Mapping A Geography of Media


This article originally appeared in Issue# 35

A media-free zone is hard to find.

Many people occasionally feel an urgent desire to escape, at least temporarily, to some media-free zone of living. This is not a fantasy exclusive to an age of television and radios blaring on beaches and in parks.

The old song "Tea for Two" looked forward to a place with "nobody near us/to see us or hear us/no friends or relations/on weekend vacations/we won't have it known, dear/that we own a telephone." But in everyday life this is only wishful thinking. A media-free zone is hard to find. Every arena of our lives is touched by and shaped by mass media.

The Home

The home is often regarded as the most private place in a person's life. It is not surprising that it is the battleground of greatest concern about the invasion of the media.

The newspaper was an early intruder, once it became a domestic rather than a business-oriented article. The telephone came into the home, too, bringing with it, in the early days, the possibility of neighbors listening in on the party line to private conversation. Today the party line is gone but wiretapping remains and telemarketing and telephone surveys grow as invaders of domestic privacy.

The radio in the l920s and television in the 1950s served as a family hearth. But increasing affluence and miniaturization of television sets have enabled families to own more than one television and to place then as easily in the kitchen or bedrooms as the living room and den. What is an invader to some, a psychological burglar that penetrates the very walls of the home, is nonetheless a source of company to others. The presence of the television or the radio in a room offers a background noise of human voices and sounds that, especially for people whose privacy has become a form of isolated torture (the invalid, for example), affords a substitute "social" life.

The telephone offers a different model of the media. Here the person at home normally feels connected rather than intruded upon. The telephone ring nevertheless has become imperious: people will drop all else to pick up a ringing phone.

If the telephone is invasive, it is also protective, and for many people, it seems more vital than a lock on the door. For them, the telephone is the link to hospital, fire department, and police. It is the tie that keeps grandparents close at hand and children within reach. It brings the relevant personal world close. It can also be used as a mass medium and organizing tool through the "telephone tree" technique so many volunteer groups use.

The mailbox, like the telephone, affords both connection and invasion. In personal letters, people have a kind of intimate communication that even a telephone does not afford. However, increasingly sophisticated forms of direct mail marketing have taken advantage of this, mimicking the personal letter in advertisements that address us by name, asking us to contribute money to a candidate or to subscribe to a magazine or to buy a new gadget. But people can take advantage of new sophistication, too. Movements of every cause and persuasion, for instance, have combined the advantages of home computer technology to keep mailing lists up to date and to quickly get out letters to respond to political events.

The Automobile

Different media are oriented directly to the car driver. The radio is most obvious, even to the point where radio broadcasters name the late afternoon, "drive time." Other media aim at car travelers, too, especially billboards. (For urban commuters, railroad stations were one of the earliest major locations for advertising, and buses and subways today remain vehicles of advertising as well as transportation). In recent years parking meters in some cities, as well as benches at bus stops, have sprouted advertising placards.

The car itself is an expressive form. At least for teenage boys, often connoisseurs of automotive design, cars are a whole language of statue and stance and posturing. For those of us not literate in this language, cars still send messages via bumper stickers.

The Workplace and The School

At work and in school, direct social hierarchy is so powerful that it overwhelms any sense that the "media,'' as a separate institution, have intruded. However, these sites, too, offer evidence of media influence.

In the workplace, multimedia international programs and in-service training tapes and films are growing in importance while the introduction of computer technology offers not only a new node of work but a new and sometimes oppressive form of record-keeping and surveillance.

In schools, the shadow of television in the home falls over the classroom, where teachers are aware that children are deeply affected in their abilities to learn and pay attention by their TV habits. Everyone agrees that they are influenced by the tube, but there is no consensus, and scarcely any hard data, on just how important this influence is.

Part of the difficulty in evaluating the problem is that TV is not like a separate creature, an invader from Mars, that plops down uninvited in our living rooms. Instead, it is the crystallization and expression of a culture already here. American television quintessentially represents a society recognized by foreign observers for at least 150 years as both impatient and time-conscious, superficial and efficient, competitive and earnest, puritanical in terms of sex and profligate in terms of violence.

TV may not be so much an outside invader as an embodiment of our national character.

The Church/The Hospital/The Library

Unlike business, which is driven to technological efficiency by the persistent "bottom line," the public service sector has often been slow to accept media innovations, although creativity and rapid change can occur at any time. Often limited finances dictate that public organizations walk a fine line between 'old" and "new" media.

While some churches and synagogues are still mimeographing their bulletins, many are exploring new applications for ministry with video and computers. In the meantime, televangelists have taken to the airwaves with aplomb.

Hospitals still use an old-fashioned loud speaker system but they also summon doctors and staff with electronic beepers and "prescribe" videotapes as preventive medicine to patients and their families.

The public library, while still housing books, is also a "multimedia center" with a computerized catalog and a lending library of audio and video tapes.

The Store

The store is specifically designed as a means of communication. Product packaging is eye-catching and products are placed, where possible, at eye level, with children's products on lower shelves. Public address systems may announce to shoppers and at some checkout counters TV monitors beam ads to waiting consumers.

Some stores also serve as information centers, housing bulletin boards as a cheap and convenient form of interpersonal communication. These bulletin boards — as well as the new electronic ones developed by computer networks — offer a communal form of mass communication with a remarkable equality between speaker and audience. It is a striking contrast to most of the media surrounding us.

This is not to say that we always want or always should want a perfect democracy of speaking and media use. If the media can be invaders, they can also be good company. If they can be corrupters, they can also be teachers. If they can exclude, they can also include. If they can attack privacy, they can also provide connections and enlarge horizons. If they are a vehicle of commercial or political propaganda, they can also be a forum for a public world of debate and discussion.

It seems even from this review, that no place is "safe" from the influence of the media age. However it's not so much that media and technology are 'invading" our lives as that we may not have developed the economic, political and cultural structures to absorb and process the potential that media and technology offer. The way we use media — or the way media uses us — is less an indicator of technological progress and more a measure of our culture, our politics and our vigilance.

Author Bio: 

Michael Schudson, PhD, is a professor of communications and sociology at the University of California, San Diego.