The Internet: Boon or bane to serious discourse? (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
Can the Internet challenge today's informational and cultural monopoly?
The Internet arose as a truly mass phenomenon in the mid-to-late 1990s. In more recent years, we have moved into the so-called Internet Two – characterized by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and smartphones. The Internet had arrived, however, after three to four decades of some of the most intense, unidirectional mass media and mass educational conditioning in human history.
It is a vitally important question whether the Internet will offer the possibilities of enhancing serious social, political, cultural, and truly philosophical debate, or if the various "news" and entertainment imageries so widely and readily transmissible through it, will simply deepen the extension of American and Canadian consumerism and political-correctness, and the (mostly American) mindless, ersatz patriotism, today.
It may be noted that a situation now exists, where it appears that little more than one percent of the population -- termed variously "the knowledge elite," the "symbolic analysts", or "the New Class" -- endeavours to thoroughly condition the rest of the population – through the mass media and mass education system – in what to think, feel, and believe, and in how to act. This system has been described as the managerial-therapeutic regime, the melding of big business and big government, a social environment of total administration and near-total media immersion.
It may be noted than any more honest challenges to the system, whether from the anti-consumerist, genuinely ecological Left, or from antiwar, localist, paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives, or from conscientious pro-life and pro-family writers, are simply being edited out of "approved", media- and administratively-constructed social reality.
It is an open question whether simply making some good ideas available on the Internet, can have a major social, cultural, and political impact. Although some may not wish to admit it, there is a clear hierarchy of information on the Internet. It ranges – roughly – from the mostly unmoderated, self-posting forum, or purely personal website or blog (unless the person running it has already achieved major success or notoriety outside the Web); to the widely-read, conscientiously-edited, but not major-income-generating e-zine; to major web-magazines like Salon and Slate; to the websites of major media entities such as CNN and The New York Times – who are simply reinforcing their massive presence in the world outside the Web. In the general media world, it seems that there can only be a comparative handful of "exceptions that prove the rule" – such as the vast success of The Drudge Report, and the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project. It should also be noted that, while an act of spectacular violence can bring attention to the online writings and images of the perpetrator or perpetrators, it surely does not increase the credibility of their ideas. Far from it – it makes their notions appear totally loathsome.
While there now exists the possibility of easy book-printing – along with a greater hope than previously that the book can reach a wider audience (for example, through placement on the Amazon bookselling and retail site) – the obvious "authority" and "imprimatur" of a book appearing with a major commercial, literary, or academic publisher – constitutes a very tight barrier indeed to the intellectual transmission of "unapproved" ideas. And among many so-called "alternative" or small publishers – or such putatively non-commercial forums like public television and National Public Radio -- the taboos and dogmas of "political correctness" are indeed often held with even greater fervour.
As for the subgenre of talk-radio (typified by Rush Limbaugh, who has in recent years been going through a personal scandal of his own) it could be argued that there is little there apart from a jingoistic, meaningless, ersatz patriotism – whose main purpose appears to be to drive the United States into endless foreign wars. There are there as well stupid levels of vitriol (to name here the least apposite targets) -- against environmentalists (typically derided as "tree-huggers"), against disabled people, and against serious critics of consumerism and capitalism. It also does not appear to have occurred to many people that allowing members of the public to rant freely on the radio (or, more accurately, being given the illusion that anyone can rant freely on the radio) tends to work purely as a temporary safety-valve that might actually diminish initiatives of constructive political engagement. The modus operandi of virtually all talk-radio hosts (of whatever persuasion) has also been well-described by critics – deride and cut off the air anyone you disagree with, and then spend the next fifteen minutes or so laughing at him or her as your fans call in to "offer their support."
It could also be argued that one of the general effects of the Internet is the tendency to accentuate a "hyper-fragmentation" of social, cultural, and political interests, which means that broadly-based public and political debate becomes ever more difficult.
Also, in the case of a very large number of people, the Internet is used simply for access to various entertainment and pop-culture imageries and "news," existing in various subgenres like "porn", celebrity-cults, rock- and rap-music, and sports, movie, and television show fandom.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.