Symposium on Social Media

Just a quick post this morning to let you know about The New Atlantis’s symposium on digital discourse: The Ruin of the Digital Town Square.

I contributed a piece to the discussion titled, “The Inescapable Town Square.” That piece and all the others are available as of today. Take a look at the other entries, including pieces from James Poulos, Nolen Gertz, and Caitrin Keiper, among others.

Here’s an excerpt from my essay, which drew on the work of Walter Ong:

Consider, for example, the attention Ong drew to the mnemonic consequences of new media. Among the most important features of writing was that it allowed for an unprecedented degree of memory offloading. Ong invites us to “try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything.” In a culture without writing, “You know what you can recall.” Consequently, oral societies are inherently conservative, structured by rituals of remembrance intended to preserve their knowledge and their history. Individual identity, which to a large extent rests on memory, is subordinated to the more important work of keeping the memory of the community alive.

Writing relieves societies of this imperative to remember, and thereby also weakens the conservative impulse. Additionally, as writing and its tools become accessible to large parts of a society, individual identity flourishes, both because writing releases the individual from the strong focus on collective oral memory, and because reading and writing, especially after the invention of print, tend to be solitary and interiorizing activities.

Digital technology scrambles these earlier dynamics. On the one hand, digital media dramatically expand our capacity to document and store information. Externalized memory hypertrophies as we rely ever more on easily accessible and searchable archives. You carry ten thousand images in your pocket and you can search them by date, place, or face. The library is in your pocket, too, and it is in many respects better stocked than any local library you were likely to visit in the pre-digital age.

On the other hand, the structure of our digital platforms also recalls a feature of oral culture: the evanescence of the word. In oral cultures, the spoken word is passing away just as it is coming into being; it cannot be locked down or frozen. As Ong notes, the spoken word is not a thing but an event; it is not static but acts on the world at the moment it is spoken. Literate individuals, by contrast, can barely help thinking of a word as anything other than its static alphabetic representation. Our digital media timelines, like oral communication, privilege the fleeting present; what we document — words, sounds, images, video — quickly recedes into the past. Indeed, even our digital images no longer primarily serve documentary purposes, but instead are a form of instant and transient communication. This is a reality that Evan Spiegel, co-creator of Snapchat, noted in 2016: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”

Under these conditions, the function of externalized memory shifts. It is no longer for recording the past or preserving knowledge, but now for acting in the present. Memory loses its context and story. It neither integrates a society, as the rituals of collective remembering in oral societies did, nor does it sustain an individual’s experience of the self, as writing did in the age of print. Memory, much of it highly personal, is “there,” but without the person necessarily remembering. This allows memory to become weaponized. It exists in massive and accessible databases, ready to be resurfaced, without context and without warning, in a newly contentious field of public discourse.

Read the rest.

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