Change, innovation, revolution; Luther, Marx, Paine: the last 300 years of world history have been the story of change, of the herd of cattle about-facing on remarkably nimble toes to face the other side of the pasture, where the grass is (of course) always greener. We could go down the list from the Protestant Reformation to the American and French Revolutions all the way up to the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution of 20th century America, all the way up to the ’08 Obama campaign. We could—but that would be arcane and academic, because, today, every one of those seismic shifts is conceptually irrelevant.
Yes, irrelevant. Let’s think about it. Luther demanded change because the Church was corrupt. Paine fought for revolution because the American people were (he wrote) oppressed. Marx pointed out the coming revolution because the system was dehumanizing and exploitative.
Today’s history is still one of change, more explicitly than ever. President Obama’s election campaign deified the term, and the mid-term elections, as a reaction to a “lack” of change, effected a 180 in the tenor of congressional allegiances. And yet these historical movements are irrelevant to the contemporary ones.
I blame facebook. I blame youtube. I blame…the printing press.
Without the printing press there is no mass culture: no reformation, enlightenment, or Robespierre, no federalism, and hardly the possibility of industrialization. Ideas stagnate without the printing press—for decades after their conception they remain in their place of origin: Aristotle was a nobody until a millennium after his death.
Print was the vehicle for change. With print, words. With words, reasons.
From Luther to Timothy Leary, revolution had reasons. The crux of every revolutionary assertion was the word “because.” Without mass-produced literature there is no dissemination of ideas; with literature, there are reasons.
Today, print is dead. We need only look to recent politics in America to see that, with the death of the printing press and the birth of Youtube come the death of reason and the birth of spectacle as reason. This year, Christine O’Donnell told us to vote for her because she wasn’t a witch, and yet we didn’t vote for her because we didn’t like that she was afraid of mice with human brains… Alvin Green was elected in the primary because he was obscure, and then we learned he was obscure because he shouldn’t have been elected. And who can say enough about Jimmy Macmillan’s beard? This year it was impossible to touch the question of politics with our politicians with a ten foot pole. In the past, we had reasons; today we have weird.
In fact, I think the only thing weirder than the populist emergence of the tea party was the vitriol and mockery with which it was roundly met.
Without the internet, who would have heard of the self-made billionaires and apparently conservative nobodies who dominated our politics? Who would have attended the Glenn Beck rally—not to mention the rally to Keep Fear Alive? And who, dear God, would have seen Jimmy Macmillan’s moustache?
The speed with which information—or, more accurately, groundless ideology—can now be disseminated is the first cause for worry: but, even worse is the manner of its dissemination. Rapid mass change and progress become possible with the printing press. Senseless, rapid, mass change and progress become possible with Facebook.
Call to mind the JFK/Nixon debate and subsequent election. Multiply that effect infinitely. You might have touched (a little bit…) on the potency of the internet to shift attention away from relevant questions to irrelevant spectacle.
With the advent of the internet, in all its multimedia glory, the question is no longer what someone says, or even how they say it. What matters is whether they are a witch or a nobody, whether they are sufficiently weird or spectacular… Or whether or not they have mutton chops like Jimmy Macmillan’s.