabilities and general degredation caused by ‘the tube’. The argument against the television medium is however, by no means new. From early printing to radio and beyond – each new invention has brought concern even as it has found itself integrated into the daily lives of vast quantities of the human population. There seems to be a change occurring though. Computers and the internet have by no means been left out of the ongoing debate. And, for better or worse they have been integrated into our lives. But unlike the technologies that came before them, the sheer quantity of time individuals spend face to face with their computer screens, TVs, handheld devices and other media messages has increased at a seemingly exponential rate.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the discussion between Socrates and Glaucon examines how reality, as experienced by an individual, is always contextual. Reality is derived from experience, personal understanding of that experience, and is always filtered by an individual’s previous experiences. With so many of our life experiences now being catered to us through the media, what is happening to our reality?

If reality is pictured as being an organic, quintessential essence, human experience of that reality, in its very existence, fails to duplicate reality. In effect an individual’s perception of reality removes them from quintessential reality itself. If that individual then attempts to recreate or reproduce their experienced reality via the media the experience becomes structured, filtered, formulated or analyzed by both the medium and creator. The final expression is then interpreted by a viewer and the viewer’s reality is their perception of the mediated reality. To further complicate this, the experience of the viewer, part of that viewers reality, is likely to affect their future actions and may act as a basis for a new reality. This is especially easy to see it this era of Web 2.0 ‘mashups’ and other user generated content derived from other content. In theory the effect could compound infinitely. Is it acceptable that interpretation becomes reality? Or is the issue so many have taken with various forms of media more an issue of loss of contact/control with the human experience of organic reality?

I think it is strikingly easy to see this nested reality effect at work whenever ‘big’ news appears. This day in age information moves so quickly through the spheres of reality/existence that with very little effort information can take on a life of its own. Take for example what is likely the biggest news story in the upcoming year: The presidential election. The politician’s never ‘lie’ about anything. Instead they (or one of their staff members) manipulate numbers or words until they produce a desired result. This processed reality-bite of information is then passed to a disseminating entity (e.g., a news distributor) who adds their spin – again, not an outright ‘lie’ – and pass the information on again. This process continues almost ad infinitum as speculation about the candidates runs rampant over airwaves and the Net.

Some of what ends up passing through the various channels becomes outright hilarious, some dangerous and much of it obviously distorted. So why do we as a culture allow things to morph to such a distorted extreme? I think the authors of The Art of Seeing were correct when they stated that “people have pleasure and meaning in the use of their eyes.” I believe this statement could and should be expanded to include the use of all our senses. This morphing effect, as I observe, is for many (if not most) people a method of experience. They have reached a point where they accept that the mediated message they receive via their TV or computer is reality and are attempting to give value to reality as they experience it. They have found pleasure and meaning in their interpretation and further filtering of the message.

This political example has been repeated many times and under many guises, in truth it is hardly a new idea or concept nor is it limited to new media. It demonstrates the tremendous negative downside to the shear volume of media bombarding the populous every day. It cannot possibly be said however, that it is all detrimental. I do not believe there are many people today who would consider art worthless yet what is art if not an artist’s interpretation or expression of their reality. There is also the argument from others such as Stephen Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, who have aimed to demonstrate the ways in which collective, collaborative, elaborate media is increasing the capabilities of the human mind. New media tools while significantly responsible for media morphing also provide the power to distil what is presented.

What becomes important then is not weather the messages being relayed are good or bad, heavily layered or manipulated, an attempt for distortion or seeking an expression of quintessential truth. Instead, the important element is the extent of the viewers media literacy. There is great power in knowledge. The understanding of how and why something is being presented can, as Zettle describes it, act as “an effective antidote to the potential danger of wilful manipulation by the various media.” By understanding and utilizing the levels of media literacy to deconstruct a text or mediated reality it becomes possible to bring one’s own experience closer to an organic reality. This can in turn, of course, begin the cycle of reality and experience yet again.

I don’t suppose there will ever be a black or white answer to whether media, past, present or future, is a positive or negative influence in our lives. But it has entered our daily scope and is likely to remain a part of reality as we know it for the foreseeable future. What we must discover is where the quality of our experience lies. Is accepting mediated reality good enough or do we gain value as our experience includes greater understanding. Plato’s cave has become a series of integrated circuits… it is up to us to determine where this new ‘reality’ is taking us.