Monday, February 15, 2016

Democracy and the Internet. . .

Lorne over at Politics and its Discontents posted an excellent essay today on the decline of democracy that is occurring in part because of the death of newspapers and professional journalism in general. I have been thinking a lot lately about the other side of this issue - the rise of the internet in every facet of our lives - particularly because my daughter is doing a Masters in Communication with an focus of the use of digital media by unions. She and I regularly discuss the issues surrounding democracy, digital culture, and leftist ideology.

Lorne is right about the need for newspapers and professional journalism in bringing important issue to light in civil society. This is particularly important given that collusion between government and big capital is not always easy to see or understand. Lorne rejects the notion that the internet truly democratizes information. I generally agree because when you really research the issue you find that the internet continues to be dominated to a surprising degree by powerful corporations. However, I would say that we really don't know yet the ways and degrees to which digital media will impact society and human beings in general.

My daughter and I were discussing this issue the other day because her T.A. duties required her to talk to the students about Marshall Mcluhan. She was shocked when she found out that not a single one of the students had even heard of Marshall Mcluhan. Granted, these were first year students, but they were all communications majors and Mcluhan is, after all, a very famous Canadian. We discussed this issue and broadened it as I wondered out loud why it is that despite so much access to information so many young people are ignorant of so many things. I thought back to when I was helping my son with an essay on Kerouac's On the Road. As I was discussing the book with him I started mentioning various cultural figures who Kerouac talks about throughout the text of On the Road, I realized that though he had read the book he was unfamiliar with almost all of these cultural icons. This lack of knowledge was not, in and of itself, surprising. However, given that he was reading On the Road specifically for a university class with the intention of writing an essay, I was shocked that he hadn't looked them all up as he was reading. After all, a nearly infinite wealth of information is at our fingertips at all times. These facts led me and my daughter to wonder if the internet is actually having the opposite effect on new generations than what one would assume. Perhaps instead of leading many young people to seek out a lot of new information, the internet is actually causing people to not bother trying to find many things out. The reason for this could be that the ubiquity of information could lead to an assumption that everything that we need to know will automatically come to us. Before the internet our relationship to information was clear in as much as we understood that knowing things required effort. We knew that there was a lot that we didn't know and if we wanted to know such things we had to go (for the most part) to books in order to find out. However, when information is so accessible and presumably ubiquitous, I think many young people (that is to say people who have no memory of a pre-internet experience) assume that what they need to know about culture they either already know or it will be shortly bestowed on them by this ubiquity itself. It is not a very complicated hypothesis. If you are continually barraged by information of all kinds, the idea that you might have to go out and make an effort to research and find things out seems strangely absurd.

I wonder if this phenomenon is sort of like the flip side of the death of newspapers and journalism. Our relationships to newspapers, for example, was very physical, particularly broadsheets. We had to get the newspapers and sift through them in a way that is quite distinct from how we get information on the internet. Furthermore, the physical limits of the newspaper itself was sensually understood. Newspapers were slices of information and further information required the reader to seek out another medium. The message of the internet, on the other hand, is ubiquity. If, getting back to Mcluhan, the medium is the message, then the message of the internet is potentially that in the act of opening the internet, we are information and information is us.

I have no doubt that democracy can only be meaningful to the degree that people are informed. There is no doubt that the death of the newspaper and professional journalism will close down much of society's information exchange. This is not a difficult relationship to understand, though finding a way to fill the void that it leaves is more complicated. The assumption that the internet bestows on people might be considerably more dangerous to democracy because when people assume that they are informed but aren't, they become the fodder of rich and powerful.

6 comments:

Rural said...

Your final sentence gives me much to think about Kirby, between yourself and Lorne I am not sure I can add much to this conversation. Will democracy survive because of the internet or in spite of it I wonder?

doconnor said...

You may be overestimating how much people knew about intellectual figures in the past because your experience was an outlier.

Also they are significantly more in the past then they used to be and have been replaced by people you may be ignorant of.

Kirby Evans said...

doconnor - I can always rely on your particular brand of skepticism. However, if you read more carefully you will see that the real point I was trying to make was about the particular kind of ignorance that digital culture might be creating. It is not that I (or my contemporaries) knew that much more, as much as it is that we were, I believe, more aware of our lack of knowledge or information (where it did exist). Digital culture, on the other hand, creates (so my hypothesis goes) creates an illusion of awareness and knowledge that is unique. BTW, I have four kids ranging in age from 27 to 11, and they often come to me with questions not only about past culture but about contemporary culture as well. It takes an effort to be informed regardless of age.

Askingtherightquestions said...

I am fascinated by your hypothesis, Kirby but I am not sure that internet access can be accused of creating ignorance through ubiquity.
We are of a similar vintage and have had similar experiences with our children. I also had the chance to work with university students in a professional program at a Canadian university for a decade and a half. I, probably like you, have personally experienced the "digitalization" of the workplace and the research environment. For the most part, the changes have greatly improved the ability to efficiently search and retrieve research materials (can you remember using paper based journal listings to find papers in a university library- uggghh!??!). I think the problem lies in teaching students how to use and critically evaluate offerings on the internet. This is a black hole of pedagogy and is starting to be addressed but definitely needs more work a all levels. I take your point that digital literacy is challenging for many students because of access to so much garbage, however citizens have never had more access to knowledge, if they know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Owen Gray said...

Perhaps it's fair to say that much of what is on the internet, Kirby, is a akin to what Newton Minow once called American television -- "a vast wasteland."

Kirby Evans said...

@Asking - I agree that critical ability is an important issue. But I am convinced that something else is going on here. Of course people have to be taught how to use internet sources effectively and appropriately, and this has to be taught to students. But I am hypothesizing a somewhat Mcluhanesque notion that the medium of the internet carries some inherent impulses. If the medium is the message, then perhaps the message to people who are growing up with the internet is that information is not hidden or but an extension of our brains or identities. Under such circumstances there could be considerably less impulse to see information or knowledge as something that need to be sought but something that is simple "given" to us by the very nature of our relationship to the medium itself.