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The library and modern society in the 1980s – and beyond: Responses to mass media, mass society, and technology (Part Five)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 18, 2012

(Original drafts of this essay go back to November 1985 – author's note.)

In the shadows, there is the question of the physical book, or even the printed word, becoming obsolete. One might use a metaphor from Marx's theories of class-struggle here. There was a time when the printed word was "revolutionary" and "progressive". But, in the face of the computer/media revolution, the printed word, it could be argued, just like the modern bourgeoisie, has become "reactionary" and "conservative". This metaphor can operate on several levels, and can be fitted into the three phases of "the book" alluded to earlier. There is little doubt that the printed word, especially in the form of the newspaper and news-sheet, helped to destroy the premodern order. The question now becomes, however, whether the book or printed word is performing an opposite function, holding back the advance into the hypermodern society of electronic media and computers. If one considers the various dystopias that might emerge in that encroaching society, it might be argued that the printed word (and, by extension, the Library) is performing a necessary "preservationist" or braking function, rather than holding up so-called "progress".

It is said again and again that we are heading towards a "new information society". What does this precisely mean? If "information" is indeed a value-free element which any person can interpret in any way he or she chooses, this means that it is far from representing true knowledge, and certainly not wisdom. One assumes that every person applies his or her "critical apparatus" (however limited it may be in many cases) to bits of "information" he or she has isolated from the flow of sensory experience. (There seem to be different levels of a definition being worked out here.) The chief problem of the information society, which Ortega y Gasset foresaw (in a somewhat different form) already in 1935, is "information overload". The filtering capacities of both the society and the individual are overburdened and overextended, thus resulting in societal and individual paralysis in decision-making ability. This is one possible way the hypermodern society may destroy itself or succumb to "less-advanced" societies which have no trouble in making up their collective minds.

Yet, if we consider the existence of the "media" for the transmission of information, it must be clear that the "information" filtered through the media, which is directed by human beings, cannot be value-free. On the one hand, there are theories of Marshall McLuhan. – "the medium is the message." This suggests that the conveying of information through different technological methods changes the impact and meaning of the information conveyed. The non-print societies are different from print-based societies which are intrinsically different from electronic societies. [16]

The possible weakness of this theory is that it makes little allowance for the actual message. It would seem questionable to pretend that "the media" is a neutral, objective observer of reality. It is usually only from the vantage point of "the average person" living within liberal democracy that it seems an objective mirror of reality. Astute observers whether nominally of the Right or Left can easily discover the "filtering processes" which the media constantly applies to raw "information". The possible socially totalitarian implications of the monopoly of the media over "information" are rarely realized by "average people". It might be said that, with the effortlessness of gods, the media giants set the terms of nearly all political debate, create popular pressure (which they can turn on and off like a water-faucet), forge public opinion, and – not infrequently – crush those they consider "extremist" or "dangerous". [17]

Indeed, the post-1960s technological advances might have locked Western societies into a certain pattern so that no movement from previous trajectories is possible, even though these trajectories might lead straight to disaster. Thus, it could be argued that the mission of the Library may become to hold back the onset of a world either like that of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's 1984, both of which would result in the destruction of the library as an institution.

To some social and cultural critics, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World looks distressingly like the approaching hypermodern society. Everyone is expected to have a fantastic standard of living, unlimited physical pleasures (harmless drugs, free sex, multi-media recreation), yet all that has ever had meaning is gone. Indeed, the "conservatism" of the corporations, and media "liberalism" have melded seamlessly into each other – at the expense of a rooted community.

"You all remember," said the Controller, in his strong deep voice, "you all remember, I suppose that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's: History is bunk. History," he repeated slowly, "is bunk."
He waved his hand; and it was though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, whisk – and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk – and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem, and the Middle Kingdom – all were gone. Whisk – the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk… [18]

One may indeed notice that today World War II is almost considered "Ancient History", something of incredible remoteness to younger persons. It does appear that the past of humankind has largely faded out for many people today -- even for intellectuals and so-called creative types (apart from some standard demonologies of earlier iniquitude). If the loss of rooted memory is indeed the ultimate trajectory of the hypermodern society, of super-technologization, of current-day liberalism, then the mission of the library must clearly be to stand against it.

As for the scenario suggested in Orwell's 1984, it was probably most prominently instantiated by Stalin's Soviet Union, and had continued in less virulent form into the 1980s.

To be continued. ESR

Notes (rendered continuously) (refer to later bibliography for full titles):

[16] The ideas of Marshall McLuhan are generally known. They have often been said to amount to an optimistic technological determinism.

[17] The broadly left-liberal outlook of most the media, especially in Canada, is obvious to most observers. The fact that the media sometimes champions a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism might make their biases a bit less obvious to some observers. What has absolutely no positive register in most of the media, especially in Canada, is social conservatism.

[18] Aldous Huxley, p. 38

Mark Wegierski holds (among other academic degrees) a Master of Library Science.






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