The Four Post-Modernizations

Fifth Question:
What Swims in the Electronic Ocean, and How Do They Post-Modernize?

There are two cultures carried by electronic media, one symbolic, the other aural.

The symbolic culture is that of computers and especially computer networks (``the Net''). Its core members are hackers and scientists, but it is expanding quickly to include other technologists and academics, lawyers and the lumpentechnocracy. It is, in other words, the culture of the ``knowledge workers,'' the class Galbraith named the ``scientific and educational estate.'' It is symbolic because it communicates through - and about - arbitrary symbols: the written or digital word, computer programs, equations, numerical data and their abstract visual representations. It springs from a much older symbolic culture, now almost extinct, of learning and letters stretching back to Egypt and Sumer. Its links to technical progress are strong, direct and obvious, and we have already seen that neophilia is a characteristic trait of technologists. With some exceptions to be noted below, it is either indifferent or actively hostile to apocalypticism and especially anti-rationalism.

The aural culture is almost everything else carried by electronic media - television, popular music, movies, most magazines and newspapers, best-sellers and so on. It is the culture of entertainment, of infotainment, of advertising, of consumerism. Unlike the symbolic culture, or traditional oral cultures, aural culture is mostly passive - not said and participated in, but heard and bought. Also unlike the symbolic culture, it is firmly established far outside the developed world - witness such developments as MTV Asia, broadcast via satellite from Hong Kong to most of South Asia, including all of India and the southern provinces of China, and some of the Soviet Disunion, or the fact that the People's Republic of China recently thought it worthwhile to ban the sale and possession of satellite dishes. The cultures also differ in their attitude towards the producers. Most of the producers of aural culture are anonymous, but a few are treated as living gods. The symbolic culture, on the other hand, is produced by its own consumers. Some are better known and more respected than others; none are celebrities to other members of the culture. Physicists did not make Stephen Hawking a tribal god.

This fact is connected with the way the aural culture fosters neophilia. Boorstin observed decades ago that the demand for its products is essentially unlimited, and the while capacity to deliver them (``bandwidth'') is limited, it is still huge and growing very fast. The obvious problem is supply. A partial solution is what Boorstin called pseudo-events, things made to happen simply so they may be carried by the media to consumers. Such expedients solve the problem of supply, but not that of suppliers. Unless there is a constant demand for new product, producers are superfluous. If, however, it is axiomatic that a new product is better than an old one, the problem evaporates. The transition to the post-modern extreme of neophilia is simple and painless. The new is what is being hyped, flogged, praised and otherwise sold. It is what is happening and what is readily, even instantly, available. The old is not --- and would be rejected even if it was offered. It might as well not exist, and in the minds of those raised in the aural culture, it doesn't.

The relations of the aural culture of apocalypticism and anti-rationalism are similar. Impending doom is news, or (what is better) a docu-drama. It is also congenial to those raised on the idea of a different crisis every week. By encouraging the passive acceptance of raw, disconnected blips of information, emphasizing and ennobling feeling and emotion at the expense of thought and intellect, and not least by fostering unrealizable expectations, it provides fertile soil for anti-rationalism. The number of ``self-help'' and New Age ``books on tape'' and videos is no accident. (The whole business is also self-sustaining: a TV show which encouraged its viewers to think for themselves and seek more reliable sources of knowledge than television would kill itself.)

At this point, caveats are in order. First, the symbolic culture is contained within the aural culture. Those who eventually join the former have been absorbing the latter all their conscious lives, and don't stop. Even adult members of the symbolic culture are still part of the aural - after an exhausting day at the lab, a chemist comes home and turns on the tube. The most blatant effect is time and energy the Net devotes to aural culture staples like Star Trek, alien visits hushed up by the government, less easily characterized conspiracies, New Age religion and ``magick.'' A less obvious influence is the fact that people on the Net are sufficiently unskilled at reading even moderately subtle texts that they have introduced symbols standing for ``sarcasm,'' ``joke,'' ``how sad,'' etc.

Second, the aural culture is increasingly produced by its own consumers, or people mid-way between the aural and symbolic cultures, using through such tools as camcorders, synthesizers, and to a lesser extent computer graphics and desktop video. This has been hailed as the democratization of electronic media, but it is perhaps the balkanization of it. The mass media, precisely because they appeal to huge audiences, will not boost any very specific or idiosyncratic doctrine. Users of the new devices are under no such restriction, and now any small faction, sect or cult can communicate with itself in ways whose ``production values'' rival, if they do not surpass, those of the mass media. Tele-evangelism is a prominent example, as is the justly celebrated role of video cameras in private hands in the recent revolutions of Eastern Europe and South Central Los Angeles. ``The American Revolution was in the hands of printers (hence freedom of the `press'), with Tom Paine's pamphlet `Common Sense' selling 120,000 copies in three months. Ayatollah Kohmeini's revolution in Iran was spread by audiocassette tapes, copy machines, and telephone; no one bothered to take over a broadcast facility until the Shah left.'' Which raises an important point: the medium doesn't care about the message. What the West is only now beginning to wake up to, in the form of such figures as Sheik Abdel Rahman, is the fact that fax machines and electronic mail send bomb diagrams as easily as samizdat, and that our Cold War security apparatchiks can keep no better watch over the electronic seas than theirs could.

None of this will weaken the connection between the aural media and apocalypticism and anti-rationalism.

Am I a sea, or a sea-monster, that thou settest a watch over me?