There are any number of good reasons to despair for the American republic, given the events of the past year, but perhaps the most alarming of these is the inability for well-meaning people of all political stripes and passions to simply understand one another.
At times over the course of the fall election period, it seemed as though half the country existed of mean-spirited racist and misogynistic troglodytes, who lacked either the ability or the inclination to use their reason; whereas the other half was composed of entitled elitists who drank craft beer, traveled to places like Paris or Ulan Bator for their summer vacations, and looked with utter contempt on the God-fearing folk who fixed their plugged-up toilets and bagged their groceries.
It wasn’t always like this. Twenty years ago, Americans could disagree about Bob Dole and Bill Clinton and not deride their fellow citizens as morally corrupt simply for supporting the other side. The path by which we arrived at this mutual disdain for each other is a long and complicated one, but if we want to begin to understand how we ended up where we are now, I suggest we begin with the concept of the “network.”
In the last 15 years or so, a number of social scientists have proposed that modern society is becoming a “network” society. Of course, human beings have always arranged themselves into networks of one sort or another, but the idea behind the network society is that our current networks are somehow different from what came before.
Some of this difference is due to the way that we use media. For most of the 20th century, “the media” tended to mean a set of large, centralized institutions that created most of what we saw or heard or read. Popular culture was dominated by “industries” that cranked out “products.” There was the music industry, the movie industry, the book industry, the news industry.
Social scientists feared that this set of affairs was producing a “mass” society, a group of uninterested citizens who differed as little from one another as did the beans in a coffee roaster. Mass society worried theorists of democracy because it seemed to them that a population of like-minded, passive folk would be easy to manipulate. For the rest of us, mass society was just a drag. It never seemed like there was a lot to choose from, whether the choice was between what was on the radio or who was to be president. Bruce Springsteen memorably captured the feeling when he sang about 57 channels, and nothin’ on.
The network society, and network media, were supposed to be different, and better. Instead of accepting whatever thin gruel the culture industries deigned to throw our way, we could go onto the internet and find other people who shared our interests in say, 19th century Hungarian folk songs, or Japanese anime cinema or Hummel figurines.
In the network society there would no longer be a “mainstream” that dominated our common life. Instead, there would myriad, unique networks with no center, or rather, a center that constantly changed depending on the individual who composed it. A new world of freedom, with active information seekers — users — instead of a passive “audience,” was on the horizon.
Some of this has actually happened, but along the way to this cultural utopia it became increasingly apparent that, unless we were careful, information networks could cater to some of our worst instincts. For example, because they only provide us what we want, information networks such as social media provide a vision of the world that flatters our opinions rather than challenging them. We do not hear arguments from opposing sides that might work to change our minds, or at least modify our opinions into something less radical.
There was a lot of bad cultural product that we had to endure in the mass media age: sugary pop ballads sung by cutsie boy bands, Steven Seagal movies, those idiotic paintings of dogs playing poker. But some of the things we didn’t like, and didn’t want to pay attention to, were good for us to hear anyhow. It was good for pro-lifers and pro-choicers to be forced to listen to spokespeople for the other side every night on the evening news.
Networked media mean that we can now bypass challenging but important views. To the extent that we simply allow this to happen, our personal lives grow smaller, less imaginative. There is a civic price to be paid for these ideological cocoons as well. A nation whose members cannot trust one another is not a healthy nation. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to make a more conscious effort to listen to different voices, to forcibly and consciously move ourselves out of our networks. We risk losing a great deal if we do not.