Historic Paranoia and Media Studies

This is a bit more of a mental rambling than anything else.

Some prominent science-fiction novels, my favorites being Farenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury and A Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Attwood, lean toward drawing on historic moments to foretell a future either utopian—hardly  ever a desirable future—or  post-apocalyptic—also a  shockingly undesirable option.  Bradbury’s story depicts a world entrenched in hypermediacy, as well as one wherein the powers-that-be ban literature—particularly books.  The somewhat archaic and patriarchal society developed in  A Handmaid’s Tale expresses a fear with digital money; the supreme government  begins its control by stripping women’s ability to use their debit card equivalents. Whether their intentions or not, these stories reveal more than historic trends; they reveal ongoing paranoias humanity experiences at the dawn of any “new” method of thought, new media, and new technologies.  These attitudes are not exclusive to the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1726, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels mocks the fanatical and detached nature of scholars in universities. In 1595, Phillip Sidney felt the need to defend poetry against its naysayers, who believed it artsy and indulgent drivel. Flashing even further back in time, a few hundred centuries, Socrates actually opposed writing. Socrates did not trust the written word, due to it not always being representative of actual knowledge and that people would begin to rely on written word more than their own memories.  (http://www.units.miamioh.edu/technologyandhumanities/plato.htm  and http://apt46.net/2011/05/18/socrates-was-against-writing/ ).  Perhaps in an oversimplification, Socrates also ultimately seems to fear misrepresentation and the mire we wade in our contemporary discussions regarding popular media. The overwhelming fears that are consistently faced are that the old will become obsolete and the new will dumb us down

In regards to the old phasing out the new, that was a key fear as digital books arose. The contention between digital and physical books still can be seen everywhere . The Economist piece “From Papyrus to Pixels”  words the arrival of the digital book in a quite beautiful way; they discuss it as a “metamorphosis” of “their vessel,”  rather than a complete degradation of form (2).  In this discussion, we see that the main danger to books has been the competition with time. People are reading less for enjoyment because there are limitless other potential activities, not directly the presence of digital books. This demonstrates that the arrival of the digital book has expanded the market and the accessibility of the book. Not only has it expanded who can consume books, but who can write them as well. According to this piece, the modern idea of you must go through a publishing company to produce literature is pretty contemporary.  Overall, “From Papyrus to Pixel” paints a very hopeful picture for the evolving technologies.

In some respects, Fears regarding media cannot be completely  dismissed as paranoia. The media often can be propagandistic and ideologically isolating.  Especially with newer smart technology that can give us precisely what a data matrix detects that we want.  We can create little bubbles for ourselves, surrounded by like-minded individuals, and shout down anything that offends our personal sensibilities—and then, unfriend them! However, this also provides us the opportunity to practice critical thinking when faced with any given set of ideas, and the ability to fact check information or access an overabundance of perspectives is at the tips of our fingers.  Bolter and Grusin’s discussion (and my personal observation) suggests that this could possibly create a false sense of “immediacy through transparency.” The data retrieved is still filtered through various lenses.  Despite our ability to select sources or communicate our ideas to the media, as Sardar and Loon might argue, we may be still at the mercy of our media producers, given many individuals would rather just consume media than personally produce. Studying media is vital, so that we make actively consume our media and approach everything with a critical eye.

However, as “The Tale of Scrotie Mcboogerballs,” South Park notes, sometimes things are just what they seem on the surface (in a more G-rated paraphrase). We often get trapped in a cycle of hyperanalysis. We ascribe intention and meaning, and we project underlying complex plots. The world often becomes a more deliberately sinister when we read too terribly far into the intentionality of text. However, this interpretation and approach does play into the Uses and Gratification Theory mentioned in Sardar and Vanloon’s piece, and does promote escapism. I personally enjoy both critical analysis and personally indulgent escapism.

For your additional enjoyment:



Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000).

“Papyrus to Pixels,” The Economist (London: The Economist, 2014).

Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon, Introducing Media Studies (Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd., 2000).

–Kayla  R. Wirtz


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