There is a passage in The Diamond Age Or, A Young lady’s Illustrated Primer a 1995 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson that states this,
Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it. One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one’s Times became to one’s peers’. (p. 37, Bantam Books, trade paperback, Sept. 2000 reissue)
It’s haunted me since I first read it about three years ago while preparing to write an academic paper I titled Writing Nanotechnology; first investigation where I was linking my nanotechnology interests to my writing and new media interests.
As I followed these interests, I discovered that the period of the Industrial Revolution was, in addition to being a period of tremendous interest and discovery in science and technology, a period of great upheaval amongst purveyors of the written word. For example, Sir Walter Scott, known today as a writer of historical novels such as Ivanhoe, was too embarrassed to have his name published in his first books. At the time, Scott was known foremost as a poet and writing novels was considered beneath a poet’s dignity. From Frankenstein; A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock,
Meanwhile Walter Scott, already revered for poems that sang of his native Scotland was suspected of being the author of Waverley. What a shock if it were true—that a popular poet would descend to write a novel, a new and not altogether respected literary form. (p. 24, 2007, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc, NY & London)
There are some striking parallels between the 19th century, during which much of the Industrial Revolution played itself out and which is also known as the Victorian period, and our own time. We too are obsessed with science and finding new ways to tell stories. Both of which occurred to me during Andy Miah’s session at the Fresh Media Olympics Conference I attended on Feb. 22, 2010 in Vancouver at W2 Culture + Media House.
During the discussion about the impact that social media (part & parcel of what is sometimes called new media) is having on the games and the discussion about the games themselves. I’d estimate 40 – 50 people were there, most of them part of the social media/citizen journalist community and/or academics.
Apparently the Vancouver games are becoming known as the Twitter Olympics. Andy Miah, an academic, who has been following and researching the Olympic games since the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia) asked (paraphrased) if we thought that the social media we use creates ‘silos’. (For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, the word silo in this context means isolated group. e.g. a business where the engineers exist in their silo and the sales team in their silo with virtually no communication between the two)
I found it to be a thought-provoking question which returned me to the The Diamond Age passage I quoted previously and that led me to reframe the question this way, Is social media going to be a cohesive force or an isolating force? At this point, I can make a case for both using the information and comments shared at the conference.
Earlier in the conference Andy suggested (paraphrased) that the friction provided by the official games story and the reporters and IOC (International Olympic Committee) structures is useful and necessary for the unofficial games stories and social media as promoted by activists. In this case, social media provides cohesion for the activists and a means of distribution.
Social media can also be isolating. As one participant noted (in another context not meant to support the case I’m building), it is your responsibility to find and develop your networks for information (as opposed to turning on the television or radio at the right time). It seems to me that this responsibility could be a problem when you need to extend past your natural networks.
In real life, extending beyond your personal network can be very difficult. Yes, there are times when it’s easier, i.e., going to a new school, starting a new job, moving to a new place are all situations where this happens naturally or you’re forced to do it. But in the general way once your networks are established there’s not much need to extend past them and it’s not easy to do. Academics tend to know other academics; scientists know other scientists, business owners know other business owners.You may have multiple networks (work, neighbourhood, friends from high school, etc.) but they don’t intersect. These kinds of silos exist in social media too. For example, there’s a Linked In network, a Facebook network, a Twitter network and these all breakdown into every smaller networks within networks. Plus there’s the assumption that you know it exists. How do you connect to network if you don’t know it exists? Or, you suspect there’s something out there but you don’t know how to find it.
Now, I want to add another element to the mix. One of the participants discussed how she uses Twitter and used as an example (as best I can remember) a fire near where she lived. She saw the fire, tweeted the info. and within minutes her followers sent pictures and shared stories about the building that were burning and the people who lived there. The next day, the local paper accorded the incident a single paragraph. What struck me about her story wasn’t difference in what she valued as news as opposed to a traditional outlet valued but rather how individual her experience was and how dependent it was on her network. Another person with different followers would have had a different news experience and that may or may not be a good thing as suggested in The Diamond Age.
Finally, a comment I registered (but didn’t immediately place in the context of media, social cohesion and isolation) was made by someone discussing the reasons for why the activist communities in Vancouver have not been more effective at working together (a situation I was unaware of). If the activist groups have not been as effective as they could have been, I wonder whether or not part of the issue (in addition to the suggestions the participant made) might be the social media used to organize those networks.
I suspect social media is both cohesive and isolating to a greater degree than the older broadcast media. In some odd way (I am being poetical here), I don’t believe it’s an accident that we are refining our understanding of matter at ever more infinitesimal scales (e.g. micro, nano, femto, and atto scales) and that we seem to be experiencing increasing fragmentation (e.g. tweets are called micro-blogging).
Enough now, I’m off to do some more thinking.
Tomorrow: NSERC gives SFU (Simon Fraser University) some money.