Friday, January 25, 2013

Linus Lives!

For many of you it is ancient history, a wonderful old Peanut's cartoon from the 1960s - I believe I had it many years ago on an orange T-Shirt; Linus is remarking to someone outside the frame: "I love mankind, it's People I can't stand!"  As with much of Schultz's work, the insight lingers long past the initial frame. So it is with Linus's wonderfully contradictory rant.  None of us wants to see ourselves as misanthropic curmudgeons.  We love mankind .  .  .  .  but.  Ah yes, but, as always the devil is in the details.  There is "us," the mankind we love, and there is "the other," the mankind we could love if only they didn't insist on [looking, talking, dressing, smelling, believing] the way they do!

I have always been fascinated by our defining and redefining of the notion of "we and them", of "us and the other," or as my father the sociologist would say, the "in-group" and the "out-group."  He loves to tell the story of when he first brought my mother to the small cluster of farms in a Mennonite community in southeastern South Dakota, to meet his family.  He was nervous because you see my mother was "nicht von unsere" - "not one of ours."  She hailed from that strange land of Pennsylvania and was some kind of indeterminate Protestant. It all worked out but not without occasional bumps in the road, caused most often by sins of inadvertent omission rather than intentional commission.

It has not always been thus. Across the millennia a sometimes subtle, sometimes horrifically violent contest has raged contesting the right to define  "mankind," that collective we love, and "people," the great unwashed herd we cannot stand. I would like to advance the notion that our media not only provide significant clues as to the current king of the "mankind" mountain, but are also important players in the coronation.

A brief walk through history if you will.  Prior to writing, it's guesswork, but fairly sophisticated guesswork.  In an oral culture "mankind" were those who shared our story, those whose sages spoke the same epic narratives that defined who we were and how we came to be. "People" were those who had been led astray by other tales of existence. With writing and books the narrative spread beyond the range of the speaker's voice, but only as far as the intellectual, literate, and usually theocratic elite. They continued to spread the "legitimate" narrative to "mankind" while ever more clearly defining where "mankind" stopped and "people" began.

The Renaissance and the printing press began to fracture the walls of narrative fidelity.  The stories began to breach the levies of authority and belief.  An increasingly literate middle class could encounter the stories of "the other" as written in lands where the other was "mankind" and where the newly engaged reader was "the people."  Movies banished forever the need for an elitist literacy.  The social narrative was no longer hidden amidst arbitrary squiggles on a page.  It moved and eventually spoke from the screen before our eyes like real folks, our folks.  Radio and TV eventually drew the oracles of the modern age out of Delphi and gave them a celebrity's seat in the living room.  "Mankind" watched our programs, the "people" attended to another channel - and it was becoming more difficult to tell them apart.  Who among that growing chorus of media voices were the pillars of "mankind," who were the sirens of "the people" calling us to the rocks?

And who now? In a world where we carry a community of a billion members in pocket or purse, it is important that we again ask, who is "mankind" and who are merely "people?"  There are those who would argue that social media have deposed the despots.  That "like" makes right.  I'm afraid it is not that simple. Consider where "like" leads us. According to "the Internet" [and as a popular Geico TV commercial reminds us, they can't say it on the Internet if it's not true] Rihanna has 61,617,468 friends or likes on Facebook, nudging out Eminem who has 61,269,210. In third place is Shakira with 54.8 million followers. Lady Gaga is fourth with 53.2 million and late singer Michael Jackson rounds out the top five celebrities on the site with 51.9 million fans.

If, as I assert above "mankind" are those who share our story, the sages who spoke the same epic narratives that defined who we were and how we came to be; then, for me anyhow, these millions of  "likes" still don't make right.  It is not that I would declare them the shunned "people" by virtue of their popularity.  It is not that "I can't stand them."  They are simply irrelevant in terms of an epic narrative that defines mankind.  Epistemologically speaking, they are trivial - an assertion that may well offend a few hundred million folks.

So if "like" doesn't define "mankind" in the digital world, what does?  I don't think we have figured that out yet. We haven't worked out how to distinguish popularity from quality in a world as porous and complex as the one enabled by the Internet.  And I'm growing ever closer to the idea that this may be a lesson we will only learn from the passage of time.  Consider your high school reunions.  At your 5th - if you have reached it yet - there will probably be a fairly high correlation with the social reality of graduation.  The popular kids will still be popular, the others not so much. Then at the 10th a shift occurs.  Some of the geeks and nerds will have flowered into interesting people with unique lives, and some of the high school heros will just be marking time, reliving past glories.  The trend continues, let me assure you, as the decades stretch out behind you.  Some of the popular kids remain popular and interesting, but many of the "uncool" kids rise to fascinating folks with intriguing perspectives on life. The point is that when we were back in high school, we really didn't have any idea who would become "mankind" and who would get stuck just being "people."

The same seems to be true of the digital world in which we currently live so much of our lives. Regardless of our chronological ages, in terms of "digital world," we are all quite young - still in high school, maybe a year or two past graduation.  We are still so young that we are probably unable to distinguish between "mankind" and the "people" with any certainty.  So I would caution us, to remember that now as then, popularity is not the best predictor of quality, of those who will come to define "mankind," and that "like" isn't always "right."

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