Friday, October 28, 2011

The Production of Ignorance

I'm almost caught up on topics I've wanted to write about, though some have just slid away and been forgotten. This one will almost bring me up to date. For this week.

Last Sunday one Nathan Jurgenson published an article on Salon claiming that Noam Chomsky is "wrong about Twitter." His chief source was an interview Chomsky gave to a fanboy blogger last March, though he did link to a 1997 article by Chomsky on the mainstream media and to the Wikipedia page covering Manufacturing Consent, which Chomsky coauthored with the economist and media analyst Ed Herman. A lot of people tend to forget Herman's contribution. (My ghod, Herman is three years older than Chomsky; for some reason I took it for granted that he was the younger of the two.)

So, what does Chomsky get wrong about Twitter? Quoth Jurgenson,
“Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing […] is extremely rapid, very shallow communication,” he said to interviewer Jeff Jetton. Chomsky said. “[I] think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent.” Chomsky expanded on this point in another interview last December with Figure/Ground Communication, a site devoted to technology and society.

“Well, let’s take, say, Twitter,” he said. “It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication […] It is not a medium of a serious interchange.”

Maybe I should not read too much into these statements, but “off-the-cuff” remarks often reveal much more than we might assume. They illuminate Chomsky’s larger view of media and, most importantly, highlight the larger trend of established first-world intellectuals dismissing digital communications as less deep or worthwhile than the means of communication that they prefer.

A number of commenters, including me, jumped all over Jurgenson's claims. Some appealed to authority (How dare a young upstart like you criticize an honored thinker like Chomsky?); others bitched about "relativism" and the decline of punctuation in our post-modern society. Several pointed to other "off-the-cuff remarks" Chomsky made in another interview Jurgenson cited: "... in the existing society – which has very high concentrations of power – then access to social media can be a positive force. It has negative aspects too in my opinion, but in general it is fairly positive." Chomsky's well aware of the uses of the Internet generally and of social media in particular; he's been talking about them for years in connection with political organizing, as far back as the 90s if I remember right.

Nothing Jurgenson says really answers, let alone refutes, Chomsky's negative remarks about Twitter. He cites claims that "nonwhites are much more likely to connect to the Web, communicate and create content on mobile phones than are whites." Maybe so, but this says nothing about the quality of nonwhites' communication using that technology, unless Jurgenson is assuming that nonwhites are naturally, automatically deeper than whites. But even that is dignifying him too much; Jurgenson is mainly concerned to show that Chomsky is old and white, so he couldn't possibly understand what the cool young people are doing with the new media. And Tahrir Square! The Arab Spring!
In fact, in the debate about whether rapid and social media really are inherently less deep than other media, there are compelling arguments for and against. Yes, any individual tweet might be superficial, but a stream of tweets from a political confrontation like Tahrir Square, a war zone like Gaza or a list of carefully-selected thinkers makes for a collection of expression that is anything but shallow. Social media is like radio: It all depends on how you tune it.
"In fact," Chomsky did not say that "rapid and social media are inherently less deep than other media." He explicitly said that they have positive uses. Nor does Jurgenson offer any evidence that "a stream of tweets from a political confrontation like Tahrir Square" would be deep. He seems to assume that they must be, because Tahrir Square was like, world-historic and fateful and people-of-colorful. I suppose that the tweets that came from Tahrir Square were on the order of "Mom, I'm safe, I'll be home by midnight," "The police are coming from over there, so we're all moving over here," "Where are you?" "We need more people to help fight against Mubarak's thugs." Such communication is valuable, human, moving, important, but it isn't deep. How much discussion of aims and goals and methods in the Arab Spring has taken place via Twitter, and how much was done face to face in the crowds? If social media were so world-changingly effective, there would have been no need to gather in Tahrir Square at all -- the revolution could have been virtual. Jurgenson not only misunderstands Chomsky, he misunderstands social media.

I have my own doubts about some of Chomsky's remarks. He does, as I've noticed before, have little appreciation for popular culture, which has more to do with his science-nerd temperament than anything else. But from what I've read, most human use of language isn't deep, even when it's face to face. But again, that doesn't make it less valuable. We use language as a form of grooming; that may be how it first evolved. "Hi! How are you? I'm so glad to see you! What's new? Have you heard from your daughter? I love you, mommy! Are you there? Yes, I'm here," and so on. Probably very little language use, comparatively speaking, has been for the purpose of writing philosophy or science or great literature. If most text messages and tweets are this sort of grooming, that doesn't count against them.

A more serious criticism of electronic communication media, and from what Chomsky says I think it's what really concerns him, is that it's a tool for the atomization of the populace, separating us from each other, which is what the rulers want. (He refers in the interview to the value of the local post office as a community gathering place, though the gathering was probably as much for mutual grooming, in the sense I just mentioned, as for exchanging information. Once more: that doesn't mean it wasn't important.) I've argued before that individualism, far from producing bold nonconformists who will stand up to authority, produces isolates who are easily beaten back into line. It's those 'primitive' collectivist societies that produce people who overthrow dictatorships and stand up to water cannons. Occupy Wall Street, for all that it uses electronic communication media, is built on collective, face-to-face interaction, and if it succeeds, it will be because of that, not because of Twitter. (Like many people, Jurgenson seems to think that electronic / digital / instant communication is the point of activism; but for activists such communication is a medium -- not an end but a means for bringing people together face-to-face.)

I've also noticed that most of the young computer-savvy people I've known aren't really that computer-savvy at all. Yes, they grew up with the damn things, so they're comfortable with them, but that's not a sign of greater intelligence or advanced consciousness. (There's a lot of essentialism in the celebration of the various computer generations.) But they learned only what they needed to know: how to work a game controller, how to log in to Facebook or Myspace, how to compose a message in textspeak. As a result they are stunned when they find out that their Facebook page or e-mail or text messages aren't private. (Wait a minute, isn't it totally a federal crime to open someone's e-mail, just like snailmail? That is so gay.) They know how to upload a memory card full of blurred party photos to Facebook, but it never occurs to them to edit them, let alone that the picture of them deepthroating a beerbong might be seen by their Mom or a potential employer. They know how to Google themselves and Rick Santorum (giggle), but not how to check the authenticity of that awesome Ghandi [sic] quotation they saw the other day. Just about everybody I worked with, regardless of their age, was amazed when I closed the timecard program's window with Alt-F4 instead of using the mouse. Keyboard equivalents? Who knew? Only us old farts, I guess.

Jurgenson, who incidentally is "a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Maryland", concludes:
Chomsky, a politically progressive linguist, should know better than to dismiss new forms of language-production that he does not understand as “shallow.” This argument, whether voiced by him or others, risks reducing those who primarily communicate in this way as an “other,” one who is less fully human and capable. This was Foucault’s point: Any claim to knowledge is always a claim to power. We might ask Chomsky today, when digital communications are disqualified as less deep, who benefits?
First of all, Twitter and e-mail are not "new forms of language-production": they're media for transmitting language that has already been produced. Jurgenson is just waving around technical sounding jargon he doesn't understand. Second and more important, Chomsky hasn't "disqualified" anything. Certainly he hasn't said that the messages that can be sent with these media are unimportant, let alone that the people who send those messages aren't important or shouldn't be taken seriously.

One commenter on Jurgenson's piece essayed a backhanded defense of Chomsky thusly:
Well, okay, granted, Chomsky didn't know in March that the Arab Spring and OWS were going to happen. But couldn't a man with his understanding of communications have foreseen uses like that for Twitter and texting?
Chomsky didn't have to foresee such uses. The people who are out of touch are those who think that the use of cellphones and texting to coordinate demonstrations was invented in Egypt in January 2011. As I noted above, Chomsky has been fielding questions about the uses of the Internet for political organizing for at least a decade. Not that that has anything to do with anyone's "understanding of communications," which is something else: it has to do with knowledge of current and recent events. (Chomsky's linguistic work has little to do with the theory of communication anyway, it's a different area of the field.) The smartalecks who are putting down Chomsky here are not nearly as smart as they like to think; but that's usually true of self-appointed elites. With friends like this commenter, who needs enemas?

Foregoing the shift key for some reason or other, Jurgenson made at least one reply to the comments:
as i stated in the article, and something the vast of the commentators missed, i'm not really debating if digital communications are shallow, but instead using the claim to dismiss them as a lesser form of communications. so, i think we agree. but, as we both know, these claims of depthlessness are so often coupled with viewing the "shallow" form as lesser. and all i am pointing out is that claim to knowledge is a claim to power.
The writer Nick Carr answered wryly:
Hmm. What are you saying here - that the bottom-up horde of commenters lacks the depth to read you correctly? That sounds like you're making a top-down claim to knowledge, and hence to power. Or am I misreading your comment?
Jurgenson didn't answer that one, but Carr is right: Jurgenson is playing games that have more to do with power struggles in academia and 'disqualifying' one's opponents and competitors than with serious discourse. He cites Foucault in his article, but I suspect it's a safe bet he's never read Gayatri Spivak's ovarian essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?", which among other things catches Foucault in his own colonialist toils. I mean, honestly, Nate, Foucault is like so Seventies -- Eighties, if you can't read him in French.

Jurgenson also linked to his fellow blogger and "cyborg" (?) P.J. Rey, who's even more fatuous than he. Rey wrote a defense of Jurgenson's claim to knowledge and power by accusing others of making claims to knowledge and power:
Jurgenson offered an epistemological critique of Chomsky, arguing that Chomsky’s dismissal of social media as superficial fits a long-standing pattern of affluent white academics maintaining their privileged position in society by rejecting media that is accessible to non-experts. Jurgenson pointedly asks “who benefits when what you call “normal” human relationships get to be considered more “deep” and meaningful?” Chomsky is seemingly ignorant to the use of Twitter and other networks in shaping the Arab Spring and the #Occupy movement; or the fact that young people are voraciously sharing and consuming important news stories through these same networks; or that Blacks and Hispanics were early adopters of smartphones; or that gay men have been pioneers in geo-locative communication. In many cases, historically-disadvantaged groups have used social media technology to find opportunities previously foreclosed to them. For these folks, social media is hardly trivial.
An epistemological critique? Whoa, the demons also believe, and tremble! Since everything Rey writes here is irrelevant at best and false at worst, as I've already shown, there's no need to rebut it at length. Of course Chomsky "is seemingly ignorant of the use of Twitter and other networks in shaping the Arab Spring and the #Occupy movement," because he's totally old and gnarly and disqualifies the struggles of the young and hip -- which is why he's often spoken about them. "... or that gay men have been pioneers in geo-locative communication"; given Chomsky's temperamental aversion to discourse on sexuality, I think he can be spared a Powerpoint presentation on Grindr for finding hot man2man Action. Once again, Rey exhibits the worst of the academic tendency to mistake jargon for substance, and the medium for the message. (Isn't McLuhan passe by now? I seem to recall Raymond Williams demolishing him somewhere; I'll have to check.) With fearless epistemological critics like Jurgenson and Rey, Wall Street and the Corporate Consensus can rest easy. Luckily, they're irrelevant.