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Media, capitalism conspired to distort values-Todd Gitlin

Review by Jaclynn Fasken, business manager

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, has studied the relationship of media and society for more than 25 years. His most recent book, his eighth, Media Unlimited, examines the interrelationship of media on a capitalist society in which the supreme value is efficiency and both elements of the equation “time is money” become ends in themselves.

Gitlin’s book argues that while media is central to civilization, technological advances in media are molding modern society into a mechanical, or a mechanized way of life, and that we are too caught up in the moment to realize it.

The result is an extreme capitalist society that craves speed, money, and disposable everything, from clothing to ideas and emotions. Gitlin presents readers with what is essentially a conspiracy theory, finding media responsible for turning society into what he calls a “McWorld.”

Unfortunately, most of Gitlin’s book explores how our society is evolving, and he actually presents little evidence on how the media has corrupted civilization. What he does establish is a distaste for capitalism and a fear of change from the things that we have grown up with and been conditioned to expect. The result is the expression of a postmodern view theme that “underneath our roles and norms no one is home” and “our boundaries and intentions are ambiguous.”

Gitlin describes capitalist society as “a breakdown in civilization.” The motto of capitalist society is “time is money” and capitalists, according to Gitlin, loves speed. The drive for economic efficiency speeds up the whole society to what he calls “hyper-efficient living.” With “America being the cradle of assembly lines, fast food, and ATM machines,” society moves at much too fast of a pace, and the “speed freaks,” as he puts it, conquer the slow.

Gitlin is perhaps attempting to practice what he believes, as repetitive, drawn-out writing style of this book seems designed to slow the reader and by implication the fast-paced society in which we live.

Gitlin also critiques today’s literature, and says it is no longer geared towards intellectuals, and he backs up his claim with a startling statistic: between 1936 and 2001, average sentence length declined 43 percent. He correlates the shorter sentences to the increasing short attention span displayed by members of modern society. Surprisingly, Gitlin does not mention the short form language of computer mediated communication.

Film, too, was criticized on the same grounds. They have become religiously too quick and limited to action at the expense of character and theme. Plots are no longer based on dialogue, but rather on quick action scenes leaving the viewer with a thrill of adrenaline. Simply speaking, MGM has been replaced with MTV, Gitlin says, and “commercial directors who refuse to sacrifice speech to sight do not make blockbusters.”

Gitlin tries to show evidence that the media has reinforced the rapid pace of society by its constant use of visual media images representing speed. We need only to think of current films and the advertising of automobiles—or the irritating pop-up ads in the middle of TV programing—to find evidence of this. Gitlin compares today’s advertisements, where the background effect is blurred, suggesting speed, to the slower-paced images of 1960s television.

What also sped up society, to Gitlin’s distaste, is rapidly advancing technology. He describes advances in technology as driven by society to “fill in the gaps,” meaning that we are never allowed even a moment to take time to stop and ponder. Cell phones will always ring. In today’s civilization, he says, we feel daring when we leave our cell phones at home for a day. Walkmans provide a personal sound track to tune out what he calls “ambient noise.” And the Internet is always there to provide something, while one waits, even if only the Netscape logo is constantly “whooshing” while pages are being loaded. Gitlin explains that the media, through consumerism and competition fueled by capitalism, itself fuels the speedy progression of technology. He argues that “to offer a better mousetrap is perhaps not so important as to offer the first mousetrap, assuming that you can offer it all around at an affordable price.”

Gitlin subscribes to love as the one, true human emotion; unfortunately, in today’s society, money has replaced all emotions. Because feelings get in the way, in the workplace, “Emotions must be contained, reserved for convenient times when they may be expressed without risk to workaday life.” One cannot work, he argues, while experiencing romantic feelings, so to replace these, society has evolved what he calls “disposable feelings,” with no risk entailed. Ultimately these disposable feelings created what he calls a “blasé” society where everyone goes mechanically from one place to another, at rat race speed, with the same expression on their faces and little, short-lived bursts of feeling.

These little bursts of feeling, he adds, are the product of and are reinforced by branding—a multiplicity of media images promoting consumerism which, like speed, is a mainstay of capitalism. The values of our society have deteriorated to the pursuit of happiness via commodities.

Unfortunately, consumerism, like other short-term pleasures, fades and when all that is solid is melted away, nothing is left.

Also unfortunately, the book is ultimately unsatisfying. Rather than leaving his reader with a sense of agreement and a prescription for dealing with these problems, Gitlin leaves us with a sense that change itself makes him uncomfortable, and that stagnation is preferable to speed itself as well as to social change.

Media Unlimited: How the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives. Todd Gitlin, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2002. 260 pp. $13.00 pbk.



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