by Joe Courter
Here we are in the “information age,” defined as “a historical period that began in the mid-20th century. It is characterized by a rapid shift from traditional industries, as established during the Industrial Revolution, to an economy centered on information technology.”
The heart of information technology is communication, and the dictionary says that is “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behaviors … the imparting or exchanging of information or news.”
We are neck deep into an era where the “economy centered on information technology” has become an economic engine out for its own gain, shaping our behavior and values as it strives to gain and hold our attention and our buying power, to the point that our own personal information has become a commodity that is bought and sold, analyzed and exploited. Ever more products are developed and become essential to our lives (or so we are led to believe). The latest phone, some new app or other, a new streaming source with new entertainment possibilities. We are living tied to a screen, and the younger you are, the more normalized it has become. It is our future. We have some serious problems to deal with, folks.
That’s bad enough (declared the boomer) but the changing aspects of communication itself is another great problem. The “common system of symbols, signs and behaviors used in imparting or exchanging of information or news” has become problematically fractured to where lack of common ground in communication has become a barrier to cooperation and attempts to improve the common good societies ideally would strive for. And this is on multiple levels.
“Exchanging information and news” has suffered greatly with the drive to gain and hold readers and viewers, casting aside the formerly valued concept of truth and scientific verification, and instead creating silos of disinformation (often monetized) with virtual tribes of believers having scant common ground between them. We saw this in the pandemic, and societally in the unleashed vilification of immigrants and LGBTQ folks. We no longer have “common symbols and behaviors,” we have become toxically divided, and that economy centered on information technology” grows richer feeding the falsehoods and animosity which drive us apart.
But here is another problem we face, less toxic but still significant. How we exchange information has become fragmented. We now have so many ways to communicate with one another that those platforms become silos themselves, leaving out other people unless you choose to spend inordinate amount of time switching around. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Discord, Twitch. All are money makers for corporations in the information economy: they make their living off of shaping our behavior in order to fill their pockets. We are all on different pages, reading different books. Actual phone conversations are used less and less. Person-to-person communication has even suffered.
Yes, there are upsides for sure, the instant connectivity with friends and loved ones over distances, the finding of likeminded folks to share fun times with, in real life or virtual. I’m not sure how the pandemic would have played out without Zoom, for instance. Facebook has given me great joy even if it does make me burn the oatmeal in the morning on occasion. But in terms of organizing for social justice, with all the potential to bring people together, it gets complicated.
In the ’50s the government launched COINTELPRO to disrupt organizations. Now, intentionally or not, we can disrupt ourselves with intolerant call out culture. We can be in parallel factions rather than unifying. And even more important, we’re so freakin’ distracted that we don’t care to or can’t see how to participate in making the world a better place. Tools exist to be used, but we must be aware that some of these tools were designed to use US, and we need to try and use them better as we come to grips with rising authoritarian rollback of our hard fought rights and freedoms. Do what you can. Silence is complicity.