I must admit that, upon reading about the third-person effect, I immediately began to think about game theory. Although I fully confess to being relatively naïve in the school of thought, I have long been fascinated by the ways in which we make decisions based on incomplete information (see also my undergraduate love for heuristics).
Indeed, there seems to be a wonderfully (horrible? awesome?) kind of power in the ability to reliably predict how the manipulation of information can lead to particular patterns of behavior; in some ways, it is like being able to see into the future. And, although perhaps a tad overdramatic, to bend information to your will is to make and remake the world.
Although I certainly don’t wish to confuse game theory with the third-person effect, I can’t help but think that, on some base level, they share some similarities for we are, in both cases, assessing how others will react to a given piece (or set) of information and responding accordingly. Whether it is to promote media regulation, ordering a pre-emptive strike, or playing the market, it seems like some of the same core thought processes are occurring as we pit ourselves against the world.
The notion of distancing, however, is key as it seems to protect individuals from a measure of cognitive dissonance: it would be troublesome for one to assume that others (i.e., “the masses) are affected differentially if they resemble oneself! And yet the act of distancing creates an interesting thought exercise for the third-person effect operates on the idea that an unseen “average person” would react to media in a particular way—but if we are abnormal on one measure, we are, by sheer probability, surely average on another! Although we can circumvent this tendency through careful thought, it seems difficult for individuals to consider that they might in fact be one of the Other and reconcile this line of thinking with perceptions of one’s own identity.
In some ways, I wonder if this inclination relates to the actor/field approach that we discussed earlier, wherein one is able to observe (and therefore compare) the ways in which media affects others but is blind to this process with regard to oneself. Or maybe it is precisely because we are hyper-aware of our own cognitions that we tend to formulate alternate responses for ourselves.
Is another explanation for this the Western drive toward individualism? Would this same phenomenon present if we fundamentally understood ourselves as embodying a different sort of relationship to our community? Would we be more inclined to identify with the masses if we inhabited a more collectivist society?
There is, for Western male bodies in particular, a very distinct sense of the body as discrete and whole. In contrast to permeable female body—associated with tears, lactation, childbirth, and menstruation, women demonstrate a tendency to ooze—male bodies appear much more concerned with integrity and resistance to invasion or penetration.
The male anxieties surrounding penetration are also a bit ironic given that, in some ways, the current ideals of straight Western male bodies derive from an attempt by the gay community to respond to the threat of AIDS. In short, one factor in the rise of the ideal hard body—although certainly not the only influence—was the effort made by gay individuals to project a healthy and robust body in the 1980s. As AIDS was considered a “wasting disease” at the time, exaggerated musculature served as an immediate visual signal that one did not have the disease. As this particular image propagated in society, societal norms surrounding the male body changed and straight men began to adopt the new form, although importantly not for the same reasons of gay men.
This process, then, challenges the naturalization of the ideal body—and even the idea of the body itself. The concept of the body can be seen as a constant site of negotiated meaning as our understanding of what the body is (and is not) arises out of an intersection of values; this means that we must look closely at the ways in which we privilege one form of the body over another, maintaining a static arbitrary form in the process.
Here, Jussi Parikka’s notion of body as assemblage offers an interesting lens through which to examine the concept of the body: the “body,” in a sense is not only an amalgamation of parts, sensations, memories, and events but also is forged in the interaction between the components that make up the body and those that surround it. What if we were to rethink the sacred nature of the body and instead understand it as a fusing of parts on multiple levels? Would we care as much about the ways in which organic and inorganic pieces interacted with our bodies? What if we changed our understanding of our body as inherently natural and saw it as a prosthetic? The state of the body is in constant flux as it responds to and affects the world around it—put another way, the body is engaged in a constant dialogue with its surroundings.
On a macro scale, this adaptation might take the form of Darwinian evolution but on an individual level, we might also think about things like scars or antibodies as ways in which our body (and not our mind!) evidences a form of memory as it has been impacted by the world around it. Although layers of meaning are likely imposed upon these bodily artifacts, on their most basic level they serve as reminders that, as stable as they seem, our bodies continually contain the potential to change.
And, ultimately, it is this potential for transcendence that forms a thread through most of my work. Stretching across the lineage of Final Girls who had power in them all along, to youth striving to maximize their education, to the transhumanist tendency to push the boundaries of the body, I hold most affinity for people who cry, “This is not all that I am.”
Generally interested in historiography, it makes the most immediate sense for me to situate an industry within a legacy of that which has come before. Whether it is tracing the progression of mass media from print through digital communications or understanding that the “time shift” phenomenon was preceded by a “space shift” as the telegraph separated a message from its source, history provides a valuable framework through which to understand industries. Unfortunately there are no clear demarcations between periods/ages/epochs and it is, at times, difficult to separate out the complex milestones in an industry’s progress. And although Holt and Perren invoke De Certeau in order to remind readers that historiography always works toward an end (put another way, the end cannot help but be known) I must also remind to avoid adopting a deterministic view—just because things ended up in a particular way does not mean that they had to.
And yet, even on a smaller scale, we might choose to examine verticality in another fashion with respect to the chain of production. Nodded to by Holt and Perren, production can be expanded to include the more discrete content areas of design, production, distribution, sales, and consumer. Although these labels may begin to overlap as individual companies or organizations undergo vertical integration, I believe that they represent a solid position from which to start analyzing the downstream flow of products in an industry. In some ways, each of these five areas potentially represent a rich site of study (e.g., see Holt and Perren’s section entitled “The site of production”), but we can also consider how a much more complex picture occurs when we begin to look at the ways these sections interact with each other and how multiple pipelines are arranged in parallel.
As an example:
Using this (very simplified) diagram, we can more readily see how individual companies’ holdings within the pipeline may affect the ways in which those organizations interact with one another. In order to gain greater control over their products, Companies A and B may form some sort of partnership (or one may be taken over by another) while we see similar potential for Companies C, D, and E. Alternatively Company B may try to buy out Company E in order to become the sole point of sale in this industry. We can also see that certain positions are more advantageous than others, for although Companies A, B, and C each control two content areas, Company C must deal with at least two other companies in order to function whereas Companies A and B need only interact with each other. Understanding the nature of the pipeline for a particular industry, then, can offer great insight into the practices of the companies within that sector.
Adding another layer of complexity, we can examine the ways in which these companies interact with, and utilize, consumers. Although they exist at the bottom of this chain, consumers ultimately have a measure of power through their consumption choices and may occasionally rebel against companies who evidence unseemly practices. But, more interestingly, recent years have seen the growth of fan involvement largely through the ability of the Internet to increase access. In an ideal world, this new form of fan involvement might operate in synergy with industry allowing audiences to have a say in the direction of their favorite entertainment properties and making fans more loyal viewers in the process. Opportunistic companies, however, also seem to be keen in taking advantage of this free labor, “employing” fans in aspects of design (e.g., fan fiction), production (e.g., fan videos), and sales (e.g., buzz marketing).
We have, then, obtained a sense of how to begin unraveling the interrelated set of connections that exist to support an industry. Our task is made difficult by the ever-present need to retain multiple perspectives simultaneously, understanding how actions undertaken on one level have implications on others. And yet, despite the inherent challenges, clearly visualizing the past/present is invaluable if we even hope to see into the future.
The obvious answer is that if early Science Fiction was about exploring outer space, the writings of the late 20th century were largely about exploring inner space. More than just adventure tales filled with sensation or exploration (or cyberpunk thrill) the offerings that I encountered also spoke to, in a way, the colonizing of emotion. Thinking about Science Fiction in the late 20th century and early 21st century, I wondered how some works spoke to our desire for a new form of exploration. We seek to reclaim a sense of that which is lost, for we are explorers, yes—a new form of adventurer who seeks out the raw feeling that has been largely absent from our lives. Jaded, we long to be moved; jaded, we have set the bar so high for emotion that the spectacular has become nothing more than a nighttime attraction at Disneyworld.
At our most cynical, it would be easy to blame Disney for forcing us to experience wonder in scripted terms with false emotion constructed through tricks of architectural scale and smells only achievable through chemical slight of hand. But “force” seems like the wrong word, for doesn’t a part of us—perhaps a part that we didn’t even know that we had—want all of this? We crave a Main Street that most of us have never (and will never) know because it, in some fashion, speaks to the deeply ingrained notion of what it means to be an American who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For me, there are glaring overlaps with this practice and emotional branding, but what keeps me up at night is looking at how this process may have infiltrated education through gamification.
Over the past few years, after reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”
Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? We can talk about the positive aspects of gamification, levling and badges, but as the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—going from a race to accumulate experience to merely aggregating the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth. It was—and is—about the process and not the product.
But, that being said, I try not to fault students for the very actions that frustrated me as a reader are reinforced daily in all aspects of education (and life in general). Processes are messy, vague, and fluid while products are not. How would one even go about conceiving a badge for emotional maturity? Would one even want to try?
Perhaps I am clinging to notions of experience that will become outdated in the future. Science Fiction challenges us to consider worlds where experiences and memory can be saved, uploaded, and imprinted and, really, what are recreational drugs other than our clumsy attempt to achieve altered experiences through physiological change? I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that my former colleagues in admission are likely not thinking about the coming changes and will struggle to recalibrate their metrics as we move forward.
Although the term “public opinion” has primarily been paired with politics over these past weeks, I tend to enter the conversation through the machinations of celebrity; if fame represents the phenomenon in question (i.e., the “what”), then Walter Lippman provides a “how” while Walter Benjamin chimes in with a “why.” The explanations of Lippman and Benjamin, are, of course, not the only ways in which one might endeavor to explain complex phenomenon of things like celebrity or political attitudes, but, for me, they represent a way.
In “How the News Shapes Our Civic Agenda” Maxwell McCombs and Amy Renyolds mention how Lippman’s seminal work Public Opinion outlines some of the ideas of what would later be called agenda-setting theory (generally, the idea that the relative attention given to articles by the mass media is correlated with the relative importance of those articles’ content by audiences) but this model, although likely valid, seems incomplete as it forwards a passive and reactionary position on behalf of audiences—although agenda-setting may certainly represent an influence on salience, it seems unlikely to represent the only factor at work.
Indirectly, agenda-setting speaks to some of the ways in which audiences can work to inscribe particular things (be they news items or celebrities) but here, the work of Benjamin sheds some light on why researchers may have observed the patterns that they did with regard to agenda-setting theory. Although admittedly more complex than is outlined here, one of the arguments made in Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is society’s rationalization that, in a world with limited resources, replicated images are worth reproducing. Applying this concept to news media, which also suffers its own set of constraints (e.g., space in print media or time in broadcast media), we understand that particular items are not only newsworthy because of the focus placed upon them, but also because they are covered at the expense of other things which were not mentioned.
But here I would suggest that the mere amount of exposure cannot fully account for the totality of the effects observed. Recalling earlier class discussions on the nature of advertising, it seems fair to argue that the messages put forth by outside agencies like news media outlets must be rendered meaningful by individuals and be available for recall. In order to support this notion (and introducing a bit of Social Psychology), we might refer to Vincent Price, David Tewksbury, and Elizabeth Powers’ concept of the “knowledge store,” which is itself reminiscent of the availability heuristic (i.e, the mental shortcut that describes the process whereby we assign additional importance to information that we can most readily recall, creating a correlation between memorable qualities and importance). What Price, Tewksbury, and Powers suggest is that it is not enough merely to have representation, but that these representations must be vivid and able to be recalled by individuals in order to have an effect. While one might be tempted to relegate this finding to sensationalist media, I believe that the work of Price, Tewksbury, and Powers also helps us to explain the processes described in agenda-setting theory.
As students in my section undoubtedly were aware, the Critical Analysis of Social Issues (CASI) model is one that I struggle with—mostly because, I think, of the word “context.” The trouble is that the word is much too broad to mean much of anything for me: I can talk about unequal power structures or socio-historical background…but aren’t these all forms of context? I understand events like the Irvine 11 as situated in a number of overlapping contexts: political, economic, social, historical, geographic, and temporal. Moreover, the way in which I choose to examine any particular issue also brings with it a certain set of affordances and limitations—I must remember that I too am a sort of context for the event is being interpreted though a series of lenses and filters that have developed out of my personal combination of experiences.
But I do not mean to imply that this effort is unworthy just because it is limited or because it is difficult. I think of critical thinking as a series of skills or tools that one can employ in order to contemplate an issue from multiple angles. The biggest challenge for our group seemed where to begin: with so many questions floating in the air, how does one even begin unpacking it all? Every answer is necessarily connected to another and it seems like a ball of string that folds back in on itself, offering no place upon which to perch. The answer, for me, is to begin analyzing something along one line of inquiry knowing that your work will be incomplete but moving along anyway—you can, after all, always go back and add to what you have uncovered. Only through practice does the plodding turn into instinct.
It should come as no surprise that the futurist perspective of transhumanism is closely linked with Science Fiction given that both areas tend to, in various ways, focus on the intersection of technology and society. Generally concerned with the ways in which technology will serve to enhance human beings (along the way possibly evolving past “human” to become “posthuman”), the transhumanist movement generally adopts a positivist stance as it envisions a future in which disease and aging are eradicated or cognitive processes accelerated.  In one way, transhumanism is presented as a cure-all for the problems that have plagued human beings throughout our history, providing hope that our fragile, corruptible, mortal, and impermeable bodies can forever be augmented, maintained, fixed, or reconstituted. A seductive promise, surely. Science Fiction then takes the ideas presented by transhumanist theory and makes them a little more tangible, affording us the opportunity to visit these futurist communities as we dream about how our destiny will be changed for the better while also allowing us to glimpse warnings against hubris through works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Without giving it much thought, it seems as though we are readily able to spot the presence of transhumanism in Science Fiction—but what if we were to reverse the gaze and instead use Science Fiction as a critical lens through which transhumanism could be viewed and understood? In short, what are lessons that we can garner from a close reading of Science Fiction texts can be used as tools to think through both the potential benefits and drawbacks of this particular direction for humanity?
Although admittedly an oversimplification, the utopia/dystopia binary gives us a place to start. Lest we become overly enamored with the potential and the promise of a movement like transhumanism, we must remember to ask ourselves, “Just whose utopia is it?” Using Science Fiction as framework to understand the transhumanist movement, we are wary of a body of work that has traditionally excluded minority perspectives (e.g., the female gender or race) until called to explicitly express such views (see the presence of, and need for, works labeled as “feminist Science Fiction”). This is, of course, not to suggest that exceptions to this statement do not exist. However, it seems prudent here to mention that although the current landscape of Science Fiction has been affected by the democratizing power of the Internet, its genesis was largely influenced by an author-audience relationship that drew on experiences and knowledge primarily codified in White middle-class males. Although we can readily derive examples of active exclusion on the part of the genre’s actors (i.e., we must remember that this is not a property of the genre itself), we must also recognize a cultural context that steered various types of minorities away from fiction grounded in science and technology; for individuals who did not grow up idolizing the lone boy inventor/tinkerer or fantasizing about the space race, Science Fiction of the early- to mid-20th century did not readily represent reality of any sort, alternate, speculative, future, or otherwise.
If we accept that many of the same cultural factors that worked against diversity in early forms of Science Fiction continue to persist today with respect to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (Johnson, 1987; Catsambis, 1995; Nosek, et al., 2009) we must also question the vision put forth by transhumanists and be willing to accept that, for all its glory, the movement may very well represent an incomplete ideal state—invariably all utopias need revision. Although we might consider our modern selves as more progressive than authors of early Science Fiction, examination of current discourse surrounding transhumanism reveals a continued failure to incorporate discussions surrounding race (Ikemoto, 2005). In particular, this practice is potentially problematic as the Biomedical/Health field (in which transhumanism is firmly situated) has a demonstrated history of legitimizing multiple types of discrimination based on dimensions that include, but certainly are not limited to, race and gender. By not attempting to understand the implications of the movement from the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders, transhumanism potentially becomes a site for dominant ideology to reinforce its sociocultural constructions of the biological body. Moreover, if we have learned anything from the ways in which new media use intersects with race and socioeconomic status, we must be wary of the ways in which technology/media can exacerbate existing inequalities (or create new ones!). The issue of accesses to the technology of transhumanism immediately becomes pertinent as we see the potential for the restratification of society according to who can afford (broadly defined, including not just to cost but also including things like missed work due to recovery time) to have these procedures performed. In short, much like in Science Fiction, we must not only question who the vision is authored by, but also who it is intended for. Yet, far from suggesting that current transhumanist aspirations are necessarily or inherently incompatible with other strains, I merely argue that many types of voices must be included in the conversation if we are to have any hope of maintaining a sense of human dignity.
And dignity plays an incredibly important role in bioethical discussions as we being to take a larger view of transhumanism’s potential effect, folding issues of disability into the discussion as we contemplate another (perhaps more salient) way in which society can act to inscribe form onto a body. Additionally, mention of disability forces an expansion in the definition of transhumanism beyond mere “enhancement,” with its connotation of augmentation of able-bodied individuals, to include notions of treatment. Although beyond the scope of this paper, the treatment/enhancement distinction is worth investigating as it not only has the potential to designate and define concepts of normal functioning (Daniels, 2000) but also suffers from a general lack of consensus regarding use of the terms “treatment” and “enhancement” (Menuz, Hurlimann, & Godard, 2011). But, looking at the overlap of treatment, enhancement, and disability, we must ask ourselves questions like, “If one of the potential benefits of transhumanism is the prevention and/or rectification of conditions like disability and deformity, who should be fixed? Who deserves to be fixed? But, most importantly, who needs to be fixed?”
Continuing to apply perspectives used to analyze the intersection of race, class, and technology, we see the potential for transhumanism thought to impose a particular kind of label onto individual bodies, inscribing a particular system of values in the process. Take, for example, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough who have been criticized for actively attempting to conceive a deaf child (Spriggs, 2002). Although the couple (both of whom are deaf) do not consider deafness to be a disability or a liability, a prevailing view in America works to force a particular type of identity onto the couple and their child (i.e., deafness is abnormal) and the family will undoubtedly be forced to eventually confront thinking informed by transhumanism in justifying their choice and very existence.
However, even seemingly straightforward cases like Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius have forced us to grapple with new questions regarding the consideration of recipients of biomedical augmentation. Born without fibula, a state that would likely be classified as “disabled” by himself and others, Oscar Pistorius won gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meter events at the 2008 Paraolympic Games but was initially banned from entering the Olympic Games due to concern that his artificial legs conferred an unfair advantage. Although this ruling was later overturned, Pistorius failed to make the qualifying time to participate in the 2008 Olympics Games. Pistorius has, however, met the qualifying standard for the 2012 Games and his participation will assuredly affect future policy regarding the use of artificial limbs as well as a renegotiation of the term “disabled” (Burkett, McNamee, & Potthast, 2011; Van Hilvoorde & Landeweerd, 2010). Interestingly, Pistorius also raises larger issues about the nature of augmentation in Sport, an area that has long wrestled with the concept of competitive advantages conferred through body modification and enhancement.
Ultimately we see that while improvements in human-computer interfaces, computer-mediated communication, neuroscience, and biomechanics paint a resplendent future full of possibilities for a movement like transhumanism, the philosophy also reveals a struggle over phrases like “human enhancement” that have yet to be resolved. Although I am personally most interested in issues of identity and religion that will most likely arise as a result of this cultural transformation (see Spezio, 2005), I want to suggest that larger societal issues must also be raised and discussed. Although we might understand the fundamental issue of transhumanism as a question of whether we should accept the body the way it is, I think the more instructive line of inquiry (if perhaps harder to initially understand) thoroughly examines the ways in which transhumanism builds upon a historical construction of the concept of the body as natural while simultaneously challenging it. Without such critical reflection, transhumanism, like many utopic endeavors, runs the risk of limiting our future to one that is restricted by the types of issues that we can imagine in the present; although our path forward is necessarily guided by the questions that we ask today, utopia turns to dystopia when we fixate on a idealized state and forget why we even bothered to seek advancement in the first place. If, however, we apply the theoretical frameworks provided by Science Fiction to our real lives and reconceptualize utopia as a process—a pursuit that is ongoing, reflexive, and dynamic—instead of as a product, we stand a chance of accomplishing what we sought to do without diminishing individual autonomy or being consumed by the very technology we hoped to integrate.
 Interestingly, in some conceptualizations, aging is now being understood as a disease-like process rather than a biological inevitability. Aside from the radical shift in thinking represented by a movement away from death as biological fact, I am fascinated by the ways in which this indicates a changing understanding of the “natural” state of our bodies.
 This should not suggest that a utopia/dystopia binary is the only way of considering this issue, but merely one way of utilizing language central to Science Fiction in order to understand transhumanism. Moreover, like most things, transhumanism is multidimensional and I am hesitant to cast it onto a good/bad dichotomy but I think that the notion of critical utopia can be instructive here.
 A complex notion itself worthy of detailed discussion. A recent issue of The American Journal of Bioethics featured a number of articles on the concept of dignity and how transhumanism worked to uphold or undermine it. See de Melo-Martin, 2010; Bostram, 2008; Sadler, 2010; Jotterand, 2010. Although “dignity” seems difficult to define concretely, Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard suggest a “personal optimum state” based on cultural, socio-historical, biological, and psychological features (2011). One might note, however, that the highly indivdualized nature of Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard’s criteria makes implimentation of policy difficult.
Bostram, N. (2008). Dignity and Enhancement. In A. Schulman (Ed.), Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (pp. 173-207). Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Bioethics.
Burkett, B., McNamee, M., & Potthast, W. (2011). Shifting Boundaries in Sports Technology and Disability: Equal Rights or Unfair Advantage in the Case of Oscar Pistorius? Disability and Society, 26(5), 643-654.
Catsambis, S. (1995). Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Science Education in the Middle Grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 243-257.
Daniels, N. (2000). Normal Functioning and the Treatment-Enhancement Distinction. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 9, 309-322.
de Melo-Martin, I. (2010). Human Dignity, Transhuman Dignity, and All That Jazz. The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 53-55.
Ikemoto, L. (2005). Race to Health: Racialized Discourses in a Transhuman World. DePaul Journal of Health Care Law, 9(2), 1101-1130.
Johnson, S. (1987). Gender Differences in Science: Parallels in Interest, Experience and Performance. International Journal of Science Education, 9(4), 467-481.
Jotterand, F. (2010). Human Dignity and Transhumanism: Do Anthro-Technological Devices Have Moral Status? The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 45-52.
Menuz, V., Hurlimann, T., & Godard, B. (2011). Is Human Enhancement Also a Personal Matter? Science and Engineering Ethics.
Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N. M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., et al. (2009, June 30). National Differences in Gender: Science Stereotypes Predict National Sex Differences in Science and Math Achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(26), 10593–10597.
Sadler, J. Z. (2010). Dignity, Arete, and Hubris in the Transhumanist Debate. American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 67-68.
Spezio, M. L. (2005). Brain and Machine: Minding the Transhuman Future. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 44(4), 375-380.
Spriggs, M. (2002). Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf Like Them. Journal of Medical Ethics, 283.
Van Hilvoorde, I., & Landeweerd, L. (2010). Enhancing Disabilities: Transhumanism under the Veil of Inclusion? Disability and Rehabilitation, 32(26), 2222-2227.
The charge of media’s liberal bias is not a new one.
From Sarah Palin’s cry of “gotcha questions” to Jon Stewart’s arguments against inflammatory rhetoric, we see a wide range of individuals in America expressing discontentment with the status quo.
And those critical of mainstream media also have a point.
But when we consider our demands for mainstream media, are we calling for reforms in reporting or asking journalism to be something that it’s not? We see individuals from different political positions calling for change in the media and in reporting, but how realistic are our demands given the structure of the media industry itself? I believe that we can challenge the system, but are we focusing on the branches instead of the roots?
Taking the recent News Corporation “hacking scandal” as an example, we simultaneously see multiple ways in which journalistic outlets failed citizens and how the problem cannot simply be solved by asking reporters/editors to “do better.”
On the ground level, we of course have the unethical behavior evidenced by the News of the World staff that formed the basis for the story. However, given that this was not just an isolated incident (i.e., a “rogue reporter” as initially stated) we must also examine the institutional and structural supports that may have served to foster a culture in which the aforementioned scandal could occur. As the story developed, the public began to gain insight into a newsroom that deemed information more valuable than people; a mogul who, although not directly involved, nevertheless shirked responsibility for his employees; and a media that seemed content to fixate on “hacking” rather than the larger issues of ethical practice and invasion of privacy.
This, of course, raises the notion of just who comprises journalism’s constituency. Although it seems like the straightforward answer would be that the fourth estate ideally serves the people, this stance may in fact not be correct in practice. The propaganda model, put forth by Herman and Chomsky (1988) suggests that a number of intervening factors—what the authors call “filters”—exist in mass media that serve to subvert journalism, making it beholden to entities other than the public. Concentration of ownership along with reliance on advertisers and reliable sources suggest that any problems evidenced by the media are, in fact, much more complex than many initially realize; while criticism of the media might be warranted, focusing all of our attention solely on the media will never effect any real change.
If we accept the validity of Herman and Chomsky’s arguments, we see that mainstream media might actually contain strains of conservative bias. Such an argument should not suggest that media outlets cannot also contain a liberal bias (to wit, Herbert J. Gans paraphrases Stephen Colbert’s assertion that life itself tends to lean liberal) but merely argue against the notion that media inherently and/or necessarily contains an all-consuming bias toward the liberal.
 This should not suggest that hacking is not a legitimate social concern, as we have witnessed large-scale attacks against government and corporations that have definite potential for harm. However, in this case, the discussion surrounding this particular story seemed to play on the fears (and popular preconceptions) of the public in order to make a somewhat sensationalist argument. Put another way, I would suggest that this was a “scandal that involved hacking” and not a “hacking scandal.” Although I think that the first conceptualization is more accurate, I can also see how the second phrase is easier to sell and why mainstream media outlets—beholden to advertisers and conscious of time/space—would choose the latter.
So although class and immigration are not necessarily my areas of expertise, I’m going to go ahead and give this one a shot with the caveat that I have not done extensive amounts of outside research.
In and of themselves, class and immigration exist as two fairly large and complicated issues in contemporary America. Looking at the current state of politics, it seems hard to ignore either with proclamations of “class warfare” flying, Occupy Wall Street (not to mention events occurring in major cities around the world, Sesame Street, and Education), the 99%, the 53%, the Dream Act and immigration legislation…the list goes on and on. We can employ the CASI model from last week to begin analyzing the question in terms of economics and politics but I also notice that students in our session spoke to notions of cultural capital.
Although there is a rich history on the subject, I encourage to students to think about how cultural capital represents one of the ways in which one can compare differences in class/immigration status.
Stolen from Wikipedia
Cultural capital (French: le capital culturel) is a sociological concept that has gained widespread popularity since it was first articulated by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron first used the term in “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1973). In this work he attempted to explain differences in children’s outcomes in France during the 1960s. It has since been elaborated and developed in terms of other types of capital in The Forms of Capital (1986); and in terms of higher education, for instance, in The State Nobility (1996). For Bourdieu, capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation (cited in Harker, 1990:13) and cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers power and status.
Those researchers and theorists who explore or employ Bourdieu’s theory use it in a similar way as it was articulated by Bourdieu. They usually apply it uncritically, and depending on the measurable indicators of cultural capital and the fields within which they measure it, Bourdieu’s theory either works to support their argument totally, or in a qualified way. These works help to portray the usefulness of Bourdieu’s concept in analysing (mainly educational) inequality but they do not add anything to the theory.
One work which does employ Bourdieu’s work in an enlightening way is that of Emirbayer & Williams (2005) who use Bourdieu’s notion of fields and capital to examine the power relations in the field of social services, particularly homeless shelters. The authors talk of the two separate fields that operate in the same geographic location (the shelter) and the types of capital that are legitimate and valued in each. Specifically they show how homeless people can possess “staff-sanctioned capital” or “client-sanctioned capital” (2005:92) and show how in the shelter, they are both at the same time, desirable and undesirable, valued and disparaged, depending on which of the two fields they are operating in. Although the authors do not clearly define staff-sanctioned and client-sanctioned capital as cultural capital, and state that usually the resources that form these two capitals are gathered from a person’s life as opposed to their family, it can be seen how Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital can be a valuable theory in analysing inequality in any social setting.
In many ways, cultural capital is encapsulated in the types of things that one just knows as a result of one’s upbringing. Knowing how to voice one’s political opinion, how to navigate city government, and blend into the public are all forms of cultural capital and I would suggest that it is fruitful for students to contemplate how their sense of accrued cultural capital intersects with power.
This week our students tried to wrap their heads around the notion of identity, which I must admit is a rather tricky subject. As Nicole mentioned, identity is difficult to compartmentalize in discrete moments, but, on a broader scale, we can definitely compare periods in our lives in order to demonstrate a change in identity. How do we draw lines between discrete parts of our identity? Do we even need to? Part of the challenge, I think, lies in our inability to take a step back and see ourselves as subjects of inquiry; to us, everything forms a continuous stream (how could it not?) wherein one experience feeds off of, and folds into, the next. Despite the difficulties that come from any attempt to unpack identity, the struggle is important for I believe that our identities are not things that are waiting to be discovered but are in fact formed by the very actions that we take to find it.
To make things even more complicated, identity can present on multiple levels! Throughout the course of our session, students flushed out concepts of personal and common identity, but did not tend to see how these two forms of identification are interrelated; even as our students talked about their sense of personal ethnic identity and pan-Asian identity, they did not articulate ways in which community is built off of one’s individual sense of self or how the sense of common identity can also work to inform one’s individual identity. Instead, our session seemed to gravitate toward notions of authenticity, performance, and identity, an area that is also important for students to explore. Interestingly, however, there did not seem to be much discussion about ethnic identity as a form of performance (i.e., students did not talk about the pressures of having to “act” as particular ethnicity in order to conform or distinguish themselves from others).
To address some of these lines of inquiry—and to try to tie everything back to the articles—I challenged the students to think about how the “I” cannot exist without the “other” (what Charles Cooley called the “Looking Glass Self”). In short, Cooley builds upon Georg Hegel’s notion of the “Other” when he argued that one’s conception of “I” takes into account what one imagines the “Other” thinks of the “I” (which, of course, brings up an interesting conversation regarding individuals with developmental disorders that prohibit the reading/understanding of affect). Although admittedly much more complex, the take home message from Cooley and Hegel is that one knows oneself only in relation to others (how similar or different one is to others)—if we accept this position as true, how does this inform our readings of the articles for Week 2? Immediately, we see resonance with the notion of “in group” vs. “out group” as an outgrowth of this process.
And furthermore, once we have established a process by which individuals consolidate into groups, the question is, of course, how these groups relate to one another. This week briefly introduced the notion of racism at the institutional/structural level and we will continue to develop the implications of these power struggles as we turn toward discussion of social issues next week.
The question of Mormonism’s role in this election cycle refuses to die.
Over the weekend, much ado was made regarding Reverend Robert Jeffress’ assertion that Mormonism was a cult, with editorials and articles appearing across media outlets. Although I recognize that the dispute supposedly at the heart of this matter is whether or not Mormonism is, in fact, a form of Christianity, I also suspect that this entire discussion is being overplayed because of its proximity to the Republican nomination process. I, for one, have not seen many (if any) crusades to dissuade Mormons from calling themselves Christians in other contexts. For that matter, this is not the first time that America has broached the subject, but we seem to have forgotten that Mitt Romney had to defend his religion the last time we went through all of this four years ago. We could go back and forth over the distinction between religion and cult—see other discussions regarding the nature of Scientology or the perception of early Christianity in a Jewish society—but I believe that this would be time spent unwisely.
Instead, the more problematic line from Jeffress at the Value Voters Summit was, “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?” Putting aside the false dichotomy between a “good moral person” and a “born-again follower of Jesus Christ”—which incidentally suggests that a candidate who identifies as born-again Christian is not a good moral person—the underlying message subtly implies supporting Christians over good moral people. Of course the two categories are not mutually exclusive, but I think that reporters missed a great opportunity to disentangle emotionally-charged words from thoughtful political action. Even when the topic was mentioned, discussion quickly moved onto another distraction: the Constitutional injunction against religious testing prior to assuming public office. Instead of publishing headlines like “Cantor Doesn’t Believe Religion Should be Factor in 2012,” which, besides being misleading and not truly reflective of the article’s body, news media have an obligation to explain to voters why religion does matter in the political process. Values do matter and religion undoubtedly speaks to a portion of that—just not all of it. We know from reports like those of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that religion does impact voting, so why pretend otherwise? The opportunity that the press has, however, is to challenge pundits, politicians, and the public not to use “religion” to mean more than it should.
Moreover, another missed opportunity for the media was Jeffress’ assertion that Romeny was a “fine family person” but still not a Christian, given that he was speaking to a crowd ostensibly gathered in support of family values. Shouldn’t this statement, particularly at this function, cause reporters to question exactly what types of values are being upheld? Doesn’t Jeffress’ statement call for an examination of exactly what is meant by terms like “Christian” and “Mormon”? Ultimately it is these values that will determine the potential President’s policy, not the moniker of a religion.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.
I must admit that my experience with horror has caused me to frame “fetish” in a psychosexual light (which, of course, likely aligns with the popular use of the term in non-academic circles). Although part of me strongly suspected that this particular iteration of the term did not apply when reading Karl Marx, reading about commodification and fetishization caused me to reflect on the underpinnings of some of the sexual practices labeled as fetish.
For example, when reading through Marx’s work, I couldn’t help but recall how French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society: functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided in the entry, we can momentarily consider how the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness while the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Applying the vocabulary of Baudrillard to Marx, I marvel at how we have developed a sense of sign value (for a particular object) that is entirely dependent on the (also constructed) value of other objects—and how we react to these assigned values as if they were real!
Marx argues that a potential explanation for this inflated/manufactured sense of value stems from a disconnect between labor and product, with specialization of labor distancing the workers from the results of their efforts. Although we can use the classic example of a factory system to illustrate this point, I also began to wonder about the role of labor on the American version of The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present).
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the show in relation to ideology, but I also believe that another important can be made with regard to the show’s treatment of labor. I fully admit that I am a fan of the show and enjoy watching it, but, at the same time, am also troubled by the ways in which the show often asks students to perform various types of labor. On one level we often see contestants complete some form of labor related to the everyday activities of locals as part of a challenge—here, labor is constructed as a momentary inconvenience to the racers, with their actions completely separated from the notion that some people must do these things in order to survive. The casual way in which the show introduces the notion that these activities are “a way of life” does little to acknowledge the complex set of meanings that this form of labor holds for those who must continue the work long after the Americans leave. In addition, speaking to the idea of Orientalism and labor, we might also consider how some racers understand these tasks as a chance to “go native” and value their experiences as stories that they can retell to their friends in order to amuse, amaze, or delight. Labor, then, is treated as some sort of commodity as we trade the completion of a task for progress in the game; labor is not valued in and of itself, but rather merely as a means to an end.
Yet, on another level, we also see that the very presence of the racers also speaks to a form of commodification as production companies benefit from the contestants’ labor (what Mark Andrejevic called “the work of being watched”) in ways that are likely beyond the comprehension of the racers themselves. Using the quick example of reality show stars not seeing any money from royalties as a quick example, we see that individuals’ efforts on these shows are focused on a rather short-sighted prize: although they might win a million dollars (and possibly have a continued career in entertainment if everything goes according to plan), they are sacrificing their labor to a process that likely cares little about them as individuals with the end product (in this case, a television show) again divorced from any meaning making that happened during the course of the race itself.
Ultimately, I seek to address one aspect of this disconnect through media literacy, asking young people to think carefully about how they, like the racers on The Amazing Race, trade their labor for badges, recognition, and social interaction. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is my job to tell students what to think, but I do want to ensure that they can’t use the cop out “I didn’t know what I signed up for.”
When I first began my studies in Annenberg, I worked on a piece for the Norman Lear Center on the implications of a website called PostSecret. (PostSecret, a community art project started by Frank Warren in 2005, represents a fairly simple concept: individuals anonymously divulge a secret on a postcard frequently adorned with a related image, which is then published on the Internet.) Over the years I have continued to return to this issue/concept and have begun to wonder how, in this so-called Age of Information, we have learned to commodify secrets. We can talk about corporate espionage as one form of this—or even celebrity scandal—and I worry that, in our quest for knowledge/power, we have forgotten that all of these secrets represent real lives, identities, and emotions.
In our post, Shannon raised the idea that individuals can fetishize their secrets but reading Marx for this week also caused me to consider the ways in which we buy/sell (or otherwise trade) the secrets of each other in this day and age. Although I think these practices are fueled by the understandable human trait of curiosity, I think we have lost a bit of perspective as we have allowed our secrets (and, by extension, those who hold them) to hold a sort of power over us that, although socially constructed, is attributed to the secret itself. In this, we surely must be careful as the informational basis of secrets undoubtedly possesses the potential to affect us but my point here is that the information itself does not contain the power, rather power manifests in people’s reaction to, and relationship with, the information.
Although I admittedly worked backward from The Matrix, slowly discovering Blade Runner and Snow Crash as I delved deeper into Science Fiction. In retrospect, I realize that the genre of Science Fiction is much broader than the theme of cyberpunk, but, as a child growing up in the 90s, the mainstream Science Fiction that I encountered seemed to belong to this subgenre. I suspect that I, like many others, was drawn in by the aesthetic more than the content per se (I was not heavily into technobabble much less willing to identify in any way as a computer geek), but I also wonder if the genre spoke to me on another level as well.
Going back over the works now, I find myself struck by the concept of embodiment present throughout much of the fiction. Incorporating the creation of computer technologies like the Internet and virtual reality into their work, many authors seemed to speculate on the eventual cultural impacts on the traditional mind/body duality as technological societies progressed into the future (e.g., Don Riggs’ “disembodied” and “trans-embodied”). Looking over the works of cyberpunk, there seem to be many interesting thought experiments regarding the nature of the body, what constituted it, and how our brain worked with/against our bodies. The question that I am left with is: What happened to all of that discussion?
Although I have not done an extensive study of modern Science Fiction, it seems like much of the issue appears to be settled. In recent memory, Surrogates comes to mind as an example of body swapping (albeit between live and mechanical bodies) but doesn’t seem to explore the impact of bodies’ interactions with the world around them and how this sensation also serves to constitute the construction of the body (i.e., the body is not merely bounded by skin). The logic of the movie seems to indicate that one can readily swap bodies (with a slight sense of disorientation as one moves from one body to the next) but never really addresses the issue that it is entirely possible that these bodies exist in two slightly different worlds because they react to their environments in different ways.
I struggle with this because I wonder if we have, in a way, given up on our bodies as things that are fallible and subject to decay. We feel betrayed by our bodies when auto-immune diseases manifest and are all too aware that our bodies will wither with age (if we don’t get cancer first). For me, the major impulse in Cyberpunk seemed to be a desire to figure out a way to upload one’s mind to a distributed network, becoming one with the machine in consciousness, if not in body. And yet, in recent years, the focus seems to have swung toward the other end of the continuum (if one can indeed place such things on a linear scale) as we seek to incorporate increasingly advanced biomechanical parts in our bodies. Despite the flourishing of artificial limbs and synthetic organs, we seem to have ceased discussion on what this means for how we conceptualize and define a body. Perhaps the quiet has resulted from our culture coming to a conclusion about how the body is constituted? I think, however, that we have, in a fashion, forgotten about our bodies and how they are not merely containers for our brains. Rather, they are part of a system, with our minds accruing knowledge by virtue of experiencing things through the filter of our body as our bodies, in turn, provide a way for our minds to interact with the physical world around us.
In contrast to some of the material that we read previously (broadly speaking to the Horkheimer and Adorno position) “The Spiral of Science” points to other factors in conformity—this is something that we can do to ourselves (for a particular reason) and not always something that is necessarily imposed upon us by media.
Invoking the authority/conformity studies of Milgram and Asch, Noelle-Neumann argues for a process that is more complex than might have originally been thought. Although the situation posed by Asch in his laboratory might not seem incredibly relevant to everyday activities, one might readily extrapolate the idea that social cohesion offered benefits to humans that transcended the value of being “right.” (Which also brings up the notion of objective/subjective truth because in the case of Asch’s experiment the group consensus did form a kind of localized truth and the absolute truth would be somewhat irrelevant if the group chose to act based on relative truth.) Expanded upon in the Glynn et al. chapter on social reality, I find that the space bounded by individuals’ perceptions of their environments and each other to be quite interesting.
The potential danger of mass media, then, is that it can amplify the effects that we demonstrate in society (it’s not solely about the tech) as we attempt to control or manipulate public opinion. Mass media gives people the ability to make their message more visible, which in turn factors into the spiraling effect noted by Noelle-Neumann. And although Christopher Simpson argues that Noelle-Neumann’s writings might be biased, his work also speaks to the ways in which socio-cultural factors influence the social sciences, even when they are not explicitly acknowledged.
But perhaps the most interesting concept in this week’s readings was, for me, the notion of public opinion stemming from references groups—although the idea that we define a sense of self in relationship to others (who are either similar to or different from us) does not seem incredibly revolutionary, I wonder about how such a position might inform our understanding of public opinion. If public opinion represents a coalescing of individuals, does it necessarily do so in contrast to a minority opinion (even if such a position isn’t articulated)? Expressed another way, when we align ourselves with a dominant position in public opinion, are we taking a stand with the majority or against the minority (or both)? Is to be one of us necessarily to be against one of them? And which way of configuring your message is most effective (allowing, of course, that this answer might change depending on the topic)?
This week, our students were asked to reflect on the question “Who is your Asian American hero?” and have done so quite admirably. Looking through the responses, I am struck by how many of our CIRCLE participants chose to write about family members; in some sense, the easiest answer to provide, the phenomenon also causes me to reflect on the factors that might account for this pattern.
In our sessions this week, we talked about push and pull factors with regard to immigration and I would suggest that the people selected as heroes are also the result of a combination of influences like availability and media. On one hand, we have the idea that, when presented with such a question as this one, we tend to respond with answers that are most readily available—in this case, images of family members and friends are most likely to appear. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with this, but we might also want to take a step back and consider another dimension: why is it that our families/friends are the most salient representations that come to mind? Part of the answer to that question, I would argue, stems from a general lack of other people that might be considered Asian American heroes (at least initially). Examining the other environments we inhabit, we might sense a relative scarcity in those worthy of the title “hero.” Sure, we have the occasional Asian celebrity, but I also wonder how the construction of these individuals’ images reinforces dominant stereotypes about who Asians are and, perhaps more importantly, who we should be.
And this, in turn, raises another question for me: just who is worthy of being called an Asian American hero? Do Asian American heroes have to be Asian? How do we determine who receives the title and who is not? Is this distinction based on achievement? On character? On community impact or influence? Can everyday people become heroes? What type of hero? Do all heroes have to have a costume? And, on the flip side, whose stories do we choose to exclude or devalue when we do not consider them heroes? How does the process of selecting community heroes set a bar that all future “heroes” must live up to? Is there a way to celebrate the achievements of individuals in our community without raising the expectation for accomplishment for others?
It seems only fitting that Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” begins with a domestic scene that features a housewife vacuuming, for perhaps no time in recent history has been as evocative as the mid-20th century matriarch. Arguably trading potential for security, women were indeed presented with “overchoice” as hundreds of new products became available for consumers—but although the sheer number of choices available increased, one might also argue that the meaningful choices that a woman could make also decreased as society restructured itself in the years following World War II. Science fiction offerings by authors like Pamela Zoline and James Tiptree, Jr. point to various roles for women in America at the time, illuminating the narrow ways in which women could insert themselves into a world that was not their own. Moreover, the path highlighted society lay fraught with ennui, boredom, monotony, and despair—so much so, in fact, that Pamela Zoline’s Sarah Boyle attempts to disrupt her routine and, in so doing, bring about the heat death of the universe (and the end of her suffering).
Fast forward fifty years and we again see another batch of Desperate Housewives, who suffer from some of the same emotions as their 50s counterparts. Restless and losing a sense of self, the women on Marc Cherry’s drama attempt to illustrate that even well-to-do mothers living in gated communities still struggle to have it all.
And, in many ways, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have dealt with the same issues throughout the years, with witches in the 60s like Samantha Stevens (Bewitched) going through the same sorts of domestic trials as the modern Halliwell sisters (Charmed). Important in both of these shows is the presence of the accepting/tolerant (White) male who, although occasionally lacking in comprehension of women or their magic, is certainly understanding. In the case of Bewitched, we see a male who puts up with his wife’s misdeeds and tolerates the existence of magic even as he discourages its use.
Additionally, we see women in these shows often struggling with the expectations of motherhood, which raises notions about feminine identity, female bodies, and reproduction. Explored by Octavia Butler, we are introduced to the theme of male pregnancy, which often results in disastrous consequences for men. Men’s bodies, it seems, cannot handle the task of birth as they are often destroyed in the process of labor.
Although uncomfortable, I believe that these types of fiction allow our culture to wrestle with pertinent questions about our relationships to our bodies. Although some scenarios seem impossible (at present, for example, biological males are unable to give birth to offspring), the idea that technology might eventually intervene and allow men to carry to babies to term does not seem to be out of the question. Should such a day come, we can refer back to fiction like that of Octavia Butler in order to better articulate our views on reproduction and sex as we come to see that what we have long considered “natural” is, in fact, merely socially constructed.
QR code for Hunger Games ARG…! Scan, please, if you have a chance!
As Lang and Lang point out in their paper “Mass Society, Mass Culture, and Mass Communication: The Meaning of Mass,” the term “mass” has a history rife with negative associations, particularly in recent decades. Acting as a site of convergence for multiple themes, the mass is subject to criticism from both Conservative and Liberal viewpoints as theorists point out the potential downfalls of a public that is homogenized, malleable, and pedestrian. Indeed, it seems as though some positions against mass culture contain an air of elitism (although this is not always expressed overtly), suggesting that those who criticize the masses have somehow managed to escape its thrall (and are better for it).
Although one cannot necessarily fault critics of the masses—as Lang and Lang note, the term took on a new set of meanings between the end of World War II and the Cold War as a reaction to world events—there has been an effort to rehabilitate the term, which also argues for a reconsideration of what “the masses” encapsulates.
Combining the work of Benedict Anderson—who famously wrote on the imagined community—with that of Gabriel Tarde and Paul Lazarsfeld, we begin to see an argument that speaks to positive (or, at the very least, functional) aspects of the masses. (We must of course recognize that both Anderson and Tarde wrote in cultural contexts that differed from each other and from the mid-century critics mentioned above.) For if we take Anderson’s description of the initials forms of imagined communities (i.e., those that were built on religion), we see that Lazarsfeld’s “opinion leaders” become the priests while media takes the place (or supplements) our religion. The idea that we form a sense of community based on notions of nationalism or belief in religion is a powerful one, for we begin to see that the very linkages that cause us to constitute a “mass” also allow for the development of a democratic state.
And although we cannot discount or ignore the potential power of the mass media, Lazarsfeld’s work speaks to the idea of a “two-step flow” or “limited effects model” of communication, which argues that individual people possess the ability to mediate the messages broadcast to the masses. If we grant Lazarsfeld’s work validity, we begin to see that, despite the fears of those who would consider the masses as mindless herds, the potential for agency does exist in audiences. The question, then, is whether we teach individual actors to exercise this power.
But we can also push beyond the notion of an imagined community to think about James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and how it attempts to unpack the notion of collective intelligence, offering insight into when (and why) the phenomenon works. Throughout his book, Surowiecki points out the dangers of groupthink, mass hysteria, and insufficient communication—some of the very things that we might think of when considering the downside of masses, the tendencies identified by Surowiecki might speak to movements that are best described as mob rule.
Despite these potential pitfalls, Surowiecki also notes that when collective intelligence works, it can produce some amazing results. The go-to example of Wikipedia aside, the 21st century has seen an incredible rise in distributed intelligence and crowdsourcing along with some equally incredible results, as evidenced by success with Foldit (a game designed to help discern the structure of a protein that makes up the AIDS virus).