To say that Americans have had a love affair with technology is the most humdrum of cliches. The idea that new technologies will not only make life easier for us, but will help bring us together as a people, is not new theme in American folklore. Long before there was the Web, or the radio, or even a developed telephone network, American philosophers and social critics dreamed of how new technologies might transform us, make us into a community in all of our diversity. In 1892, as a relatively young man, George Herbert Mead, a pragmatic philosopher in the American grain, wrote a letter to his wife’s parents. It’s worth quoting.
But it seems to me clearer every day that the telegraph and locomotive are the great spiritualizers of society because they bind man and man so close together that the interest of the individual must be more completely the interest of all day by day. And America in pushing this spiritualizing of nature is doing more than all in bringing the day when every man will be my neighbor and all life shall be saturated with the divine life (emphasis added). (See, Gary A. Cook, George Herbert Mead, The Making of a Social Pragmatist, p. 31)
This relatively youthful Mead thought that the locomotive and the telegraph would bring us closer together. And so they did in their own ways. Now the Internet appears to be doing so in a qualitatively different fashion. But before moving on to discuss the Internet’s place in the current election, it’s worth reminding ourselves about the dark side of our commitment to technology. For example, we have recently been promised nearly bloodless wars in which burnished flying machines, decked out with starship instrumentation, will seek out and destroy our enemies. The Iraq nightmare began with the promise that high tech would produce “Shock and Awe,” and a quick end to war.
But in this election, the prospect of utilizing technology to make Americans feel as if they are part of a national political community, is no longer merely a fantasy of the early devotees of Apple computers. Although it has been said many times and in many ways, and in ways that were suspect, it does seem that the Internet has finally come of age. No doubt Obama would not be where he is today without his campaign’s creative use of Internet technologies and software. (See, Joshua Green’s piece, “The Amazing Money Machine” <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/obama-finance> and Marc Ambinder’s “His Space” in The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/ambinder-obama
Yet technology by itself is blind. Obama’s experience as a community organizer has let him frame how the technology could be used. He and his people have pioneered paths for merging the virtual and the real worlds, for moving from on-line communities to real world communities and back. What happens on the Web doesn’t just stay on the Web. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama is part of an older American tradition, one that supported the development of technology without worshiping it. And one that spoke a great deal about community and social responsibility. Mead was part of this camp. And so was his good friend John Dewey. They were called progressives in the early 20th century. They were on the non-Marxist Left. (Yes, we once had a vital non-Marxist Left.) Sometimes we forget that this tradition preceded New Deal Liberalism.
What is happening is not just about Obama and his campaign. It is about words: their profusion, polyphony, and heartfeltness. People are writing to each other, again and again. And not just to friends (or one’s wife’s parents), but to strangers. Have Americans ever written so much in such a short space of time? Do all the words in all of the (paper) letters that Americans have written since the Declaration of Independence equal 1/10 of the words on the Web in the last five years? (No doubt, someone, somewhere, has made a calculation.) Commentaries abound from people who never had a voice in the mainstream media. They talk, argue, commiserate, plan, plot, comment, organize, and vent. Yes, a lot of junk, some hate, but also speaking and listening. Will this conversation resolve economic inequalities and racial divides? Of course not. As a matter of fact, we will have to work to make sure that new technologies don’t increase class divisions or centralize power in unimagined ways. Yet, all in all, we are engaged in an impressive conversation. It may not be the New England Town Hall, but for a country of 300 million, it’s an interesting way to help promote political communities and community.