Imagine All the People: How the fantasies of the TV era created the disaster of social media

James Poulos in The New Atlantis:

The discourse about digital discourse betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. Focused almost entirely on social media and its pathologies, it fails to grasp that social media itself isn’t digital at all, properly seen, but is really just television pushed to its limit. Social media is imagination, exaggeration, and appearance on a mass scale, thriving on crisis, shock, and fear. From this standpoint, what went wrong with social media is what has always been wrong with television — only taken to the extreme by putting the production technology into everyone’s hands. Social media was built on TV culture’s fantasy that ever-greater “connectivity” would perfect democracy and bring harmony. This fantasy is now dashed to pieces. But casting our current crisis as one of “digital discourse,” or of social media betraying democracy, risks that we obscure both the nature of social media and of the threats the digital era will pose.

To understand televisual technology, we have to consider it in light of the culture it helped to produce. Televisual tech shaped a psychological and social environment where the starting point for personal and political agency was imagination. Those who could best imagine the future, and relay the right images to the world, could best change the world. In its mass production and broadcast of ever more images that heightened, exaggerated, exceeded, or supplanted reality, television brought to the masses this imaginary power in a hypnotic new way. Television was democratic in its reach, although not in its use. Those who could master the new form of communication — elite broadcasters, advertisers, campaigners, activists, gurus, “leaders” — wielded tremendous power and gained new wealth. Those on the receiving end had their perceptions, feelings, and ideas decisively shaped and filtered by the new “imagineers,” to borrow Disney’s name for its theme park engineers.

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