Saturday, April 2, 2011

Toward a future of whatever

Thanks to a well timed pointer from one of my professors, I happened across this lecture from Kansas State anthropology professor Michael Wesch:

There's a lot of interesting things going on in this talk: questions about identity and authenticity, connection and constraint, anonymity and confession. Most of the talk revolves around YouTube -- particularly video bloggers -- but there's also some thinking about disengagement and trivialities in the context of our current media environment. It's got a touch of the ol' digital utopianism, but I always prefer that to the "the Internet is destroying identity/community/the social world" dytopic view, as well as to the "it's just YouTube, what does it matter?" take.

It also began with one of my favourite bits of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. I've got some problems with the way Postman confronted technology in some of his later work, but I think he was spot on here, in the introduction to that book:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would been no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.' In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
The necessity of a critical understanding of new media for social life is embedded in this tension. We have seen, over the past few months, what it looks like when government shuts down access to the internet -- an Orwellian tale. What we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of is the question of what the internet means for individualism in a liberal capitalist society. Professor Michael Wesch is working on it. If all goes well, I hope to be working on it too.


John M said...

One component relating to individuality is, I think, whether social networks in wealthy societies are a kind of Foucaultian panopticon that disciplines and normalizes the way we act and present ourselves online. That is, we are surveilling one another while also being surveilled, all the time.

(I've written about this some on my blog.)

Sarah said...

Thanks for the comment (and the link to your blog) John!

I actually have a lot of difficulty with applying Foucault's conception of the panopticon to the type of situation you're describing. There is certainly power at work on the internet in general, and on social networking sites in particular, but I'm not sure that it necessarily takes the form of the creation of subjects in relation the possible gaze of the state or the corporation, which is how I've tended to interpret the panopticon in the past.

I've head new terms come up for describe the situation in which all are watching all -- sousveillance is the one I like best -- but in the particular situation of Facebok, I'm not even sure that's what's happening. I think there's an element of it in the injunction to make sure you're careful about what you put on Facebook 'because a future employer might see it'. But performing identities for others we've got listed as 'friends' seems to fall outside that category. The day-to-day performances we do on (and off) like seem to me to fit better into a dramaturgical or performative framework, a la Goffman or Butler.

Apologies if this is jargon-y -- a quick perusal of your blog tells me you're an academic, so I dropped into grad student mode there.

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