Media are a relatively new subject on the catalogue of established disciplines like psychology and sociology. Media relationship with human beings is also shrouded in mystery as it has more questions than answers.
Is it a relationship between a master (media) and a slave (audience) as has been proposed equally by numerous normative and critical thinking scholars? This question, being provocative, is debated much on national and international canvass. However, more basic question is whether human interaction, critics call it addiction to, with media is social or psychological in its nature?
Having mistaken my asthmatic complications for corona symptoms, I self-quarantined at home as a precaution on doctor’s advice during the second and third week of March.
Quarantine is a dreadful word to start with but at the end of these two weeks, I can draw a conclusion that quarantine has its own sociology, learning of which may benefit the people at large.
I was at home with a media screen confronting me for about 45 to 50 hours for 15 days making up about 360 hours.
According to the prominent Chicago School of Sociology, I was not or not really social all those hours because to be social, one needs encounter with one or more human beings. Encounter or communication with other human beings determines your identity and the role you play in society.
When you encounter one or more human beings, you are able to take on different roles which make you social and if you are alone in a room with a machine, you are a subject of psychology. You will exhaust yourself in such a room and will yearn to be social after some time, which outlines the importance of sociology.
However, due to intense critique of this logocentrism, proponents of this definition of sociology have relented so much as to count.
Man’s encounter with media is considered as para-social – a weak and less real form of sociology. Relationship between media and a human being is kind of prosthetic, they believe.
Significant scholarly work has indicated that performers on media screen or behind the screen consign the audience at large to a presumed role. They simulate communicating with the audience who presume that this performance has hit a chord with their real lives.
This whole process leads the audience to feel gratified and take on the role that media has set for them. However, this gratification is false and only socially misfit people fall for it as they see it as a prosthesis to make up for their weaknesses. Healthy and fit people get social in real sense encountering real life characters.
Hence, alone in the room for two weeks, I was afraid of media screen to begin with – it can be TV, your mobile phone or laptop.
This fear perhaps derived from teaching extremist, if not orthodox altogether, theoretical concepts about different processual (pertaining to processes) and procedural details of different forms of mediatizations.
But then, having been in the business of media content production and presentation for about two decades now, the least I could be sure of was that media was anything but a master.
Quarantine is convergence of these and many more conflicting views, in the gestalt (German word meaning “pattern” or “configuration”) of which shimmers and shines one’s interior sociality.
Marshal McLuhan dominates the Toronto School of Mass Communication. As those were in early 1990s, his ideas about interactivity between media screen and audience are still a bombshell. He made it clear that “media is the message” and when a viewer confronts media screen, a social contact is created, which is real but different from the functionalist definition that sociologists make about “sociality.”
The uniqueness of this social connection is that media serves as an extension, rather than a parenthesis, of personality of the audience. Audience is very active inside themselves and this intra-activity fulfills the social connection between them and media screen.
“[T]he viewer is the screen…The viewer constitutes the image no less than it is constituted for her,” McLuhan concluded in 1994. I lived it now in 2020 and it is truer than the countless theories about virtual digital world.
I always tell my students that one is many people to many people. When you are quarantined, these many people interact with one another and with media screen so that your eyes and ears become your hands and feet.
Don Handelman, a Shaine Professor of Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his work on modern-day sociology vis-à-vis media has explained that this intra-activity of an audience makes her an active member of the society that results from her interaction with media. Handelman has refused to acknowledge this phenomenon as solipsism; he rather calls it as social as meeting between more than one human being, adding that the nature of this sociality is different but it is real.
Now that my quarantine time is over, I feel less fear about my interaction with media screen as my interior selves have seen this new society that exists despite all our denials. I believe that sociologists will soon discover this form of sociology, failing which they may fade off on the edges of media screen.
Hassan Shahzad teaches media at public and private universities and regularly writes for Islamabad pages of The News. He holds a PhD in media studies.