Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives


"A balanced yet biting critique . . . Gitlin is a savvy guide to our increasingly kinetic times."--San Francisco Chronicle

In this original look at our electronically glutted, speed-addicted world, Todd Gitlin evokes a reality of relentless sensation, instant transition, and nonstop stimulus, which he argues is anything but progress. He shows how all media, all the time fuels celebrity worship, paranoia, and irony, and how attempts to ward off the onrush become occasion for yet ...

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"A balanced yet biting critique . . . Gitlin is a savvy guide to our increasingly kinetic times."--San Francisco Chronicle

In this original look at our electronically glutted, speed-addicted world, Todd Gitlin evokes a reality of relentless sensation, instant transition, and nonstop stimulus, which he argues is anything but progress. He shows how all media, all the time fuels celebrity worship, paranoia, and irony, and how attempts to ward off the onrush become occasion for yet more media. Far from bringing about a "new information age," Gitlin argues, the digital torrent has fostered a society of disposable emotions and casual commitments, and threatens to make democracy a sideshow. In a new afterword, Gitlin takes measure of the most recent wave of inundation in the form of iPods, blogs, and YouTube.

Both a startling analysis and a charged polemic, Media Unlimited reveals the unending stream of manufactured images and sounds as a defining feature of our civilization and a perverse culmination of Western hopes for freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Is there any refuge from the media that often seem to overwhelm us? Todd Gitlin, a renowned New York University professor of culture, journalism, and sociology, shows how we are bombarded, on a daily basis, by an overload of sights and sounds -- regardless of where we are and what we're doing.

Gitlin makes the point early on that we're subjected to so many different types of media that we're not even aware of the sheer cumulative bulk. The apt analogy he makes is to the old parable of the driver who's repeatedly stopped at the border by the cop who's sure that something's being smuggled in. Each time, the cop does a meticulous search of the truck, only to find nothing illegal. Finally, the exasperated cop begs the presumed smuggler, now about to retire from the business, to tell him what's been smuggled over the years. "Trucks!" the smuggler replies. Gitlin's point is that we're so busy looking at the message of each individual bit of media that we often don't realize that, as Marshall McLuhan famously claimed, "The Medium is the Message!"

Gitlin goes on to break the recipients of these nonstop messages down into types, based on how they "navigate" the media: the Fan (who can't get enough); the Content Critic (who carefully chooses his media); the Paranoid (who's worried that he's being "programmed"); the Exhibitionist (who wants to be part of the message itself); the Ironist (who takes it all with a grain of salt); the Jammer (who wants to change the message to suit his own cause); the Secessionist (who throws the TV out); and the Abolitionist (who counsels others to do the same).

Gitlin has written a wise and profound look at media, ideal for anyone trying to make sense of today's world. (Nicholas Sinisi)

Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes & Nonfiction editor.

Publisher's Weekly

Gitlin, a professor of sociology, culture and journalism at NYU, has examined the media in print for over 25 years--in fiction (The Murder of Albert Einstein), nonfiction (Inside Prime Time, which was hailed as the best book ever written on the TV industry) and a kind of memoir-history (The Sixties). Now, with the spirit of Marshall McLuhan hovering in the background, Gitlin claims that "living with the media is today one of the main things human beings do," and he elaborates on that theme in this wide-angle overview that attempts to tackle seriously "the baffling media totality" "as a central condition of an entire way of life." After an opening salvo of statistics on the "media cavalcade at home" (TVs, CDs, VCRs), he skims over past pop culture: the power of posters and photos was followed by neon dazzle, the rise of radio and a modern-day "electronic efflorescence" of AOL instant messages and wireless devices of the "new nomad."

Every angle is here-from Muzak's "soundscape" and T-shirts as "walking billboards" to the "packaged innocence" of Disney and adrenaline action movies. From the late Lance Loud on the once-controversial An American Family (1973) to Jennifer Ringley's webcam "life performance", media has escalated to a "nonstop spectacle" in an ever-accelerating "McWorld." Gitlin writes with flair and humor in this valuable, thought-provoking take on how--and why--media has become "central to our civilization." (Mar.)

Sven Birkerts
At once savvy and impassioned,Todd Gitlin writes with inner-sanctum authority about how our newly ramified systems,computers and media,are transfiguring our accepted sense of the world. He is one of the disciplined,one of the unenchanted: He gets it frighteningly right.
Thomas Frank
Here it is: the biggest cultural question of our time. How are we to live in 'the torrent' — the never-ceasing,never-slowing flow of mass-produced words and sounds and images that these days makes up nearly the entirety of human experience? Todd Gitlin traces all the arguments,tests all the responses,and suggests a verdict that is both intelligent and humane.
Mark Crispin Miller
This is a wise book,well-informed and well-observed. If the media torrent doesn't sweep us all away,it will be in part because Todd Gitlin has so lucidly (and wittily encouraged us to keep our heads,and use them.
Naomi Klein
We owe a profound thanks to Todd Gitlin for opening our eyes to a phenomenon that is so omnipresent it can seem invisible. Media is not just what we see on TV,it is the infrastructure in which we live our lives,not just 'content' but environment. Gitlin is our expert environmental guide through this modern wilderness,a place where rivers flow with projected images,forests are thickets of sounds,and the sky is filled with advertisements.
Dave Eggers
Many of us,when reading books of extraordinary acuity,feel the need to put exclamation points in the margins when we've read something that sweeps us up with its brilliance. Gitlin's work always does this,but Media Unlimited might be the most demanding of margin-defacement. Media Unlimited is enthralling; it's actually a pageturner; and its unbroken chain of plain and unavoidable truths makes it essential — and,happily,vastly entertaining — reading.
Library Journal
Gitlin, a longtime student of society and media (as seen most recently in The Twilight of Common Dreams), begins his latest book with the premise that the media are a central part of contemporary everyday life. He speculates that the common error of referring to the media in the singular reflects our experience of what seems to be a seamless entity. The prevalence of media makes it impossible to separate the stream of images, stories, and sounds from daily life. Focusing on the big picture, Gitlin traces the role of media in making life in the modern world bearable. The consequences of living in this artificial world of "disposable feelings" is a disengagement from social and political involvement. Gitlin categorizes individual styles of navigating media into those of the fans, the paranoids, the exhibitionists, the ironists, the jammers, the secessionists, and the abolitionists. He does not advocate a particular style, nor does he argue that we can or should return to an earlier time. He simply asks that we step back and reflect on the media as a central condition of our entire way of life. This challenging book should be purchased by academic and large public libraries. Judy Solberg, George Washington Univ. Lib., Washington, DC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thousands and thousands of channels, but nothing on. Instead of bemoaning that fact or celebrating it in an explosion of incomprehensible post-pastiche euphoria, Gitlin (Cultural Studies/NYU; The Twilight of Common Dreams, 1995, etc.) sets out to examine the structural role that media proliferation plays in the late-industrial world. Early on, Gitlin promises a grand summation and uses that lofty goal as a means of avoiding tiresome specificity. Unfortunately, the lack of specificity sometimes bleeds into a lack of rigor and relevance (at times one could even say coherence). Basically, there are three essays here, and the connections among them are not always clear. The first, and most interesting, is a witty riff on the media "torrent," the paradoxical promises it makes, and the deeply embedded role it plays in a consumerist society. The second patchily examines the role of speed in modern society and ties it into the demand for more media: The faster we can process images and information, the richer our lives are (in both senses of the word). The third, more descriptive than analytical, identifies six ad hoc "styles of navigation" that supposedly describe the strategies that people adopt in their interactions with the media torrent. There's a conclusion that attempts to tie all of this together by throwing around words like "culture" and "democracy," but it feels tacked on. What one's left with, then, is a strange combination of provocative thoughts (speed originally meant "to prosper" and only later took on its present meaning; the goal of the modern media is to efface the media's mediating function by presenting things immediately) and serious navel-gazing (on more than one occasionone gets the sense that we're reading cleaned-up notes that Gitlin took while watching sports on TV). This inconsistency would be less disappointing if the author weren't fighting over his chosen piece of analytical turf with a heap of other, more systematically compelling writers, many of whom he happily cites. Diffuse.
From the Publisher
Praise for Todd Gitlin:

"Candid, courageous, and eloquent....Strong stuff, badly in need of saying."-Tamar Jacoby, The New York Times Book Review on The Twilight of Common Dreams

"Admirable....Tells more of the truth about its complex, quintessentially American subject than any book I know."-Susan Sontag on The Sixties

"Perhaps the best book ever written about the thinking of the insulated men and women in the executive suites of Century City, Burbank, and Television City."-Los Angeles Times on Inside Prime Time

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805086898
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/18/2007
  • Edition description: Revised Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 965,950
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia
University and the author of twelve other books, including The Sixties, Inside Prime Time, The Twilight of Common Dreams, and The Bulldozer and the Big Tent. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

On my bedroom wall hangs a print of Vermeer’s The Concert, painted around 1660. A young woman is playing a spinet. A second woman, probably her maid, holds a letter. A cavalier stands between them, his back to us. A landscape is painted on the raised lid of the spinet, and on the wall hang two paintings, a landscape and The Procuress, a work by Baburen, another Dutch artist, depicting a man and two women in a brothel. As in many seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, the domestic space is decorated by paintings. In wealthy Holland, many homes, and not only bourgeois ones, featured such renderings of the outer world. These pictures were pleasing, but more: they were proofs of taste and prosperity, amusements and news at once.

Vermeer froze instants, but instants that spoke of the relative constancy of the world in which his subjects lived. If he had painted the same room in the same house an hour, a day, or a month later, the letter in the maid’s hand would have been different, and the woman might have been playing a different selection, but the paintings on the far wall would likely have been the same. There might have been other paintings, etchings, and prints elsewhere in the house, but they would not have changed much from month to month, year to year.

In what was then the richest country in the world, “everyone strives to embellish his house with precious pieces, especially the room toward the street,” as one English visitor to Amsterdam wrote in 1640, noting that he had observed paintings in bakeries, butcher’s shops, and the workshops of blacksmiths and cobblers. Of course, the number of paintings, etchings, and prints in homes varied considerably. One tailor owned five paintings, for example, while at the high end, a 1665 inventory of a lavish patrician’s house in Amsterdam held two maps and thirteen paintings in one grand room, twelve paintings in his widow’s bedroom, and seven in the maid’s room. Still, compared with today’s domestic imagery, the grandest Dutch inventories of that prosperous era were tiny. Even in the better-off households depicted by Vermeer, the visual field inhabited by his figures was relatively scanty and fixed.

Today, Vermeer’s equivalent, if he were painting domestic scenes, or shooting a spread for Vanity Fair, or directing commercials or movies, would also display his figures against a background of images; and if his work appeared on-screen, there is a good chance that he would mix in a soundtrack as well. Most of the images would be portraits of individuals who have never walked in the door—not in the flesh—and yet are recognized and welcomed, though not like actual persons. They would rapidly segue into others—either because they had been edited into a video montage, or because they appear on pages meant to be leafed through. Today’s Vermeer would discover that the private space of the home offers up vastly more impressions of the larger world than was possible in 1660. In seventeenth-century Delft, painters did not knock on the door day and night offering fresh images for sale. Today, though living space has been set apart from working space, as would have been the case only for the wealthier burghers of Vermeer’s time, the outside world has entered the home with a vengeance—in the profusion of media.

The flow of images and sounds through the households of the rich world, and the richer parts of the poor world, seems unremarkable today. Only a visitor from an earlier century or an impoverished country could be startled by the fact that life is now played out against a shimmering multitude of images and sounds, emanating from television, videotapes, videodiscs, video games, VCRs, computer screens, digital displays of all sorts, always in flux, chosen partly at will, partly by whim, supplemented by words, numbers, symbols, phrases, fragments, all passing through screens that in a single minute can display more pictures than a prosperous seventeenth-century Dutch household contained over several lifetimes, portraying in one day more individuals than the Dutch burgher would have beheld in the course of years, and in one week more bits of what we have come to call “information” than all the books in all the households in Vermeer’s Delft. And this is not yet to speak of our sonic surroundings: the music, voices, and sound effects from radios, CD players, and turntables. Nor is it to speak of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and books. Most of the faces we shall ever behold, we shall behold in the form of images.

Because they arrive with sound, at home, in the car, the elevator, or the waiting room, today’s images are capable of attracting our attention during much of the day. We may ignore most of them most of the time, take issue with them or shrug them off (or think we are shrugging them off), but we must do the work of dispelling them—and even then, we know we can usher them into our presence whenever we like. Iconic plenitude is the contemporary condition, and it is taken for granted. To grow up in this culture is to grow into an expectation that images and sounds will be there for us on command, and that the stories they compose will be succeeded by still other stories, all bidding for our attention, all striving to make sense, all, in some sense, ours. Raymond Williams, the first analyst to pay attention to the fact that television is not just pictures but flow, and not just flow but drama upon drama, pointed out more than a quarter century ago, long before hundred-channel cable TV and VCRs, that we have never as a society acted so much or watched so many others acting. . . . [W]hat is really new . . . is that drama . . . is built into the rhythms of everyday life. In earlier periods drama was important at a festival, in a season, or as a conscious journey to a theater; from honouring Dionysus or Christ to taking in a show. What we have now is drama as habitual experience: more in a week, in many cases, than most human beings would previously have seen in a lifetime.

Around the time Vermeer painted The Concert, Blaise Pascal, who worried about the seductive power of distraction among the French royalty, wrote that “near the persons of kings there never fail to be a great number of people who see to it that amusement follows business, and who watch all the time of their leisure to supply them with delights and games, so that there is no blank in it.” In this one respect, today almost everyone—even the poor—in the rich countries resembles a king, attended by the courtiers of the media offering a divine right of choice.


Statistics begin—but barely—to convey the sheer magnitude of this in-touchness, access, exposure, plenitude, glut, however we want to think of it.

In 1999, a television set was on in the average American household more than seven hours a day, a figure that has remained fairly steady since 1983. According to the measurements of the A. C. Nielsen Company, the standard used by advertisers and the television business itself, the average individual watched television about four hours a day, not counting the time when the set was on but the individual in question was not watching. When Americans were asked to keep diaries of how they spend their time, the time spent actually watching dropped to a still striking three hours a day—probably an undercount. In 1995, of those who watched, the percentage who watched “whatever’s on,” as opposed to any specific program, was 43 percent, up from 29 percent in 1979. Though cross-national comparisons are elusive because of differences in measurement systems, the numbers in other industrialized nations seem to be comparable—France, for example, averaging three and a half hours per person. One survey of forty-three nations showed the United States ranking third in viewing hours, after Japan and Mexico. None of this counts time spent discussing programs, reading about their stars, or thinking about either.

Overall, wrote one major researcher in 1990, “watching TV is the dominant leisure activity of Americans, consuming 40 percent of the average person’s free time as a primary activity [when people give television their undivided attention]. Television takes up more than half of our free time if you count . . . watching TV while doing something else like eating or reading . . . [or] when you have the set on but you aren’t paying attention to it.” Sex, race, income, age, and marital status make surprisingly little difference in time spent. Neither, at this writing, has the Internet diminished total media use, even if you don’t count the Web as part of the media. While Internet users do watch 28 percent less television, they spend more time than nonusers playing video games and listening to the radio and recorded music—obviously a younger crowd. Long-term users (four or more years) say they go on-line for more than two hours a day, and boys and girls alike spend the bulk of their Internet time entertaining themselves with games, hobbies, and the like. In other words, the Internet redistributes the flow of unlimited media but does not dry it up. When one considers the overlapping and additional hours of exposure to radio, magazines, newspapers, compact discs, movies (available via a range of technologies as well as in theaters), and comic books, as well as the accompanying articles, books, and chats about what’s on or was on or is coming up via all these means, it is clear that the media flow into the home—not to mention outside—has swelled into a torrent of immense force and constancy, an accompaniment to life that has become a central experience of life.

The place of media in the lives of children is worth special attention— not simply because children are uniquely impressionable but because their experience shapes everyone’s future; if we today take a media-soaked environment for granted, surely one reason is that we grew up in it and can no longer see how remarkable it is. Here are some findings from a national survey of media conditions among American children aged two through eighteen. The average American child lives in a household with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.6 tape players, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and 1 computer. Ninety-nine percent of these children live in homes with one or more TVs, 97 percent with a VCR, 97 percent with a radio, 94 percent with a tape player, 90 percent with a CD player, 70 percent with a video game player, 69 percent with a computer. Eighty-eight percent live in homes with two or more TVs, 60 percent in homes with three or more. Of the 99 percent with a TV, 74 percent have cable or satellite service. And so on, andon, and on.

The uniformity of this picture is no less astounding. A great deal about the lives of children depends on their race, sex, and social class, but access to major media does not. For TV, VCR, and radio ownership, rates do not vary significantly among white, black, and Hispanic children, or between girls and boys. For television and radio, rates do not vary significantly according to the income of the community.

How accessible, then, is the media cavalcade at home? Of children eight to eighteen, 65 percent have a TV in their bedrooms, 86 percent a radio, 81 percent a tape player, 75 percent a CD player. Boys and girls are not significantly different in possessing this bounty, though the relative usages do vary by medium. Researchers also asked children whether the television was “on in their homes even if no one is watching ‘most of the time,’ ‘some of the time,’ ‘a little of the time,’ or ‘never.’ ” Homes in which television is on “most of the time” are termed constant television households. By this measure, 42 percent of all American households with children are constant television households.

Blacks are more likely than whites or Hispanics to experience TV in their lives: 56 percent of black children live in constant television households (and 69 percent have a TV in their bedrooms, compared to 48 percent of whites). The lower the family education and the median income of the community, the greater the chance that a household is a constant television household. As for time, the average child spent six hours and thirty-two minutes per day exposed to media of all kinds, of which the time spent reading books and magazines—not counting schoolwork—averaged about forty-five minutes. For ages two to seven, the average for total media was four hours and seventeen minutes; for ages eight to thirteen, eight hours and eight minutes, falling to seven hours and thirty-five minutes for ages fourteen to eighteen. Here, race and social class do count. Black children are most exposed, followed by Hispanics, than whites. At all age levels, the amount of exposure to all media varies inversely with class, from six hours and fifty-nine minutes a day for children in households where the median income for the zip code is under $25,000 to six hours and two minutes for children whose zip code median income is over $40,000. The discrepancy for TV exposure is especially pronounced, ranging from three hours and six minutes a day for children whose zip code incomes are under $25,000 to two hours and twenty-nine minutes for children whose zip code incomes are over $40,000. Still, thesedifferences are not vast. Given everything that divides the rich from the poor, the professional from the working class—differences in physical and mental health, infant mortality, longevity, safety, vulnerability to crime, prospects for stable employment, and so on—the class differences in media access and use are surprisingly slender. So are the differences between American and western European children, the latter averaging six hours a day total, though in Europe only two and a quarter of those hours are spent with TV.

All such statistics are crude, of course. Most of them register the time that people say they spend. They are—thankfully—not checked by total surveillance. Moreover, the meaning of exposure is hard to assess, since the concept encompasses rapt attention, vague awareness, oblivious coexistence, and all possible shadings in between. As the images glide by and the voices come and go, how can we assess what goes on in people’s heads? Still, the figures do convey some sense of the media saturation with which we live—and so far we have counted only what can be counted at home. These numbers don’t take into account the billboards, the TVs at bars and on planes, the Muzak in restaurants and shops, the magazines in the doctor’s waiting room, the digital displays at the gas pump and over the urinal, the ads, insignias, and logos whizzing by on the sides of buses and taxis, climbing the walls of buildings, making announcements from caps, bags, T-shirts, and sneakers. To vary our experience, we can pay to watch stories about individuals unfold across larger-than-lifesize movie screens, or visit theme parks and troop from image to image, display to display. Whenever we like, on foot or in vehicles, we can convert ourselves into movable nodes of communication, thanks to car radios, tape, CD, and game players, cell phones, beepers, Walkmen, and the latest in “personal communication systems”—and even if we ourselves refrain, we find ourselves drawn willy-nilly into the soundscape that others broadcast around us.

Crucially, who we are is how we live our time—or spend it, to use the term that registers its intrinsic scarcity. What we believe, or say we believe, is less important. We vote for a way of life with our time. And increasingly, when we are not at work or asleep, we are in the media torrent. (Sometimes at work, we are also there, listening to the radio or checking out sports scores, pin-ups, or headlines on the Internet.) Steadily more inhabitants of the wealthy part of the world have the means, incentives, and opportunities to seek private electronic companionship. The more money we have to spend, the more personal space each household member gets. With personal space comes solitude, but this solitude is instantly crowded with images and soundtracks. To a degree that was unthinkable in the seventeenth century, life experience has become an experience in the presence of media.

Copyright © 2002 by Todd Gitlin. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Supersaturation, or, The Media Torrent and Disposable Feeling 12
2 Speed and Sensibility 71
3 Styles of Navigation and Political Sideshows 118
4 Under the Sign of Mickey Mouse & Co 176
Notes 211
Acknowledgments 243
Index 245
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2002

    Fascinating Look At Media Effect On Consciousness!

    In this wry and perceptive tome, sociologist and social critic Todd Gitlin takes aim at the plethora of ways in which the modern electronic media has become such an integral part of our cultural environment that it acts to influence us in a number of important and substantive ways. In an argument reminiscent of both Karl Marx and c. Wright Mills, he writes convincingly of the insidious influence such media influence acts to rearrange our social, economic, and even psychic awareness of everything around us. Therefore, he argues, our very feelings and ideas are saturated by and therefore encumbered with, a dose of supersaturated information-rich data, and it is difficult to understand where the influence ends and we as substantive human beings begin. For what is coming at us is a revolutionary force, a virtual torrent of information hurtling down on us with increasing speed. This onslaught of media-propelled information has become a flood of images, data, and symbols we are scarcely aware of in terms of its ability to influence and guide us in our daily lives and the degree to which we carry it around with us as perceptive baggage. In this sense we are manipulated to an unknown extent by this baggage and by the predisposition to seeing the world in a certain way. Seen in this way, it threatens our individuality and our ability to participate meaningfully in a democratic setting. So, while it is commonplace to observe that the media surrounds us in all we say and do, it is less well understood how profoundly this media presence affects us in almost every aspect of our lives. Few critics point out the degree to which this immersion in a world flooded by media manipulation of every element of social, economic, and political phenomena, or what this immersion does to us individually in terms of our own ability to perceive the truth, or to our own critical thinking or cognitive functioning. Just as C. Wright Mills warned of the potential for political evil rising from the domination of the mass society stemming from the media's ability to slant social perceptions, Gitlin points out the degree to which our habitual reliance on the media for most of the information we need and use to conduct every aspect of our lives also makes us a prisoner of the quality of the information we are given in viewing the outside world or even ourselves. This is a terrific book, one that takes an intriguing look at certain elements of out media and how it affects as citizens, companions, and individuals. Enjoy!

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