Social media, social media, social media, it needs a nickname or an acronym like SoMo or SoSo or SocMe or SoMe or MeMe. Media is such a powerful tool, it has transformed so much about how we live in such a short time. In the 1920s radio transformed the world, shortly after that it was television, during the same time all that was happening there was also the revolution in film going from a machine that flips pictures in a penny arcade to silent films to talkies in black and white to film as we know it. All of these mediums happening at the same time and until social media there was not a single media that was able to really capture the needs that picture, sound and words were able to convey that was in the hands of ordinary people.
The history of access to media is an old story. It starts with language and has to include the history of access to information during different times in history. During the roman era there was a blossoming of literacy, it was based on access to papyrus and the ease by which script was made portable and accessible. During this time of blossoming of language information was widespread because of the tools and technology which allowed for dissemination of information. As the sources of papyrus dried up following the collapse of the roman empire, language and information dissemination migrated to the east where it was held up and maintained in Islam through the middle ages when Europe was subsumed by widespread illiteracy.
Looking at the explosion in literacy philosophically it appears that no matter what human beings do, there is a fundamental contradiction in the efforts of mass consciousness that negate its own efforts. There seems to be something instinctive in the species that sets it up to constantly undo itself, but within that world of rises and falls is contained a universe of meaning that has been lost because there was no record of it. Today there is a record. That undoing of meaning exists as much with the record we are creating now as it did with the record we were creating then. We have the ability now to make a record, but under that recording is a deeper more fundamental truth, something that you can’t get to with the overt expression of media. It is a truth of experience, not even of experience but the truth of transformation.
For instance, during the 1960s when the civil rights movement was happening it is almost a given that there was an experience of media that most people had which showed that expression of public consciousness as shocking. The idea of black people simply riding a bus experiencing systemic violence spoke volumes about the legacy of racism in western culture, the foundation of power in a colonial empire and what it means to be an American. None of those realities have changed, media has simply allowed a different way of peeking under the meaning of those realities. There is something about the automation of language that transforms it from the slow and patient meaning of directed communication to something distant and removed . At the same time, this is simply a postmodern condition of awareness.
Activists had hoped that with the advent of public access television in the 1960’s beginning in New York City and moving into most communities by the 1980s the meaning and quality of public access to media would change and become more meaningful. There was a hope that it would revitalize the utopian faith in media and communication that was first imagined during the advent of radio and then again during the early days of television. There was a hope at the time that these new medias would create a revolutionary way for people to communicate, learn and live. Television in particular, as well as radio, have been transformative but not in the way some had hoped in the early days of the medium.
The problem is that no matter the medium, it is not going to stretch further than the culture it is opening up into. You can get a flavor of the culture you live in by looking at your own memories of how you experience it and simply use that as an analogy of how most of the people around you experience it. It isn’t that hard to do, you can simply remember your experience of school or growing up and try to understand what that experience means to you. There isn’t any escaping it. There also isn’t any explaining it. Our experience of media is not in any way dissimilar to our experience of existence. We can’t explain why we were born or what the world is or why it is. This is the world we were born into and the time we are born into within that human culture and the conditions of the universe we exist in.
The truth is that we live in a void. We are on this incredibly bizarre world that has life on it, but the life of the world we live in didn’t just exist but it also became conscious, probably in large part due to the magnetic field around the earth and the protection it offered for fragile life forms which became strong about a billion years ago just shortly before the first major growth spurt of life in the oceans. The fact that our planet is capable of sustaining life in a universe which seems entirely hostile to life as we know it is part of why people have faith in a higher power and is also part of why the Gutenberg bible was the first book that was widely distributed in western Europe. Religion is the foundation of both ignorance and meaning. At the same time that this new technology was transforming Europe, science was undoing it. Galileo was being placed under house arrest and being forced to say that the sun was not the center of the solar system.
In 1857 the US Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott that black people were only 3/5 of a person. That was only 170 years ago, a very short time in terms of history. This case set the path for the civil war, for the rebellion of John Brown and ultimately for a conflict that transformed America and held it up once again as a potential source of hope for the western world after having been so disappointing for almost 350 years. Nothing has really changed in America, the foundational tools that would make media, including social media, transformative are still buried deep in the American psyche. The potential is there for transformation but the reality of violence and how violence fundamentally shapes all social structures is still there getting in the way, nothing has really changed since the roman times. The patriarchal violence of our culture as expressed through US military hegemony, policing in the United States and the lack of any meaningful opposition to the status quo is a testament to how little culture fundamentally changes unless something truly revolutionary happens to it.
What is interesting about media and perhaps isn’t widely understood is how media is able to be used both as a tool of positive social change but also can be used as a tool against meaning and transformation. By creating the spectacle of entertainment and the spectacle of meaning social media has the capacity of becoming an instrument of propaganda as effective as any other tool including language itself. The truth is that media cannot be any more meaningful than its producers, but those producers can’t be any more meaningful than the broader culture in which they exist, and that culture can’t mean anything unless the people who participate in it push for meaning, and even then meaning is still hard to come by.
We are meaning making machines, and that is part of the universal struggle. We create meaning through words, pictures, sounds and ideas but right now while we are in the middle of this relative bubble of affluence and stability in the west we have the opportunity to examine what do we find meaningful in our world, what do we want to carry with us into the future and what do we want to leave behind. I would vote that we leave behind most of the things we think are normal right now. We need to leave behind almost all of our assumptions about western culture. We need to give up on progress, this idea that there is some sort of progress or that we are moving toward something in the future. We are all moving toward death but on the way if we have a good society that cares about the people it is stewards of, those people can have a good and meaningful life full of joy, possibility and fulfillment.
The real measure of human meaning in the future should be based on a complex set of measures which applies to everyone. We need to abandon money. They have already done it on Star Trek so it is completely possible for us to do. Right now we place money as a value and a measure of progress. There can never be enough money, there can never be enough need and money drives innovation. These are the myths of our economy, there is an assumption that somehow money has some meaning that merits value, and not just value but that it constitutes a public good. In fact money is really viewed as a moral condition, it is seen as both a tool of access and a measure of a person’s worth. There are so many complications born up in a monetary system that have almost no real meaning in the actual world. Almost everything that is of any meaning in the world was given to us freely, well not freely exactly.
There is an agenda within nature, nature has an imperative that it takes from us and that is really the starting point for even beginning to understand what money means in the context of that freedom that nature offers. The freedom that nature offers contains its own inherent contradictions, and that set of contradictions forms the basis of so many undoings with the constructed world we live in. Nature demands our attention and it doesn’t give something without also taking something else. We are enormous takers as a species. Our takings have included most of the large land based mammals long before we had even settled into farming, our taking includes radioactive metals mined from the earth used to construct weapons of mass destruction, death machines, instruments of mass holocaust, taken from the earth and always in a state of absolute readiness.
This overwhelming show of threat and posturing shows the base of power in both the west and east. It is the basis of the economic and social order and it also shows the fundamental absurdity of human existence, which among other things, shows itself to have given up on the future, to have given up on hope or the potential imaginings those activists first saw in radio or television or the pride I imagine Gutenberg felt when he first put his concepts to work. What it shows is that at least some people in our culture love death, they crave death and that we are a death worshipping culture, a culture that holds up violence and subjugation as its foundational values. These are the values that we wear on our sleeve and wear on our history. They are presented as a social good, and something that is mostly hidden and not overt, but nothing could be more overt than history.
So what is the hope then? The hope has to be in that space of meaning that social media cannot capture, that media cannot capture. You can’t find it on television of on the radio or even in a book. It is something that you can only know if you know it. In a way it is what comes from our imagination. In spite of all the darkness in the world there is something within us that is deeply joyful and capable of our best mammalian aspects. We are really the gods we imagine exist in heaven. We are as capable of creating meaning and joy as anything else nature has created. I think the future is joy, to the extent that we are able to embrace joy, and understand that our existence is limited but while we exist everyone has the right to joy, to connection and to fulfillment, then that is our future. To the extent that our technologies are able to lift us up into this world of joyfulness, whatever that means, that is our future.
A world without money, a world without weapons of mass destruction, a world where everyone is housed and everyone is fed and everyone is educated. A world where we are motivated to repair the damages done by the generations, not just the damage to the earth and to other species, but undoing the damage we have done to ourselves and to others, that is the future I imagine, a future of meaningful health care, a future which is focused on education, creativity, collaboration and discovery. This is the future of our planet it is the future of each other, to live joyfully while exploring, creating and learning, helping and nurturing one another. Only by moving forward into this positive mutual support of all people are we going to really begin to create a meaning that will give us joy and satisfaction.