Dear Teens: please Reply-to and/or Reblog this with your opinions/reactions/thoughts/comments.

Background. Back in the Early Internet Futuristic Mania days, we used to speculate that “knowledge will be democratised” and “authority will fracture into opinion”—really all kinds of interesting futurism, check out for example @wwwtxt or some 90’s tech mags if you can find them.

The “structural” or “geometric” idea was this. In our time, television had been the major communication medium. The “geometrical structure” of television is the same thing being broadcast to many individuals. Maybe it’s hard to imagine now? But we all used to literally watch the same thing when we got home at night and flopped on the couch, tired after a day of work. Yes, people noticed the ugliness of that separation (like a movie theatre—physically proximate, shared experience, but no words or touching) and of that singlemindedness.

And even more parochial as it seems now, we were quite restricted by our physical geography. You had to actually walk to the library to get books, for example. And wait a week if you wanted interlibrary loan. You could only listen to radio stations that were near by, could only read newspapers that were delivered in your area. And if you did pay for a subscription to some non-local media (like let’s say an American wanted to read an Iranian newspaper), you wouldn’t have Google Translate to quickly guess the meaning for you!

Anyway, words like “mass culture” and “mass psychology”—which, you can look it up, were really prevalent in past cultural analyses—seem quaint or strange in an era of reblogs, retweets, viral videos, whatever else it is that characterises internet culture vis-à-vis television culture.

Getting closer to the question now. So one of “our” speculations about the future was that—contrary to the “top-down” cultural structures of the past (Church, Radio, Television, Experts, Universities, Newspapers, the BBC, etc.)—that the Internet would make things more “democratic” or “radial” or “bottom-up”.

This struck me forcefully during a recent bombing of Palestine. I was watching a twitter hashtag where people posted pictures and videos with their mobile phones of bombs around them. One girl whose footage had been massively retweeted was being contacted by a BBC reporter. The woman from the BBC was asking the young superstar to send her more information that the superstar wasn’t tweeting to everyone. It sounded ridiculous! With this girl being retweeted all over twitter, who needs the BBC? There’s no more purpose to the White Lady “giving a voice to the voiceless”—because the Palestinian girl already had a huge amount of media exposure. Where does the BBC reporter get off asking for special information? If the girl wants to say something else, she can just tweet it; it doesn’t need to pass through the “mass communications channel” of the BBC anymore.

So it struck me at that point that the new media really is different from the old media. The future we talked about has arrived. And in the future (now), we get to hear directly from the Viet Cong.

True—we had television coverage of bombs over Baghdad; news reels of the War played before movies during WW2; Jane Fonda fraternised with the Red Communist Enemy; photographs of the Falklands War. Notice how all of these examples have a “binary” structure. It’s more naturally Us Versus Them. (Keep in mind as well that the Cold War structured the world in a binary way: blue versus red, with a nuclear superpower at the “top”.)

In the more “democratic communications” of the future, we thought, it would be harder for some “hegemon” to divide-and-conquer. Talk about the Kantian peace—let’s instead multiply that by a few orders of magnitude. Replace Jane Fonda interviewing “the enemy” with telegrams and photograms from “the enemy”—with automatic translation technology—any day you want, not just when your country is at war. How much support are you really going to have for attacking “the enemy” when you can see—directly, for yourself, without intermediary—“the enemy“‘s point of view, what it’s like for them to be bombed, and that they’re just like you? Maybe Goebbels could commandeer a massive propaganda machine and brainwash a country—but how would that work with free flow of communication from the “outside world”, a public encyclopedia, and equal blogging access to anyone with something to say? It seemed like the ultimate extension of the free press.

So, to the teens: you weren’t even conceived at the time we were speculating about this stuff. And now time has flown by so fast (for me) that you’re, like, walking around and having your own coherent thoughts! Like, totally not babies. I have a hard time imagining how it is to grow up with Google, Facebook, Tumblr, and whatever else being default “ways that the world is”, rather than some spiffy invention that “Going to change the world, but we don’t know how yet”.

Q. Do you think that, for you, as compared to past generations, you are less accepting of “top-down” authority? Do your knowledge and beliefs derive more equitably from various sources, official and non-official? Is your worldview more “democratic” than the old people you know?

Thanks for taking the time, if you do, to answer.

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