Friday, January 28, 2011

Watching Together

Some people say media technologies push us apart.  They say our televisions, MP3 players, smart phones, and computers isolate us from each other.  There is some truth to this.

I have walked by the Starbucks near my house and seen it full of people -- all of them with their laptop computers in front of them, many of them with earphones connected to their computers, and none of them talking with each other.  A room full of people communing with their devices or communing with people in distant places on their devices.

Consider the title of Sherry Turkle's recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

But in other ways, our media technologies bring us together.  They provide experiences for people to share simultaneously across the nation.

For instance, 25 years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the Florida sky not long after its takeoff.  And this happened on live television.  Millions saw it at the same time.  Many people can recall where they were, what they were doing (other than watching television).  Thousands of school children saw it happen because they were in their classrooms watching together.  Christa McAuliffe was onboard, and she was a school teacher.  The first school teacher to go into space.  Or at least try to.

I was working at a newspaper in Oklahoma on that day in 1986.  I recall standing in the newsroom with my coworkers, watching the takeoff.  I recall us asking, "It is supposed to be doing that?"  A moment later, the shuttle exploded.

I do not simply recall it.  I can see it all vividly.  The newsroom.  My friends who worked there.  The papers I held in my hand.  Where I stood.  The television that was suspended near the ceiling so the entire newsroom could see it throughout the day.

These national experiences shared through the media are not new.  Many people, for instance, can remember where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  The nation knew instantly because of television and radio.  But not every person was listening or watching at the same time.  People often tell stories about where they were when they learned of the event.  Not where they were when they witnessed it.

I think that makes a big difference in the degree to which such events are burned into the national memory.

I think it also can make some events seem more important than others because their images were shared.  Some important things happen off camera, but they do not impact the national consciousness as they should simply because they are not on television.

A commentator was on NPR this week talking about the Challenger disaster.  He said that the Challenger disaster taught Americans that space travel was more dangerous than they had believed it to be. He said this explains the lack of national trauma when Columbia broke up when re-entering the Earth's atmosphere in 2003 -- we were not that surprised.  I don't know that he is right.  I think the real difference is that so much of the nation was watching Challenger's launch.  Not nearly as many people were following Columbia's path toward its scheduled landing.  At that stage, it was still a dot in the sky over New Mexico and then Texas.  There was not much to televise.

A similar phenomenon happened with the events on Sept. 11, 2001.  The nation watched the World Trade Center be destroyed.  We all saw the second plane fly into a building.  We all watched the two towers burn and then collapse.  Those images became iconic.  They have been repeated countless times in photograph, video, and art.

But on that same day the Pentagon was attacked and people died there.  And the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 fought their hijackers and the plane crashed in a field outside Shanksville, Penn., killing everyone on board.  Yet those two events did not capture the national imagination as much as the events in New York City.  We can say that this is reasonable because so many more people died at the World Trade Center.  In that sense, it was more tragic.  But, again, I think the real difference is that one event was witnessed on live television and the others were not.  No iconic images are available from the Pentagon or Pennsylvania.

The "live" quality of these images can be exaggerated.  Once captured, the images can be played throughout the day -- as they were on Sept. 11.  How many times did we see the airplane fly into the side of the building?  How many times did we see Challenger explode?  And in the days after the events?  A dozen?  A hundred?  A thousand?

At the heart of ritual is repetition.  Sometimes within the individual ritual, its participants repeat some words, songs, or actions.  If not that, then the ritual itself is repeated through the year or from year to year.  The showing and sharing of these nationally traumatic images can become like a ritual.  Like a ritual, they are shared.  Through the repetition that marks ritual, they are embedded more deeply into our memories and identities.  And like many rituals, this process is shared with a community.  In this case, the nation.

Rituals also mark a break in the sequence of daily or mundane activities.  For instance, many people do not go to school or work for certain holidays.  When traumatic events are televised, the media spectacle can become like a ritual in that the normal broadcast schedule is interrupted.  In a sense, time stops.  On Sept. 11, schools closed.  Government workers were sent home.  Our daily clocks stopped, and we entered ritual time. And in that space we shared the virtual experience of the national trauma.

For more on this idea of media spectacle as ritual, see Yasmin Ibrahim's "Distant Suffering and Postmodern Subjectivity: The Communal Politics of Pity."

Richard Scobee
Also, I should say the Challenger disaster touched me in a personal way.  Not at the time, but later.  A few years later I met and became very close friends with Kathie Scobee Fulgham -- the daughter of Challenger's commander, Richard Scobee.   In order to have become commander of a space shuttle, he must have been a great astronaut.  And judging from the wonderful human being his daughter became, he must have been a great father.


  1. I wasn't around for this, but don't they also say that the proliferation of TVs in every home caused the Vietnam War to be the first war that Americans really pushed back against, precisely because they could "see" what war "looks like?" It's just amazing how powerful that visual connection is, and you make a great point about this push back against technology as separating people. I've been leaning that direction, too, but your comment makes me re-think the collectivity that goes into a shared visual/auditory space.


  2. Scott,

    I was in my first year of service in the Navy. Every lunch break we sat in the TV lounge with sack lunches & watched Batman reruns, but that day we watched Challenger coverage. It was surreal and indelible.

    I will have to look at your book on media spectacle. Sculptor Marc Berghaus has made a similar commentary with his sculpture Freeway Chase noting that our society no longer has any true rituals, but instead rely upon media events for ritual.