Browsing through the books section in a local charity shop recently, I came across an almost complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica being sold for a tenner. It made me nostalgic for my youth when my mum would save up to buy one volume every few months from the travelling encyclopaedia salesman. We never achieved anything close to a complete set of the books because as far as I can remember, they were ruinously expensive back in those days and I suppose my mum thought that though a little knowledge might be a dangerous thing, it was better than no knowledge at all. So I guess she invested what she could in what she saw as an addition to her children’s education.
How the world has turned and transformed beyond recognition in the past fifty years, especially the world of communications and information technology. Radio Telefís Eireann began transmitting programmes for the first time in 1960 which heralded the start of radical changes for our small, inward-looking island, the same year that Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be world- famous for 15 minutes, or have ‘their fifteen minutes of fame’. Was Warhol foreseeing the future of celebrity culture, reality television, and people as ‘brands’ or was he just very in touch with the electronic revolution that had begun to take place?
Certainly, there were plenty of commentators analysing and reporting on the fundamental changes taking place in the field of communications. Marshall McLuhan, whose slogan was ‘the medium is the message’ predicted the World Wide Web 30 years before it was invented. In The Mechanical Bride, his pioneering study of popular culture, he advanced the concept of ‘the global village’, essentially foretelling the unprecedented transformation of telecommunications.
In The Third Wave, his seminal study from the 1970s, Alvin Toffler described the ‘electronic frontier’ of the Internet, as well as predicting the creation of YouTube; the invention of Prozac; the demise of second wave manufacturing and the rise of third-wave ‘knowledge workers’. He got some predictions spectacularly wrong with forecasts of underwater cities, family spaceships, and paper clothes, although hilarious as they may sound now, who can tell whether they will become commonplace in the unknowable future?
Of course, a long line of novelists from HG Wells and earlier have also written about the threats and triumphs of technological growth, with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s Ninety Eighty-Four (1949) predicting many of the more negative aspects of today’s world. Huxley warned of the dangers of pursuing consumerism and productivity to the detriment of culture, while Orwell foresaw the lack of privacy or how the very computers that provide users with information and entertainment are simultaneously ‘spying’ on individuals with cookies accessing information from browsers to store personal information such as location, spending habits, lifestyle choices, peoples' likes and dislikes as well as those of their ‘friends’.
The Internet, which is up to now the culmination of all previous technological advances, began as a military network for computers to speak to each other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, embryonic bulletin board systems were the forerunners of electronic networks such as Yahoo and Amazon. The 1995 platform www.classmates.com was a direct predecessor of Facebook which began as a social platform in 2004 with platforms such as Friendster (1997), LinkedIn (2002) and Myspace (2003) rising or falling in the interim and with them the birth of the phenomenon known as ‘social media’.
So here we are in this brave new world of ‘always on’ ICT or information and communications technology which has given us so many more methods of communicating than ever before. Now we have Google for instant information gratification, always available if not always accurate; we have infinite Facebook feeds so we need never feel alone or unloved; we have LinkedIn to get prospective employers to pursue us, as well as Snapchat for the spontaneous selfie, and with new platforms coming along all the time we need never be bored or lacking in stimulation. But what about the dark and dangerous sides of immersion in these virtual worlds, without recourse to the checks and balances of normal, personal interaction?
Well, firstly I have to declare that I am an ardent advocate of social media, the Internet, and all things to do with connectivity. As a blogger, content writer, and marketer, I fully appreciate all of the advantages of being able to freely communicate across all platforms on the World Wide Web. Growing up in 1960s Ireland, there existed a very real sense of disconnection from wider society, reinforced by Church and State protectionist policies regarding commerce, culture, sport and social activities, so perhaps it’s no accident then that I spent much of my working life in the world of information dissemination and communications. But I can still remember the challenge, as a young library worker, of trawling through numerous reference books to help customers win the annual RTE Radio quiz. (How many daily newspapers in South Africa, anyone?). Although I loved the research and thrill of finally finding the answers, the time and effort needed to peruse the texts was arduous.
And so to circle back to my opening paragraph and my nostalgia for times past, I have to admit that although the set of encyclopaedias is lovely to behold and would make a handsome addition to any bookcase, I prefer to satisfy my information needs in online format nowadays where the content is mostly accurate, current, and relevant. I’m also more than glad that we have Netflix and other streaming services now instead of the one-channel land of 1960s Irish television!
Speaking of Netflix, I began to watch Black Mirror, a science fiction TV series that purports to examine ‘the unanticipated consequences of new technologies’ from a dark and satirical perspective. It certainly lives up to its name, holding a looking glass to the underside of mass communications in today’s society and reflecting the narcissistic and shallow aspects to living our lives in a virtual fishbowl. That a person’s self-esteem and social worth can fall or rise on the number of ‘likes’ they receive for their social media posts or activities seems fanciful, yet there is a very real kernel of truth in this, especially for younger people. Additionally, online bullying has been responsible for suicides and extreme emotional upset; uncensored online propaganda has led to mass recruitment to terrorist organisations; people have been defrauded, blindsided, belittled and libelled by various unregulated chancers, criminals, charlatans and trolls, and even the world of politics has not been left unscathed with many commentators believing that the recent US election was lost and won on social media.
Talkwalker, a social media analytics company, asserts that to a large degree, the campaign was scandal-driven as opposed to issue-driven with the three main themes discussed on social media over the past year being Trump’s comments about women, his refusal to release his tax returns and Clinton’s ongoing email scandal. It claims that many people, especially younger generations rely on the quick information ‘sound bites’ from the likes of Twitter and Facebook for their political information and so clearly there is a large scope for disinformation and misunderstanding. I’m not sure how this explains Trump’s inexplicable victory but it certainly concurs with the belief of this Guardian article that asserts that Trump won because of the rise of celebrity culture and our failure to understand the link between fame and big business, see the link here, celebrity culture. Whatever the truth of this opinion, it is without a doubt that social media can be cleverly manipulated to skew, obfuscate and blur the most undeniable facts and bemuse and bewilder even the sanest of us.
But social media, love it or hate it is here to stay and it has become the dominant narrative of the western world, influencing the zeitgeist, and the cultural and moral landscape more than could ever have been predicted. We have to make our peace with it, but we must always be on guard against the deep and murky waters of the myriad channels of information out there. This means that legislation regarding the Internet, or Cyberlaw must reflect the realities of the online revolution without infringing on an individual's right to freedom of speech. It must be constantly updated to protect children and vulnerable people; laws on intellectual property, privacy, censorship, online trading and many other areas must be clear and unequivocal; predators, pirates and online bullies must know that there is a high price to be paid for their transgressions, and overall Internet policing policies must aim to be progressive and inclusive in order to promote a democratic and safe society.