Media Ecology and the Reformation: Some Brief Thoughts

The Christian Humanist crew got an email from Ford Seeuws,  listener and friend of Michial Farmer, last week, and the questions were interesting enough that I wanted to deal with them at some length on the blog.  One section of his email read as follows:

A recent tweet sparked my curiosity, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the questions it raised for me.

A gentleman posted the following: “two great myths: the newspaper model is broken and the Internet is going to save us.”

Reading that made me wonder if there may have been a similar gut reaction to the printing press after it was introduced. What was the prevailing reaction to the printing press? Did people think it was going to go away? Do you think the printing press and the internet are analogous in the scope of their influence?

What do you guys think about the new media? About the influence of the internet and blogs on journalism and the future of news in general?

As far as I can tell historically (and I’ll rely on our readers to correct me if I’m wrong here), there wasn’t a great deal of reflection on technology in its own right in the fifteenth century when Gutenberg and Caxton and company were doing their thing.  In those times people were certainly excited about intellectual changes, but with regards to the tools by which folks delivered those changes to one another, the impression I get from reading around is that people in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, by and large, considered those tools media in a fairly straightforward sense: they were tools by which the content (i.e. the important stuff) got from hither to thither, simply the middle term between the two.

More sophisticated reflections on tools as epistemologically significant seem to start around the career of Francis Bacon, who I think of as one of the first great technological thinkers, and in the ensuing centuries, folks like Giambattista Vico and G.W.F. Hegel follow his lead in Vico’s The New Science and Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, both of which explore in fairly lengthy passages the strong changes in thinking that come with movable type and inexpensive printing.  Hegel especially advances the idea that each historical epoch derives its particular character not only from the “great men” who drive its major events (though he does write a fair bit about great men) but also from the spiritual and material conditions within which and against which people had options to think.

Both Vico and Hegel are marked by a fairly thoroughgoing progressivism, so while they both acknowledged that history includes bad phenomena as well as good, they tend to think of them as “setbacks” in a story that is in large part heading towards something good, which Hegel famously called universal freedom.  With the coming of Karl Marx, the first shades of suspicion crop up, though his suspicion does not extend to that inarticulable reality that will come after the revolution.  Really Friedrich Nietzsche starts the industry of being skeptical of the progress of ideas.  His writings on Christianity and on liberalism label them as parts of an ongoing degeneration rather than progression, not from lesser freedom to greater but from resentment of greatness to positive restraint of greatness.  As the twentieth century’s intellectual contests took shape, more often than not the descendants of Hegel and Marx, who thought of history as a grand parade headed for good things, clashed with those suspicious of that progressive metanarrative, sometimes Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians (those who had not been appropriated by Capitalist versions of Hegel’s progressivism) and sometimes by Foucaultian and other nihilist skeptics.  Technology becomes something very different depending upon where one sits: for the Marxist, each labor-saving advance means that, if a society can be done with the mental baggage that remains when a new tool comes into being, one can advance another step towards the classless society, one in which the laborer and the owner have negated one another, leaving in their wake at this point along the way the weekend, at that point the forty-hour work week, and so on.  That few Westerners can imagine a week that doesn’t have a weekend testifies to the fact that Marx has, to some extent, won.  On the other hand, for the Foucaultian, the weekend is itself a mechanism of the system’s power, turning what was once festival and recreation into another sort of work, one that doesn’t leave “the office” and “the home” separated but demands that what was once “private” life now be consumed by “public” matters.  (Foucault has a way of inspiring scare-quotes.)

What does this have to do with newspapers, you ask?  My answer is that a newspaper makes most sense not as some sort of brute fact nor primarily as a commodity, whose place in the world is exhausted by buying and selling.  The newspaper, like the printing press before it, inhabits a place in a moral world that, in my own thinking, has priority over the economic.  Whether one imagines newspapers as vehicles by which freedom expands its purview and thus advances history towards its free end or whether one imagines newspapers as just one more technological subtlety in the never-ending recurrence of the system’s exertion of power means everything for how one imagines “the end of the newspaper” or the rise of whatever comes next.

For my money, when I read writings on media ecology (that sub-discipline of philosophy and sociology which examines the ways in which media constitute the world in which we live), I prefer the progressives.  Although I’m skeptical of simplistic narratives of historical inevitability (the sort which I critiqued when I reviewed Brian McLaren’s book), when I do think about such things as newspapers and the Internet, I do tend to agree with folks like David Simon that the dead trees and easily-smeared ink aren’t the real point of the alarm, that something like democracy (which is not the Kingdom of God but does most things better than does hereditary rule) loses its particular character when those who stand to solidify their power and pass it on to hand-picked successors (the nature of hereditary rule does not always involve consanguinity) have the ability to control the information that goes to the people.  Without a robust and funded apparatus of investigation, one which in the modern world requires professionals who do not have another job to perform or children to tend to all day, the politicians have resources to spare that they can and will dedicate to presenting their own “message” to the consumer-public, and as long as people don’t see the rot, they happily ignore the rot and keep buying stuff from the rotten machine.  That’s why folks like David Simon put the decline of newspapers not with the rise of the Internet, much less with Craig’s List, but with the consolidation of newspapers in the late eighties and early nineties, the time when local ownership and control gave way to international media empires and when the moral connection to and duty to be investigators for particular communities gave way to ever-thicker profit margins.  (It’s funny how someone who at first appears, as Simon does, to be a classical Leftist becomes upon inspection a localist and in some ways a conservative.)

Among the other progressive-narrative writers who have written interesting things on media ecology in general and on newspapers and television in particular are my favorite media-ecology odd couple, Al Gore and Neil Postman.  Postman spent much of the late eighties and nineties attacking Al Gore at every turn, not for being a Democrat (Postman didn’t seem much to like Democrats or Republicans, which is part of his appeal for me) but because he was such a vocal cheerleader for the Internet.  As far as Postman was concerned, the Internet was consumerism gone mad, the device that would signal an even more massive setback for enlightenment (and the Enlightenment) than did television.  What makes Al Gore’s book great (and I’m not by any means a cheerleader for Al Gore as a politician) is that he takes as his starting point (citing Postman liberally along the way) that the character of print is to encourage linear argument and to dispel picture-thinking (ideology) in favor of rigorous deliberation, a central assertion in Postman’s own philosophy and one of the things that made him think that the Internet and its biggest cheerleader were bad for progress.  Gore’s brilliant turn is to demonstrate that the Internet, though it has the tendency to maintain and even to extend consumerism, also has the potential to realize with greater power even than dead trees with easily-smeared ink, the vision that Postman had for the newspaper, namely a form of textual discourse with global reach and a cost of entry so low as to be zero in growing parts of the world.

Between those two arguments, the call for linear textual discourse and the vocation of professional investigation and reportage, I think, along with Gore, that the Internet, conceived rightly, can and will become a vehicle for civilization (considered in a moral sense) even as it continues to feed the crass desires of the already-crass.  (Yes, Avenue Q, I acknowledge that the Internet is indeed for porn.)  As Neil Postman taught me years ago, the Internet, like all technologies, involves some sort of Faustian bargain, and whatever it brings, it won’t be a simplistic “progress.”  But to bring forth a bit of Postman that doesn’t get quoted as often, I’d also say that to be “against technology” is somewhat akin to a fish’s being “against water”–one doesn’t really have that choice, and if one opts to go “off the grid,” the preposition in the phrase already concedes that the grid is still defining the situation.  Instead, and here I’m drawing on all of these complex but progressive thinkers, whatever happens next is by definition going to be revolutionary, but the human task after any revolution is not simply to sit about and marvel at the revolution but to keep working at being human in the Brave New World.  I’d contend that part of that good humanity is a translation of the investigator/writer that necessarily changes in translation but nonetheless remains analogously related to the newspaperman of the age of print.

6 thoughts on “Media Ecology and the Reformation: Some Brief Thoughts

  1. Thomas Merton, my favorite writer, was always on guard against technology; he did not trust it. To him it easily becomes, as I understood him to say, a convenient idol for the lazy spirit.

    But I believe he would have used the internet “religiously”. He would have been a near perfect example of one who was, as you wrote “working at being human in the Brave New World.”

    For those who have never read him (though I’m sure the gentleman who own this blog are very familiar with him) you will find his writings a treat. He was the one who helped me grasp the true meaning of being a Christian-Humanist and mystic.

  2. I’d suggest that the demise of the newspaper has far more to do with the rise of the multinational corporation, which subverts democracy in a number of ways, not all to do with the media.While One aspect of that subversion has been the ongoing consolidation of control over newspapers, and the concomitant commoditisation of newspapers other aspects include the capture of government’s rule making power through lobbying, and the ability to socialise risk but privatise gains.

    This does not mean that one must imagine newspapers as “just one more technological subtlety in the never-ending recurrence of the system’s exertion of power” but rather recognise the Faustian bargains of its forerunner the press, and newspapers themselves. The invention of the press may not have resulted in iconoclastic diabtriabes about how it subverted the social order, or more likely such diatribes weren’t printed.But the press was regarded as subversive printing such subversive literature as venacular Bibles. In England the Stationers Company (the printers and forerunners of today’s publishers) entered into a bargain with the monarch, in exchange for guaranteed monopolies through the issue of letters patents for particular texts or even classes of texts, they would ensure censorship, that no unauthorised texts would be printed.
    Newspapers were the products of a similar deal, they might unmask political corruption but generally they would not print anything against the interests of those who own newspapers, and more recently would censor anything which might upset the delicate sensibilities of firms buying advertising

    History thus reveals that the freedom of the press, and hence its usefulness to democracy has always been limited by accommodation with power. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been a real freedom nor a real contribution, but that its always been biased by a significant self interest.

  3. I finally caught up with your response Nathan. Thank you for taking the time to not only respond, but to give the issue a more thorough treatment than I would have expected in a blog post. You have added another helpful perspective for me in a topic that has fascinated me for years.

    Love the show.
    Thanks,
    Ford

  4. If you can give me until late June, yes. I’m afraid my copy is in my office right now. If I remember right, he does most of his discussion of communication technology (though he doesn’t use that vocabulary) in his section on Homer.

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