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American media culture as psychic predator and parasite

In a May 21 rumination for The Morning News, James A. Pearson, who “co-founded the humanitarian business Ember Arts and writes from his parallel lives in Uganda and California,” offers an uncomfortable observation about the increasingly heavy psychic net of always-on digital consumer media here in the United States — something to which he is uncommonly sensitive because of his quasi-outsider perspective:

I always binge on media when I’m in America. But this time it feels different. Media feels encroaching, circling, kind of predatory. It feels like it’s bingeing back.

. . . The basic currency of consumer media companies — Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, NBC, Fox News, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. — is hours of attention, our attention. They want our eyeballs focused on their content as often as possible and for as many hours as possible, mostly to sell bits of those hours to advertisers or to pitch our enjoyment to investors. And they’re getting better at it, this catch-the-eyeball game.

All sorts of media companies are deploying new tricks. Facebook notifications are no longer confined to Facebook; they’re on browser tabs, on phones and tablets, in as many emails as you forget to turn off, and recently started to feature an annoying little sound on my laptop (one that can thankfully be turned off, unlike Netflix’s Post-Play). It seems like every new phone app I download wants to send me push notifications, so its developers can grab my attention whenever they like. Even a competitive-cooking show my mom watches on basic cable doesn’t cut to commercial between back-to-back episodes anymore, and is designed so every mid-episode commercial break is also mid-cliffhanger.

. . . The scariest part of this new binge culture is that hours spent bingeing don’t seem to displace other media consumption hours; we’re just adding them to our weekly totals. Lump in hours on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and maybe even the occasional non-torrented big-screen feature film and you’re looking at a huge number of hours per person.

. . . Then there’s the actual content. It’s probably clear to anyone over the age of 18 or so that content has undergone a sort of Incredible Hulk de-evolution that makes it both dumber and somehow also much more powerful. A good example of this (brought to my attention by a random post on Facebook) is TLC, founded as The Learning Channel by the former Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, together with NASA, to enrich American minds, but which now grips American eyeballs with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Ratings, no doubt, are up.

The media of my childhood, mostly weekly television shows and overused VHS tapes, was like a good pet. Sure, it was a little costly to keep around, but it was lovable, and I could always shut it out in the yard for a while. Now, though, media is always with me, always trying to snag my attention and siphon away as much as possible to sell to advertisers. It feels like it’s evolved from a cute little pet into a frighteningly efficient parasite.

More: “From Here You Can See Everything