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.

Where Have All The Public Intellectuals Gone

“Professors, we need you!” announces the title of a Nicholas Kristof op-ed in the NY Times. Kristof goes on to lament the dearth of public intellectuals actively informing American culture regarding “today’s great debates.” Kristof blames this regrettable state of affairs on a series of predictable culprits: tedious academic writing, pressure to publish arcane scholarship in obscure journals, and hyper-specialized areas of research with little bearing on public life.

The responses I’ve read to Kristof’s column tend to grant that Kristof, almost despite himself, has put his finger on something, but go on to explain why his analysis is mostly flawed. Take as one example Corey Robin’s lengthy response: “Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now.”

Part, but only part, of Robin’s response is to point to a host of intellectuals that would very much like to be public intellectuals and certainly have what it takes to fill that role admirably. He even speaks highly of grad students that are already making a name for themselves with timely, intelligent, well-written pieces on matters of public consequence.

And, indeed, many of us I’m sure could supplement Robin’s list of publicly engaged intellectuals. The problem as I see it is not a lack of intellectuals, it is the absence of a public.

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that there is not an intelligent reading public that craves informed, well-crafted pieces that bear on matters of public consequence. That may also be true, but I only believe it on my more cynical days. Of course, I won’t tell you what percentage of my days those cynical ones take up.

What I do mean by saying that there is no public may be better put by saying that there is no public sphere, and I mean this from a media ecological perspective. Our media ecosystem makes it easier than ever for intellectuals to make their work public, but harder than ever to achieve the status of public intellectual, i.e. someone who is both widely known and widely respected.

Kristof may or may not have had this in mind, but we might think of a public intellectual as someone who specializes in intellectual labor and makes that labor publicly accessible. If this is what we mean by public intellectuals, then, as Robins and other have pointed out, we’re surrounded by public intellectuals. The Internet is crawling with them. We might even say of public intellectuals what Jack says of clever people in “The Importance of Being Earnest”:

“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.”

But 1,000 intellectuals writing publicly may not amount to a single public intellectual in the more traditional sense that Kristof has a hankering for. The more traditional sort of public intellectual, the one who is widely known, widely respected, and influential may simply have been a function of late print culture, a techno-cultural moment when the last ripples of Enlightenment ideals of rational and civil democratic discourse reached the public through newly-minted mass media. The proliferation of media outlets–the 400+ television stations, the countless forums and blogs and Internet magazines, Twitter, etc.–spawns niche markets and this makes it quite hard for someone to get the kind of audience and across-the-board respect that the title of public intellectual seems to suggest. When there were fewer gatekeepers of public opinion, and the remnants of a cultural consensus to work with, it would’ve been easier to achieve the status of public intellectual.

I realize that last paragraph trades in big generalizations and leaves out a whole host of factors. Feel free to pick it apart. I’ll leave aside all of the Postman-esque arguments you might imagine for yourself about our entertaining ourselves to death, etc. I’ll also leave aside the fact that a good deal of academic work in a variety of disciplines has been devoted to the critique of a universal public reason that the possibility of a public intellectual assumes.

One last thought: It may be that the craving for public intellectuals is a kind of nostalgic longing for a time when we could reasonably imagine that even though we ourselves couldn’t get an intellectual grip on the complexities of modern society, out there, somewhere, there were smart people at the controls. These mythical public intellectuals we long for were those whose cultural function was to reassure us with their calm, accessible, and smart talk that people who knew what they were doing were steering the ship.[1] I suspect the unnerving truth is that the trade-off for the benefits of an unfathomably complex technological society is the disquieting reality that understanding is now beyond the reach of any intellectual, public or otherwise. 


[1] The same function is served by the cabals of conspiracy theory dreams.

Perspectives on Privacy and Human Flourishing

I’ve not been able to track down the source, but somewhere Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

The unfolding NSA scandal has brought privacy front and center. A great deal is being written right now about the ideal of privacy, the threats facing it from government activities, and how it might best be defended. Conor Friedersdorf, for instance, worries that our government has built “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” At this juncture, the concerns seem to me neither exaggerated nor conspiratorial.

Interestingly, there also seems to be a current of opinion that fails to see what all the fuss is about. Part of this current stems from the idea that if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove’s 2011 book on just this line of reasoning in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that is worth reading (link via Alan Jacobs).

Others are simply willing to trade privacy for security. In a short suggestive post on creative ambiguity with regards to privacy and government surveillance, Tyler Cowen concedes, “People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.”  “But,” he immediately adds, “if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.”


I wonder whether we are not witnessing the long foretold end of western modernity’s ideal of privacy. That sort of claim always comes off as a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not altogether misguided. If we grant that the notion of individual privacy as we’ve known it is not a naturally given value but rather a historically situated concept, then it’s worth considering both what factors gave rise to the concept and how changing sociological conditions might undermine its plausibility.

Media ecologists have been addressing these questions for quite awhile. They’ve argued that privacy, as we understand (understood?) it, emerged as a consequence of the kind of reading facilitated by print. Privacy, in their view, is the concern of a certain type of individual consciousness that arises as a by-product of the interiority fostered by reading. Print, in these accounts, is sometimes credited with an unwieldy set of effects which include the emergence of Protestantism, modern democracy, the Enlightenment, and the modern idea of the individual. That print literacy is the sole cause of these developments is almost certainly not the case; that it is implicated in each is almost certainly true.

This was the view, for example, advanced by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy. “[W]riting makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity,” Ong explains, “opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set.” Further on he wrote,

Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society. It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. In manuscript culture and hence in early print culture, reading had tended to be a social activity, one person reading to others in a group. As Steiner … has suggested, private reading demands a home spacious enough to provide for individual isolation and quiet.

This last point draws architecture into the discussion as Aaron Bady noted in his 2011 essay for MIT Review, “World Without Walls”:

Brandeis and Warren were concerned with the kind of privacy that could be afforded by walls: even where no actual walls protected activities from being seen or heard, the idea of walls informed the legal concept of a reasonable expectation of privacy. It still does … But contemporary threats to privacy increasingly come from a kind of information flow for which the paradigm of walls is not merely insufficient but beside the point.

This argument was also made by Marshall McLuhan who, like his student Ong, linked it to the “coming of the book.” For his part, Ong concluded “print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space.” Presumably, then, the accompanying assumption is that this thing-like inert mental space is something to be guarded and shielded from intrusion.

854px-Vermeer,_Johannes_-_Woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca._1662-1663While it is a letter, not a book that she reads, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue has always seemed to me a fitting visual illustration of this media ecological perspective on the idea of privacy. The question all of this begs is obvious: What does the decline of the age of print entail for the idea of privacy? What happens when we enter what McLuhan called the “electric age” and Ong called the age of “secondary orality,” or what we might now call the “digital age”?

McLuhan and Ong seemed to think that the notion of privacy would be radically reconfigured, if not abandoned altogether. One could easily read the rise of social media as further evidence in defense of their conclusion. The public/private divide has been endlessly blurred. Sharing and disclosure is expected. So much so that those who do not acquiesce to the regime of voluntary and pervasive self-disclosure raise suspicions and may be judged sociopathic.

Perhaps, then, privacy is a habit of thought we may have fallen out of. This possibility was explored in an extreme fashion by Josh Harris, the dot-com era Internet pioneer who subjected himself, and willing others, to unblinking surveillance. The experiment in prophetic sociology was documented by director Ondi Timoner in the film We Live in Public.

The film is offered as a cautionary tale. Harris suffered an emotional and mental breakdown as a consequences of his experimental life. On the film’s website, Timoner added this about Harris’ girlfriend who had enthusiastically signed up for the project:  “She just couldn’t be intimate in public. And I think that’s one of the important lessons in life; the Internet, as wonderful as it is, is not an intimate medium. It’s just not. If you want to keep something intimate and if you want to keep something sacred, you probably shouldn’t post it.”

This caught my attention because it introduced the idea of intimacy rather than, or in addition to, that of privacy. As Solove argued in the piece mentioned above, we eliminate the rich complexity of all that is gathered under the idea of privacy when we reduce it to secrecy or the ability to conceal socially marginalized behaviors. Privacy, as Timoner suggests, can also be understood as the pre-condition of intimacy, and, just to be clear, this should be understood as more than mere sexual intimacy.

The reduction of intimacy to sexuality recalls the popular mis-reading of the Fall narrative in the Hebrew Bible. The description of the Edenic paradise concludes – unexpectedly until familiarity has taught you to expect it – with the narrator’s passing observation that the primordial pair where naked and unashamed. A comment on sexual innocence, perhaps, but much more I think. It spoke to a radical and fearless transparency born of pure guilelessness. The innocence was total and so, then, was the openness and intimacy.

Of course, the point of the story is to set up the next tragic scene in which innocence is lost and the immediate instinct is to cover their nakedness. Total transparency is now experienced as total vulnerability, and this is the world in which we live. Intimacy of every kind is no longer a given. It must emerge alongside hard-earned trust, heroic acts of forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love. And perhaps with this realization we run up against the challenge of our digital self-publicity and the risks posed by perpetual surveillance. The space for a full-fledged flourishing of the human person is being both surrendered and withdrawn. The voluntarily and involuntarily public self, is a self that operates under conditions which undermine the possibility of its own well-being.

But, this is also why I believe Bady is on to something when he writes, “Privacy has a surprising resilience: always being killed, it never quite dies.” It is why I’m not convinced that we could entirely reduce all that is entailed in the notion of privacy to a function of print literacy. If something that answers to the name of privacy is a condition of our human flourishing in our decidedly un-Edenic condition, then one hopes we will not relinquish it entirely to either the imperatives of digital culture or the machinations of the state. It is, admittedly, a tempered hope.

Hospitable Technology

“Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” — Neil Postman

Apt metaphors can be illuminating and instructive. Media ecology is one such metaphor. By seeking to understand the impact of communication technology by analogy to natural environments, media ecology suggests a number of important insights into the nature of technology. It suggests, for example, that a new technology is not merely additive.

When a new species is introduced into a natural ecosystem, the result is not the old ecosystem plus a new component; it is a new ecosystem. The impact of a new species will have systemic ramifications which will transform the ecosystem (and sometimes destroy the ecosystem). Likewise, when a new technology is introduced into a particular social context, its consequences are not merely a matter of adding certain affordances to that social context; it restructures the whole. Its impact radiates outward, reordering the relationships of the pre-existing components. New technology Z does not only impact component A and B, it alters the relationship of A to B.

As an example, consider how the introduction of the automobile did not simply add a mode of transport to early twentieth century American society. The automobile changed, among other things, the physical shape of our cities. It made the emergence of suburbs possible (and thus facilitated the consequent reorderings of social life). It reinforced a certain restlessness and placelessness that had already been characteristic of the American experience. Certain modes of social life faded and others emerged because of the introduction of the automobile.

This last observation leads to another useful dimension of the ecology metaphor: it implies the notion of hospitality. We know that particular environments are more or less hospitable to particular species. Species uniquely adapt to particular environments and are thus naturally at home in them. Transplant these species to another ecosystem and they may or may not survive. The ecosystem will be more or less hospitable to them.

By extension this suggests that the technological components of social ecosystems render these ecosystems more or less hospitable to particular social realities. This strikes me as a useful extension of the metaphor because it resists the blunt judgements “this technology is good” or “this technology is bad.” Ecosystems are not in themselves good or bad with regards to life. Rather, they are more or less hospitable to specific forms life. So it does no good to ask, Is this  a good ecosystem? One must ask, Is this a good ecosystem for such and such a species? The answer is contextual and teleological (i.e., ends oriented).

We will arrive at more balanced and nuanced evaluations of technology if we keep this in mind. The question is not whether a technology is good or bad; the question is whether a technology is likely to render a social environment hospitable or inhospitable to specific practices, social arrangements, values, ways of life, etc.

To ask whether a certain technology yields a more or less hospitable social environment also avoids the voluntarist error of locating all ethical value with regard to technology in the particular uses to which a technology is put. The uses to which a technology is put need not be in themselves morally objectionable in order to yield systemic ramifications that prove inhospitable to certain practices, etc.

The first of Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws reads: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” To speak of how a technology impacts a social environment by rendering it more or less hospitable to specific social realities reinforces this observation. I believe this also reflects McLuhan’s dictum about the message of a medium: the “‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” It is, in other words, systemic and environmental.

Of course, measuring systemic consequences and anticipating the socio-ecological implications of a new technology can be a tricky business. We are always plagued by unknown unknowns and the law of unintended consequences. At the very least, though, the these metaphors help us ask better questions.