Mass communication

One of the latest fads to grace the conventional wisdom is the assertion (and I paraphrase) that unfettered mass communication is tantamount to the Second Coming.  Whether it’s the credibility-shaking claim that the Time “Person of the Year” is “you,” or the deification of Wikipedia/MySpace/YouTube/Linux as the harbingers of a new and enlightened social consciousness, the message of the technorati is the same: New tools of mass communication are freeing the flow of information, and this is an unmitigated Good Thing.

Well, OK.  I’ll admit to an almost slavish addiction to my myriad e-mail accounts, and I’ve been known to grace an IM conference or two in my day.  I even, on rare occasion, use SMS (text messaging) on my BlackBerry.  Yet there is a world of difference in taking advantage of the sundry conveniences wrought by our relentlessly advancing technology, and in claiming that this technology marks a new epoch in human social relations.

Consider the argument offered by those sophisticates most inclined to drink the bleeding-edge Kool Aid.  They suggest that the proliferation of free or very-low-cost tools permitting the widespread distribution of information means a great number of emotionally pleasing but astonishingly vague benefits will logically follow:  stronger democracy, better information, more enlightened debate unconstrained by the traditional limits on engaging in mass democracy (e.g., owning a press or possessing the financial means to influence the organs of government).

Trend-watchers will point to the bloggers’ exposure of Dan Rather’s memos as a crowning achievement of the citizen journalists.  All hail the common man as he slays the beast of corporate media!

I don’t dispute that there may, in certain circumstances, be situations where the touchy-feely argument holds.  China and Iran seem good case studies; in both countries, dissidents are using the Internet to facilitate collaboration and communication in ways that are undermining (however subtly) an otherwise authoritarian regime.  Such examples, however, are not especially controversial, and raising them as defense of an original major premise seems to border on the tautological.

The more interesting aspect to the spread of tools of mass communication rests not in the developing world, but in the industrialized North.  The very vanguard of the revolution points to its eventual Thermidor — since the masses tend to use these new tools like MySpace or YouTube in disgustingly narcissistic pursuits, it seems inevitable that the “old media” owners of the established communications channels will eventually purchase or license the hammers and sickles of the new media proletariat.  It’s hard to claim the high road against commercial exploitation, after all, when the audience has already laid the paving-stones on the low road.

For no matter how much some are cheering the growth of blogs, video-sharing services and social-networking hubs, the overwhelming evidence points to the ugly truth that The People are not interested in becoming little Patrick Henrys, but rather prefer to use the Internet as a giant exhibition hall, so that the artifacts of self-glorification of the voyeurs, by the voyeurs and for the voyeurs shall not perish from the Google Search Results window.

Ever been to MySpace?  Or perused the roster of clips on YouTube?  They offer innumerable mini pantheons erected to the great god Ego.  Bluster, name-dropping, “being seen” — these are the primary purposes to which “mass communication” is being directed.  Even projects that seem to have some redeeming value, such as Wikipedia, have to be protected from the very people intended to contribute to it, lest they spoil it with pranks or false information.

There is a subset of people for whom the responsibilities of living in a world of instant mass communication will be taken to heart.  These are many of the Old Guard of the early days of the Internet, who remember what Usenet was like before AOL granted its members access to public newsgroups, and who built e-mail protocols not believing that widespread forgery of headers would become routine by people hoping to get a cheap buck or to infect an unsuspecting user’s computer.

I do not mean to sound like a curmudgeon.  I am generally enthusiastic about the innovations in computer and commnications technology that are easing the long-standing barriers among people.  Heck, this is a blog entry, after all.  But I am loath to invest in this phenomenon the same degree of pseudo-messianic significance that seems to be trickling through the e-salons of über-enlightened hipdom.

With every complex good thing comes the potential for many unintended consequences.  E-mail, wikis, IM protocols and the like can provide benefits — real benefits, as in Iran, or mere conveniences — but they remain, in the end, nothing more than tools manipulated by ordinary people.  And the essence of people will not change simply because they get these shiny new tools.  Our impulses are still governed by the same biological drives, and our actions are still stained by the same fallen nature.  We remain just as capable of dignity or depravity, of beauty or barbarism, of wisdom or witlessness, as we were ten years ago — and we will remain thus, ten or a thousand years hence.

By all means, use the technology, if you can.  But do not mistake a material cause of our ongoing social development with its efficient cause.  The new tools of mass communication are merely a means to an end, and their presence or absence does not change the essence of who we are as thinking, feeling beings. And they never will.

In other words … skip the Kool Aid.

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