The Narcotic Effects of Media

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I grew up in one of the most active suburbs of downtown Tunis. My Sunday soccer match with my buddies would bail out the hectic and often monotonous week. Nothing would steal the joy of winning, except bruises across my lower body. It was fun and much needed to keep a healthy and socially engaged brain. Like other possible mediums, a ball or something like a ball wouldn’t perhaps exist if there was no human need to challenge a psychic and social stasis. So, the impact goes both ways. The activity, however, doesn’t stop with kicking a ball as it needs certain skills like dribbling or knowing how to curve a ball around a wall and into the goal. Perhaps, Roberto Carlos’ freaking score on Fabien Barthez in 1997 is the most dramatic goal ever seen in history. No wonder, bending a ball remains common practice among higher caliber players today and a goal can still bring positive waves not only to the player but also across the stairs.

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That being said, the dynamics of soccer could be projected on McLuhan’s Understanding Media. As an extension of our foot, soccer affects the whole psychic complex. It makes people happy when they win and drives them nuts and fall into a psychological disorder when the opposite occurs. It has become a talismanic magic that controls the emotions of its users (followers). In the same premise, McLuhan argues that “all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed”. (McLuhan, 90) His interpretation of Media appears to be an extension of our existential function. For example, the car extends our necessity to travel fast, the phone extends our voice, television extends our eyes and ears, the computer extends our brain, and electronic media, in general, extend our central nervous system.

Yet, perhaps social media, in particular, has elevated the technological extension to a new level of existence. While it has made the process of sharing emotional moments with others effortless, it has turned many people an “open book” online. Yes, like it or not, the online world has forced millions to join the new extension of the real world. We use the Internet to order things, to reach out to friends and family, to watch videos online, to burnish a Facebook page or simply to have an active digital social life. Unlike soccer, this new technology reframes our senses and nerves at a global scale. This is not to classify the online world as integrally “good” or “bad,” but rather to fathom the implications of our technological extensions.

McLuhan, in this premise, construed the experience or effect of using a particular medium, or media in general, as an attempt to fathom its dynamics. He writes toward the end of Understanding Media:

Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effects upon him. (318)

Like the experience of dribbling and curving a ball around a wall, media and technology have become the nature of the society into which the medium is introduced. Like the effects of soccer on Africa or Latin America, the new technology effects can vary depending on the society’s stage of technological development, and those effects can change over time as that society changes how it uses that medium.

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Reconceptualizing the Media thing!

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With the advent of optical fiber networks, not only people’s perceptions have become wired and chained to a digital base, but also their knowledge has escaped the endless loop. “With numbers,” as Friedrich Kittler wrote, “everything goes” (2). From modulation to synchronization, technological discourse has become manipulable in the hands of the Silicon Valley. Images, sound, words and all sorts of data flows are disappearing into black holes—of sound waves and light—and succumbing to nameless high commands. In fact, the new technology has not only subverted writing, but also has rendered it obsolete.

In a postprint space, the printed word has taken a back seat and new media technologies have become the novel ways of communicating and storing data. Obviously, the new technology involves the production, circulation, and consumption of texts. Previously, all data had to pass through the dactylo’s needle or the pen head of the written signifier. It was simpler, at least from a presentist approach, and the task demands expressionism and self-refrentiality, but the latter had to be recast in light of the new media technologies.

You may ask, when did “typing” become “keyboarding”?  

Indeed, the use of the typewriter has changed the philosophy of writing from that of a unique expression of a literate individual to that of “a sequence of naked material signifiers”. Other technologies, like the sound recording and filmstrip, have reframed our language of perception. In doing so, the technologies constructed their users and defined their behaviors. We may occasionally like to drift into a reverie of seemingly simpler times, rewriting history through an assemblage of different pieces. That is, isolating and forcing texts to reveal something beyond the materialities and orders of communication, but going back is never an answer, even if it were possible. In other words, we are left only with musings, that is to say, with stories, since “Media”, as Kittler put it, has become the new dharma that “determines our situation”. Nevertheless, media have their own “biases” and “messages” and that must be taken into account.

In this approach Kittler builds on Marshall McLuhan’s emphasis on “mediality,” which enframes the way we think about the media of the past and that of the future. That being said, with the growth of social media networks anyone could create a mediality to others based on their generated content. For example, the one who only consumes sports and local news media has different opinions, and thus “mediality”, to the one who consumes a specific entertainment and international news. Kittler, in this regard, emphasizes the role of media technologies in structuring ‘human affairs’. In Kittler’s usage, “discourse network”, in this case social media designates the “network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and produce relevant data.” (xxiii) This means, once again, that it is the power of particular technologies to shape the content of communication that is at issue, rather than the ability of humans to produce, use or manipulate these technologies.