In her The New Atlantis journal article, “The Age of Egocasting,” Christine Rosen criticizes the culture of personalization, where we focus only on our own interests and where we shelter ourselves from unwanted media. Addressing shifting trends in television and music, Rosen argues that technology such as TV remotes, DVRs, and MP3 players are having a dire effect on the entertainment industry. Tools that allow us to individually shape our own entertainment experience disrupt traditional business models of media producers. But she believes these technologies have a far worse consequence for consumers. By selecting what we want to see or hear, when and how we want, we are becoming increasingly narcissistic.
The remote control was the first personalized technology to alter media consumption when it became mainstream in the 1980s. At that time, cable television became ubiquitous and the remote control enabled viewers to easily and comfortably navigate the increasing number of channels they received. This led to “grazing,” a steady but laconic approach to consumption motivated by the constant search for something better. (Rosen, p. 55) As viewing habits changed, content creators had to adapt to viewing trends. To attract audiences, they used tools like opening their shows with spectacle, delaying opening credit sequences, and beginning programs right after one another without commercial breaks. Personally, I see these as positive changes in television production. The world is moving faster, so everyone needs to keep up or risk becoming irrelevant. Though, Rosen also suggests that the remote led to an unfortunate consequence. Programs now have very limited windows to find audiences before the networks cancel them. If NBC’s “Seinfeld” premiered today it would have likely been cancelled after four episodes, which would have been a great loss for millions of devoted fans. Early episodes struggled to find an audience and the production barely resembled the polished product of seasons three and on. I can only imagine the number of quality programs that have been lost due to a fickle, empowered audience.
The rise of the TiVo presented different problems for consumers. While people appreciate the freedom of the time-shifted viewing that TiVo allows, Rosen believes that we are becoming slaves to these machines. TiVo offers the unprecedented ability for people to skip commercials, fast forward or pause a show in progress, and watch programs whenever it’s convenient. According to Rosen, devoted DVR users believe the devices have vastly improved their lives and liken them to idols that should be worshipped. For these viewers, more control, more choice, and less time grazing equate to a better experience. However, Rosen cites several studies that concluded TiVo-equipped households watch 3-6 hours more TV a week than other households. The author contends that this increased TV consumption leads to lowered alertness, decreased attention spans, and heightened anxiety.
Switching focus to the recording industry, Rosen contends that the original Sony Walkman and the current industry leader, the iPod, have played a similar role to the DVR in how people consume music. People can easily listen to the music they want, when they want, and can live in “absent presence,” meaning one can be physically present yet isolated to the world around him/her because music is replacing environmental sounds. Citing research performed by Wired Magazine, Rosen notes that people are attached to their MP3 players because of the control they afford over music selection. More significant than TiVo’s impact in the living room, the personal MP3 player invades public space – disruption social interaction and creating a society of self-absorbed disconnect.
Furthering the idea of narcissism in how we consume is the creation of the media itself. A recent study reported in the New York Times conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky concluded that the lyrics in popular music have become increasing self-centered. Studying lyrics from 1980 through 2007, psychologist Nathan DeWall identified a trend toward themes praising the individual rather than a group, or couple. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions. (Tierney, 2011) Self-referential Songs like Justin Timberlake’s “I’m Bringing Sexy Back” and Beyonce’s “It’s Blazin’” have replaced songs about inclusion such as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory.”
Rosen’s concern over the negative impacts of personalization devices feels premature. There is no question that we have far more control over our media than we have in the past. But the author’s vision of dystopic country of self-serving individualists seems alarmist. Following Fidler’s model, the DVR and the MP3 player are still in a state of flux and penetration. We don’t know how we will use these technologies in the future or when they will be replaced by something new. For now, personalization technology is novel and growing.
How does entertainment on demand create a more narcissistic society?
How do you learn about new TV shows and music? How has this process changed since owning a DVR and MP3 player?
Is new “personalization technology” the best thing ever, or is it irreparably disrupting the quality of the entertainment we consume?
Fidler, R. (1997). Mediamorphosis: understanding new media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Rosen, C. (2005). The age of egocasting. The New Atlantis, 7, 51-72.
Tierney, John. (2011, April 26). A generation’s vanity, heard through lyrics. The New York Times, p. D1.