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The Perils of Media Parallax

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It is by now a commonplace to note that the world as presented to us by various media is not the world of flesh, blood, earth, fire, water and air. Media reality is altered, making the use of the term “media parallax” fitting as it comes from the Greek parallaxis, meaning “alteration.”

The parallax effect can be used to get a more accurate picture of reality. Look at an object with one eye closed. Then look again with the other eye closed. Neither mono-view gives an accurate representation. Humans have two eyes and use parallax for greater depth perception and a more accurate view of the world.

Media flatten our natural stereoscopic view of reality. We get a singular perspective. This is, in part, a technological consequence. But it also involves the way media is used.

In news reporting, he-said/she-said “balanced” reporting gives us two views, neither one accurate. It’s like the eye experiment above. We get a view with one eye closed and then a view with the other eye closed. We see one Cyclops arguing with another Cyclops.

I got to thinking about this after re-reading a couple of books by Jack Kerouac recently and re-calling the tragedy of his life. Whatever his personal difficulties, they were exacerbated by the distortions of his celebrity. Neither detractors nor worshippers got him right. They were just tribes with different blind eyes. The video above shows the author being interviewed by Steve Allen in 1959. I used it because Allen was an intelligent man and the interview is, by today’s standards, responsible and informative. Even so, the Kerouac presented is not Jack Kerouac. He is a Kerouac from an alternative universe.

Ignoring the obvious pain this caused Kerouac, the example of his media displacement is a rather benign one. Today’s celebrities sometimes suffer from the same pain, but most have adapted to living life in at least two worlds.  In many ways, it’s their specific job. They are paid to inhabit multiple worlds.

The dangers of media parallax become dire when we turn to more critical issues. With one eye closed, society can’t know where the cliffs are, to use a current favorite metaphor. What can we do about this?

We all share in the dilemma, and it’s not enough to pretend to be above it all and blame various journalists or media. I certainly can’t blame Steve Allen for the alternative Kerouac we saw on his show. It was an easygoing, even supportive, segment. It is the case, of course, that many media have learned to market the one-eyed view. They are exploiting, irresponsibly, a hard-wired media characteristic.

We can’t begin to seriously address the dangers to the earth of a warming climate until we can get the stereoscopic view in full context. How do we do that?

I think it requires a far more responsible approach to both media production and consumption. We are at the end of a media era that resembled a land rush. It was so easy to make money in the media. It was so easy to enjoy its first fruits. It was so easy that we didn’t pause to consider what it would mean to responsibly inhabit this new world.

The flattening and altering of reality by media is, as noted, at least partly a technological problem. We have to take substantive steps to overcome it. We have to educate ourselves about our blindness. We have to seek out broader perspective and construct accurate contexts for ourselves. Citizens are going to have to be taught how to do this, and it’s a fair question to ask whether an educational system controlled by politicians who succeed through media distortions will ever be allowed to teach us to pierce the illusions.

Those who work in media also have to recognize the distorting effects and do whatever they can to overcome them. I know many journalists who try to do so. Many don’t get much help from their employers. Others simply follow old habits.

I’m tempted to say we ought to put on our flats screens a warning like those placed on cigarette packs. “This Is Not Reality, But Just A One-Eyed View Of It.” Something like that.

Much of postmodern culture and communications theory taught that a limited perspective is all that’s ever available to human’s limited vision and intelligence. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean we can’t mitigate the limitations somewhat.  We can do more to see reality as it is. The dangers we face make it a moral imperative to do so.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith