Shadow and Substance in America 2.0

It may be somewhat cliche in academic circles to cite American educator and philosopher John Dewey to launch any particular exploration, but I’ve always believed him to be one of the great treasures of our national heritage and a thinker largely unappreciated outside the walls of academia. His pragmatism, in combination with his brilliant mind, define the essence of great American reasoning, and so I begin this piece with his work in mind.

Dewey’s work on democracy is pinned to some very important notions of the role of communication. He had a sense of the ecological in his beliefs about our communities and their foundations in acts of communication as shared experience. In his work The Public and its Problems, Dewey explores the fits and starts of technological evolution in the early 20th century and their obvious impact on the disintegration of community as we’d known it previously. Primary to his argument, Dewey draws a connection between the system of signs and symbols that developed gradually over time to reinforce old institutions and the lack of such signs in the sped up society of the industrial era. In the end, Dewey writes that without the evolution of a congruent relationship of signs and symbols “the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself, but seizing and holding its shadow rather than its substance…Communication alone can create a great community. Our Babel is not one of tongues but of the signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible.”

Fast forward to Robert Putnam’s work on the decline of civic engagement and his findings that the introduction of television to a broad American audience coincides with the decline of interest in civic life. His book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community expanded on his more technical findings and gave access to these ideas about our way of life to a broader audience. Of course the details are more complex than to simply rest the entire case on television, but a good deal of the findings lean in that direction. Putnam’s work harkens back to Dewey in many respects. The ideas that he puts forth lean on the effects of home-based entertainment and a sedentary lifestyle, but a good media ecologist would also note that Dewey’s public seeks spasmodically for itself, seizing and holding its shadow, largely due to the disconnect between a consciousness rooted in the distant pixels of the television screen trying to make sense of a physical world right under our noses.

The introduction of television to American communities certainly had a negative effect on civic participation, but there are distinct cultural trends that precipitated the technological shift as well. It has been said that communication is culture, but there is also ample evidence to show that the reverse is true as well; culture is communication. No matter which angle you prefer to take on this subject, there is plenty of evidence to paint a complex picture of the interplay between technology and culture and their mutual influence. Mindich helps to broaden the discussion on this topic, but looking further back in American history we find a profound and prescient analysis of this very issue.

There was no television in 1927, when Dewey penned The Public and Its Problems, but he noted quite interestingly that the dynamic nature of modern society had a deleterious effect on public life. He wrote, “The older publics, in being local communities, largely homogenous with one another, were also, as the phrase goes, static…The newer forces have created mobile and fluctuating associational forms. The common complaints of the disintegration of family life may be placed in evidence. The movement from rural to urban assemblies is also the result and proof of this mobility. Nothing stays long put, not even the associations by which business and industry are carried on…How can a public be organized, we may ask, when literally it does not stay in place?”

As he continues, Dewey remarks that human attachment is lost in the mass production of remote markets, facilitated by electronic media, cheap printing, and modern forms of transportation. He wrote, “A glance at the situation shows that the physical and external means of collecting information in regard to what is happening in the world have far outrun the intellectual phase of inquiry and organization of its results. Telegraph, telephone, and now the radio, cheap and quick mails, the printing press, capable of swift reduplication of material at low cost, have attained a remarkable development…‘News’ signifies something which has just happened, and which is new just because it deviates from the old and regular. But its meaning depends on relation to what it imports, to what its social consequences are. This import cannot be determined unless the new is placed in relation to the old, to what has happened and been integrated into the course of events. Without coordination and consecutiveness, events are not events, but mere occurrences, intrusions; and event implies that out of which a happening proceeds.”

In many ways, all electronic media function to this effect, be it the telegraph or broadband Internet. Postman rightly pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the ability to connect distant points didn’t mean that they had anything relevant to say to one another. Hence, trivia was born on a mass scale. This effect of electronic communication is perhaps the most obvious source of our social schizophrenia, the surface layer, if you will, the skin of our postmodern disconnect with the physical world under our feet. Let me explain.

Information is, simply put, the organization of data in a way that it makes sense to a receiver. If the natural state is entropy, information is the sorting of some element in a way that reduces entropy in favor of clarity. In the case of human communication we deal in terms of language and symbols as the units of logic by which entropy is reigned in. When we consider this concept in terms of the events of the world around us, our news media have long played the role of gatekeeper, in effect providing a logic by which we understand ‘reality’ amidst the entropic state of the universe. Admittedly, this task is far too much to expect from any human made institution, and when we include schools, families, and communities in the process we only begin to make sense of a small fraction of the universe in all its glory. Still, when we follow the pragmatist model, its enough to distill our environment into the elements by which we can reasonably hold together a community around shared values, goals, and beliefs. When we introduce agenda-driven messages to the logic, be it political propaganda, commercial propaganda, or simply uninformed perspective, we pollute the delicate organization of this critical data, necessary for the functioning of community, particularly in a democracy.

Understanding Postman’s point, mentioned previously, and adding the notion of speed by which portable, high speed Internet technology operates, we can see an explosion of confusion. It’s not so much that there’s too much information, but rather too little. Remember the definition offered here. There’s too little sorting of the important messages. The differentiation between trivia, the basic tools of survival, and the extended logic necessary to thrive is lacking. The aforementioned schizophrenia can be directly associated with entropy disguised as an information revolution. Certainly, some progress is periodically made in building streams of information via applications like Google, not to mention a host of lesser known entities, but it’s not enough. It’s akin to using a sieve to gather enough water to quench one’s thirst.

As the America 2.0 project takes flight here, a number of different philosophical approaches will be introduced into the examination in hopes of tying together some important concepts and some important perspectives on who we are, what we’ve become, how we got here, and what we can do from here to make sense of it all. The intent here is, in the pragmatist tradition, to tie the conceptual and the theoretical to some process of effecting constructive change on our environment. On that note, I turn back to Dewey.

Dewey’s notion of the formation of a public depends on spontaneous groups of citizens who share the indirect consequences of a specific action. These citizens use this common interest as a basis on which they solve a problem. This is a highly dynamic process, as new interests emerge and dissolve, but the speed with which the new electronic media of his day altered the landscape of information, without regard to time or space, prevented a cohesive bond to form across a scattered and uncoordinated landscape. Dewey’s notion of the formation of a public and his observations of technology’s effect on American democracy provide an important historical vantage point from which to examine Putnam. Putnam is concerned with civic engagement and social capital. The focus of America 2.0 is the restoration of an environment in which a public can form and civic life can be revived. This means a radical redefinition of our community organization. The electronic and the physical must find a way to meet in order for a new logic to emerge. This logic is the system by which we pluck meaningful messages from entropy. It’s the logic by which we grasp the substance of our environment, all the while understanding the importance of its shadow.

In the next piece in this series, The Library as a hub for the America 2.0 community will be explored. A redefinition of libraries and their role in civic life will provide the platform upon which further exploration will be undertaken.


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