Monday, August 6, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            Buzzwords are really annoying things. They are words in common currency because they have been repeated so often, to the point where they are being used unthinkingly by most people who use them.

            But if buzzwords are annoying, they are not half as annoying as what should be called buzz-thoughts.

            I mean ideas that are repeated without analysis and become the mantras of the unthinking.

            One of the most annoying current buzz-thoughts is the idea that [electronic] “social media” are a huge boon in bringing the world together and facilitating social communication. Tweet or use your Facebook, and you immediately have dozens of “friends”, share ideas and make the world a more humane community.

            The facility of social media to undercut oppressive government has been cited, especially if we extend the definition of social media to include things captured on mobile phone or shared by e-mail. Immediately we think of brave cell-phone owners posting images of Libyan or Syrian government atrocities on the net; or we think of the way the current Chinese government has erected its famous Great Firewall of China specifically to block the free flow of [electronic] information and ideas.

            So we have the boosting of social media as an aspect of humanization, undercutting unjust censorship.

            But there’s a catch to this, as there is to all innovations in communication.

            The very speed and ease of electronic communication make it easier for the superficial, the glib and the un-thought-through to gain massive currency.

            Each day, when I log in to Facebook, I find much harmless and routine material. Birthday greetings or holiday snaps and baby photos being shared. Notification of events. Worthwhile published articles being drawn to people’s attention.

            But I also find a great flow of the kind of time-filling comments that seem to be there only because it’s possible to post them on Facebook. “Hello, I’ve just baked a cake.” “Gee I hope it tastes good.” etc. etc. And also a ‘sharing’ of unfunny jokes and slogans. On Facebook, discussion (such as it is) has the tendency to become glib sloganeering. Don’t go on Facebook if you really want to nut out ideas on economics, politics, philosophy, religion, culture, art etc. In other words, don’t go on Facebook if you want a real exchange of ideas. Instead, you will find an exchange of sitcom-like one-liners and smart-arseries. As you will if you are a Tweeting twit.

            I am reminded of the fate of CB (Citizen Band) radio a generation or two back. Mooted as early as 1940s, CB became a craze in America especially from the late 1960s and through the 1970s. At first it was suggested that it would be a great medium for free expression and the exchange of ideas, unhindered by the commercial imperatives of network radio. Instead, within the decade, it had become the medium in which truckers swore at each other and a handful of enthusiasts spoke in a code they’d picked up from the movies. You don’t really expect a considered discussion of the defects of liberalism or Plato’s idealism on CB now, do you, good buddy?

            Again, I think of the fate of talkback radio. When it was introduced into New Zealand 30 or 40-odd years ago, its promoters said this would be the voice of the thinking community. Instead, it rapidly became Radio Mogadon, the voice of people with nothing better to do in the middle of the night – a cheap way for radio stations to fill air-time (you don’t have to pay people who call in) and a forum for shared prejudices. Callers to talkback are the bees-in-their-bonnet non-literate equivalent of obsessive writers of letters to the press.

            I know I’m vulnerable to some logical criticisms here.

            Any enhanced form of communication gets debased, in the cultural analogue of Gresham’s Law. I might as well be rebuking the printing press because we both know that the great mass of what is printed is trash.

            Besides, here I am using electronic technology to disseminate my book reviews and comments and general bitching. Aren’t I being a little hypocritical decrying electronic social media? Aren’t I like that famous anecdote of the late medieval scribe who wrote a treatise against the crudity of printed books -  and then had it printed so that it could get a wider audience? Don’t I every day check Facebook to see what comments there are, and then possibly add some of my own?

            True, true, true. But I am no more decrying the existence of electronic and social media than I am decrying the existence of print. I am simply pointing out that many of the claims made for them are inflated.

            Like CB and talkback radio, this speeded-up form of communication is, of itself, not enhancing people’s ability to debate, discuss, think rationally or look at things with considered depth. It can be a signalling system, pointing in the direction of worthwhile material (those postings that suggest a worthwhile article to read). Otherwise, it is a time-filler, and if you spend more than a few minutes on it each day, you have too much time to fill.

            By the way, if you have two thousand, nine hundred and eighty-six “friends” on Facebook, do you know what it really means?

            It means you don’t have a friend in the world.

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