Speaking to No One



I've taken to reading old media criticism about television, the earlier and more hysterical the better. It helps me in gauging how much hysteria is in my assessment of social media. Any new medium seems to prompt similar fears, similar predictions of widespread dehumanization and authoritarian control, and who is to say they have been wrong? Much of what I mistake to be novel about social media is just an extension of aspects that critics had perceived about TV: the greater sense of intimacy and of participation that blurs and erodes traditional borders between work and leisure, public and private; the sense that "real" things are being rendered indistinguishable from their images or representations; the elitist fear that people are being widely stupified and rendered into witless automatons. No puppet. No puppet. You're the puppet.

In that spirit, I recently read German critic Günther Anders's  “The World as Phantom and as Matrix,” which appeared in Dissent in 1956. This passage jumped out at me as characteristic of the tenor of the whole:

No method of depersonalizing man, of depriving him of his human powers, is more effective than one which seems to preserve the freedom of the person and the rights of individuality. And when the conditioning is carried out separately for each individual, in the solitude of his home, in millions of secluded homes, it is incomparably more successful. For this conditioning is disguised as "fun"; the victim is not told that he is asked to sacrifice anything; and since the procedure leaves him with the delusion of his privacy or at least of his private home, it remains perfectly discreet. The old saying "a man's own home is as precious as gold" has again become true, though in an entirely new sense. For today, the home is valuable not only to its owner, but also to the owners of the home-owners — the caterers of radio and television who serve the home-owner his daily fare.

The gist is that TV isolates and depersonalizes people under the guise of freely chosen "fun" in the privacy of one's own home. This turns the home not only into a site of consumption but of production, as Anders contends that media consumption is a form of self-production, by which the consumer turns themselves into “a mass man,” who is “proud of being a nobody.” Anders describes families transformed into passive audiences of mass media spectacle, each seeking their own private escape through the screen: “The home tends to become a container, its function to be reduced to containing a video screen for the outside world.”

Of course, I immediately want to update this to describe today's primary screens. One might then interpret phones, the ultimate private escape screens, as the new household: We live in and through our phones in a permanent condition of escape. (And we phone owners are, in turn, owned by the owners of the phone-owners, the tech and telecom industries.)

Apparently we have wanted to "escape" from reality (or from freedom, if you want to go Erich Fromm's route) for a long time. But if we are always escaping, in a sense we are never leaving. If we actually consent to live with a TV in our living room, or worse, with a phone in our very hand, are we not in a condition of permanent escape that leaves us even more trapped just where we were? Anders concludes from this that we can, for instance, no longer experience travel — or any of sort of difference at all, for that matter: Our way of viewing life as though it were on a screen, being served to us, neutralizes any obligation to engage with difference on its terms. Media saturation makes us live out a presumed intimacy or familiarity with everything in the world. It is all, Anders says, “thoroughly philistinized in advance” by media representation.

It's not clear from what vantage point one can see the world for real in its un-philistinized state, in all its unmediated glory and purity, but it is definitely not coming from inside the house. But then as now, there appears to be a pervasive sense that we once had ready access to unmediated reality — or rather that we were perfectly happy with what was in fact our severely restricted sense of the scope of reality, which was so limited it could be experienced as unmediated. New media threatens us with possibilities and perspectives we are not ready to assimilate; it is much easier to label them unreal, philistine, false, inauthentic, strategic, fake news, etc.

What is striking about Anders's point is that he doesn't see the issue as a matter of the unfamiliar being presented to us in all its unfamiliarity. Instead, he treats the situation as one in which the alien is made to seem familiar and easy to assimilate. No matter what specific insurgent media form you are talking about, how it mediates things will always appear as a form of cosmopolitanism, cutting right to the core of the value system by which life had been ordered before that media's rise.  Already existing media have generally achieved a locked-down condition in which certain things are "naturally" excluded, made invisible, or held to be impossible. That is why new media are philistine.

But alongside the critique that new media show us too much is a critique of how they are deskilling. Since media persuade us that we are already intimate with everything in advance, the actual processes of being intimate with people are presumed to become extremely discomfiting by comparison. This creates or contributes to a feeling that intimacy should be contracted spontaneously through mere exposure, which makes the actual work of reciprocal communication appear burdensome and unnatural.

So Anders presumes that we want to escape from communication. But the spatial metaphors here can be misleading. “Escape” from communication doesn’t entail finding a separate space or isolating oneself physically. Instead it is an attitude of transcendence, situating oneself among others as an audience. We embed ourselves in media so that other voices can seem to speak for us, and we can remain audiences at all times.

For them words are no longer something one speaks, but something one merely hears; speaking is no longer something that one does, but something that one receives. No matter in what cultural or political milieu this development toward an existence without speech takes places, its end result must be everywhere the same — a type of man who, because he no longer speaks himself, has nothing more to say; and who, because he only listens, will do no more than listen.

This sort of framing — that people are reduced to passive audiences — leads to the conclusion that restoring people with the ability to “talk back to screens” will also restore their sense of purpose and agency. But this presumes that we didn’t want to escape from those things (proxies for the responsibilities inherent in direct communication) in the first place.

Since social media entails lots of communication, lots of talking back with screens, it seems like it would explode the notion that screens make us into inert audiences. But the practice of broadcasting rather than conversing, whether through screens or in face-to-face interaction, has the same effect of producing an attitude of transcendence. One comments on or shares one’s experience in the moment to avoid being engaged with it or responsible for it, while at the same time refusing to be engaged reciprocally with whomever one broadcasts these comments or images to.

Or to put that differently, one is only willing to engage with reality by mediating it in some foregrounded fashion, by setting it very explicitly at one remove from the self. One then plays this mediated experience back for others, as a way of distanciating oneself from them, in time or space. As long as the media forms are new and strange, the way we use them to communicate can perform this distanciation.

This all becomes weirder with selfies, when one is willing to engage with oneself only as a media object. We start taking pictures of ourselves to remove ourselves from the experience of ourselves. We mediate ourselves to become external phenomena from which we can detach ourselves. But the principle is the same: Broadcasting allows us to be audience to ourselves, because we are speaking to no one else in particular and it may as well be ourselves too. When Anders talks about “passive consumption,” what he says also applies to self-broadcasting, which amounts to the same thing. Talking to no one in particular is a way of listening (and “doing no more than listening”) to oneself.

So the relevant opposition is not online/offline but communication/broadcasting. You can communicate online or offline, preserving the reciprocity and collectivity sustained by communication. Or you can broadcast at people, turning yourself and the people you broadcast for into isolated transcendent audiences. The screen is an easy metaphor for “audience-ification” — it stands like a barrier between the watcher and what is being watched, and creates a frame that seems to set the viewer outside of it. But we are pulled through and repelled by screens all the time, and the ramifications of what we see spills out beyond the frame. The frame is an illusion we must choose to seize upon and insist upon, if we really do prefer the convenience of our passive isolation, as Anders seems to presume.

For Anders, only mass media were broadcast media, so he thought there was something inherently alienating in the “massness” of it, in the conformity and oversimplification implied in trying to create big audiences. He seems hung up in an elitist way on the philistines who consume trivial garbage instead of experiencing “real” family life or whatever. (It is not like family life doesn't also impose artificiality and passivity and pabulum on people.) But what is detrimental about broadcasting is not the way it “vulgarizes” audiences; the effects of broadcasting are not entirely a matter of the content.

That is especially clear now that social media allow any of us to broadcast: It turns out the broadcast mentality is not contingent on having a big audience (which was initially necessary for commercial media to prosper). It is instead something that is instantiated by certain means of communication at the level of form. Self-expression to an audience made up entirely of oneself can be broadcasting. It can be “fun” and free and totally uncensored and still have the negative consequences Anders delineates.

Broadcasting is a mentality that one adopts toward potential perceived audiences that conveys that their attention is desired but not necessary to the message being projected. Broadcasting makes attention not a condition of communication but its outcome, its product. It alienates attention and makes it a commodity. And most of all, it has this effect on the broadcaster, who becomes self-alienated.