I hadn’t been thinking much about social media lately and really never intended to write my first InParentheses blog post on the topic. But after watching a Charlie Rose interview recently, I felt compelled to respond.
The interview was of Roger McNamee, a technology guru and founding partner of the venture capital firm Elevation Partners, and was aired on Wednesday, January 16, 2013. During that interview McNamee extolled the many virtues of social media, as if the technology was a panacea for all of our social, economic and political ills. He claimed that, because of social media, the power of technology was, for the first time in history, not only in the hands of governments and businesses, but “in the hands of the consumers.” He went on to say that a “great democratizing force that is percolating out from Silicon Valley.” Clearly, I think he’s blowing blue smoke and waving lots of mirrors. The whole discussion smacked of corporatist propaganda and made me angry. Here’s what I think is the political reality of social media.
Science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke famously stated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I believe our society has become seduced by the magical allure of digital technologies at the expense of self-determination and the democratic process. In particular, social media has become, rather than an engine of democracy, a subversive agent that erodes the democratic process from its core outwards.
According to Josiah Ober, Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University, the original meaning of democracy is “the collective capacity of a public to make good things happen in the public realm.” I think that democracy in the postmodern world can best be defined by its requirements: a national community of ideas, freely exchanged, and the ability to express choice and effect change through the ballot.
Well, a tweet is not a ballot, even though I know there’s probably an app for that. A network, social or otherwise, is not a community. Communities are diverse, or at least they tend to harbor a diversity of values and opinions. Social networks work against diversity, allowing members to find and attract friends and followers who are like-minded. More important and more troubling, however, is that social networks allow, even encourage, us to exclude those with differing opinions and values. Increasingly we seek and receive validation for our ideas and opinions without challenge or critique. This leads each of us to believe we are in the majority, regardless of our views, and shows us a world that is not only tailored to our biases, but reinforces those biases. It hides reality from us through technological prestidigitation and tells us to believe the trick is real.
Social science appears to support this view. Current psychology research is exploring the negative and isolating effects of social media on a generation of people who, increasingly, gather in small groups only to socialize online. In my own experience, whenever I have attempted to join discussions on hot-button issues, like gun control and climate change, and offer a view that differs from the majority in the group, I am instantly barraged by openly hostile replies and demands that I leave the discussion. In fact, I’m often told to “fuck off’ and occasionally threatened with violence. So much for social media enabling an exchange of ideas. This is the antithesis of democracy!
This is one of the reasons why, despite its notoriety, the Occupy Movement has not produced political reform. What the movement really occupied was social media. The technology, particularly Twitter, allowed for the rapid coordination of large groups of protestors, guiding them to protest locations, but not new and different ideas. Instead, we saw the rapid dissemination of slogans and sound bites. The movement has yet to translate their protests into political action and I believe their dependence on social media may be a critical factor in that failure. Users of social media are, to a large degree, mistaking their tweets and Facebook posts for actual political action, falsely satisfied that validation from people who already agree with them is sufficient. I believe quite the opposite, that true political action can only be achieved, ultimately, with the ballot. And unless we begin to use social media technology very differently, with full knowledge of its limitations and drawbacks, it will only be a barrier between us and the ballot.
Or, maybe I’m just an old Luddite.