Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 2010

Sept-U: Setting the Movement in Motion
© Charles D. Hayes

One thing I think most people today would agree about is that the Internet is having far-reaching effects on society, and at this point in time, it’s difficult to predict the outcomes. Radio and television required passivity. The Internet invites participation; it promotes curiosity, conversation, and conviction. Social connectivity makes ideological amplification easy, allowing like-minded people to get together and venture further in the ideological direction they’re already leaning than they would have ventured on their own.

Regardless of the sentiment, it can be amplified in cyberspace. Any one of the above features of social media offers the possibility of revolutionary change. The Internet, therefore, can bring us together or rip us apart. Today’s communication upheaval can play to our worst instincts or our best; how we respond is up to each of us as citizens.  

During the past half-century the media sources we utilize have continued to dramatically affect the way we live. Television, for example, has entertained and educated us for more than sixty years, but in some respects it has had an anesthetizing effect. It’s managed to distort our intelligence into a sort of semiconscious stupor in which we can watch reruns over and over without recalling having seen them before. In other words, millions of people use television to relieve stress and tune out, so to speak, just as others under the stress of modernity use drugs to turn their anxiety into euphoria.  

Contrast today’s communication capabilities with the 1950s, when there were only three television networks. The differences are so profound that many young people today have difficulty imaging what life would be like without constant connectivity.  Millions of people used to go to work each day having watched the same programs the night before as most of the people they worked with. This shared sense of entertainment offered the feeling that we were really in the same boat, minus the racial and gender biases prevalent at the time. Social media may seem to have a similar effect today, except that the groups are far more self-selecting and the subjects of interest more trivial in nature. After all, how thoughtful and reflective can one be when the expectation is to respond quickly in 140 characters or less?

If you had a message you wanted to communicate to the general public in the 1950s, you were pretty much out of luck. Radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and letters were about the only options. Not so today. But when you start to imagine what the results might be from turning those billions of hours of television stupor into something more productive with today’s connectivity, the possibilities are mind-bending. In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky, who teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, shows how using our heretofore dead-to-the-world time differently has the potential to change the world. He describes interactive media as the connective tissue that holds society together.

Shirky writes, “In a historical eyeblink, we have gone from a world with two different models of media—public broadcasts by professionals and private conversations between pairs of people—to a world where public and private media blend together, where professional and amateur production blur, and where voluntary public participation has moved from nonexistent to fundamental.” Shirky also makes it clear that we have always found the time to do what interests us and what we really care about—the same realization that prompted me to write September University.  

As I make clear in that book, the fall and winter of life is the optimum time to reflect on our experience, to use that experience and our learning to achieve a fulfilling end to life, and to do so with enough enthusiasm that we leave something worthwhile behind. Regardless of whether you are politically left, right, or center, what is important is to set contempt and animosity aside and be willing to engage in a civil dialog with people of opposing views while maintaining a resolve to opt for the better argument.

Imagine what the Internet and all of the attendant social media could and would support, if most people used its power to find real solutions to real problems. What if more and more people were to truly care about discovering the better argument, regardless of whose side might appear to be winning? What if, instead of spending so much time posting incendiary remarks about their ideological opposition, people sent out positive messages seeking common ground? What if most people began to act as if the way we act toward one another really matters, and as if they believed we will get the future we deserve? What if a significant number of people past middle age began to focus on generativity and their legacy for the generations to follow?    

I invite you to join the discussion and to visit the September University Facebook page and engage. Please invite others to do so as well, and tell us how you plan to make the best of the rest of your life.  

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