The Internet Weakens Authority

July 12, 2010

In 2004, I delivered an academic presentation to J-school students in Tennessee that examined what would happen to culture as postmodernism's mantra of "I experience or participate, therefore I understand" became the norm. Iíve given this presentation to many audiences in the past six years, and I regularly hear from students that it is life-changing. It's based in 15th Century Europe at the time of the first Gutenberg moment in the West. My view is that every institution that governs the West today is threatened, mostly because they've failed in their charge but also because formerly protected knowledge is being disbursed to everyday people. I don't think we're honest with ourselves about how badly our system has failed, because we compare our poverty with others and conclude, "Well, it's not so bad."

the income gap in the U.S.Our economy remains on the brink with 21st Century thinkers like Harvard's Umair Haque believing the whole thing needs to be rebuilt.

It is no coincidence that so many industries are in trouble simultaneously and so fast. The growth of the Zombieconomy is a Jupiter-sized wake-up call to today's leaders.

Common sense environmentalist Terri Bennett is on a mission to wake people up, one at a time, because something's wrong with a country that contains 5% of the planet's population but produces 25% of its waste.

In the graph to the right, put together from census data by NPR, you can see that the income gap between the top 1/5th of the population and the bottom 1/5th has actually widened in 30 years. Every income level decreased except the top, and this has not gone unnoticed by the masses. As the rich get richer, the theory goes, they "lift" everybody else, but that's clearly not the case. Theories also provide little comfort to the unemployed.

Congress is working on legislation to extend unemployment benefits, but this is just political posturing and little else. Nearly 10% of the labor force is out of work as of this writing, but a CBS Marketwatch report notes the deceptive nature of U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Many people have simply dropped out of the labor force statistics.

Consider, for example, the situation among men of prime working age. An analysis of data at the U.S. Labor Department shows that there are 79 million men in America between the ages of 25 and 65. And nearly 18 million of them, or 22%, are out of work completely.

It is this sense of failure that's providing the energy behind the "second Gutenberg moment" that we are experiencing today. It isn't technology that's changing culture as much as it is the ability of people to act on long-held dissatisfaction. People, therefore, are the issue, empowered, connected and, yes, angry people. Nobody's "in charge" of the revolution underway, but more and more people are realizing that if we're going to fix what's wrong, we're going to have to do it ourselves.

Life was eerily similar in 15th Century Western Europe when the first Gutenberg moment materialized. The gap between the haves and the have-nots was staggering. Cultural dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church was rampant when Gutenberg had the audacity to publish a Bible with his invention called movable type. The printing press disrupted the control mechanism by which the hierarchy of the time was able to keep things as they were. The Internet is doing the same thing today, and it will change things forever.

Atomization, a highly appropriate term
atomization overcomeIn January of 2009, Jay Rosen published his seminal essay "Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press." This brilliant argument focuses on what Rosen calls "atomization," or the concept that we, as the consumers of media, traditionally have connected only "up" to its source. He wrote in an email to me that the word "atomization" isn't normally used in media circles.

It was simply the best word I could find to describe the normal condition the mass audience is when the media are "mass." I had to use an unfamiliar word because I was trying to point out something weird that had come to seem normal, which is that the mass audience is connected up to Big Media but cut off—disconnected, atomized—from one another. Only with the rise of the web, and social media, can we see how odd this really is. For social media allows us to connect across to other people who share our interests as easily as we connect "up" to the media spectacle. So that's why I talk about audience atomization overcome. It points to the social isolation that was in the background during the age of mass media — so deep in the background that we couldn't easily see it.

Jay is not only right about media, but the concept can be applied to any institutional authority in our culture today. I take Jay's headline and remove a few of the words:

Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press.

Many-to-many communications disrupts the one-to-many control dynamic of hierarchical modernism itself, and that will have ramifications far beyond just media.

Rosen agrees that this is changing our world. In a nutshell, he describes the great disruptor as "the falling costs for like minded people—those with the same interest, need, fascination, or problem—to find each other, share information, pool what they know, and publish back to the world, thereby attracting more people who share that same thing."

This is potentially world-changing.

"To see how it applies outside of news," he adds, "just picture how life has changed for the medical doctor as diagnostician when patients can find other patients with the same illness or taking the same medication and compare treatment options. It's not that the doctor's authority evaporates, but it cannot be established or maintained the same way. For there has been a shift in power. Atomization has been overcome. Multiply that by, oh...a million other ways it's happening all around us and you have yourself a cultural shift."

Atomization is the operating necessity of colonialism, the tap root of contemporary Western civilization. I often swap out the words "modernism" and "colonialism," because the latter is intrinsically woven into the former and is so inculcated into our society that it seems both natural and the way it's always been. From Wikipedia:

Colonialism normally refers to a period of history from the 15th to the 20th century when people from Europe established colonies on other continents. The reasons for the practice of colonialism at this time include:

  • The profits to be made.
  • To expand the power of the metropole (mother country).
  • To inculcate the indigenous population to the colonists' world view and way of life.

Some colonists also felt they were helping the indigenous population by bringing them civilization. However, the reality was often subjugation, displacement or death.

This "taking what the cultural hierarchy offers" is what's so dramatically altered by our ability to connect horizontally. We may think our dissident views to be abnormal, because we're isolated, but hyperconnectivity alters that perception, and the result is a deeply empowered citizenry. This will have profound future implications for every institution of our culture. Media was just the beginning.

That's because if we honestly examine the colonialist motivation of institutions governing culture, we discover that each is based on how much "we" need "them." The lure of success and happiness is the bait, but, over the years, each has drifted to self-preservation as its fundamental mandate. The unwritten expression of each is colonialist, fear-based, and built on the idea of protected knowledge.

  • Institution of Government
    You are unable to take care of yourselves, much less govern yourselves. You can find success and happiness only if we make it happen. You need us to make legal that which will make you happy and successful and to make illegal that which stands in your way.

  • Institution of Law
    There are boogeymen out there to rob you of your success and happiness, and you need our protection. Besides, itís a complex society in which we live, and you need our help to simplify it for you.

  • Institution of Business
    We provide the means for success and happiness. You need us to make the 'things' and services that will make you happy.

  • Institution of Religion
    Only God "out there" can provide success and happiness, and you need us to bring Him to you.

  • Institution of Education
    Only an educated mind can bring success and happiness, and we give you that and more, for what good is an education without certification? You need us to provide the credibility you need to work with others and bring about your success and happiness.

  • Institution of Media
    Only we can make you aware of what will make you happy and successful. You need us to entertain, inform and enlighten.

  • Institution of Medicine
    You cannot be successful and happy without a sound mind and body, and you need us to give it to you.

  • Institution of Finance
    We provide the means for success and happiness. You need us to make the 'things' and services that will make you happy.

John WycliffeThe overcoming of atomization weakens each of these institutions by disrupting hierarchies, just as Gutenberg's Bible did in the 15th Century. A Bishop who could silence anyone by referencing Scripture found his arguments weakened by someone who had studied the same text but didn't speak for the self-serving Church. This is why, upon completion of the first common language translation of the Bible in 1382, John Wycliffe said, "This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people and for the people." Wycliffe was branded a heretic, and 20 years after his death, "the Church" dug up his bones and burned them in a public ceremony. It didn't stop the revolution he'd launched, and the same thing is going to happen to other institutional authority in the 21st Century.

One-directional authority — especially that which is based in deliberately protected knowledge — cannot maintain control for long, once that knowledge is acquired and spread throughout its constituency. All that we know today in terms how we govern our lives will evaporate and be replaced by something very different in the decades to come.

And so we have a big cultural problem, one that will increasingly disrupt and destroy the status quo, a status quo that will not go quietly. It will be heaven for some and hell for others, beginning as a war of words between populist anarchy and the law and order comfort of modernist command and control. We'll have warnings of danger ahead, if "we" permit this to continue, and those warnings will be accurate, for nobody knows what the outcome will be, just as no one could have predicted the outcome of the first Gutenberg moment.

One man's dystopia is another's nirvana.

In the end, though, humankind will gain, for the jewel of the elites is knowledge, and knowledge is the chief cornerstone of human advancement.