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The Internet Sandwiches Cosmos and Hearth

Orality and visuality converge and merge into the online medium, reaching simultaneously for both the hearth and the cosmos. This hearth is the realm of the domestic, where we feed our desire for the security of our intimate relationships and the capacity to be our “true self.” At the same time, there is the desire for belonging to the cosmos, the sprawling landscape wherein we accumulate status and perform our identities, which are the products of the various cultural and institutional systems within which we are embedded.
What makes the online medium unique, then, is its capacity to bridge the gap between the realm of the hearth and the realm of the cosmos, reversing what has been called “the disintegation of the public sphere.” However, the transparency and permeability of the online medium renders the private sphere susceptible to public visibility. With the popularization of online communication came an inevitable “moral panic,” inciting both a discourse of fear regarding the transgressive nature of virtual intimacy as well as corporate interest in exploiting the Web for its economic potential. Nevertheless, for the most part the intangible dangers of being held accountable to largely invisible audiences are considered secondary to the convenience of instantaneous access to this public “global village” from the comfort of the home

This post inspired by Paul Levinson’s Digital McLuhan and Cosmos and Hearth (Tuam).

Message of the online medium: Transliteracy, the Global Village, and the Rise of Networked Individualism

A recent post on ReadWriteWeb discusses the general decline of the popularity of print media and the shift toward reading activity conducted primarily online. We are in the midst of transitioning to yet another form of media, and, like television before it, many of the concerns about this shift pertain to whether this medium is good or bad for “society.” I would argue that the imposition of a value structure in understanding the changes this shift has been accompanied by is insufficient.

While newspapers played a significant role in the formation of national consciousness (through an awareness of an increasingly shared readership), television and the music industry brought people together on the basis of shared cultural tastes that helped individuals to define themselves through identifying with specific niche interests. The Internet has helped to extend this process of individualization, and in the process has transformed the degree of agency people have in learning about the wider world, and most importantly, granting them a voice with which they might be part of that world.

The information we “digital natives” now come across on the Internet is increasingly social in nature. As opposed to the more “top-down” distribution of news and entertainment, the social web creates a heightened sense of shared readership by creating a more horizontal structure (think Digg, social networks, the blogosphere, etc;). As a result, we are given more agency in assessing the quality of information – leading to a new form of reading that involves scanning, filtering, aggregating and organizing. I would argue that this is not a “dumbing down” at all, but rather a qualitative shift in the way we learn through media. The question then becomes, who is in fact “dumber”- the person who reads the newspaper that lands on her doorstep and accepts it as the truth, or the person who reads bits and pieces from many news sources (including blogs) and is able to piece together a more complex perspective?

I think a more pertinent question to ask is the degree to which the Internet is affecting individual or collective identity- the concept of “networked individualism,” introduced by Boase and Wellman, suggests we are expanding our social networks (weak ties in particular) according to our individual interests and communities of membership, thus diversifying the kinds of information available to us. Simultaneously, through the Internet we are potentially approaching the fulfillment of McLuhan’s notion of “the global village,” and in the process forming a new sort of collective identity- the feeling that we are not only a part of, but increasingly connected to the world on a global scale.