Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Are social media, social? (Part Two)

Okay. Lots of responses to my previous entry. Like I said at the end of the article, I am not trying to be negative. I am actually responding to the profoundly important critique of the digitally induced and digested world of communications that Jaron Lanier distills in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget.

Mashable, a great web site has an article entitled, 21 Essential Social Media Resources You May Have Missed. Most of what the article describes is very important. This is truly the utopian side of the highly mediated universe that we now inhabit. But, as Lanier suggests, mediation does come with risks not the least of which is a loss of identity. Who am I in the Twitterverse or even within the confines of this Blog. And, why would you want to know?

According to Lanier, "A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become." (I can't give you a page number because my Kindle doesn't show page numbers! Location 50-65 whatever that means.) The Mashable article would seem to contradict Lanier describing as it does many instances of Social Media use that have genuinely benefitted a pretty large number of people. What Lanier is getting at goes beyond these immediate examples. He talks at length about a lock-in effect that comes from the repeated use of certain modes of thought and action within the virtual confines of a computer screen.

He is somewhat of a romantic talking about the need for mystery and asking what cannot be represented by a computer. This is an important issue. The underlying structure of the web and the social media that piggyback on that structure is pretty much the same as it was when Tim Berners-Lee transformed the old Apple Hypercard system into something far grander.

UNIX is core to the operating systems of most computers and its command line references have not evolved that much since the 1980's. Open up the Terminal program on a Mac and take a look at it. Lanier's point is that this says something about how we use computers. Most people cannot change the underlying system that has been put in place. That is why open source programming is so exciting. But even open source is developed by very few people.

Could we for example develop our own Twitter-like client? Could we, should we become programmers with enough savvy to create a new and less commercially oriented version of Facebook? Even the SDK for the iPhone and the iPad requires a massive time investment if you want to learn how to develop an App. Yes, you can follow a set of instructions, but no you cannot recreate the SDK to make it your own.

Now, some would say that the use of this software is more important than its underlying language. However, imagine if you applied that same principle to speech and to creativity? This is not about tools. This is about the structure, the embedded nature of the mechanisms that allow things to happen. And, as Lanier suggests, most people have been experiencing digital technology without understanding how that structure may influence their usage of the technology.

Part Three