[Editor's Note: To read GodSpy's interview with Christine Rosen, click .]
Great inventions usually summon images of their brilliant creators. Eli Whitney and the cotton gin; Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone; Thomas Edison and the phonograph. But it is a peculiar fact that one of the inventions that has most influenced our daily lives for the past many decades is bereft of just such a heroic, technical visionary: the television.
Schoolchildren aren't told the odyssey of Philo T. Farnsworth, the Mormon farm boy from Iowa who used cathode ray tubes to invent an "image dissector" in the 1920s, or the tale of Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin, who worked with the Radio Corporation of America on similar techniques around the same time. Few people know that the first commercial television broadcast occurred at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, where RCA unveiled its first television set.
What is true of the television set is also true of its most important accessory, the device that forever altered our viewing habits, transformed television programming itself, and, more broadly, redefined our expectations of mastery over our everyday technologies: the remote control.
The creation and near-universal adoption of the remote control arguably marks the beginning of the era of the personalization of technology. The remote control shifted power to the individual, and the technologies that have embraced this principle in its wake—the Walkman, the Video Cassette Recorder, Digital Video Recorders such as TiVo, and portable music devices like the iPod—have created a world where the individual's control over the content, style, and timing of what he consumes is nearly absolute.
Retailers and purveyors of entertainment increasingly know our buying history and the vagaries of our unique tastes. As consumers, we expect our television, our music, our movies, and our books "on demand." We have created and embraced technologies that enable us to make a fetish of our preferences.
The long-term effect of this thoroughly individualized, highly technologized culture on literacy, engaged political debate, the appreciation of art, thoughtful criticism, and taste-formation is difficult to discern. But it is worth exploring how the most powerful of these technologies have already succeeded in changing our habits and our pursuits. By giving us the illusion of perfect control, these technologies risk making us incapable of ever being surprised. They encourage not the cultivation of taste, but the numbing repetition of fetish. And they contribute to what might be called "egocasting," the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one's personal taste. In thrall to our own little technologically constructed worlds, we are, ironically, finding it increasingly difficult to appreciate genuine individuality.
In thrall to our own little technologically constructed worlds, we are, ironically, finding it increasingly difficult to appreciate genuine individuality.
One of the earliest technologies of individualized entertainment was the Walkman, the portable radio and cassette player introduced by Sony in July 1979. Marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Walkman recently, a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer recalled his enthusiasm for the "mix tape" that the Walkman promoted: "Countless new soundtracks beckoned. I made running tapes, sunning tapes, sauntering tapes, strutting tapes." He was no longer "a prisoner of Donna Summer or Molly Hatchet on the radio." He created personal, portable soundtracks for life.
Not everyone was pleased by this new development, however, and some critics expressed concern that the Walkman would dramatically transform our experience of music for the worse. As music columnist Norman Lebrecht argued, "No invention in my lifetime has so changed an art and cheapened it as the Sony Walkman." By removing music from its context—in the performance hall or the private home—and making it portable, the Walkman made music banal. "It becomes a utility, undeserving of more attention than drinking water from a tap." The Walkman was no doubt aided in this transformation by the rise of "elevator music." But the Walkman seemed to make everywhere we go an elevator and all music into elevator music. As Lebrecht lamented, it "devalued magnificence and rendered it utilitarian."
Today, the iPod—the portable MP3 player that can store thousands of downloaded songs—is our modern musical phylactery. Like those little boxes containing scripture, which Orthodox Jewish men wear on the left arm and forehead during prayers, the iPod has become a nearly sacred symbol of status in certain communities. Introduced only three years ago by Apple computer, the iPod is marketed as the technology of the disconnected individual, rocking out to his headphones, lost in his own world. In certain cities, however, the distinctive white iPod headphones have become so common that one disgusted blogger called them oppressive. "White headphone wearers on the streets of Manhattan nod at each other in solidarity, like members of a tribe or a secret society."
His iPod was “like a drug,” he confessed. He was missing the “urban orchestra playing around me ... I had traded one kind of suburban isolation for another.”
When he introduced the iPod, Apple CEO Steve Jobs claimed that "listening to music will never be the same again." Judging by the testimonials of iPod users, this was not merely marketing overstatement. One iPod enthusiast spoke of his device in tones one usually reserves for describing a powerful deity: "It's with me anywhere, anytime.... It's there all the time. It's instant gratification for music.... It's God's own jukebox."
The iPod is not yet a mass technology, due partly to its fairly steep price. Like TiVo, it is still a technology for the minority—only about one percent of the American population owns one. But like the VCR and the cell phone before it, increased competition and lowered manufacturing costs should eventually drive down prices, at the same time that downloading music from the Internet continues to grow. One estimate from Newsweek suggested that by 2008, one third of all songs purchased will be from downloads. The iPod and its competitors are clearly here to stay.
Control is the reason people give when asked why they love iPod. In a February 2004 interview with Wired News, Michael Bull, who teaches at the University of Sussex and writes extensively about portable music devices, argued, "People like to be in control. They are controlling their space, their time and their interaction.... That can't be understated—it gives them a lot of pleasure." This degree of control, once experienced, inspires great loyalty; the praise of iPod users echoes that of TiVo owners, both of whom often remark on how they can't believe they ever lived without the devices. But because the iPod is a portable technology, just like the cell phone, it has an impact on social space that TiVo does not. Those people with white wires dangling from their ears might be enjoying their unique life soundtrack, but they are also practicing "absent presence" in public spaces, paying little or no attention to the world immediately around them. Bull is unconcerned with the possible selfishness this might foster: "How often do you talk to people in public anyway?" he asks.
This fear of becoming too disconnected from the world around them has prompted some iPod fans to wean themselves from the device. Writing in the New York Observer this past summer, Gabriel Sherman discovered the hazards of iPod addiction when he missed his subway stop. "In the past year," he wrote, "I had grown increasingly numb to my surroundings, often oblivious to the world around me, trapped in a self-imposed bubble." His iPod was "like a drug," he confessed, it "had come to dominate my daily existence." He found he was missing the "urban orchestra playing around me ... except for better bagels, I had traded one kind of suburban isolation for another."
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?
Some also worry about iPod's effect on music itself, not only on the listeners. The iPod facilitates a "sampling" approach to music. You can listen to an entire Mahler symphony straight through; but you can also enjoy Bach, the Buena Vista Social Club, and the memoirs of a Buddhist acolyte in one sitting. A touch of Verdi and Strauss can be followed by a healthy dose of Eminem and Kelis. It's all up to you. The iPod offers us an unprecedented level of control over what we want to experience, and this is the feature of the technology most often discussed and praised. But the iPod, like the Walkman, can be leveling or narrowing as well as freeing. It erodes our patience for a more challenging form of listening. The first time a person sits through an opera, patience is tested; they might wonder whether hour after hour of Die Meistersinger is really worth it. But with experience and patience comes considerable reward—the disciplined listener eventually achieves a different understanding of the music, when heard as its composer intended. Listening to Mahler's Greatest Hits is not the same thing. Sampling is the opposite of savoring.
More profoundly, iPod might change the way we experience the creation of music. As portable, high-quality music becomes more readily available, it might dampen our enthusiasm for seeing music performed live or reduce live music to mere spectacle. Listening to live music is a different pleasure from merely donning headphones, in part because the listening happens under circumstances not under the complete control of the listener. To watch tension and release move across the face of a solo pianist or to see the rock musician strut lithely across the stage—to watch performers physically caught up in the musical moment—adds an entirely different layer of meaning to the experience of listening. In live performance we listen to music in a way that is less passive and less mundane. The convenience of iPod and its ability to facilitate easy listening is undeniable; but we should not let its convenience discourage us from seeking the distinct pleasure of hearing music made, not merely replayed. And we should be careful that our desire for convenient music does not make all music simply convenient—transforming what musicians do, how they work, and what they write to appease our iPod-driven demand.
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."
Americans love junk,” George Santayana once noted. “It’s not the junk that bothers me, it’s the love.”
The 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 Amazon.com 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-na?f anchorman, Jon Stewart, for example.
University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein engaged this dilemma in his book, Republic.com. 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?
The Shallow Critic
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."
We talk about our technologies in a way that used to be reserved for art and religion. What we don’t realize is that ritual thoroughly personalized is no longer religion or art. It is fetish.
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 Amazon.com 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.
In his 1909 story, The Machine Stops, E. M. Forster, taking a page from Samuel Butler, describes a futuristic society where everyone on earth is now living in a vast hive underground and where every need is met by "the machine." The opening of the story reads as follows:
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the center, by its side a reading-desk—that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh—a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that this room belongs.
This is Vashti, and as the story unfolds, we find her struggling to come to terms with her son, Kuno, who wants to see the world above-ground, growing ever more suspicious of the power of The Machine.
The Machine itself controls everything. Vashti's comfortable little cell, like millions of others, has everything she could ever possibly need: "There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button.... There was the cold bath button. There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends." All communication is conducted through the machine; people rarely leave their rooms. At one point Vashti harks back to those "funny old days" when machines had been used "for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people." The ease of Machine-fostered life has brought a corresponding flattening of desire and bred a terror of direct experience. When Vashti is forced to travel, she is seized by anxiety: "One other passenger was in the lift, the first fellow creature she had seen face to face for months. Few traveled in these days, for thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over." The sensibility is captured by the society's experts, who frequently remind citizens: "Beware of first-hand ideas!"
When The Machine begins to fail, the citizens, unable to muster resistance, passively adapt to the strange noises, moldy food, stinking bathwater, and "defective rhymes that the poetry machine had taken to emit." The Machine eventually grinds to a halt, panic ensues, and many people go crazy from experiencing "an unexpected terror-silence." Forster's dystopian story is a caution against imputing too much power to our machines, and of allowing feelings of technological empowerment to mask human weakness.
In his 1934 book, Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford challenged people to consider the accommodations they were making to their machines. "Choice manifests itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic struggles," he noted. "The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises." But that spirit is easily captivated by its creations, leaving us too paralyzed to consider the human virtues and human weaknesses that our creations are encouraging. Joseph Wood Krutch raised similar concerns in The Measure of Man. Calling man "the animal which can prefer," Krutch did not worry about mankind becoming more like machines. He saw a different danger: man might become slavishly devoted to his machines, enchanted by the degree of control they offered him once he had trained them to divine his preferences. "It often happens that men's fate overtakes them in the one way they had not sufficiently feared," he wrote, "and it may be that if we are to be destroyed by the machine it will not be in quite the manner we have been fearfully envisaging."
TiVos and iPods will never destroy us. But our romance with technologies of personalization has partially fulfilled Krutch's prediction. We haven't become more like machines. We've made the machines more like us. In the process we are encouraging the flourishing of some of our less attractive human tendencies: for passive spectacle; for constant, escapist fantasy; for excesses of consumption. These impulses are age-old, of course, but they are now fantastically easy to satisfy. Instead of attending a bear-baiting, we can TiVo the wrestling match. From the remote control to TiVo and iPod, we have crafted technologies that are superbly capable of giving us what we want. Our pleasure at exercising control over what we hear, what we see, and what we read is not intrinsically dangerous. But an unwillingness to recognize the potential excesses of this power-egocasting, fetishization, a vast cultural impatience, and the triumph of individual choice over all critical standards—is perilous indeed.