We can’t live without digital media, but why would we want to?
In the past, media had no role in our health, transportation or infrastructure but technology has disrupted the boundary between media and non-media interactions.
“But dad, I can’t live without them!”
My daughter Judy and I were once again locked in the battle over screen time by now familiar to many of today’s parents and significant others. We had turned a day of errands into some father-daughter time with a few fun diversions and I was hoping she would surface from her screens long enough for us to enjoy it.
Although her plea was not as heartfelt as Nilsson’s 1971 power hit, “Without You,” Judy was quite serious about not being able to live without her screens.
My oft-rehearsed “don’t be so dramatic” speech was at the tip of my tongue when it hit me: maybe she is right. With me behind the wheel and her behind a screen, we had effortlessly checked off errand after errand, leaving us with more time to appreciate our day together.
Pocket-sized portals to pervasive media
Judy got directions via Waze, checked store hours with Google, compared prices for a hair dryer she needed on Amazon, found an amazing taco place for lunch through Yelp, helped me install a new key fob battery with YouTube, searched LinkedIn to advise her brother on a resume entry, filled a prescription at CVS.com, chose a movie and theater on Fandango and amused us throughout with her friends’ Instagram posts and my Facebook feed.
Without our digital media screens, we likely would have spent most of the day on the phone with various customer service representatives, pouring through newspaper reviews, visiting retail location after location (arriving at times too early or too late) and grumbling all the while.
If we now rely so much on screens as individuals, can we as a society function without them?
Our smartphones and tablets are mobile portals to the digital media realm, where tools and resources that historically existed in separate spheres have been brought under a single roof. Though media has long played a role in specific social interactions, digital media consolidates almost all domains of social exchange in a manner previously unthinkable.
In the digital age, media is no longer merely the realm of entertainment or information; it is now pervasive, touching every aspect of our being, from how we live to how we work, play, communicate, connect – and even find love. We literally can’t live without media.
But wait, what exactly is media?
“Media” (sing. medium) is derived from the Latin word Medius, meaning “middle.”
Even in today’s digitally-driven usage, this connotation persists: media are the creative and physical infrastructure that connect content producers and consumers. Media can be more granularly understood as a process of mediation, whose stages progressively encode and then decode content “packages” as they move from producer to consumer.
Imagine writing a letter by hand, putting it in an envelope and sending it (crazy, right?). You take your thoughts and turn them into written words, which you then package in a form that the postal service can ship. The recipient must then invert the process: opening the envelope to read the letter and interpreting the written words back into thought.
Though undoubtedly more complicated, all media undertakes a largely similar project. It configures content so that it can be efficiently transferred to and then consumed by the recipient. Variations of this process have facilitated the exchange of entertainment and information for millennia, but the internet century’s technology-driven shifts profoundly expanded media’s role in society.
Back in the day, media was just for fun!
Since the beginning of history, media acted almost exclusively as a vehicle for information and entertainment, playing a singular and discrete role in people’s everyday lives. The earliest stories enthralled their audiences and imparted social values – much as they did later via network primetime – while town criers, and eventually newspapers, kept people informed.
Outside of these channels, people communicated largely in person. Politics were debated in town centers, dating and marriage were arranged by friends and relatives and shopping was done at public markets. In other words, most transactions have historically been unmediated: there was no person, process or technology that stood between us and the rest of society.
Over centuries, innovation increased the time we all spend with media, but its role in informing and entertaining mainly remained the same, as did its status as a distinct interactive mode, alongside politics, culture, healthcare, socialization, transportation, infrastructure and economics. Each of these was a distinct domain and transactions in one were conducted differently than in another.
The boundaries between domains were defined by time and space. We used writing to keep records and exchange messages, but these were stored in a physical location or sent to a physical address; likewise, theatrical performances took place in a space different from the one used to execute legal proceedings or exchange goods and services.
Most of the time, though, we were media-free as we participated in our community or the economy. Media certainly had no role in our health, transportation or infrastructure. We turned media on and off at well-defined times and in familiar contexts: reading the newspaper in the morning, listening to radio programs during our daily commute and watching television at night.
Digital technology disrupted this clear boundary between media and non-media interactions—today, media is pervasive.
Pervasive media isn’t just a new tool, it’s a new way
We need look no further than the latest election cycle to see that media is a part of politics; virtual doctor visits make healthcare immediately accessible; dating would be seemingly non-existent without a cache of apps; cars are becoming media platforms, as is our homes’ infrastructure; and, of course, our work lives are permeated with media from search to LinkedIn.
Today it is unthinkable to leave the house without a mobile media device. We use them to conduct a growing share of daily business. Living in an urban center, it is equally unthinkable to leave home without a credit card. Just as we can use credit cards to pay our rent and utilities, subscribe to streaming services and buy groceries, we use digital media to meet many of our daily needs.
Many of the transactions above are conducted not merely with a credit card, but specifically through digital media platforms. Few social exchanges have escaped digitization. Anything that isn’t material can be reduced to ones and zeroes and anything that can be ordered and shipped with them. Like water, digital is an almost universal conductor.
Mediating anytime, anywhere
The digital mediation of even our most intimate exchanges has atomized our relationship with society. No longer bound by conventions of time and space, we can consume entertainment, schedule appointments or satisfy our curiosity wherever and whenever we please.
It looks to me like Judy is always “on her phone” but, in truth, she’s organizing her time, connecting with friends, helping her brother nail an interview, vetting lunch spots or keeping up on current events. It’s just hard to tell without the myriad accouterment we needed in my day.
I’m still not thrilled about how much time she (or I, for that matter) spends on her media screens. It’s all too easy to get sucked in by our pocket-sized portals to everything. But it’s hard to imagine our day would have been better spent scouring maps or pouring through phone books, so maybe Judy is right – we really can’t live without them.