Machines and dreams

2009-02-13 00:00

There has been a lot of talk recently about the new media. In the bright new world of the new media we are promised a better life. A life resonant with beauty and power. Sounds fantastic. We can live in the world of tomorrow today. Wonderful, because I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Everything is better with digital. Great, if you say so, better buy me some digital. We need to get connected in order to participate in the urban project, whatever that is. Whatever. Hook me up. We can become technology. Wait, if one of the leading cellphone manufacturers is to be believed, a lucky few already are technology: “I am my phone and my phone is me”. Whoa, how did that happen?

It’s bewildering to pick your way through the hyperbole that media merchants bombard us with day after day. Some of you might be wondering: if this is the age of new media, what were old media? Where have they gone and are things really that different now? Well, yes, things are very different now and for the next few weeks this will be the subject of my column.

Very simply, the first media age was characterised by a one-to-many form of broadcasting, like traditional forms of press, radio and television. In other words, Big Brother spoke and you listened. In the old days, the broadcasters did not care what we thought. A solemn news reader appeared on

television or radio in a dark suit and said something like “here is the news” and that was it.

The second media age heralds the many-to-many model typified by the Internet. Everybody gets the chance to be both producer and audience. We all get to talk and we all get to listen. It’s much more, shall we say, democratic? Even the traditional forms of broadcasting are changing: radio, television and even print media are becoming more interactive by actively seeking out and engaging their audiences. Radio phone-in shows are becoming increasingly popular and people get to call in and chat about whatever’s on their mind. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t, but that’s new media. There are also opinion polls on the television these days. You can vote what you think on controversial subjects. Television offers the public the chance to vote contestants off shows like Big Brother or Pop Idol. You can submit your family photos to The Witness for publication on the Link page.

The first media age arose in what we may call the modern era. In the modern world people were thought to be rational, scientific, thinking individuals who had a keen sense of who they were and where their lives were headed. They had clear goals and set paths. There are still plenty of people around who we could classify as modern.

The second media age — let’s call it the postmodern era — has given rise to a new type of individual, postmodern man. Postmodern, because we are arguably a different new product of a different new world. This individual is characterised by a fractured, decentred identity, an anxious psyche and an obsession with the self. Postmodern individuals are essentially conflicted, hyper-stimulated and media-saturated. This person talks about pulling him or herself together, getting a life, finding him or herself. Postmodern people are very busy. They have a lot to do: maintaining their websites, logging onto Facebook, checking their inbox, reading and forwarding the latest batch of e-mails doing the rounds, synchronising their iPods, responding to all those TV opinion polls, SMSing their friends to stay connected, going a couple of rounds on Playstation and that’s all before a minute’s work is done. Recognise anyone you know?

As our field of vision becomes more cluttered with images and countless visual stimuli, so we arguably become less able to really focus, really concentrate on the detail of our lives. Postmodern individuals have to struggle to contain the many splinters of their several identities partly in the real world and partly in the hyperreal realm of cyberspace. Day-to-day life can become the quintessential postmodern nightmare.

We have attached ourselves to our technologies and to some extent we are becoming cyborgs — part person, part machine. We are anxious without our cellphones, we use our televisions as moving wallpaper, flickering screens are taking the place of the traditional fireplace in the home, we feel uncomfortable with silence. We attach ourselves to Playstations and don outlandish headgear to enter the simulated realm of postmodern warfare for our entertainment pleasure, but also sometimes with deadly intent.

I’m inviting you to join me as I hold up the glass to our postmodern media-soaked world and wander through the familiar landscape of our everyday lives. Let’s talk about the commonplace things that we see and do, and have some fun thinking about what they mean to us. Let’s debate whether these media technologies make our lives infinitely richer or are slowly impoverishing our minds and souls. I’m bridging two worlds here and I stand, I suspect, at the centre point between the rational intellect of 20th-century modern people and the 21st century’s net generation Y. Somewhere on that continuum is you and I want to know what you think. E-mail me: tracy@stark.net

• Tracy Stark holds a Ph.D in media and communication from Wits University. She lectured for many years in the media and communication programme at UKZN, Pietermaritzburg, specialising in new media in everyday life. Stark is currently working as a professional musician and has just launched a new music school.

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