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The on-demand society

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Thursday, Oct 13, 2005

Yesterday Apple unveiled its video iPod, which will only accelerate the trend toward watching TV content on one’s own schedule and the further dissolution of the schedules imposed by the necessities of old media and its outmoded distribution channels, completing the work initiated by the VCR. As always, this is meant to make our entertainment consumption more convenient and more flexible, adaptable to whatever whims we may choose to indulge. And rubes like this writer celebrate accordingly. (Hooray for time-shifting! We’re really sticking it to the mainstream by watching Desperate Housewives when we want to!) The underlying assumption of this drift of technology is that individuals everywhere what to be freed of the tyranny of the impositions made by the culture industries of consuming only when they say its okay. This is a consumer society, and citizens should be free to consumer what they want when they want, and of course, the more they consume, the more of a citizen they really are.


This is nothing new; it dates back to the printing press, which first isolated and silenced audiences so that they may better enjoy an individualized experience on their own time. Elizabeth Eisenstein points out that “the notion that society may be regarded as a bundle of discrete units or that the individual is prior to the social group seems to be more compatible with a reading public than with a hearing one.” Local ties are loosened while links via vicarious participation to larger movements are forged—larger movements that the discrete individuals have no particular role in directing. For the sake of convenience we surrender the local bonds that afford one the oppportunity to make a palpable difference in one’s everyday life and surroundings and take a fictitious participation in something larger for compensation: this is how Us Weekly and celebrity gossip replace an awareness of what your neighbors are up to. (Depending on who your neigbors are, this could be a good thing.)


These technologies, in removing barriers from one’s consumption, do nothing to undermine the culture industry, but in fact extend their reach, encouraging one to more deeply integrate its products into the core of one’s identity. The “on demand” aspect of the media has the effect if further isolating us in our consumption of popular culture, rendering it less a moment of (faux) cultural togetherness and more a moment of quasi-masturbatory alienation and solitary gratification that by definition can’t include others. To be part of society, to connect with others, requires we surrender part of our self-concept to be shaped by those others, to be limned by their expectations and their pleasures and so on. But new technologies encourage us to reject such limitations, and instead chase after the dream of a wholly hermetic identity, self-generated and nurtured by not by interactions with actual other people but by more and more esoteric cultural product. We can better enjoy ourselves (and thus be better in touch with who we really are, as our society has succeeded in redefining personality in terms of pleasure) by finding some new show to watch rather than to agree to share an experience with someone else. We can personalize our environments (a la My Yahoo) and manage our presence so completely that we seal everything else out, so our only conduit to the outside world will be via technologies and the companies who sponsor them and populate them with spectacles and shopping opportunities. These fawning industries will seem to serve our whims while they are in fact implanting them, those caprices which in the absence of actual human relationships are all that are left with which to try to build a self.

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