June 19, 2010
Net Loss of Knowledge Now the NormBy Bernie Reeves
There are dangerous trade-offs associated with new media. The influence of television -- popularized in the 1950s and in full swing in the 1960s -- reshaped the political and cultural landscape.
The computer revolution hummed along quietly until the internet and desktop and laptop machines blended in the early 1990s to set off the phenomenon predicted at the advent of television by Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan.
The medium, said McLuhan, would soon be the message, a famous statement that Woody Allen immortalized in the film Annie Hall. Medium Cool, a cult hit film of the 1960s, ensured McLuhan's permanent fame.
...Until now. Mention McLuhan to anyone under 45, and the feedback is a blank stare. We now live in two different worlds, separated by a chasm of unshared experience. Along the way since the onslaught of television and the establishment of the internet, the "generation gap" -- a term coined during the 1960s -- is now permanent.
Television fractured the old world. Information became mingled with entertainment. News coverage became pervasive, while its content became fungible. There was more and more to report, but standards of content selection collapsed to gain audience share.
The political impact of TV was enormous. In the radical salad days of the '60s and '70s, one or two activists demonstrating against a nuclear plant or the Vietnam War were able to use television to create the impression that their cause was shared by millions. The medium validated messages as it streamed into millions of homes.
Between the rise of television and the explosion of the internet, cable television added another dimension to the media mix. Unfettered by Federal Communications Commission standards and rules for "free TV," cable companies hooked subscribers in the early days with pornography. As microwave relay service evolved into satellite delivery, cable became capable of beaming hundreds of niche channels with targeted programming in sports, food, adventure, documentary, and on and on.
While TV originally bound people together, today, the medium is all about fragmentation. And naturally, Americans are fragmented as never before. The melting pot that once characterized the country is now a maelstrom of identity politics.
As with television, the wonder of the internet overwhelms the societal change underway. Facebook creates the illusion of community but replaces actual interaction. Unsuspecting young people throw their lives into the public fire, not realizing that their schools and employers, and the government, are watching.
The access to information is marvelous, but what data to trust has become a serious issue. If indeed an informed electorate is the keystone to a free society -- as emphasized in the First Amendment -- then our freedom is at risk if the internet becomes the only source of news to citizens under a certain age.
Privacy has become a thing of the past, accompanied by a decline in the concept of dignity. TV and the internet have melded, creating a society that sacrifices the decorum of privacy for full disclosure. It's as if standards of behavior never existed, the change has been so sudden and complete. People under 45 have voluntarily joined a global therapy group where anything goes.
Modesty is another victim, as sex rears its head as commonplace in the new media just as it hooked viewers on cable TV. Kids can access pornography as easily as buying an ice cream cone. Parental efforts to block unsavory information are helpless, just as parents lamented the infiltration of television into their value systems.
And terrorist groups can create a new insurgency phenomenon via the internet. Jihadists in Iran can communicate to their brothers and sisters in dozens of countries to spread propaganda and plan attacks. We are threatened by hackers, from home computers to the Department of Defense. All this access is undermining our security and our peace of mind.
The founders of the internet made sure there was no protocol. They feared the new instrument would be controlled by giant telecommunications firms and governments. It's theoretically free and uncensored...which means it is untrustworthy as well as ubiquitous. Note the ethics of providers and players in the new media. All this openness has actually formed an elite of operators who have no investment in the accepted standards of ordinary citizens.
This can be demonstrated in several areas, but to pick just one, look at the cannibalization of content created by real people that shows up on the Internet. We publishers are well aware that our content can be kidnapped and altered and shaken every way but loose, with no remuneration or recognition from the internet pirates. Daily newspapers hire trained reporters to cover several beats using rules of play that ensure the information is accurate -- although it is often biased -- only to have a website steal it.
The point is that a reporter attends events, conducts interviews, checks facts, and has the copy edited for accuracy. Then the same article can be nabbed and redistributed by a guy running a website in his pajamas. Often the original and correct story is altered and falsified, adding to the information fraud afflicting the world.
The medium is now completely the message. The latest gadget or communications tool has complete precedence over the quality of the content it delivers. McLuhan got that part right. But he didn't predict the rise of the radical scholars in the 1970s and '80s who went to work to break the link that formed the foundation of knowledge.
Calling the Western tradition -- from Greece to Rome to Europe to the U.S. -- a racist, chauvinist, homophobic, and imperialist conspiracy, they set about to tear it down and replace it with the flimsy theory of multiculturalism. Under this academic regime, all cultures are equal. We think Shakespeare is superior because we are propagandized that way. New Guinea wall drawings are just as valid, goes the thinking -- and with it goes our entire self-esteem as a culture.
Add this huge interruption in inherited knowledge to the new media, and you have a blueprint for the end of the progress of culture. Here are a few lines from the novel A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks on what happened to knowledge in the West:
Welcome to the Age of Obama.
Bernie Reeves is editor and publisher of Raleigh Metro Magazine.