Media Ecological Perspective on Free Speech

Rhetoric in oral cultures tends to be, in Walter Ong’s phrasing, “agonistically toned.” Ong noted that speech in oral societies was more like an event or action than it was a label or sign. Words did things (curses, blessings, incantations, etc.), and irrevocably so.

This was so, in part, because speech in oral societies was uttered in the dynamic and always potentially fraught context of face-to-face encounters. The audience in oral societies is always present and visible. It is literally an audience, it hears you. Writing, by contrast, creates the possibility of addressing an audience that is neither visible nor present. The audience becomes an abstraction. Cool detachment can prevail in writing because there is no one to immediately challenge you.

It was also so because in oral societies one couldn’t conceive of a word visually, as a thing; it was an auditory event. In literate societies one can’t help but conceive of a word as a thing. As Ong says at one point, a literate person inevitably thinks of the image of letters when he thinks about a word. (Try it for yourself: close your eyes and think of a word, not the thing that word represents but of the word itself.) This thing-like quality is reinforced by the fixity of print. A word conceived of as an inert thing can also be conceived of as a harmless thing, its there, lifeless, on the page. Words conceived of as an active, dynamic force will not so easily be experienced as harmless in themselves.

A maximalist doctrine of freedom of speech, then, may be most plausible when speech is imagined primarily as inert words-as-things. It is not surprising then that freedom of speech is historically correlated with the appearance of print.

The psychodynamics of digital media, however, are more akin to those of orality than literacy.

Discourse on digital media platforms, from comment boxes to social media, is infamously combative. On digital platforms, words takes on a more active quality. They can no longer be imagined as inert and lifeless things.

This is so, in part, because digital media reintegrates the word into a dynamic situation. The audience in digital media is not always visible, but it can be present with a degree of immediacy that is more like a face-to-face encounter than writing or print. Moreover, the pixelated word is more ephemeral and less-thing like than the printed word. It is both more ephemeral and more likely to initiate action.

Digital media, thus, reanimates the inert printed word, and the living word is experienced as both more powerful and more dangerous.

Under these circumstances a maximalist account of freedom of speech loses a measure of plausibility; it loses its status as a taken for granted and unalloyed good.

Maybe the Kids Aren’t Alright

Consider the following statements regarding the place of digital media in the lives of a cohort of thirteen-year-olds:

“One teenager, Fesse, was usually late – partly because he played Xbox till late into the night ….”

“We witnessed a fair number of struggles to make the technology work, or sometimes to engage pupils with digital media in the classroom.”

“Homework was often accompanied by Facebook, partly as a distraction and partly for summoning help from friends. Some became quickly absorbed in computer games.”

“Adam [played] with people from the online multi-player game in which he could adopt an identity he felt was truly himself.”

“Megan worked on creating her private online space in Tumblr – hours passing by unnoticed.”

“Each found themselves drawn, to varying degrees, into their parents’ efforts to gather as a family, at supper, through shared hobbies, looking after pets, or simply chatting in front of the television – albeit each with phones or tablets at the ready – before peeling off in separate directions.”

“Digital devices and the uses they put them to have become teenagers’ way of asserting their agency – a shield from bossy parents or annoying younger siblings or seemingly critical teachers, a means to connect with sympathetic friends or catching up with ongoing peer ‘drama.'”

Okay, now what would be your initial thoughts about the state of affairs described by these statements? Generally speaking, presented with these observations about the lives of 13-year-olds, I’d think that we might be forgiven a bit of concern. Sure, some of this describes the generally recognizable behavior of “teenagers” writ large, and nothing here suggested life-or-death matters, necessarily, but, nonetheless, it seemed to me that we might wish things were a touch different in some respects. At least, we might want a little more information about how these factors play out over the long run.

But the author framed these statements with these sorts of interpretative comments:

“… the more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them.”

“As adults and parents, we might spend less time worrying about what they get up to as teenagers and more time with them, discussing the challenges that lie ahead for them as adults in an increasingly connected world.”

Couple that with the opening paragraph, which begins thus: “With each generation the public consciousness conjures up a new fear for our youth ….” There is no quicker way to signal that you are not at all concerned about something than by leading with “each generation, blah, blah, blah.”

When I first read this piece, I felt a certain dissonance, and I couldn’t quite figure out its source. After thinking about it a bit more, I realized that the dissonance arose from the incongruity between the cheery, “the kids are alright” tone of the article and what the article actually reported.

(I might add that part of my unease also regards methodology. Why would we think that the students were any more transparent with this adult researcher in their midst than they were with the teachers whose halting attempts to connect with them via digital media they hold in apparent contempt? Mind you, this may very well be addressed in a perfectly adequate manner by the author in the book that this article introduces.)

Let me be clear, I’m not calling for what is conventionally and dismissively referred to as a “moral panic.” But I don’t think our only options are “everything is going to hell” and “we live in a digital paradise, quit complaining.” And what is reported in this article suggests to me that we should not be altogether unconcerned about how digital media floods every aspect of our lives and the lives of our children.

To the author’s point that “the more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them,” I reply, that’s a damnably low bar and, thus, little comfort.

And when the author preaches “As adults and parents, we might spend less time worrying about what they get up to as teenagers and more time with them, discussing the challenges that lie ahead for them as adults in an increasingly connected world,” I reply, that’s exactly what many adults and parents are trying to do but many of them feel as if they are fighting a losing battle against the very thing you don’t want them to worry about.

One last thought: we are deeply invested in the comforting notion that “the kids are alright,” aren’t we? I’m not saying they are not or that they will not be alright, necessarily. I’m just not sure. Maybe some will and some won’t. Some of the very stories linked by the website to the article in question suggest that there are at least some troubling dimensions to the place of digital media in the lives of teens. I’ve spent the better part of the last fifteen years teaching teens in multiple contexts. In my experience, with a much larger data set mind you, there are indeed reasons to be hopeful, but there are also reasons to be concerned. But never mind that, we really want to believe that they will be just fine regardless.

That desire to believe the “kids are alright” couples all too well with the desire to hold our technology innocent of all wrong. My technological habits are no different, may be they’re worse, so if the kids are alright then so am I. Perhaps the deeper desire underlying these tendencies is the desire to hold ourselves blameless and deflect responsibility for our own actions. If the “kids are alright” no matter what we do or how badly we screw up, then I’ve got nothing to worry about as an adult and a parent. And if the technologies that I’ve allowed to colonize my life and theirs are never, ever to blame, then I can indulge in them to my heart’s content without so much as a twinge of compunction. I get a pass either way, and who doesn’t want that? But maybe the kids are not altogether alright, and maybe it is not altogether their fault but ours.

Finally, one last thought occurred to me. Do we even know what it would mean to be alright anymore? Sometimes I think all we’re aiming at is something like a never-ending and exhausting management of perpetual chaos. Maybe we’ve forgotten how our lives might be alternatively ordered. Maybe our social and cultural context inhibits us from pursuing a better ordered life. Perhaps out of resignation, perhaps for lack of imagination, perhaps because we lack the will, we dare not ask what might be the root causes of our disorders. If we did, we might find that some cherished and unquestioned value, like our own obsession with unbridled individual autonomy, might be complicit. Easier to go on telling ourselves that everything will be alright.