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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
and that stagnation is preferable to speed itself as well as to social
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.