Remember Three Days of the Condor, the paranoid political thriller with Robert Redford that came out in 1975, just four years after The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers? Redford played Joseph Turner, a low-level CIA agent who stumbles upon a rogue element in the CIA that is planning to invade a Middle Eastern country to protect American oil interests there. At the end of the film, Redford is confronted by a top CIA agent (Cliff Robertson) who is one of the chief malefactors. They are standing outside the Times building, and Redford declares to Robertson that he has told the newspaper the whole story. Outraged at first, Robertson smiles sardonically. “How do you know they’ll print it?” he says. “They’ll print it,” Redford replies with confidence as he starts to move away into the crowd. Robertson taunts him: “You can take a walk, but how far if they don’t print it?” Redford freezes, and the film ends with a close-up of his panicked face.
You can draw a straight line from this frantic expression to WikiLeaks, a new kind of clearinghouse or Craigslist for the divulgence of secret documents. Our interactive, participatory age is the fulfillment of Joseph Turner’s sudden doubts about the media as a potent, autonomous institution. We have to start taking things into our own hands. This rising interactivity and participatory-ness defines us more and more. As artists such as Marina Abramovic make art that offers an interactive experience to a single person, as theaters offer plays for a participating audience of one, as the worlds of art, entertainment and even politics seems to offer direct relationships in participatory environments, fewer people seem to have a use for the mediating media. In 2010, Deep Throat would not only brush right past The Washington Post and publish his revelations on the Internet through WikiLeaks or some other similar venue; he’d have his own reality show.
The truth is that the authority of print media was already foundering by the time The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. When antiwar demonstrators chanted “the whole world is watching” at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, they set electronic media on the path toward today’s interactivity. Americans sat stunned before their television sets as they watched Mayor Daley’s cops beat the protesters bloody in the streets. One year before, Americans had sat stunned before their television sets as tens of thousands of antiwar protestors descended on Washington. In 1970, Americans once again sat helpless and outraged in their living rooms as the evening news showed images of the dead students at Kent State. Compared to the despair induced by TV’s turbulent images, the print media resembled agents of history—the feeling of impotency induced by watching baleful events unfold on TV while being unable to do anything about them was what gave the Pentagon Papers their sensational impact. Finally, someone is striking back from a position of power! But at the same time as television was making newspapers more relevant as levers of change, it was leaving them behind as it presented the possibility that someday technology might make it possible for the whole world to watch you, the viewer, too.
Once the war cry of a special historic occasion, “the whole world is watching” has become an everyday fact of social and cultural life. We are not content to sit passively before our televisions watching events that we cannot experience or influence. We now want the whole world to watch us as we merge into what we ourselves have just been watching, or as we act out the spectacle of ourselves. The media is called the media because it “mediates” events for us. It sifts among, selects from, analyzes and explains events; it stands between events and us. But now, from retail to health care to art and entertainment, the drive is to cut out the mediating “middleman” from the process. We are fed up with being passive.
The irony to all this is that it was precisely passivity—the feeling of rage and helplessness people felt as they watched the carnage overseas and at home on TV—that made protesting crowds take to the streets during the Vietnam War. They needed direct action. Nowadays, the Internet and its myriad resources extend to us the mirage of direct action in the form of, among other things, “wikiing” and venting on our Twitter and Tumblr accounts and on all manner of blogs. Nobody is taking to the streets. And so nothing changes. A mighty newspaper publishes an alarming exposé about the war in Afghanistan? Let’s link to it.
As the serious business of exposing official falsehood mutates into the entertaining shtick of embarrassing isolated public personalities, we seem numb to the fact that the Internet itself is one of the greatest mediators of all time. It turns every grisly truth into a satisfying spectacle that is illusorily tailored to an audience of one. It offers an unparalleled catharsis to political rage. Yet although catharsis is liberating in the realm of art, it is stultifying in the realm of politics. The war machine grinds away in Afghanistan, the official deceits have been fastidiously and heroically documented by The New York Times and the Guardian for years, the Afghan War Diary put it all together in a staggering narrative, yet the campuses are as quiet as the clicks of a trillion mouses.