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Todd Gitlin: Media Unlimited: How The Torrent Of Images And Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives


Media Unlimited: How The Torrent Of Images And Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives

Author: Todd Gitlin
Publisher: Metropolitan

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The evolution of the word "media" from a simple collective noun to a representation of a monolithic entity says a lot about humankind's changing consciousness. Stuck between hapless bystanders who decry "the media" as an alien beast and rationalists who recognize it as a natural human convention, Media Unlimited author Todd Gitlin sees the "media torrent" as the inevitable byproduct of an industrialized society driven by a "money economy." Any writing on media is bound to incite arguments—especially about the use of off-putting quotation marks—but Gitlin skirts debate by delivering a book too slippery and unfocused to be pinned down. His vaguely Marxist thesis, often invoked but rarely fortified, states that the current media state developed as a balm for a workaday world tyrannized by mental and physical compartmentalization. As workers waste away in soul-crushing conditions, their need for sensation is fulfilled by various media, which deliver disposable emotions through ready-made narratives and escapist drama. From news broadcasts to sitcoms to movies, media offer emotional investment with an escape clause, satisfying the modern creature's "high psychic metabolism" with adaptable feelings that can be turned on and off at will. There's nothing wrong with such an argument, but Gitlin's cynical, detached delivery reveals his initially palatable truths as reductive retreads of conventional wisdom. A professor at New York University, Gitlin falls prey to the annoying academic tendency to cast disparate phenomena as unified clinical data, stating his ideas more than discussing them. An otherwise insightful passage about the "soundtracking" of public space fizzles with the absurdly unengaged statement, "A New York Pottery Barn employee tells me he winces at the pounding soundtrack operating non-stop in his department." The book picks up speed with convincing illustrations of the way the media's stultifying effects serve conservative policy, which thrives on inaction, while progressivism depends on the lost art of mobilization. Mostly, though, Gitlin's grim, dismissive airs cast the media-saturated environment as an isolated lab fantasy untouched by humanity. Media Unlimited sets out to explain what it's like to live in a world overflowing with information and noise, but readers would be better served by listening to Radiohead instead.