I was once part of a large, discussion-based event for secondary school students, where the organisers (myself included) tasked the participants with discussing whether social media was bad or good for the world. The arguments they came up with were, as you might expect, varied and nuanced, and, when they drafted them, pretty much fifty-fifty.
But when it came to putting the motion to a vote, the room was overwhelmingly in favour of “good for the world”. Judging by their presentations, and the general mood, the participants had clocked that the question implied a kind of judgement on their own lives, of which social media was simply a fact, offered by older generations that thought it was still somehow optional.
Literature is full of pessimistic prophecies about the future of society and culture, or the destruction of the planet. These judgements are frequently issued with good reason and they often come true. But the more they hit home, the more condescending they feel. Philip Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’, for instance, with its vision of ‘England, gone’, buried underneath motorways and service stations: most of my life has been spent driving around motorways, stopping at service stations. I am the ‘crowd at the M1 café.’
Concrete is one thing. When culture is involved, the judgement feels even more personal. I recently read Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1984 polemic about the effect of television on public life, for the first time. His argument, the general gist of which feels undeniable, is that television’s ubiquity, in the US especially, has changed how we see the world, and not just on TV: everything is entertainment and context is irrelevant.
Postman is remarkably open about judging the present by the standards of the past. In brief, his thesis is that nineteenth century America was an exceptionally print-based culture, which in turn meant rational argument had a genuine purchase on public life in a way it no longer does. By his reckoning, audience members at political debates in the US at that time would happily sit through up to seven hours of back and forth, often over dry, technical issues. You do not get Boris Johnson or Donald Trump without television, and they are just the surface.
I say remarkably open, because, if Postman is right, by now the thinking apparatus of almost everyone on earth is seriously fried and no one wants to hear that.1 When a technology is as constitutive of culture as television was (according to Postman) in the late twentieth-century, or as social media is today, anything positive or exciting will either be indirectly associated with that technology, or happen through it. Because that is where people are.
So, I can understand why the students would interpret the question “is social media good or bad for the world?” as a referendum, not on social media, but on ‘the past’ vs ‘the present’. And if you are going to be the ones living in the present, self-respect means there is only one answer. No one wants to think of their lives as someone else’s dystopia.
1 The reason Postman’s argument is convincing, to me, is that it is more subtle than that joke implies. It does not rely on any quasi-scientific, and probably unfalsifiable, argument about the damage TV does to our brains: it is a question of what modes of representation – what standards of truth – we are most used to. Similarly, a lot of the debate about what social media does to our attention spans is irrelevant, however close to the bone: the question is what it does to our expectations.