Friday, December 10, 2010

Much Ado About Not Much

I once heard a radical claim the interstate highway system was really part of the Military-Industrial Complex because of Eisenhower's oft-repeated anecdote concerning its provenance in his thoughts as a young Lieutenant recently out of West Point. While it may well have been true that the military saw advantages in a continental, limited-access highway system, the reality is that, even back in the 1980's when the conspiratorial whispers about the highways were first laid upon my ears, it was such a part of our national life, having transformed social mobility, family life, and our view of our country that any worries over the potential military uses of the Interstates seemed only a remote worry.

In the early 1970's, Canadian philosopher Marshall MacLuhan's The Medium Is The Message overdetermined television to the point that an entire generation of social and cultural critics were convinced the advent of the idiot box was a sign of our moral decadence. While MacLuhan may have made an interesting observation or two, his view of the public as little more than rooted sponges, awash in contextless imagery and sound, missed the reality that commercial television, particularly in the United States, relied upon the feedback of both consumers and advertisers in a far more subtle formula to function at its peak. Since it was a cog in the consumerist machine, it is more than a cultural phenomenon, but an integral part of capitalist life.

With these two pieces, one from NYRB, the other from The New Inquiry, we now have the beginnings of the overdetermination of Facebook. We have already gone through worries over video games and the Internet (it began as part of the military, so you know who really controls it, right?). With the explosion of Facebook as more than just a web site but a national craze and social phenomenon, we are reminded of its roots in Mark Zuckerberg's interest in young women. As Helena Fitzgerald writes at TNI,
The juvenile mentality built in the medium pushes us to broadcast our private lives and expect that the details we share will be obsessively dissected. We sense, more or less consciously, that with the capability to broadcast our lives comes an obligation to be entertaining.
As with MacLuhan's "hot" versus "cold" media, there is some truth here regarding the ways we now envision our interactions. All the same, I would insist there is no "mentality", juvenile or otherwise, built in to this communications platform. There is little in either of these articles that wrestles with the reality that, having half a billion users, Facebook might just be changed by the activity of all those people all over the planet. This vision of Zuckerberg as the manipulator of our social interactions through the on-going tweaking of his platform echoes similar fears that go back to bankers before the Civil War, industrial moguls in the Gilded Age, and Presidents, kings, and potentates in any age. Glancing at any powerful force in our society with a jaundiced eye is always a good, even necessary, thing. Going full-bore philosophical hepatitis, however, ignores the reality that, once out there doing its thing, any medium is changed. It is changed by the economic and political and social framework within which it operates. It is changed by the cultural and social presuppositions of those who use it. It is changed by the very act of doing what it was designed to do. Any tool, no matter its simplicity or complexity, becomes something different the moment it ceases to sit on a shelf and actually be used.

A cautionary attitude toward FB, or the Internet, or television, or any other medium designed for human interaction, is always warranted. On the other hand, we grant to the media far too much power, and refuse to see our own potential for subverting what power they do have, if we believe that the only possible reaction to these ways of interaction is surrender.

Virtual Tin Cup

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