United We Stand

A friend of mine described her research topic in lit theory (I think) as how our concept of the world has changed through the years. In the fifties and sixties it was a very observational culture where we sat in front of the TV and were told things. The rise of the internet has changed that in many ways that I didn't understand at the time. However, it started me thinking about my own pet interest, group theory.

Briefly my theory of groups is that we need to feel as part of one. The smaller the group the better. About 150 is optimal (there is research in this). The actual size is not as necessary as the appearance, seeing a familiar face on the TV every morning is an alright substitute. Arching over everything though is this need for groups and classifications to feel content and safe.

I can't honestly speak all that well about any time period prior to 1995. Most of what I know has come to be as charactures and hyperbole written by "the victors of history" if you will. On the otherhand there are some really interesting conclusions that we can make without extending ourselves too far.

Throughout the vast majority of human history all news was local news. If you got information it was by word of mouth or through the local religious/social instituion, which were generally one and the same. Even the advent of the printing press and mass literacy only increased one's sphere of experiance by a few miles. Instead of knowing a burrough of London now one heard about the whole city. Regardless, the advent of radio and television soon changed this.

Television and radio differed from traditional media in one very important aspect, they had no mass. Newspapers and other print media must be printed locally so it makes sense to include local information and to put a local spin on things. Indeed, most medium sized cities had their own newspapers. Speaches and sermons are by nature highly local and individualized. Television and radio though could be broadcast across the nation giving something that the other forms of media lacked, a widespread shared experiance.

Suddenly the entire nation could listen to the green lanturn and talk about it at work or school the next morning. Radio was good but still tended to be local as the cost of opperating a radio station is comparably small. Television is a different story. Once television came into its own one had their choice of 3 channels to watch the news or programming. Traditional media still existed but you shouldn't underestimate the remarkable hemogenizing effect this had on society. I believe that America, fresh out of the greatest war ever fought even embraced this. As the number of channels grew of course this image of hemogeny was deminished but not broken. The response to this massive groupthink was the cultural revolution of the late 60's and 70's.

This revolution likely started in print but reached critical mass through the radio. Radio was cheaper and more flexible then television but still had the reach that was required to give the required widespread shared existance that was needed. Music couldn't help but be swept up in this whole tornado as radio was its primary distribution outlet.

The reason we are so concerned with the nature of the media we consume is that it defines us in ways that we don't necessary recognize simply because it is a shared experiance. If you were to take a group of racially or religiously diverse people and isolate them together for a long period of time it is likely that they will split into what makes them common. These splits are more likely to fall along racial or other obvious traits like families with children. Men will group together and talk about the weeks football games and so on.

If prior to this you split them into mixed groups that each watched a different movie it is likely that, for a short period of time, this would overide the traditional groupings. Even the traditional groupings come from shared experiances of some origin. The point is that what we watch, listen to, and read has a profound effect on not just who we are, but on our perception of being part of a group.

What makes the internet so disruptive is that it is difficult at all to find people who have the same shared experiance as yourself. Fairly soon the simple act of being on the internet will no longer be new enough to qualify as a shared experiance. We will take it for granted like we take making toast for granted. Could you imagine someone comming up to you at work and saying, "So, made toast this morning. Ya, took some getting used to but I got it working after a few minutes. Even found thing cool new thing that lets you adjust how brown it gets!" The reason for this is the same as the cultural revolution of the 60's, a group needs outsiders to define itself. Seriously, who hasn't used a toaster?

This has led to the rise of MySpace, Facebook, and a myriad of other "social Insert Blank Here" websites. These provide a way of maintaining a sort of gestalt shared experiance with one's friends. Indeed, one can say it is their reason for existance. Why else would Facebook introduce that creepy list of everything your friends are doing?

There are also thousands of political, philosophical, and other point of view blogs out there. No two are quite alike and each has their own unique audience. The internet has lower the barior to media creation and desimination so low that it is only with great effort that websites like Yahoo can maintain anything resembling a stable and truely wide spread existance. Even these sites are becomming more and more fluid as they grant users more and more control over the content.

In a sense we have returned to the time when all news was local only now we are not limited by geography.

The real question is where will this take us? Already I think it has limited our ability to "rise as one" simply because we are no longer "one" the way we used to be. I also think that it has a tendency to radicallize groups. Before television people were limited by geography and it was difficult to find shared experiances that were acceptable to the relatively random group of people you happen to live next to. Hense the experiances tended to be relatively moderate and conservative in most cases. This tended to mellow everyone out. Even if it wasn't exactly what you belived in you still heard it everyday and that has an effect. Television originally wasn't limited by geography but more by the number of distribution channels. This had the same effect as being limited by geography.

The internet though is limited in neither channels or geography. This is why it will fundimentally alter the way we form groups. No longer will groups be as clearly defined but rather they will form widely overlapping circles like a Ven diagram on crack.

I honestly have not idea how this will affect society but I have a gut feeling that it will be bad. My gut tells me that the most radical and hence "well defined" groups will have the most power, politically at least. There will be a constant struggle to organize the moderates into a coehesive group that can fight back and it will likely only happen as a reflex to damage already done.

In anycase, I have a feeling that governments will adapt rather then the other way around. Those that are less prone to being over taken by minorities will remain the healtiest while the least flexible will simply make too many bad decisions. In a sense the government needs to be able to give as groups a voice as possible so that when it comes time to make a decision they have to work together.

We may also see the rise of the small nation as they are better able to reach the consensuses simply because geography will play a more important role (remember, smaller group is better).

Therefore I make a prediction, 30 years from now the healthiest nations on the planet will be small (US state sized) countries with parlamentary govenrments. Note that this does not include the United States of America.

In anycase, a question to end on: What groups do you take part in? What shared experiances define those groups? Are you ready for the revolution? (Ha! got you on that one didn't I :-) )

PS I have focused on the internet but as cable and radio enter the digital age they will suffer from this too, just to a lesser extent. The rise of the 24 hour news channels is a great example of this.


Blogger Kevin Day said...

It took me a while to fully digest this post, but now that I do I completely agree and can think of several examples that fit with the idea of being happier when belonging to small groups.

Throughout high school and then college, I was part of the "Swim Team" group, and life was good and happy and I identified very strongly with the swim team. Even within the swim team I considered myself part of the "Sprint Group" because we spent a lot of time together geographically (in the same practice lane) and swam the same events.

Fast forward to today when I work for a super-conglomerate that I don't identify with at all. I'm not unhappy, but I've sort of felt an empty feeling that I couldn't quite explain until just now. There is a smaller group of younger people at work, but we're only loosely tied together and have limited shared experiences.

I spend a lot of time reading online and consider myself a "redditer", but that group is loosely defined and definitely not the same as really being part of a small group.

Am I ready for the revolution? Doesn't look like it.

3:43 PM  

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