Sunday, July 20, 2014

Digital Pentecost and the Virtual Village

As obnoxious as people behave when playing with their “devices”, this isn't, to me, the most troubling result of "technology", even if it is the one most talked about -- providing, as it does, an opportunity for people to criticize others.

No, the most troubling feature is, I think, foretold in Marshall McLuhan's 1964 book "Understanding Media”, which I recommend as the essential guide for understanding the information age.  Long before handheld calculators and digital clocks, McLuhan foresaw the big picture of a society shaped by technology. It was he, incidentally, who coined the term "Global Village" which yielded so much popular mileage to Hillary Clinton, who lived in the White House when the Internet as we know it was unleashed.  It is we who coined the term "Virtual Village" which should be self-explanatory.

McLuhan wasn't necessarily enthusiastic about this "Global Village”, but he was matter-of-fact.  He saw that the rise of global, post-literate mass media to ubiquity would be the end of "individualism" (and therefore the decline of the West) and would force a retribalization of the entire, connected planet.

Sounds quaint to some, especially to those of you who still own your tie-dyes. But if you think of a "tribe" as a community, the dominant organizer of this community is whoever owns and/or controls the media. And I gather that readers understand that it won't be the Pope who does that.  But if not the Pope, then whom? Whom, indeed.

McLuhan speculated about a "new Pentecost", one when a technologically enabled "global consciousness" (later another favorite term of certain types) or "spirit," which arises from the connectedness of everyone, manifests itself.  As a "flash mob", for example.

Speaking of the Pope and individualism, I have read and heard much disdain about "American individualism" by Catholics who present themselves, by delving into the subject, as expert.  But I would remind them that God Almighty calls each of us by name. Each is an individual to him.  Individualism is essential to Liberty, and a truly healthy community is made up of individuals – voluntary ones, not inevitable ones.

Few things militate against the Individual with the relentless focus of global information technology.  Everywhere it has been employed, it has demolished hierarchies of authority, eradicated "subsidiarity" by consolidating control of anything that depends on information into fewer and larger hands. Is there anything in the material economy that doesn't depend on information?
Access denied.
As McLuhan points out, instant, global communication renders sovereign national borders as quaint formalities, leading ultimately and inevitably to some form of virtual de facto superstate. Such an entity has the means to control people's access to, perceptions of, and uses of information, rendering them effective wards of its power, relieved of anything that can truly be called "individuality." You won't conform?  Then you won't get the goodies, because your credentials will be revoked.  So will be the Digital Pentecost, where a person ultimately is a source of tax revenue - a "number", if you will, to a superstate.

This is the real problem with technology.  Selfies are only a distraction, proof that people's eyes are really off the ball.


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