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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Gitlin's MEDIA UNLIMITED starts out with a memorable joke / parable that informs much of his diagnois of the effects of media upon us: A border guard every week for twenty years stops a suspiciouis man who drives a truck across the boundary. He tears the truck apart each time and never finds anything. On the day of his retirement, the guard, promising not to turn in the "smuggler" says "I know you've been smuggling something across this border for the last 20 years. But what?" "Trucks," the smuggler tells him.
Starting with a brief survey of 19th century sociogists who might provide guidance through the media "torrent," he rejects Marx (for being too trapped in the productivist mode of economic thought of his time), Weber (for not really understanding that alongside the iron cage of rationalism, the iron cage of consumer desire was being forged), and finally settles on Georg Simmel whose "grand paradox" of rationalistic money culture Gitlin summarizes this way: "a society of calculation is inhabited by people who need to feel to distract themselves from precisely the rational discpiline on which their practical lives rely," and that they "come to crave particular kinds of feelings -- disposable ones."
So how do we defend ourselves against the torrent? Gitlin identifies a number of plausible navigational strategies, expressed by a typology: The Content Critics (ACT-UP, AIM), The Paranoid (the Frankfurt School, Vance Packard), The Exhibitionist (those who seek to become part of the torrent as a way to participate in the media reality), The Jammer (the hacker, John Heartfield and his anti-fascist montages are an early example), The Ironist (David Letterman, except he's part of the machine, gently gumming the hand that feeds him), The Secessionist (she tries to make her own rules and control her intake), and finally, The Abolitionist (Ted Kaczynski and other wishful thinkers).
He notes that media has "by flooding people with generally inoffensive images of those unlike themselves have invited tolerance, and even more, egalitarian and antiaturhoritarian sentiments," but suggests that the larger effect of media has been "demobilization" which he explains as the "ceaseless quest for disposable feeling and pleasure [which} hollows out public life altogether." He notes that the amount of people's TV watching as described in Putnam's "Bowling Alone," is the most highly correlated factor of political (dis)engagement.
This is just the bare bones of what is a challenging, insightful, and suddenly, very necessary view of media. Other good stuff includes his take on media circuses like the O.J. trial, the Lewinski scandal -- that such slowly unfolding events actually turn down the torrent to something approaching human speed and thus expose in the process the hypervelocity and emphemerality of usual media fare -- is counterintutive and true. He notes that capitalism has always capitilized on speed, always created a class of speed elites who have sought to draw the slow into their slipstream toward a speedy MBA utopia, but that this speed elite has also fostered slow amusements as an antidote. They sell us the speed because they are afraid of becoming "roadkill," while others, like Martha Stewart, sell us the antidote. He also notes that the "hot" Manichean world of the media, conservatives play better than liberals. And further that the atomization of events and individualzation of the news has the effect of discrediting systematic, systemic views of society. Police brutality, anyone?
He also touches on something worthy of further investigation. Citing a CNN announcer who gestured to his new $70 million studio as the house that Lewinsky built, Gitlin notes the media has only a scant penchant for examining its ultimate motive: making money for the investor class. While we consumers of news and entertainment know that intellectually, emotionally, in the face of the never ending torrent the media is reified -- it feels eternal, god-like, self-perpetuating -- and so we somehow forget. We are so sucked into the stimulus -- even feelings of opprobrium and disgust -- that we forget that media is all about making money through that stimulus: getting and selling eyeballs.
There's a sign in New York City near 42nd Street (home of the "newscrawl" which have become so prevalent on TV screens these days) which calculates the average American's share of the national debt. Imagine if the networks were enjoined to run, next to their embossed logos, how much money has been made year-to-date. Other intermittent crawls could show the highest and lowest prices paid for a commercial slot that year, or the year-to-date highest rated show, etc. We know how much the consumer goods we buy cost and what they contain because of labeling laws, but media comes with no such information. Since experts can't agree on the harmfulness or impact of television (though Gitlin tips the balance pretty strongly here), it seems the least that could be done would be a visible running tally of the money made. This would at least remind us of the most important function of media -- to make lots of money for media moguls and their speculators.
Gitlin's last book excited critics from the left and the right. I predict more of the same for MEDIA UNLIMITED, although, I suspect the right will merely say that the media is a liberal mouthpiece, when in fact, with a few hiccups here and there, this "truck" is conservative to the core, creating, supporting and maintaining consumer desire.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I bought Media Unlimited yesterday. And in line with its emphasis on speed, I read it in two sittings. It's impressive.
It seems that Todd Gitlin once again has released a book written without bombast, without alarm. There are no sirens in it. There are no skies falling. The book presents a new way of thinking about our new way of living. If we aren't "Amusing Ourselves to Death," then we are only amusing ourselves to fleeting passions. And the costs are therefore subtle, hard to measure, and potentially debilitating in unexpected ways.
Media Unlimited takes a reasoned, complex look at the phenomena of torrential media and presents it all in a fresh and lucid way. The book makes us consider the ways in which we swim among images and sounds, the ways we construct our desires and interests in response to what Gitlin argues is a major shift in the experience of being human after the 20th century.

Gitlin's reading of media flows is -- dare I say -- hip. When he writes about hackers or Eminem, I don't get the feeling that he has only read about them in the Times.
I appreciate that the book is respectful of fandom, aware of the value of passions (even fleeting, meta, hyper-mediated passions ... this morning I found myself nostalgically singing along with a song from my college days, ABC's "When Smokey Sings," an homage to Smokey Robinson, when the video came on VH1 Classic ... that's passion thrice removed), and willing to grant acknowledgement to potential progressive influence where it's due.
I hope the book catches a wave. Gitlin was able to place the book in the context of the terrorst attacks in September 2001. So the book seems very fresh. Yet I expect it has legs as well.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Professor Gitlin's work is interesting, but he uses his introduction to distance his thoughts from McLuhan's, the rest of "Media Unlimited" reads like a Cliff's Notes version of "Understanding Media" and "The Medium is the Massage."
I thought "Media Unlimited" was fascinating at times (as all his books are), but it failed to deliver on the promises of the introduction. After saying that "the medium is the message" means almost nothing, the next 200 pages go on to explain in great detail how the torrent of media is, in the McLuhan sense, the message. It's not what is being said but how it is constantly washing over us that's important. Nothing new here.
His explanation of the word "speed" is fascinating, as is his hypothesis that the media torrent dictates a tendancy toward conservative values (an idea Chomsky kicked around years ago with his realization that in the television medium he must sound like he's from Neptune). There are gold coins to be found if the reader persists. Perhaps you'll love it if you skip the intro.
PS--If you're curious about why we're reading and writing these reviews as though they matter, pick up Gitlin's book. Great material on exactly this topic.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Gitlin clearly has spent many years thinking about the media and their impact on society and this shines through in places, but much of the book feels like a catalog of various phenomena without new or punchy conclusions. He also throws in the occasional sweeping generalization without much back-up. Media will drift to conservatism as it is "more Manichean" and therefore lends itself better to sound bites. Gitlin clearly has a political orientation and drifts in and out of the academic observer role during the book. I enjoyed the personal anecdotes such as his experiences with a TV interview during the Gulf War more.
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26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 12, 2002
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
If, and the author suggests a strong likelihood, the role of the media falls below our radar, "Media Unlimited" challenges the reader to face and accept the centrality of media in our lives. The author's concept of the media is quite broad. Any means or mechanisms that present written words, sounds, images, or video, and possibly permitting responses of some type, for the purpose of having some sort of a communications effect constitute the media. While the immense expansion of the media in our culture is certainly to be noted, it is the visceral reaction of consumers of the media to the "torrent of images, sounds, and stories" unrelentingly cascading upon them that, according to the author, guarantees the media will be a central part of our lives. It is the blasé individual, the typical person produced by "calculating" modernity, who "paradoxically" develops an acute need for "stimulus and sensation" which the media meets with its "montage" of speeded-up and streamlined content.
Despite the contention that the onrush of media content meets basic psychological needs, the author also acknowledges that this "nonstop" flow requires a variety of coping stratagems, or "navigational styles." The Fan, the Content Critic, the Paranoid, the Exhibitionist, the Ironist, the Jammer, the Seccessionist, and the Abolitionist are approaches identified by author that are used to deal with the onslaught of the media. But only the Fan is fully accepting of the "immediacy" of the media. No breakdown of the distribution of these various types across the general population is provided. Oddly enough, it appears that most media users must adopt defensive measures to deal with a media that satisfies fundamental needs.
The author is concerned that the main truth about the media, as a whole, has been "disguised." But characterizing the media with a broad brush does not seem to take into account substantial differences. Distinctions can certainly be made between various media or media content that are geared to providing primarily either entertainment, advertising, interpersonal communication, or information and even education. Surely those engaged in telephone conversations, watching PBS programs, or shopping on the Internet would have different expectations about experiencing a "jolt of feeling," not to mention the differing capacity of the various media to even provide a jolt.

The aggressive consolidation of the media industry into only a few media empires has been a concern of many media analysts ( for one, see "Rich Media, Poor Democracy," by Robert McChesney ) for some time now. They see an ability and desire on the part of these huge enterprises to control content in a manner that is not favorable to the interests of public. But this author downplays the one-sided nature of the production of media content: "our desires are [not] the unwelcome products of vast corporations." Of course, the author suggests that the manipulation of emotions is a legitimate and needed function of the media. His rightful claim that media oligopolies do adapt somewhat to consumer demand is not a serious encroachment on the contention that the media oligopolies make every effort to control content.
Those familiar with the work of Stuart Ewen, "Captains of Consciousness," would be well aware of the tremendous push undertaken by retailing giants in the 1920s to create a consumer society. Both the desire to attain a middle-class materialistic standard and the fear of not measuring up to one's neighbors were to be subtly inculcated via media advertising. Advertisers' demands then and now are for the media to deliver targeted consumers. For their part, the media adopt policies of "safe" programming, whereby media content is rid of controversy or significant questioning of the status quo. The programming found on commercial television, the most influential and watched medium at the end of the 20th century, can be described as simplistic, juvenile, smart-alecky, happy-talk, contentious, episodic, fragmented, self-righteous, and personalized. The emphasis on quickly shifting images and shortened dialogue goes hand-in-hand with the trivialization of programming content and easily fits within a description of torrential media.
The author admits that the nature of the media "reduces democracy to a sideshow," where political proceedings appear as no more than a rush of images and of sound-bites. In addition, studies have shown that television viewing is highly correlated with reduced political participation of all forms. But demobilization is hardly the largest impact that the media have on the political process. A democratic society depends on free and full information flows. But the media, and in particular television, present a highly sanitized picture of American life; the kind of programming described earlier makes no room for controversial topics such as the various effects that capitalism has on the greater society, the penetration of the political process by corporations, workplace issues and representation, the healthcare system - in other words, issues that impact real people every day in their lives. Beyond the skew due to omission are deliberate, though subtle, distortion effects such as employing mostly conservative political commentators or mischaracterizing the arguments of advocacy groups such as labor unions or environmentalists.
The author at one point is hopeful that there will be "fights over who gets to harness media power, over censorship, over improving content and broadening access." But his argument is not that; he maintains throughout the book that the media has evolved to meet real social needs for sensation and stimulus, not information. The kind of information that democratic citizens need to make wise choices will not be obtained where media oligopolies knowingly trivialize and distort the content of their products. The history and nature of the media can support the argument that the media are presently constructed to meet the needs of capitalism to sell products and maintain the status quo and only incidentally to meet any deep-seated psychological needs.
It seems that the author has taken some characteristics of the media and drawn some rather irrelevant, if not dubious, conclusions while de-emphasizing the true impact and nature of the media, so says a card-carrying Abolitionist.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
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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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Todd Gitlin has been on the forefront of media theory for a long time. As a professor at NYU, his classes are next to legendary. If anyone is set to step into the footsteps of marshall McLuhen, it is Todd Gitlin.
Media Unlimited looks at the ubiquity of modern media in our lives. With a special focus on television and the Internet, Gitlin examines how we have become over-stimulate dto the point where we can no longer think or feel for ourselves...we merely act according to the audio and visual triggers that the media has given us.
Media Unlimited is an excellent book with scholarly ideas but remains very readable. An valuable work all around.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I couldn't resist that: a commercial jingle I remember from over 40 years ago, something driven into me by the early overdose of media.
Any time a film is released which is a commentary on the mass media--offhand I think of "Mad City," "Wag the Dog," or even "15 Minutes"--I get to a theatre to see it. I fancy myself as a media commentator, though I don't claim to do so with any scholarly expertise.
The title of this volume caught my eye because it stresses not the traditional media boogie men, corporate power, mediocrity, and on and on. He points out at the beginning of the text that these ARE issues, but they're not the point of the text. The point is that we are inundated with messages. We here/see/feel everything from Muzak to radios, to cell phone conversations we want nothing to do with. We cannot avoid it.
To be perfectly honest, I was expecting something more "scholarly" from Gitlin. You know, the pages of footnotes and all the trappings that something has been "studied" and that others of equivalent-or-better expertise have said the same thing several times. I found this text, though, to be more of an oped page commentary. And there's something relieving about that. First, I guess some of the academic stuff can be dry, even if it affirms what you want to believe. Gitlin was quite witty through the text, and I found that he makes statements similar to ones I've been making for years, and that feels good.
Frankly, with almost everything he said I agreed. As just one example, "activists" tend to blow the importance of the Internet, particularly e-mail, way out of proportion. It seems that every time a new medium comes about, such activists say that the new medium is the answer. Now the people will see the world OUR way and the mighty transformation will take place. But, Gitlin points out, white supremacists and other less-than-desirables have access to the same new media! And the former "new" media are now commercial extravaganzas.
And his comments on our obsession with cell phones--instant and constant communication--are gems. (I suppose I'll have to e-mail them to a number of my allies?)
I am also amused--and have commented the same myself--that so many of the "progressive" groups that decry corporations have their own brands and logos, following the corporate lead in defining their identities. That's one of today's more amusing paradoxes.
And he points out in a few places that we tend to either blame, or accredit the media too much. There are, he points out, bigger social forces than merely corporate greed or media obsession that drive us. So to make either a saint or a demon of "the media" (a word sometimes used as a singular and sometimes as a plural) is erroneous.
The influence of this message inundation may have, he suggests, a detrimental effect on what we know as "democracy."
Indeed, Gitlin dedicates one chapter to speed, something I've noticed obsesses us these days. When we're not buying a new computer every six months because the last one isn't fast enough, we're spending $40 a more on DSL because the Internet is no longer giving us our e-mail fast enough. The rest of the world is just a bunch of snails, huh?
That, I guess leads to my challenge to the text: I'm not sure where the speed relates to the media. Again, while I appreciate, and solidly agree with most of what Gitlin has to say, I'm not sure that it all relates to "the media," or whether they're part of a bigger condition--or problem--with the society. Then his last chapter on the Disney empire, seemed to be changing the subject.
So, maybe the title should be different. Or maybe the book should have been published as a series of essays.
Overall I do not discourage one from reading the book. It's one of the few that I finished, then reviewed it, going over everything I'd highlighted (some of which I found to be so valuable that I WILL e-mail to friends.) But it doesn't seem to fit together as one topic as much as I hoped it would.
I hope to read someday more analyses of what's going on in Western society now, its obsession with--yes--speed and the like. This text confirmed what I already believe but didn't give me many new ideas. For those new ideas I'll still be looking.
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10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2004
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
As a fan of Gitlin, I was hoping that he'd give me the bottom line - his bottom line - on the air we breathe today, the same way that brave souls such as Lasch, Marcuse, and Bell have done. But Gitlin isn't brave. He admits, honestly, up front, that he will reach few conclusions, and merely wants to lay out what we face each day on the streets, on TV, and on the net. What follows is a stream-of-consciousness depiction of life today. I want more than that from Gitlin. I want his conclusions, not some lame statement that he hasn't reached any yet. He's not getting any younger. Lots of other fabulous thinkers have failed at this stage of their lives. It's time for his masterpiece - the next book, perhaps.
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on September 17, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The author chooses to overly complicate every single point he makes. ( Not that he makes very good points). This is overblown, self-important, pseudo-intellectual prattle. Seriously, this book cannot be intended to convey information, convince, or entertain. It is unreadable. Please sample a few pages of this overblown nonsense before spending your hard-earned money. If you are a student in search of a book for an academic assignment, you could do much better elsewhere. If you on the other hand, you enjoy this pseudo-intellectual baloney, have yourself a feast.
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