- Media's Inexperience
In a New York Times Magazine piece, George Packer observes that despite the global reach of media the world's peoples are not yet living in the promised "global village." Packer's argument is worth quoting at length:
The globalization of the media was supposed to knit the world together. The more information we receive about one another, the thinking went, the more international understanding would prevail. [...] But this technological togetherness has not created the bonds that were promised. In some ways, global satellite TV and Internet access have actually made the world a less understanding, less tolerant place. What the media provide is superficial familiarity—images without context, indignation without remedy. The problem isn't just the content of media, but the fact that while images become international, people's lives remain parochial [...].
What America exports to poor countries through the ubiquitous media—pictures of glittering abundance and national self-absorption—enrages those whom it doesn't depress. In Sierra Leone, a teenage rebel [...] tried to explain to me why he had joined one of the world's most brutal insurgencies: "I see on television you have motorbikes, cars [...,] but we in Sierra Leone have nothing." Unable to possess what he saw in images beamed from halfway around the world, the teenager picked up an automatic rifle and turned his anger on his countrymen. On generator-powered VCRs in rebel jungle camps, the fantasies of such boy fighters were stroked with Rambo movies. To most of the world, America looks like a cross between a heavily armed action hero and a Lexus ad. [...]
And how does the world look to Americans? Like a nonstop series of human outrages. [...] Of course, the world is a nonstop series of human outrages [...] but what interests me is the psychological effect of knowing. One day, you read that 600 Nigerians have been killed in a munitions explosion [...]. The next day, you read that the number has risen to a thousand. The next day, you read nothing. The story has disappeared—except something remains, a thousand dead Nigerians are lodged in some dim region of the mind, where they exact a toll. You've been exposed to one corner of human misery, but you've done nothing about it. Nor will you. You feel—perhaps without being conscious of it—an impotent guilt, and your helplessness makes you irritated and resentful, almost as if it's the fault of those thousand Nigerians for becoming your burden. We carry [End Page 5] around the residue of millions of suffering human beings for whom we've done nothing.(2002:13-14)
Packer may be faulted for blaming the messenger for the message. It is not the availability of information that is fueling violent rebellion; nor images of misery that make first-world viewers sink into guilt or cold indifference. The root cause of the world's distress is the unrelenting poverty of billions of people. And who can say that it is wrong to inform the poor of what they do not have or remind the rich of the plight of the poor? But there is more to say. Beyond the proper criticism of how media are conceived, edited, manufactured, and distributed is another root problem: the media are not, nor can they ever be, "live" in the experiential sense. The two root problems—poverty and the means of experience—function in tandem.
What concerns me is the disparity between spectating and experiencing. Media and the Internet provide viewers with the 21st-century equivalent of "book learning." Watching TV or surfing the Internet does not bring persons into actual contact with others. The Internet, email, and various kinds telephony place each participant in front of a screen, typing or talking, but always remaining in her own "place of origination." Moreover, Internet sites and email inboxes, not to mention TV, are flooded with junk and uninvited distractions. Ironically, the outcome is greater isolation—the hyperconnected spending so much time in front of the screen or monitor that family and local interactions atrophy.
The kind of experience I am talking about means being actually "in" a place in ways not satisfiable by distanced...