Zygmunt Bauman has posited that contemporary (or postmodern) society is characterized by “the growing conviction that change is the only permanence and uncertainty the only certainty (Liquid Modernity, loc 75).” We live in thus a liquid time, where structures and societal solids must be flexible, changeable, and ultimately liquid. Furthermore for Bauman this all is “triggered by the horrifying signs and prospects of durable things falling apart, and of a whirlwind of transient ephemera filling the vacancy” leading to modernity’s “unstoppable hunt for novelty (loc 136).”
Nowhere is this liquid sensation more apparent than in the constant change and alterations that consume our technological hunger and our love affair with new media. Some ten years ago, no one even knew about Facebook. Today they are a global power that has changed the way people think and communicate, globally. Indeed, during the globalization of the technological, postmodern (liquid?) world the rise of new media has played a drastic and radical role in reshaping nations, governments, and cultures. One tweet can ignite a revolution. Or, one Facebook post can incite a hoax affecting millions. Recently the President of Turkey pledged to eradicate Twitter in his nation. At the same time, we are all immediately aware of the transience of new media. That in fact we are all waiting for the next big thing. Facebook is particularly aware of this reality as they rapidly buy up and subjugate potential new medias with their billions.
Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree edit a history of new media that is surprising in its historical, cultural, and sociological perspective. New Media, 1740-1915 reminds us that “new media” is not so new, and show us a litany of media innovations that have changed and at times not changed the world, but have created the same kinds of conversations in the past that we are also having today. We must remember that the Catholic Church once fought against the translating (out of Latin) and mass producing the Bible and other religious texts. It was in fact Luther’s “tweet” attached to the doors of a church that instigated one of the greatest cultural shifts and religious reformations of all time. What we see from Gitelman and Pingree, is that words and communication are important. Point of view and perspective can be altered, and as such cultures and people shudder, or sense great liberation. The advent of the zograscope in the mid 18th century seemed to shift a radical way in which people could perceive the world. In a sense, it was the first pass at virtual reality. The zograscope came to be a defining new media of certain parts of English society for a short time, and then passed into obscurity. What is more, Erin C. Blake points out that while it is tempting to herald the zograscope as some kind of media breakthrough that altered European society, in fact: “did not provide a new dominant model of seeing; it provided a different way for a limited group of people, the men and women who considered themselves of polite society, to visualize public space (4).”
These observations of the “newness” and historical depth of new media help to ask deeper questions of our technological digital age. Are our Iphones, tablets, and relentless internet usage really a major shift in seeing and understanding, or just a social marker. Still millions have limited or no access to these forms of new media. What is more, in my own context of Andalucia, Spain, one can observe that an Iphone is marker of status and wealth. Do these forms of media divide us more than they unite us?
Twitter and Facebook, and in general the blogospherical internet ignite firestorms of controversy and rancor at the drop of the hat. Sure we no longer crucify people at the city gates, instead we digitally stone them. Hoaxes, half-truths, and polemics abound. Much of the internet is an echo box… people with lots of strong political or religious points of view (but very little actual experience or expertise) lead online movements, often always emotionally shooting from the hip. One wonders if this is all more for entertainment and self-satisfaction than actual communication, reflection, and societal betterment. Dialog seems to be missing, as a trip to the comments sections shows almost always overwhelming approval of the posts in some cases, with dissent being quashed. While in others, it is simply a Darwinian battle for who can be the meanest.
This is particularly the case amongst the Christian blogging community, where disaffected progressives square off against curmudgeonly traditionalists, conservative vs. liberals, Reformed vs. non-Reformed, and on and on. In the end I feel a lot more echo boxing is going on, as opposed to any real theological or cultural dialog. Never mind the complete lack of anything resembling scholarly thinking or research. Some have also pointed out that many who actually pastor, lead, serve, and are in any way proactively caught up in the work of expanding the kingdom of God day to day in people’s lives, probably don’t have that much time for this type of thing. I wonder how much of the internet is to build followings to sell books to.
Still, I am not that much of pessimist to write it all off. Great things do happen with the new media that is intimately connected with the internet. Communication and discovery occur. Relationships are created, and there is some genuine debate and dialog. It is a world of opportunities.
The internet isn’t going anywhere, but we should not be surprised if Twitter, Facebook, and Blogging go the way of the zograscope. Perhaps we should view our interactions with these forms of new media loosely and lightly.
What do you think?