I wrote “medium” singular instead of “media” plural in the title because I wanted to draw attention to the true and historically recognized role of “news” in society.
One of the chapters in Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences is titled “The Great Stereopticon.” Here, Weaver dissects the nature of modernity’s overarching input of information onto the masses. The three technologies he provides as a way of example are the press (newspapers), television, and the radio. He wrote this, obviously, before the rise of social media.
Now, it is here that most people—conservatives, libertarians, probably even liberals (depending on who is at the helm of the Federal Government)—immediately go to a place where they think: yes, the government uses these things for propaganda purposes. The state is the Great Liar and “The Media” is its bullhorn.
But this is not the core of Weaver’s point. And neither is it the object of my concerns about the technological development of the Great Stereopticon into twenty-first century social media. Forget the government for a minute. Assume they do not use these mechanisms for their deceit and power. We still, Weaver would say, have a problem. This problem is obviously more sinister and exacerbated with the state, but the core of the problem is more fundamental.
The activity of news media has been to centralize and universalize discussion, narrative, worldview, rhetoric, and “information.” We are confronted with “news” about scientific advancement, celebrity goings-on, the marketplace, conflict in far off places, events that would not otherwise concern us, and so on. All these things are couched in ontological presuppositions about the world, phrased with rhetoric that conditions and trains the mind, and, in effect, completely alters social structures and history over time.
Information and ideas do change the course of history, but as the media (plural of medium) through which this information is disseminated advances technologically, we are changing at rapid speed and the world is becoming one in its character, tastes, desires, values, discussion topics, etc. The most troubling aspect of the global turn toward singularity in its themes is that there is a tyranny of the mind that is distinct from “the state.” The state is, in real life, involved, of course; and this is naturally unnerving. But the state is not the whole of the problem with the globalization of conversation.
For instance, Weaver considers the consequences of the rise of the literate society. It certainly seems important on its face that people have the ability to “read for themselves!” and there are disadvantages to having a populace that cannot read. But in typical Weaverian revisionism he offers even a related consideration of a downside:
What the defenders of present civilization usually mean when they say that modern man is better educated than his forebears is that he is literate inlargernumbcrs. The literacy can be demonstrated; yet one may question whether there has ever been a more deceptive panacea, and we are compelled, after a hundred years of experience, to echo Nietzsche’s bitter observation: " Everyone being allowed to learn to read, ruincth in the long run not only writing but also thinking."
It is not what people can read; it is what they do read, and what they can be made, by any imaginable means, to learn from what they read, that determine the issue of this noble experiment. We have given them a technique of acquisition; how much comfort can we take in the way they employ it? In a society where expression is free and popularity is rewarded they read mostly that which debauches them and they arc continuously exposed to manipulation by controllers of the printing machine.
It may be doubted whether one person in three draws what may be correctly termed knowledge from his freely chosen reading matter. The staggering number of facts to which he today has access serves only to draw him away from consideration of first principles, so that his orientation becomes peripheral. And looming above all as a reminder of this fatuity is the tragedy of modem Germany, the one totally literate nation.
As I told a friend recently, “they got the whole world talking about the coronavirus. Social media is the internationalization of problems, and therefore, also of discussion.” This is a remarkable achievement and was a realization that caused me to panic-quit social media. Of course I was being controlled, who would argue otherwise? My entire frame of reference, the things I talked about, the object of my mental focus… all these came from social media in a much more powerful way than could have been accomplished during the television media years. And certainly compared to the print-only years.
Richard Weaver tracks the use and role of discourse from the locally uniting myths and legends of the ancient world (passed on orally, hence the poetic structure) to the present age wherein all history, social-national bonds, and geographically restrained centers of culture have disappeared and, intellectually if not politically, we are becoming children of the world at large. How much more speedily is this being accomplished with social media? Social media is not the means of decentralization. It is, in fact, the means of centralization, universalization, and homogeneity of discourse. Increased “connection” is, in fact, increased fragmentation with our pasts and traditions and a thrust toward global massness. The “one world narrative” is equally as disconcerting as a one world state (the latter flows from the former).
We belong nowhere, except as peripheral parts of the great global mind.