Speaking to the Associated Press, John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society, lamented, "Someone once said that war is God's way of teaching geography, but today, apparently war or even the threat of war cannot adequately teach geography... More American young people can tell you where an island that the Survivor TV series came from is located than can identify Afghanistan or Iraq. Ironically a TV show seems more real or at least more meaningful interesting or relevant than reality." What Fahey failed to realize is that the real war is not far away, but in a contested realm where the border between unmediated and mediated space is increasingly less defined: our minds. It turns out that CBS' Survivor really is the territory when it comes to locating ourselves in an increasingly mediated world where surveillance and life on camera is more tangible than the media sanitized war in Iraq. Survivor is literally a battleground where people are navigating identity that waivers between authentic and compartmentalized media personas.
In the past 20 years the most pervasive change caused by technology for the individual is the sense that communication machines increasingly mediate our experiences. For example, studies show that teenagers are spending upwards of 8 hours a day in media spaces, such as the Internet, text-messaging and watching television. Often these activities are happening simultaneously. To what extent does this change the individual, and how are these changes reflected in popular culture?
Forty years ago in his lecture, "Different Spaces." Michel Foucault predicted that people in advanced technological societies would increasingly migrate into an indeterminate space called "heterotopia," which literally means "other place." This kind of realm is simultaneously real and imagined, such as the space where a phone call takes place, or within the informational sphere know as hyperspace or cyberspace. Foucault argued that before industrialization Western society was characterized by time; that is, we organized ourselves based on how we situated ourselves in relationship to time. Inventions like the telegraph have separated communication from transportation, thereby making information "timeless." Before the telegraph, mediated communication was based on the time it took to be delivered. Afterward, it became instantaneous, thus changing our "communication bias," as Harold Innis would call it, to one of space.
How are we coping with navigating this new borderless realm, which is not bound by geography, but rather negotiated by our engagement with hybridized technology? Often the best way to understand societal shifts such as these is to look at popular culture. It's undeniable that so-called "reality television" has become the most popular kind of entertainment on television networks. This phenomenon is prevalent because it is the one arena that is actually grappling with how we define ourselves in mediated space. For example, the huge CBS hit, Survivor, exemplifies how reality TV is coping with our identities as technologically mediated people. The show situates its contestants in a media constructed space with specific rules and parameters. The premise is that pre-screened contestants are "shipwrecked," but as cultural interpreters, we must ask, from what? Let's suppose that the show's participants are refugees from the mediated world, and their job is to sort out the proper roles and behaviors necessary in order to "survive" a life in media space.
Our anxieties concerning this new technological space are justified. Post 9/11 our society has become increasingly one of surveillance, and the boundaries between our public and private selves are blurring. Likewise, people increasingly port personal capturing devices, such a cell phones, PDAs and digital cameras that make anyone vulnerable to having their image seized. As commerce moves more into the Internet, our identities are increasingly tied to our data patterns. The alarm of identity theft exemplifies perfectly this fear that the technological persona is subject to mobility and capture by unknown parties. Add to this mix the glamour our society attaches to the mediated persona: everyone will be a star, as Andy Warhol predicted. People now get their three minutes of MySpace or YouTube fame, especially as the proliferation of reality TV, Web cams and blogs make it easier to distribute our virtual personae across the globe. Given the contradictory attitudes concerning mediated space-i.e. we fear identity theft and surveillance, yet we want to be famous and hence publicly adored-it's no wonder we are confused.
The immense popularity of Survivor is due to its ability to situate average Americans in a fishbowl of mediated space in order to gage and measure their reactions. After all, as Thomas De Zengotita argues in his book Mediated, negotiating technologically arbitrated space requires that we become performers, or "method actors." What we see in these shows is that people are constantly straddling the line between playing (hence performing) in a game, and believing they are in a real place. There is a continual question of whether or not fellow contestants are really friends, or are mere allies. In "reality" we have friendships, in a game (or mediated "fake" space) we have associations. And blending the reality game euphemisms further into our lives, at Wal-Mart, the ultimate of mediated retail spaces, workers are "associates."
Reality TV programs and anxiety over the invasive presence of technology also begs the much larger question: What is the real geography of our times, if any? This was grappled with by The Matrix film series; its vast popularity has to be at least partially attributed to its discussion of the increasing inability to distinguish between real versus simulated reality, the assumption being that there is a distinction, i.e. there is such a thing as "real." Popular entertainment clearly reflects our society's ambivalence and anxiety about whether we are living in an authentic world, or one merely mediated by technology. Either way, undeniably we have entered into a new technological sphere that alters our sense of place. For this reason it is good to keep an open mind about popular culture because in many ways it maps our deeper anxieties.
The Sci-Fi Network's contemporary version of Battlestar Galactica presents particularly interesting imagery or our new quandary. The show's premise is that human created technology, a race of robots called Cylons, goes to war against their creators by literally nuking their parent race and destroying their home worlds. As a consequence, the few loan human survivors drift in a centerless outer space in search of Earth, i.e. a future home that will give them a sense of place. They "jump" from sector to sector as if they are typing in galactic hypertext codes, traveling in clunky old aircraft-carrier like reality bubbles through boundless space, much like us with our alphabetic literacy and industrial-age education zipping around the net in search of meaning and community. Meanwhile the newest Cylon models are indistinguishable from humans and are attempting to mate with them in order to create hybrids that will fulfill their desire to connect with God, who only exists as an intellectual concept within inside their computerized minds. Ironically, Cylon-engineered blood is a potent medicinal that can cure human cancer. The humanoid Cylons have many copies, like the multiple identities we know use in cyberspace; several have infiltrated the human space colonies, many of whom are unaware of their robotic origins. How the humans and Cylons learn to harmonize is not unlike Survivor participants attempting to balance their humanity with a life of mediation.
As TV programs cross migrate into convergence media, we see the traditional mass media model breaking down. Not only are programs mobile between different formats and players, there is also fan interaction via the Web, video games and other immersive features that have made new media more complex and interesting. For media activists, new media challenge our core assumptions about how media function, from the breakdown of the one-to-many communications model to the many-to-many form it is taking, to the disintegration of the world as viewed from print. What we once took for granted-that a book is the basis of truth and perception-is challenged all around us. What many don't understand is how books are bound to Enlightenment thinking, that is, the concepts of nationalism, individualism and privacy are specifically related to the rise of printing press culture. Books took power away from kings and priests, but they also made us silent, isolated readers who abstract the world according print's form. A great visualization of this occurs in the last scene of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. In order to evade the wrath of the totalitarian thought police, the print-loving rebels choose to memorize one book each in order to save humanity's literary heritage. In the end we see a group of disconnected people wandering through the forest reciting books to themselves without interacting with each other. The "book people" look decidedly unhappy (though I think this was the opposite of Truffaut's intent; I think perhaps he just translated a morose worldview into his film). Print also biases our perception to see the world as concrete and divisible into discreet pieces (consider how the page is laid out with its neat columns and letters breaking every sound into bits of information). If print is solid and concrete, new media is liquid. Like it or not, Aquarius with knowledge flowing like water out of his jar is an apt figure for our times.
Further pop culture evidence of the changing reality landscape was demonstrated by a recent iPhone print ad featured in National Geographic, which shows a strobed finger navigating a Google map on the phone's touch-sensitive interface. As an unmistakable allusion to Michelangelo's "Creation of Man" that famously depicts Adam's finger reaching for God, this could mean three things: either God is the networked universe to which the iPhone is a portal (hence all is God), the iPhone is God, or the iPhone is the engineered bridge between the known space of the Cartesian domain to the emergent one of the networked economy. This would complete the circuit started by the Renaissance in which God's love is delivered through the fingertip to humans-but now humans can distribute it equally, and return it. The other explanations are probably simultaneously true as well, a conundrum for a traditional media literacy reading that solicits one truth. Because the Renaissance began the psychological descent into humanism, which replaced the medieval world emplaced by God with one shaped by human perception, now humanism is being replaced by "cyborgism." I take cyborg to be a neutral term here, simply meaning that we are hybrids with the technology into which our minds and bodies are networked. In this ad fingers touch a screen, drawing us into the in-between-not-here-nor-there acoustic realm of heterotopia. This ad can be a useful ecological metaphor because it visually demonstrates Gregory Bateson's formula that we are human-plus-environment. What he means is that because the environment sustains our bodies, it therefore cannot be excluded from our definition of ourselves. The cyborg is human-plus-electronic environment.
The iPhone ad further altars traditional notions of reality by adding one more factor into equation: the multiple exposure finger that dances on the interface like a Cubist painting. Recall that Cubism was the first Western art movement to incorporate a sense of simultaneity into painting, a reflection of the emerging art form of film and the new theory of relativity. This image instructs us to dip our finger into data liquid so we can connect with our world's vast rhizomatic network graphically represented by a Google map, thus putting the world at our command in the way that maps allow us to master geography. Because this is from National Geographic, the ad appeals to the explorer within us all but assures us that wherever we go we will be in control, despite the treachery of nonlinear space. Additionally, iPhone has eliminated the limitations of a hardwired interface; it changes depending on the context of our input choices, revealing an emerging bias of contemporary culture: the tactile is replacing sight as the central sensory experience of our age. This is not to say that sight isn't a kind of "touching," but more and more our bodies are getting involved with new media, whether it is with multimedia rock concerts, joysticks, Wii controllers, or cell phones as they increasingly become body appendages. If you watch people talk on cell phones you never see them stand still. Often they pace in small circles, demonstrating how much our bodies are in fact engaged with communication. With the iPhone, "I think therefore I am" becomes "I touch therefore I am."
Ironically, the final kicker is that this ad is also a photograph, which represents the most codified product of linear perspective technology: the lens. So in one media sample we see multiple media techniques recycled by the inclusion of linear perspective, chiaroscuro lighting technique, Renaissance humanist philosophy, Cubism, Cartesian space (in the form of the map), hyperspace, tactile media, and networked communications. The iPhone forces us to grapple with our changing conceptions of space that go beyond maps and media objects. To contract a Sun Ra song, "Space is the Place," we could say that much of our new media experience is a hybridized "splace."
Too bad Descartes didn't deploy more of his senses. Maybe our scientific revolutions would have had Earth as a partner rather than as a specimen reduced to a field of visual objects that can be condensed and cataloged into conquerable parts. For this reason, Reality 2.0 may be more than the death of the real, as Baudrillard would have us believe. With these changes to our spatiotemporal orientation we shouldn't abandon critical engagement, but perhaps view the new gods in our media mirror from a more agnostic approach. It may turn out that these new creatures, like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, are more biological than we suspected. After all, these doppelgangers are our electronic extensions. We just haven't figured out how to situate them on a cognitive map yet.
Image: The Heterotopia ProjectTweet