New years lend themselves to reflection, but this is especially true for new decades. I am no exception, but what strikes me as I look back is how closely my personal development has tracked with the development of new media and new technologies. I started college in 1999, back when the .edu email address as standard issue for incoming students was still a pretty new concept. I was no longer identified by whatever silly nickname informed my first email address I used in high school. For the next four years, my online correspondence and identity was linked with a handle assigned to me by some computer system, and there was nothing I could do to change it. In high school, I had a name, but as I began to pass into independent adulthood, I had a user ID.
The first time masses of people around me believed the end of the world was near was with Y2K, all because computers might not be able to understand a date change. Of course, life went on, and when 9/11 happened, the Internet was the first stop for those of us who couldn’t get an intelligible news story from the bewildered commentators on TV in the student union. For me, television was the only media that was able to fully communicate the destruction and fear of that day and those that followed. The images were somehow comforting. If I had only learned of the events by radio or through still pictures (video was not yet commonly found online), I know that my imagination would have dreamed up something even worse than reality.
Also in 2001, I got my first cell phone, since I finally had a car at school and my parents were worried about me driving between Chicago and Champaign by myself with no phone to use in an emergency. Though less clunky than the car phone we had in the family minivan, this one was still fairly cumbersome. I could fit a whopping twelve names in my speed-dial, got whatever ringtone the thing came with, and the digits on the screen looked similar to the digits on a clock radio. By comparison, I can now program a nearly infinite number of contacts into my phone, have the choice of thousands of ringtones which can be customized to match the person calling me, plus I can watch video, check email, take pictures, send pictures, play games, play music, organize my calendar, get directions and much more that would have been a challenge for the desktop computer I had in college.
I graduated college in 2003, and when I moved to New York City for graduate school a few months later, I purchased a refurbished laptop to replace my ancient desktop PC. I upgraded to a snazzy new flip phone with a color screen. I purchased my first television, which also had a VHS and DVD player. Early in 2004, I met the man who is now my husband—through something called Friendster. Also in my grad school years, I first heard of something called “media literacy” in a class I took with Todd Gitlin, and I was hooked. The next year, pinching pennies while writing my thesis, I began a personal experiment/money-saving venture where I cut out TV altogether, and used the set solely for watching videos and DVDs. I quickly came to love the absence of commercials in my apartment, and found that watching things on demand from my library was far better than living by a schedule devised by someone else.
The innovations since 2006 may have been greater in number, but none impacted my life as much as the earlier years. As I grew more independent in my own life, the media and technology industries seemed to grow with me, making their products more accessible, personalized and interactive. I used to feel embarrassed when I got upset with my computer for losing a file or with my phone for dropping a call. With technology having played such a large role in my life, it was easy to put my gadgets through a process of anthropomorphosis. Ten years ago, I was being taught that media happens to me—like it or not, you get an email address, crashing computers will end our planet. On the surface it seems that now, I happen to media—watching what I want when I want it, choosing wallpaper for my smart phone, creating an online space to socialize with people I choose, loading up my laptop with any number of applications and programs to adapt it to my needs. But the more I think about my relationship with media then, now and into the future, one thing seems certain: The line of control will always be blurry. The pursuit of media literacy is just one way to keep that power in check.