Only a few centuries ago our collective sense of self was completely fixed to what we did for work. And that work was usually desperately tethered to one’s ability to survive in the world. If you were a cobbler, it was probably true that your father was too. And his father before him. Survival and identity were indivisible. The residual proof is in our last names: Cooper; Smith; Farmer; Sawyer; Weaver.
Obviously the Industrial Revolution and the society it bequeathed changed all that. Last I checked no one’s running around with the name Joe Citibank. Storming out of the house after a fight with one’s parents and signing up for improv classes is a 20th century notion. Leaving your banking job to learn how to bake cakes is all 21st century, even if you happened to be a Baker, of the Newport Bakers.
We all know a little more about how the planets move around the cosmic ether than an astronomer in pre-modern France. To the chagrin of my general practitioner, we are all armed with more Web MD information about nasal infections than patients 25 years ago. And I can know more about how bovine encephalopathy affects the American buffalo than any Native American, who could in turn have more heuristic, holistic, and spiritual knowledge of that animal’s condition than I can begin to fathom.
All this available truth has obviously shaped our consciousnesses profoundly. But how? Does access to inherited information give us an inflated sense of expertise? Does the mode of dissemination shape how this information influences society?
Pardon, let me rephrase that last sentence: is the medium the message?
“Yes.” But we knew that already. Anyone reading this probably has at least a basic knowledge of Marshall McCluhan’s warnings about television.
But recently I recognized something more troubling than the passive nature of staring at glowing screens in our current media climate. The superficial similarity between a television and a computer with an internet connection fails to recognize the feeling of agency and democracy that comes with the sense of interactivity and limitless channels. Unlike television, cutting the chord proffers an inflated sense of willfulness and discovery that was unheard of during the golden age of the boob tube. The arguments of the average professor of media studies may have progressed far beyond McCluhan and others, but I still feel as the father of two toddler-sized future citizens that the arguments are pretty much the same: platitudes about passive consumption, lack of exercise, etc..
I think the problem is more subtle.
60.2 percent of household televisions tuned into the final episode of M*A*S*H. That’s a number just too large for one to believe he possesses proprietary information about a Hotlips Hoolihan. The day after that legendary TV moment, one approached the water cooler at the office fully assuming their colleague would share their knowledge about the event. None of what they gleaned from that television program was proprietary; it was all communal.
When my mother recently claimed to have “created” some kind of half food, half decoration that I later found out was cribbed from Pinterest, I jokingly accused her of culinary plagiarism. It didn’t bother her a bit. “That’s where everyone goes to get original ideas,” she said. Her take on the surface was inherently contradictory, and very telling about the effects of internet communities on our sense of individuality. She had found a way to resolve the conflicts between communal and proprietary knowledge, to give her a both a sense of community and of anonymous individuality.
My students regularly tell me about new music they’ve ‘discovered’ on various on-line platforms. Without sinking too deep into semantic quicksand, I hold that it’s hard to discover anything without moving one’s feet. This is how virtual space deceives: it makes one feel like they are running around overturning stones, while they are sitting in a virtual chair with thousands of others. It makes one feel like they’re the first person anywhere. It’s often said that every generation thinks they’ve discovered sex, but until the age of the internet that was still a shared experience.
Private forums of every type coalesce on the internet like celestial bodies in the early universe encouraging and nurturing a sense of unique experience and access. Fine scotch your thing? Single source chocolate? Secret gems of the Lower East Side culinary scene? It’s all yours alone on your laptop.
I’ve given up hoping that the average person will become self-aware and suddenly do inventory of how their aesthetic urges are shaped by media. Who cares if Ogilvy and Mather can buy purchase data to gauge how any individual might feel about a certain brand of SUV? And who cares if my neighbor silently struts about believing what the marketers knew before he made the purchase. And who cares that my friend keeps recommending ‘amazing literature’ that he gets from a book nerd website that he knows I’m a member of too. He gave me the recommendation. Let him imagine he’s a literary lifer on the hunt for the worlds’ most obscure classics, and not analyzing data nine-to-five. If he can’t see the obvious irony that he’s at a day job that removes him practically from a legitimate passion, while simultaneously doing work that hopes to turn passion into predictable fantasy, so what.
However, I have to care when the subject goes from one’s acquired pop delectations to one’s take on politics, which is unfortunately the greatest beneficiary of a general trend of tricking people into feeling expert. I have a friend who’s a political scientist and a national correspondent for a news agency and he regularly complains that the most undedicated citizen at any bar will challenge any fact-based assertion he has about a political position.
Unless your last name is Socialcontract or Policywonk, it might be worth considering for a second that most of your day to day political positions aren’t any more expert than my father’s thoughts about the nickel defense that he read on ESPN. We’re all treading the surface of a regurgitated pool of knowledge and only recognition and humility can save us. The medium is the message once again, and the message is simulated agency. The only way to hear new music will always be to listen to a speaker and get to the roadhouse. And the only way to secure truth is to aerobically probe the real world and one’s own conscience…and maybe to verify those positions for signs of psychopathy much later via available internet medical channels.
It’s fun to consider that the amount of knowledge in the human head has remained pretty constant for the past 25,000 years. But now we are much wider than we are deep, and that’s fine as long as we aren’t fooled into misreading our depth.
The shoemaker in 1683 would’ve claimed to know shoes, and that’s all. That probably sucked for the purposes of good conversation, but it was a pretty good natural bullshit filter. So now that we have access to infinite information it’s probably healthy to not assume every nugget we bite off is as legitimate as the 46 morsels of pure truth about shoemaking possessed by a 14th century cobbler.
One might ask what authority I have, seeing as I’m not in possession of a higher-ed degree in Epistemological Philosophy.
I stripmined the hell out of the philosophy dot com website.
Shane McAdams is writer, curator, artist, and professor splitting his time between studios in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and Brooklyn, New York. He is a three-time Creative Capital, Andy Warhol Writer’s Grant finalist, and his work has appeared regularly in the Brooklyn Rail since 2002. “Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide,” his series of writings about bi-coastal commuting appeared regularly in Bad at Sports, and was a source of inspiration for the exhibition “High/Low/Middle” at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in 2015. He is currently a contributor to the Art City section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His artwork has been exhibited at Allegra LaViola Gallery, Marlborough, Chelsea, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Storefront, Bushwick, Scream London, and Artistree in Hong Kong, China, among others, and has been reviewed in Vogue Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Huffington Post, and The Village Voice. He has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and Marian University. His work was most recently included in the exhibitions Super Natural at the Kohler Art Center, in Sheboygan, WI, Beat a Path, at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison, WI, Fault Lines at GP Presents in New York City, and was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Wisconsin Museum of Art in January of 2017.