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A Reflection on watching the video of Osama bin Laden watching the video of Osama bin Laden

May 8, 2011

Watching the video of Osama bin Laden watching the video of Osama bin Laden was stunning. I immediately thought of Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in ItDe Zengotita offers brilliant insight into the postmodern human condition, but his pessimism about humanity’s prospects irritates me. I heard him say in an interview that he felt like Nietzsche when he wrote his book: he doesn’t like what he is saying, he wishes it wasn’t true, but he feels compelled to say it.

In Mediated, de Zengotita offers a continuum along which our experiences can be placed:

  • Real real – moments in life that just happen, like tripping and falling
  • Observed real – driving by a car wreck
  • Edited real real – shtick you have down so pat you don’t know it’s shtick anymore
  • Edited observed real – documentaries
  • Staged real – weddings, politicians
  • Edited staged real – pictures of weddings and politicians
  • Staged observed real – Survivor, reality TV
  • Staged realistic – regular movies, TV
  • Staged hyperreal – “realistic” movies and TV like Malcolm in the Middle
  • Overtly unreal realistic – digitized special effects like those seen in Inception
  • Covertly unreal realistic – undetectable special effects
  • Real unreal: Robo-pets
  • Unreal real: genetically altered stuff

According to de Zengotita, we live in a “world of effects,” and the possibility of “real real” is almost zero. He refers to “precious accidents” as the only way we’re likely to experience true authenticity.

The romantic in me resists that notion. While I recognize the startling degree to which our lives are mediated, and aim to be a part of analyzing the implications and appropriate responses to this situation, I hold out hope that authenticity is more accessible than de Zengotita asserts. The voices of Keats, Thoreau, Twain, Wendell Berry, and countless others inspire me to look around and see the good, the true, and the beautiful in the world.

The romantic in me gets inspired when the rugged individual overcomes the omnipotent reach of technology. I loved Brain Christian’s account of he and his fellow human beings soundly defeating their computer opponents in the 2009 Turing Test competition. I cheered for Christian, who won the Most Human Human award, as I read the last two lines of his report: “The fact is, the human race got to where it is by being the most adaptive, flexible, innovative and quick-learning species on the
planet. We’re not going to take defeat lying down.”

And so, as odd as this may sound because I despise everything that bin Laden stands for, I was intrigued by the thought of him on horseback in the unforgiving terrain of the white mountains, hiding out in the Tora Bora caverns and evading the most
sophisticated weapons and surveillance systems known to man. Please don’t misunderstand me: I wanted him caught, but this image was a compelling one. The fanatic rejecting the trappings of modern life, whether Emerson, Thoreau, Christopher
McCandless, or the Unabomber, seems to embody authenticity. If no one else is really real, surely these guys are… or so the romantic in me would like to think.

And so, seeing bin Laden laboring under the postmodern burden of image management is stunning. Surely he was exempt from such concerns. I mean, isn’t it hard to imagine bin Laden seeing pictures of himself on his wife’s Facebook page and saying “please delete that – I look so old”? Just seeing him point the remote control toward the TV seemed incongruous.

It’s one of those moments that occurs with increasing regularity these days: James Frey is exposed as a liar, Jimmy Swaggart is caught soliciting prostitutes, Bear Grylles is discovered retiring to five star hotels at nightfall, and author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson turns out to be a fraud.

Surely somebody out there lives his or her life completely unselfconsciously. Surely somebody is the real deal. Surely authenticity is possible outside of accidental moments. When in doubt, I turn to the very young and the very old. Though the age of image consciousness seems to be getting younger and younger, small children still amaze and entertain us with their bluntness, their ability to be “in the moment,” and their constant state of discovery. Old folks oftentimes shed their inhibitions along with their strength, leading to some refreshing conversations. Just last Christmas, my 82 year old father started telling my teenage sons stories about WWII – particularly ports of call in exotic places toward the end of the war. I heard things I’ve never heard before. My sons were rolling on the floor, which only motivated Dad to keep ’em coming. Unfortunately, Mom cut him off before he did irreparable harm to her precious grandchildren.

Who would have thought the pre-modern warrior bin Laden would be added to the long list of postmodern pretenders? But there he is, sitting in his million dollar compound in his middle class neighborhood, aiming his remote control at the image of himself on the TV screen. You can’t even trust the bad guys these days.


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One Comment
  1. Linked to your thesis from @techsoc Twitter feed and have been perusing your work here. Resonates very much with my own posture toward digital media. Appreciated this analysis in conversation with de Zengotita and the mention of W. Berry. And greatly appreciated you “digital philosophy.” Looking forward to reading more.


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