Thursday, January 13, 2011

Long Division in Contemporary References

In my last essay “Where's the 'Common' in 'Common Sense'?”, I showed how “common sense” is a weapon for elite power. In this essay I'll be demonstrating how “common sense” is filtered to us through specific contemporary reference systems and how these systems serve to segregate us, thereby weakening our social framework and making us easier to dominate.

In June 2005 I remember using the term “fair trade” in a conversation with my father. What was for me as common a term as “organically grown” or “sustainability” was completely new for my father. Now, let me clarify that my father is a very well-educated man, a man who makes an effort to continuously educate himself. But he had never crossed the term “fair trade” in his readings, which, I assume, stem from a wide array of sources.

The sources from which we obtain our information – our ideologies – are our reference systems. And they have been expanded exponentially in the last decade. Indeed, before the European Industrial Revolution our reference systems were quite limited. The Church constituted the main reference system, with the hierarchy of royalty and guilds, and then, finally, local community and family building additional reference systems. These reference systems were often complementary, each fusing ideologies into a divine order of things.

The Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the development of the nationstate all served to provide additional and, for the first time on such a broad scale, contradictory reference systems. And although the development of modern media and globalization in the twentieth century expanded our reference systems incalculably, it was the birth of the internet which brought about real exponential growth. The common user has such a wide array and depth of information at his fingertips that, hypothetically, he could devote his attention to a single ideology and run out of time long before running out of information.

In reality, however, most of us, like my father, use a wide array of sources and create our world view based upon a grid of myriad reference systems, which produce what I called in my essay “Dusting off Hegemony” a “stratosphere of ideologies”. I used the word “create” because it implies the freedom of choice that most of us experience when deciding by which reference systems we will define ourselves. Indeed a certain freedom still exists. I'll again draw from social networks for my examples. In Facebook, we have the chance to “like” something. This “like” click attaches us to the thing and the thing to us. It defines us. Perhaps far too much, but that's an issue for a different essay. Our “likes,” however, also serve to feed the algorithms on which Web 2.0 technology is based. What is Web 2.0 technology? There's a grayscale of definitions, but, at the risk of oversimplifying, I could formulate it something like this: whatever we click, like, or view is processed and, based upon this processing, “the computer” generates information that it thinks we want to click, like and view. Very handy for navigating through the tangled net that the world wide web has become. But very ethically questionable.

Already now on various platforms advertisements are suited to me. I could purchase Nelson Mandela CDs or hire a company involved in sustainability. I could engage in a foundation that offers micro-credits to Haiti or read about how 100% cork is better for the environment. Gone are the advertisements for fashion, food and entertainment. Gone is the content with game and quiz results on my Facebook News Feed. My Top News has gotten serious! Facebook writes, “Top News aggregates the most interesting content that your friends are posting,” and claims that “The News Feed algorithm bases this on a few factors: how many friends are commenting on a certain piece of content, who posted the content, and what type of content it is.” But Facebook neglects to mention that it is my clicks and likes and views which are also taken into consideration.

It is not the privacy issue alone that I find so questionable. It's the fact that I'm getting what I want. I'm no longer free to get what I don't want. And why would I want “what I don't want”? So that I stay awake and don't start to believe that I live in an environmentally friendly, politically correct, micro-credit, sustainable cork world. More and more of us are spending more and more of our time on social platforms. We think that we are so “social,” so “connected.” We might start to think that everybody else thinks like we do. But maybe it's because our “friends” who don't conform to our computer generated image are filtered out. How far will search engines apply Web 2.0 technologies in the future? Will I get what I'm looking for to such a degree that I never run across discrepant opinions any more?

Certainly these issues are not new. Fifty years ago people were divided by the newspapers that they read. The information, news, and opinions were filtered through the specific profile of the newspaper. But people still knew which paper they were subscribing to and why. They sought out their own information. And they knew that other newspapers, with other political slants, were there for the buying.

We've always had blinders on. Even in the European Middle Ages we wore blinders allowing a view that was dictated to us primarily by the Church. But we all had the same blinders and viewed life more or less in a very similar way. The past two hundred years has served to bring about a lot more ideologies and to very much narrow the prospect visible through the blinders. To stick with this metaphor: the internet and, more specifically, Web 2.0 technology will serve to bind our heads, so that we can no longer turn and see where everybody else is looking. At the same time it will put feed in the feedbag, so that we no longer care.

My father and I are very different politically. But I can still access and view his reference system. And he can access and view mine. He raises his eyebrows skeptically when I talk about the Nestle baby formula scandal and asks, “Do you really believe that?” But he could still google those words and find out what I know about if he wanted to. Will there come a time, however, when he won't be able to? Will he just get the information disputing the scandal because he has been politically profiled? If he and I can no longer access each other's reference systems, political discussions won't be a matter of a difference of opinion. Why? Because we won't see that the other reference systems even exist any more. “My” way will become the only way.

The disparity of reference systems makes diplomacy more questionable. A culture of debate will become superfluous in a world where we assume that everyone thinks as we do. Debate and diplomacy will be replaced by either apathy or flaming (see my essay “Virtually Christmas”). This loss in social skills combined with these exponentially fragmented ideologies makes us unable to relate to one another. In short, unable to bond. And there is nothing more advantageous for eliterian dominance than a fragmented subordinate society. Our division will be our downfall.


In my next essay I'll be further examining “common sense” and how it can lead us astray.


  1. Hi Fay, you're dragging this Luddite kicking and screaming into the present century.

  2. A further comment. I agree with you about the 2.0 issue. But all I have to do to expand my content is to broaden my clicks. Guess what happens if you click Mandela as well as John Birch or Lincoln Rockwell. Or do you feel that we will all turn into internet slugs. Humans are free thinkers and we will continue to be.

  3. I have not always witnessed humans engaging in their right to be free thinkers. I assume that the tendency that many people have in forgoing this right is nothing new. Thinking takes work! What is new is the amount of "filler" we could opt to stuff our brains with. Two hundred years ago a farmer could either think about things or watch his cows when he wasn't working, both viable pastimes, in my opinion. Today we are inundated with trivial information and information which serves to fragment us. We let ourselves become lost in details instead of seeing a broader spectrum, wherein both individuals and political parties alike might find more common ground.

    I think many people are already turning into internet slugs. But I don't think that is necessarily bad. Just as I don't think web 2.0 technologies or any other technologies are intrinsically bad. Technology is fascinating and has always provided mankind with the possibility of growth and advancement. But nearly every technological advancement has had a dark side (ask the Luddites!) and it is our responsibility to question, analyze, weigh the pros and cons, and be alert for the consequences. Only then can we be better prepared for how to deal with them. Technological advancement requires human adaptation.

    Tony, I love doomsday literature! I loved Orwell and Huxley when I was younger. The advantage of a doomsday view is that when you really examine the worst-case scenario you have a better chance of being able to look at a thing from all sides. The web is still free! We still have the possibility to "broaden" our clicks. Now. But I gave you a perspective of how that might change one day and I incorporated that perspective into our present day, real-world problem of fragmented society. The resulting combination is frightening.