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George Vlahakis
IU Communications

Mark Deuze
IU Department of Telecommunications

Last modified: Monday, October 29, 2012

IU professor's new book: We live our lives within our media, rather than simply with it

OCT. 29, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- With the introduction of every new multimedia device, such as handheld computers, smartphones, social media channels and game systems, pundits and researchers alike offer views on how using them increasingly affects our everyday life.

But to Indiana University professor Mark Deuze, they are another opportunity to discuss how we live our lives within this media, rather than simply with it.

"If anything, today the uses and appropriations of media can be seen as fused with everything people do, everywhere people are, everyone people aspire to be," Deuze wrote in the overview of his new book, "Media Life" (Cambridge Polity Books), which explores the interconnected and essential role of media in our daily lives.

"There is no external to media life -- whatever we perceive as escape hatch, passage out or potential Delete key is just an illusion. In fact, we can only imagine a life outside media," added Deuze, an associate professor of telecommunications in IU's College of Arts and Sciences.

"Media are to us as water is to fish. This does not mean life is determined by media -- it just suggests that whether we like it or not, every aspect of our lives takes place in media."

Any parent who has a teenager with a mobile phone will appreciate Deuze's hypothesis.

The IU professor's position runs counter to what many others in his field of media and communications research think: that the media and its related devices have an effect on us and that the more we use them, the more they shape our lives.

"After years of teaching about this, I began to realize that there might be something fundamentally flawed about all of these assumptions, in the sense that they're all based on the premise that we can control media," he said in an interview.

In "Media Life," Deuze set out to challenge these assumptions and examine how our lives are changing in a world where the divides between channels and content and between interpersonal and mediated communication are melting away.

A reference counterpoint for the book was Sherry Turkle's 2011 best-seller, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other." Where Turkle keeps humans and their machines apart and thus signals the increased intimacy between them with worry, Deuze suggests that our closeness to technologies helps to reveal the interdependency of all of us -- including the planet and our technologies.

"What we do in media has magical qualities," he says, "because we can see each other and ourselves live. This kind of visibility should make us aware of our shared social responsibility."

For his research, Deuze considered the ways in which people live in media around the world -- from the United States to his home country, The Netherlands, and from South Africa to Hong Kong. He studied the role of mobile phones in developing nations as well as the developed world's current obsession with Internet-enabled HDTVs.

At the heart of Deuze's project was answering the question of "what a good, passionate, beautiful and socially responsible media life looks like."

"In terms of what media communicate, it is tempting to point to governments, companies and corporations for pushing an unrelenting, ever-accelerating stream of content and experiences into our lives," he said. "However, most mediated communication comprises work done by you and me: through our endless texts, chats and emails, with our phone calls from anywhere at any time, and through our online social networks that function as the living archives of social reality.

"With the majority of the world population owning a mobile phone, telecommunication networks spanning almost every inch of the globe, sales figures of any and all media devices growing steadily worldwide, time spent with media up every year, and any and all media by default integrated into an always-on real-time live mode of being, an almost complete mediatization of society seems a somewhat self-evident observation."

Rather than our being "addicted" to our tablets, mobile phones and video game players, Deuze said we have a "profoundly emotional relationship that we have with our media and through our media with other people."

Deuze doesn't believe this is a new phenomenon created by the Internet, drawing parallels between prehistoric cave paintings and Facebook's "wall."

"It's like cave paintings; what are we painting on the wall -- stories about who we are, where do we belong and what really matters to the community that we think we are a part of -- that's the definition of every status update," he said. "Nothing that we're doing now is new, it's just that it is more visible and everybody participates in it. It used to be that only a privileged few could paint the walls of the cave; now we're all doing it."

In the book's final chapter, Deuze brings together all of the elements of his exploration of life as lived in the media through the diagnosis of a Truman Show Delusion. North American psychologists Joel and Ian Gold have suggested that classical syndromes such as narcissism and paranoia, in combination with pervasive information technologies that blur the boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds, have produced new kinds of psychoses.

"In media life, the world can certainly seem like a television studio as in the 'Truman Show' movie, with the significant difference that there is no exit," Deuze said. "The question is therefore not how to avoid or destroy the media in our lives -- we should rather investigate what Truman Burbank (the Jim Carrey character) could do if he decided to stay inside of his fully mediated life.

"As with Truman, we do not just have to perform for the cameras -- the cameras can also perform for us. Whether we like it or not, I think we are slowly but surely becoming information players and creators rather than simply those who are expected to work with the information that is given to us. We can indeed create art with life. In media, that is."

Deuze also addresses these issues through his blog. His previous book, "Media Work" (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), focused on people working with various forms of media worldwide. He collaborated with Dutch artist Miek van Dongen on illustrations in "Media Life," which were exhibited earlier this fall at IU's Grunwald Gallery.