Mediated to Death?

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on February 24, 2010

By Matthew Eppinette, CBC New Media Manager

Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It is an exploration of the way in which media, broadly construed (“arts and artifacts that represent, that communicate”), impact the way in which we perceive both the world and ourselves. The author covers a number of topics, including the expansion of choices and options in every area of life, the extension of adolescence, the decline of heroes alongside the rise of celebrities, political apathy, busyness, and changing attitudes toward nature.

The development of mediating technologies is part of the project of modernity, and these technologies tend toward making everything optional.  That is to say, events, experiences, and other aspects of life are being turned into nothing more than options.  Choose them or don’t choose them.  It doesn’t matter.  Except when it does.  What he terms “Justin’s Helmet Principle” dictates that some options — such as bicycle helmets for children — are less optional than others, because they clearly are such good ideas that no one would opt out of them.

Interestingly, as an example of the way in which mediation drives everything toward the optional, de Zengotita cites euthanasia, particularly as the “baby boomer” generation ages. Indeed, much of the biomedical/ biotechnological project, and the bioethical questions that accompany it, arises from the aim of alleviating, or making optional, human suffering, particularly suffering from disease.

I do wonder, though, if we sometimes lose sight of other important goods in our drive to alleviate suffering from disease, and in the search for technological solutions to our problems. Let’s stick with his example of euthanasia. Aside from the fact that it is the deliberate ending of a human life — which seems to be an increasingly peripheral issue for many — other important issues are at stake. Isn’t there some way in which caring for others, and even allowing ourselves to be cared for, at the end of life can serve as uniquely positive experiences for individuals, for families, for communities, and even for society? What do we miss out on when we do not allow ourselves to be cared for, or when opportunities to care for others are withdrawn? Could it be that caring for others and being cared for in times of suffering might occasion an opportunity for something larger to occur?

I’m not suggesting that we be vitalists, employing any means necessary to eek out a little more time. Nor am I arguing that we seek out suffering. But suffering is part of life. It will find us. I’m thankful that some of it (much of it) has been made at least somewhat optional. But the trajectory of de Zengotita’s thesis is driving toward making everything always optional. Where and how we draw boundaries are profound challenges. These challenges are not exclusive to the biomedical/biotechnological/bioethical realm, but because of the intimate, personal nature of sickness and health, some of the most difficult and pressing questions will arise in this arena.

In the end, de Zengotita asserts that the essential goal of modernity is our putting ourselves in the place of God. He writes:

The aim of modernity fulfilled means this: humanly created options that endow ordinary people with entitlements no mortal in history, no matter how exalted, could ever have assumed before.  While these entitlements are now limited to a relative and privileged few, this cohort already comprises many millions, shows every indication of expanding, and is, in any case, the source of the global zeitgeist.  Members of this cohort either have, or can realistically anticipate, the obliteration of all barriers of time and space, instant access to every text and image ever made, the free exercise of any lifestyle or belief system that does not infringe on the choices of others, custom-made environments, commodities, and experiences in every department of activity, multiple enhancements of mind and body, the eradication of disease, the postponement of death, and the manufacture of their progeny in their own image.

Plus improvements.

That’s right. The ultimate example of modernity fully realized is human cloning for reproductive purposes. It’s not clear whether de Zengotita thinks this (or indeed the heavily mediated world in which we live) is a good thing or a bad thing. He seems simply to take it as the way things are and will be.

One of the things Mediated does not address is how little we know about how the mediating technologies with which we are surrounded work. The fact is, we are increasingly relying on technologies (cell phones, computers, the internet, etc.) about which we generally have only vague notions as to how they work, if that. One of the effects of this is that we are less critical and more accepting of new technologies. Thus, when new biotechnologies such as human cloning come on the scene, we are more likely to get bogged down in semantic or political issues than to seek to understand exactly what is going on and what is at stake. This is because we have become accustomed to thinking that we do not need to understand or, indeed, that we cannot understand.

This emphasizes the importance of education and information on what various biotechnologies are, how they work, and what, in the end, is at stake. It is only by doing the hard work of coming to understand them that we will ensure that biomedicine and biotechnologies serve a truly human future. Mediated is a helpful reminder that we are immersed in a technologically mediated space that radically influences how we view the world and ourselves.

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