It used to be much less stressful to be a media consumer (the person formerly known as audience). Is one of my shows on? I think I’ll take a break from flint-knapping or butter-churning and tune in. On the road the choices were “radio on” or have another round of the license-plate game. Like most people, I probably spend more time now listening and viewing–as well as clicking and surfing and peering into tiny screens with my bifocals slid up on top of my head–than I did in the bygone days of Father Knows Best. But I can’t say that I’m enjoying it more.
For example, cereal might make a sensible and convenient breakfast choice. But what if every time you decided to have some, you had to search through and select from every brand and flavor of cereal marketed since 1929? This is the purported freedom offered by the digital media age, as well as its central dilemma. When everything is always available, every audience moment requires a choice. Our attention is being constantly demanded not by the content of the media, but by the catalog of potential media available.
I have a 25-minute work commute. I can tune in the radio and hear four or five songs as I drive. One might be an old favorite, two might be new to me, one is OK, and one is lame. An acceptable result from pushing a button once, and turning my mind back to avoiding puppies and schoolchildren. Or I can tune in my iPod, loaded with every cd I ever bought. Since I never invest the time in curating playlists (a new part-time job for many music aficianados) I play random shuffle. Three seconds in I realize I don’t feel like hearing Celia Cruz sing Santeria music, next–nope, wrong cut from that album of Hot Tuna, next–not in a Beatles mood. By the time I get to my destination, I’ve played two complete tunes that were exactly right, and the opening bars of 16 rejects. And I’ve driven the whole way with one hand on the steering wheel, and one hand on the iPod’s click wheel.
In terms of road safety, I might as well have been popping jello shots and playing chicken. In terms of relaxation, I might as well have been listening to a car alarm in the parking lot. I wouldn’t go backward to the way things were, but I can’t exactly say that we’ve gone forward to the way things are, either.