New Media

I am constantly amazed by the sort of “epic” language applied to each new twist of the social ladder brought about by communications technology. David Weinberger’s spin of the Warhol adage “In the future everyone will be famous to fifteen people” was used to invoke a panel I attended last night. No one credited him with the phrase. Perhaps, in the future, no one will really be sure who said what. We live buffeted by waves of quotations. The tide of utopianism, even in the wake of devastating political defeats in the US, refuses to abate. I listened to speakers drunk on new media talking as if blogging was still some kind of brave new world. One would have thought that the hangover would have kicked in by now.

Sometimes I’d like to cast the epic promoters of a utopian new world high on their own performance out of the republic. As Burningbird has observed regarding a different conference, they are usually professional, usually white, and usually male—speaking of a new equality as if it were a given. Ultimately, they present new media as if they embodied an ideal form where all old disputes become unimportant. It reminded me of a section I recently revisited in Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato:

But if we remember the centuries of old habit, which fused subject with object in sympathetic self-identification as a condition of keeping the oral tradition alive, we can realize how this inherited state of mind was for Plato the enemy, and how he would wish to frame his own doctrine in language which met it head on, and confronted it, and destroyed it. The net effect then of the theory of Forms is to dramatize the split between the image-thinking of poetry and the abstract thinking of philosophy. In the history of the Greek mind, it puts the stress on discontinuity rather than on continuity.

This is ever the way with makers of revolutions. In their own day and to themselves and their own audiences they are prophets of the new, not developers of the old. (266-7)

I think that the Internet can be identified as a kind of “secondary orality” in that promotes storytelling and emphasizes individual performances. These performances constitute a type of self-identification achieved substantially through the quotation of other sources (linking behaviors, etc.). The originary author is often a secondary consideration. It is a return to performance as the privileged mode of originality. Sites are valued by the number of times they are quoted—the number of performances they engender, rather than any abstract conception in the originating idea that is often lost in the morass of intrapersonal links. Turning to the “grassroots” of the masses might seem the ideal tonic to a world filled with abstract mega-corporations to a more imagistic core. But the ideal formation of the “hive mind” seems to me to be more dangerous than the old. It can also be construed as a return to the dark ages of imperfect scribes producing increasingly faded copies. Grassroots loosely joined are easily infiltrated by weeds.

There is another more grave mistake in the utopian rhetoric of the left. If a thousand people blogged about a better world, the world would not become better. Though I loathe to quote him, I think Sartre put it well in “Writing for One’s Age”:

It is said that the unhappily married man who writes about marriage with talent has made a good book with his conjugal woes. That would be too easy: the bee makes honey with the flower because it operates on the vegetal substance of real transformations; the sculptor makes a statue with marble.

. . .

The most beautiful book in the world will not save a child from pain; one does not redeem evil, one fights it; the most beautiful book in the world redeems itself; it also redeems the artist. But not the man. Any more than the man redeems the artist.

Howard Dean supporters made money by conceiving and maintaining an active Internet presence. George Bush made votes using a telephone. The conservative technology won. I don’t understand how anyone can say that new media will save us—or how well-paid white male pundits can promote the new world as a more egalitarian place. Dramatizing the split between the old forms and the new are what got us to this place to begin with.

Image-thinking and abstract thinking cannot be isolated from each other; writing changes the writer not the world. That is, unless someone throws the book at you. Or, unless the book changes the way you see the world. Real change is a different matter. That works the same way it always has, with sweat and work.