Participatory Culture and the Internet of the Masses

Andrea Batista Schlesinger is executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (a non-partisan, non-profit think tank founded during the Civil Rights Movement that generates ideas that fuel the progressive movement). She is currently working on the forthcoming book The Death of Why, to be released in Spring of 2009. After looking at my blog and reading what I had said in a 2006 panel (the MacArthur Online Discussions on Civic Engagement, PDF transcript here) she contacted me to ask some questions about the role of the Internet in promoting civic participation. Our email exchange, reproduced with her permission, follows:

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: You write that “We should be less concerned about designing technologies that will afford young people ‘satisfying participation opportunities’ and more concerned about ensuring that new generations can challenge and question the opportunities that are ‘offered’ to them. The goal –for young people as well as old– should be the self-critical individual.” Do you think that the Internet — either as a medium, or as an environment — inspires/encourages such self-critique? Do you think that digital natives are more or less likely to be interested in and have the capacity for inquiry and/or self-reflection?

Ulises Mejias: Well, as with any discussion about the affordances of a technology (what the technology allows us to do or prevents us from doing), there are two sides to that answer. First: Structure is not everything! The features of the Internet by themselves do not promote or encourage x or y, democracy or tyranny. From that perspective, we can view claims that the internet will help us do this or that as simplistic. Ultimately, it’s all about what people do on the internet, how they choose to apply this technology (this is the cultural materialist or social constructivist position). In other words, the same Internet structures can be used in ways that promote self-realization, or for exactly the opposite purpose.

Which brings us to the other (seemingly contradictory) side of the answer: Structure is something! The technological features of the Internet do shape the nature of our actions to some extent. Consider, for instance, claims like Nicholas Carr’s that the Internet is making us stupid by diminishing our powers of concentration, distracting us with advertisements, and promoting a broad but superficial kind of knowledge that erases the possibility of a shared cultural meaning. According to these kinds of arguments, the way the Internet is used is not necessarily contributing to our capacity for inquiry and self-reflection.

I think what is important to recognize here is that when a particular use of a technology becomes the norm for a large percentage of the population, there is no way we can avoid saying that technology shapes society (or what is known as technological determinism). So despite the fact that the Internet is being used by a few people to engage in critical inquiry, at a mass level the Internet is not being utilized that way — that’s the norm.

Why do I say this? Well, the word ‘mass’ is very important here. A self-critical mass is an oxymoron. I do believe that the values behind today’s Internet mass applications (especially anything controlled by commercial interests, i.e. most of the Internet) are not meant to help people become critical, much less self-critical. They are meant to turn them into better consumers. Sure, I think the Internet offers exiting new possibilities for inquiry, activism, social involvement, etc., but it’s naive to think that these will become widespread without a fundamental change in social, political and economic structures. And to think that the same Internet that promotes the creation of masses will help us achieve such change is a double fallacy. I’m not saying it won’t play a role. It must. But the Internet by itself will not liberate us, that’s for sure.

ABS: Does the Internet create habits of mind that are conducive to the asking of questions? Studies indicate that young people engage with the news more as headline skimmers, and that they don’t spend much time evaluating the results that they get back from Google searches. But perhaps this is just about the young people we’re raising, and not about the Internet. Or is it inherent to the abundance of information that the Internet offers? Relatedly, do you think that the Internet encourages an “answer” orientation — that it’s all out there, you just have to find it?

UM: Geert Lovink recently wrote an article in which he calls on us to stop searching and start questioning. I couldn’t agree more. We’ve come to believe that Google has all the answers, without realizing that what is changing is our ability to formulate questions Google can’t answer. As suggested by the Carr article mentioned above, I do think that the Internet is changing our research habits and our relationship to knowledge, for the worse. What’s interesting is that when I discussed the Carr article with my students, they said: “The Internet is not making us stupid, it’s just making us lazy.” That’s even worse! We can’t help it if we are stupid. But to be lazy suggests that we know there is an alternative, perhaps even a better alternative, but we consciously choose to go with the option that requires the least effort and that places less demands on questioning what we are doing. This is typical mass behavior.

ABS: You wrote about online protest and its lack of efficacy – both in terms of its impact on government and the experience of those involved. You tie this to the lessening relevance of the “local.” How do you see the rise of the “Facebook cause” related to the interest in involvement in local community activism? Are they in competition? Do you think that inquiry is more, less, or equally present in involvement in the actual physical local community versus online causes? You wrote about the lack of risk in online protesting. Is this lack of risk accompanied by, or the cause of, a lack of questioning when it comes to deciding how or if to be involved in this cause?

UM: I believe that the Internet can help small groups with the organizational aspects of activism, but on the other hand I think that the Internet’s mass commercial applications, including the so-called Web 2.0 services, militate against civic engagement. The only thing what you call the “Facebook cause” (that web application intended to rally people around a social issue) can contribute is mass numbers: massive membership, massive signatures attached to the petition, massive numbers of comments and opinions… all of which can be easily dismissed because there is only a ‘virtual’ weight behind them. Reminds me of a quote by Gilles Deleuze: “Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves… What we’re are plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements” (1995, Negotiations, Columbia University Press, p. 129). Of course, Walter Benjamin had already touched upon this “adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality” back in 1936 when he wrote in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” So online activism is quite vocal, but not much else. Which is not to say that a “Facebook cause” cannot provoke some people to take action to the next level, to something that unfolds beyond the domain of cyberspace. Whether the sum of these little ‘lines of flight’ are enough to counter mass behavior remains to be seen.

You bring up an interesting point: Is online activism bankrupt because it cannot concern itself with the local? Actually, no. Unlike other critics, I do not proclaim the devaluation of the near and the death of distance at the hands of virtual reality. Networks do not create exclusive links to the far; they link to the near as well. What we should be looking at is the emergence of networked nearness — the phenomenon of rendering nearness in such a way that if something is not on the network it might as well not exist (even if this ‘something’ exists in un-networked proximity). So the ‘local’ is alive and well. The problem is that we increasingly depend on technological networks to reveal what is local, what is near. And when the networks are controlled exclusively by commercial interests, this might be a problem. The social, as someone said, becomes part of the economy, instead of the economy being a part of the social. The process of inquiry that can lead to the kind of (risky) commitment to a social cause that can be translated into more than just an expression of support is subverted by the lazy behavior of the masses.

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  1. …I think we also have to make a difference between tool (or form, structure) and content.
    Media content, mass media content is never designed to make people smart
    but tools and structures can change our lives and make us smarter, more critical and more questioning
    thanks to the network hype, we have a lot of tools at our hands – and it’s up to us if we want to watch/read another brainwashed crap or if we want to do something else.

    another side effect: the equal power achieved through networking tools (and generally publishing tools) questions right or wrong – if we talk about crap vs. self questioning, reflection, this does not mean we talk about good and bad. That’s another discussion, this is important to remember.

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