Does media saturation warp our sense of reality?

Posted at 11:44 AM, Dec 18, 2014

The word “media” is now too small for the enveloping, saturating presence of mediated observation that we all live in today.  

Think about two categories of perception or information gathering. Direct perception verifies information with your own senses; you see the sad expression; you smell the fire; you hear the shot and see the smoking gun.

Mediated perception is secondhand; you see the crying on TV; you read about the fire; you hear people talking about the gunshot on a talk show.

Just a century ago, mediated information came through the written word, with help from photographs, paintings and the spoken word. Imagine how much time your great-grandfather spent with mediated experiences and perception. Now count the time each day you spend with screens -- mobile devices, computers, TVs and maybe video games. Add in reading and radio.  

All that time adds up to something bigger and more pervasive than media. Media is a 20th century word. We now live amidst Omnimedia.

Social scientists and neuroscientists don’t know much yet about how Omnimedia affects us featherless bipeds.

I worry that one effect is that we are more irrationally fearful. OmniMedia has the power to warp our imaginations and exaggerate threats.

When those of us over 40 were little, we generally had free reign over our neighborhoods and after school playtime. Parents weren’t paranoid about child snatchers and predators. They existed, almost certainly in the same proportion to the population as they do now. But now that fear -- or paranoia -- is normalized and taken for granted.

It is easy to find examples. Rarely are they flattering.

The Ebola panic in this country only a month ago was nuts. And now it has evaporated.

The fear of immigrants, on the other hand, persists.

Crime in America has been declining, but not the perception of it.

“For the first time in more than two decades of Pew Research Center surveys, there is more support for gun rights than gun control,” a new poll report says.  “Currently, 52% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, while 46% say it is more important to control gun ownership.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee report released last week on the CIA interrogation program shows the long reach and staying power of exaggerated fear. It is clear the CIA, the administration and their watchers overrode better judgment and moral concerns in responding to a scared country. It is understandable, but weak.

We expect good leadership to steer us away from our lower instincts. But that is childish in the Age of OmniMedia.  Leaders are just faces on screens, bits of mediated data with no more claim on our attention and sense of authority than a gag video. It will get worse.

One rational response to all this may be a more promiscuous use of an invention called the “Off” button. In the desert of OmniMedia, the best shelter might just be Slow Media.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Five steps to make the world a better place]

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at