Struggle for the Soul of New Media

John Brueggeman

The great promise of the new technology is largely visible and publicly acknowledged. The peril, less so. Guns don’t kill people (so say the bumperstickers) and neither do computers. Would Ryan Hal- ligan, Megan Meier, or Tyler Clementi have killed themselves if they hadn’t been bullied online? Would Congressman Anthony Weiner have exposed himself without digital technology? Would tween fashionista Kiki Ostrenga have experienced the meteoric rise and devastating fall of homemade fame without social media? Who knows? But there is little question that the internet, like a firearm, is a dangerous tool. Dramatic headlines reporting bully-induced suicide, sordid sexting, or self-destructive narcissism may shock us. Or we complacently conclude that our own sense of normalcy would never lead us to such extremes. However justified such confidence is, it can easily obscure the way our lives are being transformed in mundane but powerful ways by the spread of digital technology.

As with most social activity, virtual life is deeply entangled in two of the great questions in human history. One is the problem of justice: how do we discern, balance, and facilitate what people deserve and what they need? The second is the problem of community: what makes people feel a sense of belonging, meaning, and solidarity? Our encounter with the new technology poses fresh challenges ex- tending from these two questions. How we respond to these challenges affects our own daily behavior online and our attitudes about the sweeping media changes now in play.

Two broad trends characterize the evolving structure of the internet. Most fundamentally it is being built up by millions of people every minute of the day and at the same time becoming more integral to their lives, even shaping their values. From 2005 to 2010, the number of web-users across the world doubled. There are now over two billion, according They have collectively created more than a trillion distinct URL web pages.

But alongside this global explosion of internet looms another trend: the rapacious hunt for influence on the part of corporations. Have you noticed the proliferation of advertising on the web? It is becoming the wallpaper of our era – visible (or au- dible) whenever we go online, at work, at home, and throughout American life in general, relentlessly tugging at our consciousness.

To date, the web has basically functioned with “net neutrality”: any user can get to any site as fast as any other user with the same infrastructure. But now this principle is threatened by large firms seeking to develop “tiered access.” If you don’t give them business, they will constrain your access to the web. This means, for example, that depending on which services a user buys online, one of the big kahunas like Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast might degrade his access to sites linked to competitors. These three, among others, have made forays in this direction.

The upshot of corporate-controlled, tiered access is not hard to picture. It would be as if every route on the virtual map was a toll road with cops directing traffic down particular streets, making available different fees and avenues depending on who is driving the car. Not only would every journey be profitable to the gatekeepers and costly to the traveling consumer, but the destinations to which people are unduly guided would be part of a corporate plan. The preferred and profitable well-worn roads would become the only ones most people even know. would thrive while the local book retailer who can’t afford the fees and gets a slower connection loses even more ground.

Ruthless control of information always characterizes monopolistic or, as in the case of big media, oligopolistic supremacy. (About a half dozen firms dominate each of the film, television, and wireless provider industries.) Amidst the incessant mantra of “too much government” it remains to be seen whether the Federal Communications Commission has the will or ability to intervene to any effect.

Intimations of Tyranny

Given that every user is voluntarily providing large amounts of information about her identity and interests (which is collected virtually every time you use a credit card, Twitter, Amazon, and pretty much any search engine) and in light of the enormous opportunities for profit available through the monetization of the internet, we can expect the unseen manipulation to be vast. “Content targeted advertising” informed by data mining is but one manifestation. To a citizenry inured to corporate penetration throughout public life this may not seem like a big deal, especially if a person is led to products and services she likes anyway. However, consider the implication for small players in a given industry or opposing voices critical of big media and their allies. Any novel product or alternative view they could offer would ultimately be smothered by those faceless companies who control the map. If the internet succumbs completely to the aims of tiered access, we can expect full-throttled oligopolistic tyranny: limited competition, innovation, information, dissent, and ultimately freedom.

If a small number of elites get to define what the internet is in some fundamental way, then it is bound to intensify economic inequality in general and the “digital divide” in particular. Systematically uneven access to computer hardware (i.e., property) and training (i.e., skills) is now contributing to a new dimension of class inequality. Current research suggests that intermittent access, slow connections, or weak technical support are common problems in lower-class settings that hold people back. (See the work of sociologist Paul DiMaggio and his colleagues.) Needless to say, this form of inequality shapes subsequent opportunities for education, employment, healthcare, legal and political representation, not to mention the capability of filtering the most odious intrusions of the internet. In the context of market-based domination of the network, those poor people who cannot afford the best products will lose the most, as usual. But we will all lose in the end.

From early on, it was obvious that the internet has enormous capacity for drawing people together, creating potential new communities, with untold ramifications for civic life. There is no question that the internet is helping to make the world “flat” and, as the cliché suggests, “more connected.”

Attention, Please

But there is also a broad countertrend that threatens these fresh hopes for community. Attention is the big driver in the virtual world. You will never see the words “turn this machine off” online. This is fully consistent with market logic. Searching and advertising have become intertwined. Attention here has a double meaning – the attention fixed upon the screen, but also the bid for attention made by the user who projects information online.

Insofar as attention is the coin of the realm, the internet is a narcissism machine. Across the political spectrum, there seem to be a lot more folks talking than listening. Think about how hard people work to collect friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, hits on Youtube, comments on blogs and so on. Brief notice is surely not the same thing as real listening, which often makes the social interaction in such settings quite shallow.

Despite the immeasurable diversity of discourse on the internet, the structure of the web increasingly draws people of similar perspectives together. 

That is what “personalization” and “networked individualism” are all about. You no longer have to tolerate difficult conversations with unappealing people. Uncomfortable, busy, scared, or conflicted? No problem. Just log off. Reset your filter. This is a core element of the new interactive sites.

The most dominant search engine, Google (which handles 34,000 queries per second!), creates sophisticated profiles for every user and then guides them towards their interests. That is, how Google functions for me may be very different than how it works for you. Like-minded people are more likely to end up accessing the same sites, reading the same texts, chatting with each other, and generally feeling affirmed in their insular worldviews by the informa- tion and products to which they are led. What would happen in a city that had public libraries, town hall meetings, coffee shops, and bars for Republicans and separate ones for Democrats but now faces broad problems that affect every citizen? Perhaps the deterioration of current public discourse gives us a clue where this could lead.

Planet Trivia

We also know that staggering amounts of energy are devoted to trivia. The Wikipedia entry for Britney Spears is longer than that of Isaac Newton or Reinhold Niebuhr. The most popular websites at any given moment always involve celebrities and games. For all the connective capability of inter- active media, there is something stupefying and parochial about constantly sharing minor details of “what I did last night.” My network of friends may be huge, but many of the ties are inordinately weak. The market-research firm Pear Analytics estimates that 40 percent of tweets consist of “pointless babble” (another 6 percent is devoted to “self-promotion” and 4 percent is spam).

The problem is not just that people waste time. Virtual life is changing human relationships in general. Americans have been used to disposable cars, appliances, clothes, and other things. But the market culture enabled by the internet has taken “planned obsolescence” to a new level. We now have disposable feelings, values, friends, and identities. The anonymous, ephemeral, unaccountable way we relate to one another is evident in the epidemic of rudeness evident throughout American life. The web is a hub for these new norms of disposability in an increasingly selfish world. In shifting from the physical community to the virtual one, perhaps we are forgetting how to have difficult conversations, or any sustained discourse for that matter, with people who disagree with us, people we will have to face for some time to come in order to keep our respective communities and society functioning and sane.

Our habits in virtual life affect our behavior in the rest of life in other ways too. We now know that electronic multitasking (e.g., listening to an iPod while emailing and talking on the phone) inhibits cognitive function more than marijuana and is linked to chronic sleep deprivation. Texting while driving can be as lethal as Driving Under the Influence. Interfacing with a computer can be addictive (which is partly why people knowingly sacrifice peak performance, sleep, discourse, and safety). The in- creasing mobility of the new technology exacerbates all these issues. As much interest as there is for childish escapism, the internet also enables and encourages attachment to our jobs, another gift of the market culture.

Reckoning with the Real World

Of course the freedom to have fun or do work any place or time is not all bad. The paradoxical problem in all this, though, is that as we get more connected to people elsewhere, we often get less connected to people nearby. Talking on the phone, while the waiter, cashier, next person in line, or car behind you waits, always means: “this offline interaction is not important enough to focus on by itself.”

Appreciating the humanity of other people re- quires a certain amount of respect for their physical presence – their organic bodies in all their awkwardness and vulnerability. There is no society, no neighborhood, no common good, without such encounters within physical proximity.

What does all this have to do with the church? Nothing – unless the church wants to be relevant to the most powerful cultural change of our time. 

All technology is unnatural in some sense. Homo sapiens are not born knowing how to dial, type, drive, or log on. And machines tend to distance us from the elemental power of the earth. But the creative capacity of our large brains was designed for the development of culture, which is to say there is something fundamentally natural about technology. At any rate, the new technology is here to stay. But that does not mean we have to passively accept everything about how it functions or evolves. The moment is probably more contingent and malleable than we might suspect. We could make different choices both in terms of our own personal lives and how we relate to the broad patterns of society.

Indeed, the church has a special role to play here. On a good day, it offers what now sounds like radical counter-cultural wisdom. Slow down. Listen. Remember who you are. Protect your community. Nurture conversations with other communities. Dwell on what brings you genuine joy. But also think about someone other than yourself. Consider what God wants from you and for you. In general, the internet does not countenance this wisdom. Nor, to be sure, does the market. As our experience with the new technology shifts from optional use to basic dependence, and as the market seeks a firmer grasp on our lives, nourishing this wisdom will become as important as ever.

The question for the church is not whether it can make clever use of slick technology for worship or congregational solidarity, which are seductive opportunities for appealing to younger generations and potential adherents in general. The real question is whether the church is going to provide any compelling leadership or counternarrative amidst this cultural tsunami.

What that would mean has to get worked out by real leaders in communities of faith. Surely the first step is recognizing that the new technology is not neutral in our common life together, and it is not the panacea for many of the challenges congregations face. Ultimately we are called to imagine solutions and responses that are more attentive and alert than we have ever imagined before. This summons requires relational covenants thicker than what can be found in the virtual world, memory deeper than the amnesia of the delete button, and commitments more enduring than the hollow promises of the market. 

John Brueggemann is professor of sociology and Quadracci Professor in Social Responsibility at Skidmore College. His lat- est book is Rich, Free and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010). 

Screen Time: Minority Viewing Habits

Minority youth aged consume an average of thirteen hours of media content a day – about four and a half hours more than their white counterparts, a recent northwestern university report finds.

The report says minority children (age eight-eighteen) spend one to two additional hours each day watching TV and videos, about an hour more listening to music, up to an hour and a half more on computers, and thirty to forty minutes more playing video games than their white counterparts.

“The big question is what these disparities mean for our children’s health and education,” says northwestern Professor Ellen Wartella, who directed the study and heads the center on media and Human Development in the school of communication.

the only medium for which no difference was found between minority and white youth was read- ing print for pleasure. Young people in all groups read for pleasure approximately thirty to forty min- utes a day, the study finds.

“Our study is not meant to blame parents,” says Wartella. “We hope to help parents, educators, and policymakers better understand how children’s media use may influence health and educational disparities.”

The study, “children, media and Race: media use Among White, black, Hispanic and Asian Amer- ican children,” reported other findings:
• Minority youth are especially avid adopters of new media, spending about an hour and a half more each day than white youth using their cell phones, iPods and other mobile devices.
• Traditional TV viewing remains the most popular of all media. black and Hispanic youth on average consume more than three hours of live TV daily (3:23 for blacks, 3:08 for Hispanics, 2:28 for Asians and 2:14 for whites).
• TV viewing rates are even higher when data on time-shifting technologies such as tiVo, DVDs, and mobile and online viewing are included. total daily television consumption then rises to 5:54 for black youth, 5:21 for Hispanics, 4:41 for Asians, and 3:36 for whites.
• Black and Hispanic youth are more likely to have tV sets in their bedrooms (84 percent of blacks, 77 percent of Hispanics compared to 64 percent of whites and Asians).
• Minority youth eat more meals in front of the tV set – with 78 percent of black, 67 percent of His- panic, 58 percent of white, and 55 percent of Asian youth reporting that the tV is “usually” on during meals at home.

Source: northwestern university newscenter