Anthropology of Google+ #5 Who’s in Control?
Humans are many things and the definition of what it means to be human is rarely, if ever, completely agreed upon within all schools of thought, however, one characteristic that defines humanness across all such definitions is the ability to communicate through the means of symbols, whether those symbols be words, pictures, or social networks like Google+
As James Shreeve points out in The Neanderthal Enigma:
What was truly revolutionary about the Upper Paleolithic was not language, style or art, but the opening of the social conduits through which information of all such novel forms could flow.(Shreeve. p. 312).
Shreeve goes on to point out that cave art was probably designed to be a part of a ritual experience which was carefully planned and transmitted through the societies of the time. This magnificent leap may well have been the spark that lit the inferno that has led to today’s social media.
The next great leap from representational pictures and art was to be able to express words or ideas clearly with written language. The invention of hieroglyphics and alphabets allowed more complex forms of information to be passed between individuals even if the individuals never actually encountered one another (not even on Google+ or Facebook!)
Being humans, those who were able to control and use these tools used them to control and use their fellow human beings as well. Thus, this conversation which henceforth has been concerned with the idea of humans communicating meaning, moves into the more insidious realm of human beings utilizing power within human populations.
In The Media and Modernity, John B. Thompson dissected power into four distinct types. These are economic power, political power, coercive power, and symbolic power. The four are connected at multiple nodes, however, for the purpose of a less complex explanation, Thompson considers each in distinct form.
Economic power is that which controls material and financial resources in a society. Some examples of this in ascending order of influence would be farmers, merchants, bankers, and major financial institutions such as the Bretton Woods Institutions (the IMF, World Bank, etc.) and entities such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
Political power is that which is concerned with authority and governance. While those with economic power are able to wield political power more easily than those without, for the purposes of this discussion we will look at political power in a vacuum. The ascending order of power here might be citizen, council member, representative, senator, governor, and president. If we remove political power from the vacuum, we see that Facebook and Google were two of the largest lobbiers in Washington D.C. this past year. In addition, they power they wield with the users is considerable since users include all levels of power up to and including presidents.
Military power is that which uses physical and armed force. Military power falls within the realm of the coercive institutions such as prisons, police forces, sheriffs, national guard, and offensive militaries. Again, there is certainly a connection between this form of power and economic and political power. A look at the Arab Spring and the role of social media demonstrates this better than perhaps any other example. There is also a connection between all three and the final form of power Thompson discusses.
The final and one could argue, most powerful form of power is that which Thompson calls symbolic power. Symbolic power is the glue that binds the other forms of power to one another and to the people which form the basis of all power systems. Through schools, churches, and media of all sorts (including social media) people are convinced that the individual power they possess should be given freely to those who wield economic, political, or coercive power in human societies. It is for this reason that the rise of social media has also given rise to heretofore unknown levels of power among a technological elite in human society. I
The common factor which until recently was necessary for such consolidation of control was a standardized and efficient means of production and distribution for the message that the media is to carry.The rise of social media has warped this consideration. In general there is no longer a lag time between the communication and the reception of the message that social media carries.
It was this lag which prior to social media gave mass media so much power. By utilizing this factor, those utilizing mass communication were able to carry messages much further than the eyes of whoever might look upon a cave wall and to tell those who did look, what they should interpret the paintings to mean.
Mass communication took this lag time and use it to transcend both time and space. This meant that whatever message was being carried could reach people who are distant in geography or in time and there was no chance to reinterpret or dispute the chosen interpretation
Through this process, the few have been able to exert influence to overcome the resistance of the many. Through the power of the word transcribed and written some men were able to legitimize the illegitimate taking of individual power from other men. One example of this could be how the symbolic power of the media has been used to convince the poor that there is a separation between economic and military forms of power and thus keep them from rising up in arms when they realize that the two are actually one intertwined entity. Thus the symbolic form of power has been used to tell the consumers of the media how to value and see the world.
The rise of social media has turned this model on it’s ear. Farmers can communicate with generals and the message of fruit vendors can be spread quickly and efficiently to the masses.
In fact, when we look at the control of mass communication, it is easy to see that communication on a mass scale has been responsible for the building and defining of individual cultures. Culture, after all, is meaning that is shared. This shared meaning has been exhibited through the mass media.
Communication has, in fact created our individual cultures. And, here’s the kicker, today, social media is creating a new global culture.