As some of you know, I am taking a class in which we are encouraged to express our thoughts and opinions about New Media and specifically cultural shifts in New Media related in large part to the rise of Social Media and the digital age.
What a lot of you may not know, and it is something I never expected, is that there are a large amount of people in my age bracket studying New Media like I am who are extremely cynical towards the digital world. I half-jokingly think of them as ‘Post-New Media’ since a lot of people seem to have moved beyond the are of embracing New Media and moved on to disdain. I seem to be the wild and free optimist of a fairly large group of young people because I embrace the digital world and I see far more net-positives in our future due to the rise of digital communication and social media. I find myself often being one of the lone voices in the crowd who doesn’t seem to think in terms of ‘who controls what we see and hear’ and ‘The Man is still pulling the puppet strings’. I half expect someone to use the word, ‘Sheeple’ at some point half the time in that class.
However, in the reading for this class, I found something really interesting that I think mirrors the strange preponderance of digital cynics in my current class in a very funny way.
One of the things in our text book is an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger called “Constituents of a Theory of the New Media” that was written in 1970. In this essay, which is actually more like a collection of smaller essays, he has a section called, “Cultural Archaism in the Left Critique” in which he talks about how the New Left movement of the sixties likened media and the advances of media to a new form of manipulation. Enzensberger says that, while the basic idea is correct – “the means of production are in enemy hands” – he calls this cynicism towards new methods of communication an issue of self-defeating archaism, by which he means if people buy into the idea that the game is rigged, they give up, thus falling for the very manipulation they proclaim to be the problem.
The manipulation thesis also serves to exculpate oneself. To cast the enemy in the role of the devil is to conceal the weakness and lack of perspective in ones own agitation. If the latter leads to self-isolation instead of mobilizing the masses, then its failure is attributed holus-bolus to the overwhelming power of the media.
With respect to my peers, I somewhat feel like I’m witnessing the same phenomenon in which this cynicism is manifesting in a self-defeatist manner. Obviously, it isn’t just something attributed to my classmates, this is a far widespread phenomenon than just amongst a group of twenty-five college students, but I feel like this is something we’re all seeing lately.
Enzensberger attributed a rather interesting form of archaism to this cynicism in the sixties, as he outlines in the same section when he says:
At the very beginning of the student revolt, during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the computer was a favorite target for aggression.
That is reflected today in the distrust to not just the traditional media, but towards Social Media as well. There is this push back against Social Media in constantly pointing out the negatives and talking about all the harm that Social Media does to interpersonal communication and to the culture of communication as we know it by highlighting aspects such as the ability to bully and the lack of accountability that the internet provides rather than by championing the new avenues to communication that Social Media has opened to people all over the world.
Perhaps I am being the crazy naive one of the herd, but I really feel like this is a self-defeating level of cynicism just like Enzensberger talked about seeing in the sixties, especially since I’m a New Media major. To reject and demonize the very progress in communication and democratization of access to information that allows less control by ‘the man’ just because there is still a platform in which the information is contained is to basically say all that we have striven for in terms of progress hasn’t been achieved, so we may as well give up.
I embrace the digital world and all the different forms of communication available to us, because I feel like the world as a whole always benefits from broader access to information. And it isn’t even just the platforms, like Social Media, but the culture around how we view communication that makes me feel so optimistic about the future. Like I said in a previous post about New Media,
New Media has managed to affect global changes in the very idea of communication because it has lowered the barrier to entry to what is and isn’t possible when it comes to communication regardless of location, wealth, or status of privilege.
Though New Media and the digital world is not a perfect system by any means, and while there are a lot of theories about why people are so cynical in the digital age, I just still absolutely fail to see how allowing more people the access to information and the ability to share ideas faster, easier, and in a better organized fashion can possibly a net-negative in the big picture.
What about you guys? Are you a cynic? Are you an optimist? Are you like me and didn’t think you were an optimist until you realized most people you meet are cynics? You can always let me know here or on Twitter. I welcome a conversation!