Ego ex machina: no surprises

by Yule Heibel on April 14, 2005

Courtesy of new technologies, new means of mediating what’s really important: You!

Far from the madding celebrity crowd, TiVo zeal also runs high. One man told Knight-Ridder news service, “Omigod, you can have my TiVo when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!” “I’ve converted. It’s my new religion,” another said. “I was a Jew, but not anymore. I’m now a TiVo.” A TiVo spokesperson described how devoted users send in photographs of TiVo snowmen, jack-o-lanterns carved to resemble the TiVo logo, and, in perhaps the most chilling image, a snapshot of an infant dressed up as the unique, peanut-shaped TiVo remote control. (…)


What ties all these technologies together is the stroking of the ego. When cable television channels began to proliferate in the 1980s, a new type of broadcasting, called “narrowcasting,” emerged—with networks like MTV, CNN, and Court TV catering to specific interests. With the advent of TiVo and iPod, however, we have moved beyond narrowcasting into “egocasting”—a world where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear. We can consciously avoid ideas, sounds, and images that we don’t agree with or don’t enjoy. (…) It is no coincidence that we impute God-like powers to our technologies of personalization (TiVo, iPod) that we would never impute to gate-keeping technologies. No one ever referred to Caller ID as “Jehovah’s Secretary.” [More…]

That’s from a brilliant (funny …and kinda scary) article by Christine Rosen, The Age of Egocasting, in the Fall 2004/Winter 2005 issue of The New Atlantis.

Rosen starts by discussing the evolution of the remote control device — at first blush an innocent-enough gadget — and connects the dots between it and more recent manifestations of “personalised” technology (hence the “egocasting” of the article’s title). I find the dots that connect the lines fascinating, perhaps because I’m tv-less (much less TiVo’d) and iPod-less (I never even got the point of the Walkman), although I do relish my personal collection of favourite DVDs.

Rosen’s main point is that we’re losing the ability to be surprised — precisely because we are so totally in control — and that the absence of surprise potentially has a deleterious effect on public life and shared discourse.

Thinking about it, it strikes me that al Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center was singularly surprising to most of us (even if we weren’t so stupid as to ask “why do they hate us?”), and that surprise created, instantly, a public discourse. Within months of the Bush Administration’s response, however, and despite all the Pentagon-generated jargon of “shock and awe,” the element of surprise dissipated utterly as citizens were tossed back into the familiar individualised theatre of the living room, consuming what really no longer came as any surprise.

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