February 13, 2009


Network Nation (Leon Wieseltier, February 18, 2009, The New Republic)

One of the most momentous questions facing our society concerns the impact of the new technologies of communication on our conception of human relations. That we are all connected is plain, but what is the quality of our connection? The ideal of a "national conversation" seems to have been electronically fulfilled, but does a nation really converse? What do the social networking sites conceal about an individual and what do they reveal? (They certainly reveal a horror of concealment.) When a society is described as a network, what is gained and what is lost? The network is the controlling metaphor of our age, but the wisdom of John McClane keeps nagging at me: "It's not a system, it's a country." Some months ago I listened with amazement to a hotshot Israeli think-tanker explain that the medieval Jewish community was the first world wide web, and that therefore we could not understand it until the world wide web was invented. It was the dumbest thing I heard last year. I raise these doubts because of the email that I received from President Barack Obama. For one of his innovations in American politics has been the zealous adoption of the ideology of the network. To be sure, there were practical reasons: email and YouTube are cheaper than direct mail, and of course cooler--but direct mail is all they are. The number of people who can be reached in an instant is genuinely astounding--but this is a marketer's dream, nothing more. Btw, is not electronic communication the most facile and the most fleeting communication? Scholars have documented the inexorable effect of the Internet in creating "communities of interest," and the Obama machine wishes to portray the nation itself as a community of interest; but this returns us once again to that mythical unity. What is more likely happening is that Obama's community of interest is depicting itself as America's community of interest. Communities of interest are formations of exclusiveness enabled by technologies of inclusiveness. So it was odd to get that email from my president. I voted for him, and I gave him a few dollars, but I do not revolve in his vast magical orbit. The personal touch had a distinctly de-personalizing effect, the way Amazon does when it teaches me about my tastes. The Obama machine may be excited to be connected to me, but I am not excited to be connected to it. I am not connected to it. The jazziness of the means aside, this was junk mail.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 13, 2009 3:46 PM
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