Emotional Rescue

Consuming media is as much about managing feeling as accessing information

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Recently, a friend was telling me about his life these days as a Los Angeles music producer and engineer. In the coronavirus era, studios are pushing new roles onto the freelancers who run their sessions: medical screener, health risk analyst, liability waiver collector. The engineers get paid the same skimpy day rate as ever, though, despite the stress and danger of collaborating with a rotating cast of potentially infectious strangers in a hermetically sealed environment for 12 hours a day. My friend told me he’s now much more selective about sessions and he’s looking for more mixing jobs he can do in physical isolation. For example, one of his peers has a solo gig producing audio content for… pillows.

That last aside prompted some immediate Googling on my part. I was familiar with pillow-based audio technology, from Sound Oasis’s stereophonic Sleep Therapy Pillow to the Dreampad, a Bluetooth device that uses bone conduction to transmit your late-night podcasts directly into your skull. My knowledge of pillow-specific content, however, was limited to feathers and memory foam, a lacuna my web search quickly filled. The Sound Pillow Sleep System, I learned, combines stereo sound, a proprietary MP3 player, and 18 hours of custom tracks, including “ultra-relaxing hypnotic-binaural music, real nature sounds, as well as white noise, pink noise and blue noise files.” Additional sound files can be purchased on the website, meaning the pillow is now a platform. Can a subscription service be far behind? Indeed, Wave, a guided musical meditation product featuring a vibrating memory foam “Bolster,” comes bundled with a Spotify-like app featuring a growing library of meditation “tracks,” “EPs,” and “mixtapes.”

The cozy conflation of content and comfort is not a recent digital development

These pillows might feel symptomatic of media’s recent creep into every moment and dimension of our lives — a silicon colonization both laid bare and exacerbated by our current self-isolation and video sociality. It is tempting to say that in this year of plague, injustice, civil unrest, and political anxiety, we have achieved some kind of full enclosure. Media technologies are not only our means of news gathering, but also our platforms for work, activism, relaxation, and even our escape from media themselves. Like Homer Simpson’s beer, they are the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems. My undergraduate students used to take Mark Deuze’s claim that we live in medianot with them — as an intriguing provocation. Today, they just nod in agreement in their little Zoom boxes.

However, pillow speakers and speaker pillows have a long history. The earliest patent I’ve found was applied for in 1947 by one W. S. Halsted, who invented “a portable radio-receiver arranged within the confines of a sanitary pillow structure which is adapted to provide audible program material in addition to a degree of physical comfort to the listener.” Similar analog-era innovations included a device that deployed sound and vibration to soothe restless infants and the use of headphones to deliver white noise as “audio-analgesia” in dentists’ offices.

The cozy conflation of content and comfort, then, is not a recent digital development. Nor is it, I would argue, a quirky edge case of media use. In fact, this is what media are: tools for altering how the body feels and what it perceives, controlling our relationship to others and the world, enveloping ourselves, and even disappearing ourselves.

Granted, this is not the definition you’ll find on Wikipedia, whose page on media defines them as “communication outlets or tools used to store and deliver information or data.” But notice how this definition renders users and their motives invisible. Scholars and laypeople alike have typically embraced this conception of media, and idealized it, focusing primarily on the speed, reach, accuracy, and power of information — as if its freedom were intrinsically and positively correlated with our own. In reality, human beings are more fundamentally invested in the base freedom from pain, fear, and discomfort than they are in the intellectual freedom to learn.

How did we come to imagine media networks as linking our brains rather than our flesh, bones, and guts? This mistake is worth exploring because it has left our embodied desire for comfort and security less scrutinized — and thus, more vulnerable to manipulation for economic and political gain.

The motive for all media use, I would argue, can be found in the pages of Spinoza’s Ethics. Conceiving of humans as bodies that contend with the constant churn of cause and effect, he writes that we experience three basic affects: joy (when the world enlivens and enables us), sadness (when it diminishes and disables us), and desire (for the things we believe will bring joy and prevent sadness). Media are the servants of desire. If we live in media today, it is because we have spent many decades — if not thousands of years — trying to secure a joyful enclosure.

Our failure to understand media in this way sets up the joyless paradox the West now seems to find itself in. Media are defined as means for transmitting information, and an informed populace is thought to be the foundation of liberal democracy. So it is bewildering to find that increased information availability has actually fragmented any shared understanding of the world and amplified enmity between those inhabiting increasingly differentiated dataspaces. For many in the United States, this state of affairs hit home most powerfully as a feeling of abject terror in the early hours of November 9th, 2016, with the confirmation of Donald Trump’s election as President. For liberals and many progressives, it seemed unfathomable that almost half the country could vote for Trump. Most immediately leapt to infocentric explanations: poor education, “idiocracy,” fake news, filter bubbles.

We have spent many decades trying to secure a joyful enclosure. Our failure to understand media as the servants of desire sets up the joyless paradox the West now finds itself in

But as I argued at the time, misinformation was really just a symptom of the underlying affective dynamics. The white working class did not vote for Trump because of online misinformation — rather, they circulated misinformation online because it sparked joy. They embraced his lies because they were the equivalent of a media pillow, a cozy conflation of content and comfort that refreshed them and made them feel empowered. They took refuge in Trump’s dogwhistle populism, used it as a salve for sad feelings and bruised egos in an era they felt catered to every identity position but their own. Many shocked progressives reacted by cocooning themselves similarly: increasing their partisan news consumption, doomscrolling for the latest hint of threat or salvation, and increasing their online political activism. All acts of desire in the Spinozan sense.

Curiously, in the midst of this unprecedented volume of political discourse, both sides nevertheless claim that diminished freedom of information is undermining liberal democracy. The left decries right-wing echo chambers and the gagging of government scientists. The right condemns social media censorship, trigger warnings, and free speech restrictions on campus. As of yet, neither side quite understands that our near-mystical belief in information — what I call “infocentrism” — is itself exacerbating the problem and obscuring its affective causes.

There is a double error in the popular understanding of media and media users. First is an underpowered, idealist conception of media that limits their role to the communication of news, entertainment, and messages, thus disconnecting media from the broader material history of human tools. Second is a slippage into what Katherine Hayles calls “the condition of virtuality,” defining the world and ourselves via the information architecture that supports our media, disconnecting ourselves conceptually from the embodied, affective history of humanity. Instead of imagining media the same way we understand pillows, houses, weapons, and all of the other things we use instinctively to protect and enable our frail, irrational selves, we conceived of them as constituting a public square of floating minds or an information superhighway headed for the disembodied singularity. We vaguely imagined some kind of enlightened superego behind the wheel, then the id grabbed the keys and started the Tesla.

Today, many look at the blood on the flagstones and the carnage on the asphalt and wonder what went wrong. As Tom Scocca wrote recently, the awful stuff has won, as online conspiracy theories, memes, and outrage turn into real bloodshed: “The online realm is no longer imaginable as a separate and frictionless alternative to the older plane of existence known, by disparaging retronym, as ‘meatspace.’” The phrase in question here is “no longer imaginable.” Is this so? Are we finally shedding the fiction that information is frictionless? Or, even better, the religious fantasy that information is the mental essence and higher purpose to which the body is rightfully subservient? Are we ready to abandon the image of information as the consciousness-raising monolith in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001? Because, in reality, it is the femur used to brain the other apes. And the sooner we fully accept this, the sooner we can begin to wield it wisely.

The misrecognition of media is due in large part to the specificities of 20th-century communication technologies and their attendant theories. Responding to the one-to-many capabilities of newspapers, film, radio, and television, media scholars generally defined their object of study as technologies used to broadcast messages over distances to the masses. Laypeople also embraced the notion that media simply inform, entertain, and send messages. Both our fears and fantasies about media’s future were constrained by this idealist definition. Early mass communications scholars focused on the threat of broadcast political propaganda. The Frankfurt School criticized mass-produced entertainment content, while subsequent cultural scholars debated the ideological politics of representation.

The white working class did not vote for Trump because of online misinformation. They circulated misinformation online because it sparked joy

Meanwhile, cybernetics and information theory quickly transgressed the boundaries of engineering, telecommunications, and computing to enter popular consciousness. Information, we learned, could be found in everything from DNA to heavenly bodies. By 1984, J. David Bolter wrote that the computer was “giving us a new definition of man, as an ‘information processor.’” We hear this infocentrism daily, in talk of “processing emotions” or when Elon Musk tweets that diseases such as coronavirus amount to “a software problem.” Philosophers and historians of information mystically privilege its patterns over physical presence and human agency, as when James Gleick writes, “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.”

There are better, human-centered ways of framing the evolution of communication and information technology. Recent decades have seen a wave of scholarship that reinstates human bodies, infrastructures, and affects to media’s material history. For millennia, these scholars remind us, media were used as logistical devices — tools used to manage humans’ relations with themselves, others, and the environment. “The medium of writing was first used in Mesopotamia to keep inventories of such things as bread, beer, wheat, and labor time. Lyric, epic, and treatise came later,” writes John Durham Peters. Media such as calendars, ledgers, and the abacus provided new ways of perceiving and controlling the environment, time, resources, and labor, making people more effective agents. As Michel Foucault observed, journals were technologies that afforded new ways of perceiving and controlling the self. Musical instruments, artistic media, and mediating rituals and architectural spaces developed to integrate individuals into social and celestial forces larger than themselves.

Peters notes that our digital devices have brought this older sense of mediation back into view: unlike the television, our smartphone contains clock, calendar, abacus, ledger, journal, music production, and virtual spaces for interactive social ritual. The transmission of information is an insufficient concept for capturing the purposes and practices in these heterogeneous orderings of self, others, and environment. The popular conception of information obscures what we actually do with our smartphones; even worse, infocentrism naturalizes the very pressures and harms we currently experience in what we call the information society and the information economy.

For my part, I recently published a counter-history of media in the age of information, tracing the evolution of sonic technologies that block the transmission of messages and reshape affective relations. Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control details the rise of white noise machines, LPs of nature sounds, noise cancelling headphones, and the like. One app that I’ve studied is called White Noise, one of thousands of smartphone apps that make what we might call comfort sounds. Its developer, Todd Moore, told me the app was popular from the start, but he got a huge surge in downloads in 2009 due to smartphone-using babies. In that year, the Washington Post published the story of a newborn who became accustomed to sleeping to the sound of an air conditioner. When the weather cooled and the baby’s parents no longer ran the air conditioner, the baby was unable to sleep. Enter White Noise: “For the next four months, the infant slept with his father’s iPhone in his crib and White Noise tuned to the ‘air conditioner’” setting, the reporter wrote. “The monotonous buzz kept the baby sleeping soundly and his parents happy.” After the article ran, babies became a major source of revenue for Moore’s company — or at least their parents did.

The phenomenon of the smartphone-using baby defies our cognitivist definitions of media as technologies used to transmit information that represents meaning. Although there are many competing theories of childhood development, no developmental psychologist would claim that an infant is decoding symbols or reading representations when using the White Noise app. In other words, the sound of the air conditioner represents nothing to the infant. Adult users of White Noise are more cognitively developed, of course, but they use the app in the same way: Its primary function is not to inform them or entertain them or communicate any message to them at all.

If White Noise doesn’t inform or entertain or send messages, does the smartphone suddenly stop functioning as a media device when we use the app? I’d say no. Instead, there’s a different kind of mediation going on. The sound of the air conditioner facilitates a temporary equilibrium between baby and environment — it blocks out transient noises, it creates a safe space though sound. Most of the settings in the app contain the SHHHHHHHH sound — rain, waterfall, ocean waves, white noise, brown noise, blue noise, and so on. These sounds all contain noise, the opposite of information. These apps block out communication by creating a wall of noise, allowing the user to shape the space around them and rest, sleep, concentrate, or do whatever they want without intrusion. What White Noise mediates is the user’s relationship to their environment — they are given a means of control over that relationship.

Even the High Lamas of infocentrism understood that it all boiled down to control. “The scientist is always working to discover the order and organization of the universe,” wrote Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, “and is thus playing a game against the arch enemy, disorganization.” Only through control could we combat the entropy and noise into which the universe yearns to dissolve. This is the infocentric dream built into all our digital technologies.

What this dream fails to acknowledge, however, is that information exists only in the perception of an observer. It is a pattern perceived in the world by a subject, from its limited perspective — not an immanent, transcendent essence in the universe capable of uniting subjects. As the Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana once said, “Information does not exist, it is a useless notion in biology.” In their theorization of autopoiesis, Maturana and Francisco Varela claim that organisms do not glean objective information from their environment, but rather construct information from the perturbations of their environment. This information is both limited by the organism’s bodily capacities and motivated by its need to maintain its own structural integrity. In other words, information is always generated in the pursuit of Spinoza’s joyful affects.

It is easy to see why we carefully guard our consciousness in bespoke digital assemblages today. And yet, for all of this comforting control, it can never be enough

In the epic tale of Jason and the Argonauts, we meet Orpheus, the Argo’s musical clergyman. When the Argo encounters the fatal song of Sirens, Orpheus plays his lyre and sings a countersong to protect himself and his fellow Argonauts, creating a noise-canceling signal of sorts, a wall of sound. Like Orpheus, we all travel through a world of things and individuals that affect us. Attempting to navigate these sometimes-rough seas and atmospheres, we use media not to process objective information about the world, but to pursue what feels enlivening and enabling and to avoid what makes us feel diminished and disabled — the way a single-celled organism moves toward a sensed food source and recoils from a perceived threat. We are evolutionarily more complex, of course, but we are still versions of these self-maintaining systems. As a counterpoint to infocentrism, I have suggested the concept of “orphic media”: that through media, we use words and symbols and sound and light and image and stories and news and our favorite songs but ultimately, we do all these things in service of maintaining our vitality.

Sadly, as we use media to engage the world, many of our motivating feelings and beliefs about what empowers and disempowers us are what Spinoza called “inadequate ideas” — shortsighted, incomplete, and inaccurate — causing us to behave unethically and use media in ways that hurt others and even ourselves. John Protevi, a skillful synthesist of Spinozan affect theory and Varelan systems theory, writes that the health of our bodies politic relies upon achieving an observer position vis-à-vis our own affection ideas. In other words, we must reflect upon and discern what really enables and disables us, challenging our own habits of boundary maintenance.

The problem is that information capitalism revolves around selling increasingly differentiated media comforts, catering to our desires rather than helping us reflect upon their structural causes. As my historical study of orphic media has shown, these technologies are always marketed in terms of protecting a deeply felt and individualized identity. In the 1960s, white noise machines were marketed to white suburban housewives as technologies of domestic tranquility. In the 1970s and 80s, the environments record series positioned itself as a calming but countercultural anti-Muzak for a hippy generation entering adulthood. When noise-cancelling headphones first appeared in the 2000s, Bose marketed them to the upscale, white business traveler. Today, Beats by Dr. Dre markets its similar headphones as tools for people of color to survive systemic racism and microagression.

Media in general thrive or fail according to this orphic logic, as filter bubbles, algorithmic feeds, and niche video streams displace the big-tent media channels that once allowed us to think in terms of a public square. Market logic centers on individualized comforts and freedoms in order to maximize profit. Political media foregrounds the threat the other side poses to one’s identity, in order to maximize power. Add to this the unprecedented attentional demands placed on us by the information economy and it is easy to see why we carefully guard our consciousness in bespoke digital assemblages today.

And yet, for all of this comforting control, it can never be enough. The more one unthinkingly pursues joyful enclosure, the more exquisitely sensitive one becomes to discomfiting inputs, whether sensory or ideological. Over time, you need to turn up the white noise a little louder to avoid distraction and soon the thought of sleeping without a media pillow becomes impossible. On the right, the desire for joy has already led to epistemic closure, as Fox News Republicanism further devolves into the One America News Network, Parler, and QAnon message board varieties, rendering empirical realities such as coronavirus and Biden’s victory unassimilable.

It is true that on the left, much greater effort is made toward the self-awareness Protevi advises. And yet, did liberals and progressives not use the seemingly objective data of political polls as a warm blanket during the fear-filled days of the 2020 election? And didn’t many of those polls once again fail to capture reality, due to assumptions about identity made by their liberal-leaning creators? As we attempt to shake off this year’s election hangover, the last thing we should do is dismiss Trump’s many voters as uninformed. In fact, our own confusion proves the dismal truth: a surfeit of information provides not solid ground to stand on, but rather a bounty of sand for sticking one’s head in.

As the coronavirus era has shown us, every crisis — even a disease of the flesh — will push us toward a greater embrace of the control that the digital offers us. Acknowledging our solipsistic, comfort-craving nature is the necessary first step to exerting digital control ethically, for the benefit of all. Fully rejecting the notion that information transcends, unites, and enlightens feels both counterintuitive and scary. But there is a glimmer of hope in this acceptance. If we could truly communicate like the angels and fully control what we perceived, there would be no place for desire in this world. It is the very fact that we can never truly know the other — or the world — that keeps us exploring, reaching out, asking questions, and listening.

James W. Carey wrote that our term “communication” has two different historical meanings embedded in it — what he called a “transmission view” and a “ritual view.” The transmission view is the one that dominates — communication means sending information across a distance. The ritual view is largely forgotten, but we can find its traces in words similar to communication such as commonness, communion, and community. Carey explains that the ritual view “is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time.” This is the form of communication that allows individual self-maintaining systems to come together into large and healthy self-maintaining systems.

For decades we’ve had the infocentric faith that if we designed media for transmission, the ritual part would come of its own accord, creating an enlightened global village. At the end of this most horrible of years, we may all finally realize it doesn’t work that way. Our challenge now is to design ritual technologies. We need digital media that help us reflect upon and open up our own media enclosures. We need tools for what Kate Lacy calls “listening out” or “engaging voices that are unfamiliar or uneasy on the ear.” We need group spaces — virtual and physical — built for expanding our individualistic notions of joy and repairing our self-defeating habits of desire. But doing so will depend upon defeating the political, cultural, and technological elites that prey upon our basest instincts in the name of information’s freedom.

Mack Hagood is the Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies at Miami University, Ohio. He has published work on subjects such as tinnitus, the use of noise-canceling headphones in air travel, the noise of fans in NFL football stadiums, indie rock in Taiwan, and the ontology of Foley and digital film sound. His book Hush: Media and Sonic Self Control is about “orphic media,” apps and devices used to create a comfortable sense of space through sound. He is the producer and host of Phantom Power, a podcast about sound and sound art.