Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Mediated Existence

Here's another post in the "How Billy Sees the World" series. Warning, this will probably be dense and will occasionally use big words. However, if you manage to make it through to the end you'll have a better understanding of how I see the world and that's a gift without measure. (riiiiggghtt...) Anyway, this post's topic is mediated existence/experience.

I was first introduced to the concept of mediated experience in a class I took on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. One of the main themes of the class was that society had evolved away from the strictly hierarchical structure of the middle ages towards a more egalitarian, flatter social structure. Without a rigid social order it was harder for each individual to "know his place in society". For example, a peasant always knew he was subservient to a knight, and the knight was subservient to the king. Similarly, in religious terms the order went God - Priesthood - Everyone else. So, in the middle ages, if you were an "everyone else" there were middle men between you and both ultimate temporal and spiritual power. Your relationship with these ultimate powers was mediated by an intermediary (hence the term). Your understanding of existence was predicated on the beliefs and interests of powers higher than you were. Obviously there were lots of layers of complexity, but for the sake of not knocking out all my readers one paragraph in I'm going to ignore those.

With the coming of the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, (semi-) Universal Suffrage and other "modernizing" influences, these mediating bodies have gone away. However, all of these moves away from mediating influences are relatively recent, and there are still inherent tendencies towards mediation. There's an unspoken clash between the modernizing influences pushing us away from mediation, and the conservative, comfort with the status-quo tendency of humanity bringing us right back to mediated existence. I could keep going on for a long time, but I can sense eyeballs leaving, so I'll move on from the background to the relevance in today's world.

More and more I've been thinking about how rapidly the few mediating influences in our lives are disappearing, and how noticeable it makes those few mediators that still exist. For example, if you're reading this blog you're getting my unmediated (let alone edited) thoughts. There's no layers of separation between me, the thinker, and you, the reader. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, as much as is made of how these tools are going to change our world, I think at their most basic level what they'll do is remove some of the last vestiges of non-personal mediation from human interactions. In the hyper-connected future, the only way interactions will be mediated is the extent to which each individual chooses to self censor.

There have been several different instances recently where the idea of self censorship has come up recently. Bill Simmons recently wrote about how celebrities and athletes are using these new forms of communication as the mediating forces surrounding their lives. My Mom's blog is written via a pseudonym, largely because she feels more comfortable writing as Ashleigh Burroughs than as Susan Hileman. And the first thing that everyone over the age of 30 said to me when they found out I was blogging was, "be careful, companies are looking at that stuff when deciding who to hire."

Whether it's me trying to not come across as a crack-pot lunatic (hopefully succeeding), my Mom using a pseudonym, or celebrities controlling their own persona, what all of these have in common is that each individual actor is the primary controller and conveyor of their own message. There is no equivalent of the 10th century Christian priest telling me how I should relate to God. There world is evolving into one with much more direct linkages between and among individuals. I don't think our society as a whole has figured out how we're going to handle this unmediated existence, but it certainly is interesting to look at human interaction in light of these ideas.

Another interesting aspect of this unmediated existence is the extent to which it is generational. In the April 7th BS Report (scroll down a bit), Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly discussed their different writing styles. As reference, Simmons just turned 40, but embodies the "Internet generation" much more than does Reilly who's going to turn 51 this June. The podcast itself is worth listening to, but the salient point is that Reilly grew up in an era where reporters had 800 words to make their point. In effect, the editors who mandated the 800 word limit were mediating the content for their readers. Simmons on the other hand is known for his 5000+ word diatribes, largely after Celtic and/or Red Sox losses (which makes for great schadenfreude). Simmons' career was largely self launched and has existed almost totally on the Internet. As his style was developing he never had to work within an 800 word structure, and it shows. He enjoys rambling asides, parentheticals and has never met a tangent he didn't like.

Similarly, if you go to my Mom's blog you can see that she writes under a pseudonym, uses acronyms for people's names, and generally has much shorter, more tightly written posts than I do. Like Reilly, my Mom grew up in a more structured age. The concept of people sharing relatively intimate facts about their life with the world is still something she's having issues adjusting to. I, being an unrepentant child of the digital age, am much more comfortable sharing my unfiltered thoughts with whoever feels like reading them. Obviously there is a certain amount of self mediation that goes on here at Dragon Army, (no one wants a direct view into the unconscious mind of another person) but largely in reading this blog you're getting unmediated with Billy Hileman (scary, I know).

So, those are my thoughts on mediated existence. The young seem more comfortable with it than the comparatively older, and our society seems to have committed itself to a future of only self imposed mediation. Take the idea, play with it, look and see how it applies to your own life. Any and all intelligent (or otherwise) thoughts are appreciated in the comments section.


  1. You know something can be said with this 800 word limit.... it does make someone get to the point... BILLY.