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[Chalice] Surfing [Chalice]
Toward Bethlehem

Presented March 26, 2000, by Steve Wiegenstein

A new technology is poised to sweep the world, bringing with it unimagined possibilities for communication and empowerment. Here is what Orrin Dunlap, a writer for the New York Times, has to say about this new technology and its promise:

[It] is a science and an art endowed with incalculable possibilities and countless opportunities. It will enable a large part of the earth's inhabitants to see and to hear one another without leaving their homes. [It] is an easy, quick, and economical means of spreading knowledge and information. Eventually it will bring nations face to face [it] is a new weapon against hatred and fear, suspicion and hostility.

The subject of this optimistic description was television; the year, 1932. As we all know, there's still plenty of hatred, suspicion, and hostility in the world, and television has done little to reduce it. The changes wrought by television have indeed been enormous, and in many cases those changes have been blessings; but there is no such thing as an unmixed blessing. And as I get to the subject of my talk, which is the Internet and its impact on our moral, spiritual, human lives, I want to keep Orrin Dunlap close in my mind.

I received an e-mail the other day from someone I didn't know. His name was Wiegenstein, and while surfing the World Wide Web at a friend's house, he entered his own name just to see what would turn up. What turned up was my home page in the communication department at Culver-Stockton College.

After a couple of e-mails back and forth, we finally figured out that he is the grandson of my father's cousin, who was killed in World War II. The family links had gotten dropped through the generations, but we have engaged in a friendly exchange of information, and my daughter is writing to his daughter. Thus we see the benevolent magic of the Internet.

On the other hand, in preparation for this talk, I decided to visit a "chat room" earlier this week. For those of unfamiliar with such a thing, a chat room is an Internet site where people from all around the globe meet to exchange e-mails simultaneously, usually on some particular topic. I visited a travel room, where people from who-knows-where exchanged innocuous non-versations largely unrelated to travel. Harmless enough. Then I visited a so-called "flirt room," where I was immediately beset by dozens of e-mails from people asking me to send them pornography and offering to sell me their pornography. Thus we see the sinister side of the Internet, the side that we are warned about in all those magazine articles.

I teach mass communication at Culver-Stockton, and as a student of the media, I tend to see this new technology in the light of the history of old technologies. When we imagine how the Internet may change us -- and it will change us, it is already changing us -- we can learn a lot from looking at how earlier mass media changed us.

First observation on that subject: the mass media in general, and the electronic media in particular, have had a separating -- one might even say isolating -- effect on us. Sure, there are the Super Bowl parties, and the groups of friends gathering to watch Friends, but those experiences are the exception. For the most part, TV and radio are experienced privately, unlike theater, musical performance, sports events, and other such forms of amusement. The goal of TV is for us to sit quietly and let it do the work. Although there may be 20 million people watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, each of them is ultimately alone. As T. S. Eliot said, "The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely." You can hear that isolating effect when you tune into a call-in radio show, particularly one of the more outrageous ones. People will call into a radio show and say things to thousands of listeners that they would be ashamed -- mortified -- to say at a party. Why? Because, in their own minds, they are alone.

Second observation: It didn't turn out this way in most countries of the world, but here in the United States the electronic media are overwhelmingly dominated by commercial motives; operating in the form of advertising. I am not here to bash the blessings of commerce; but as I said earlier, all blessings are mixed, and we need to remind ourselves from time to time of what's in the mix. In the case of the electronic media, their need to satisfy the commercial imperative has caused an amazingly fast evolution in advertising and in human psychology. When I watch TV ads from the 1950s, they're almost adorable, they're so quaint: "I like Ike, you like Ike, everybody likes Ike." Did they really think that was going to win votes? Well, yes they did, and they were right. But not for long -- viewers quickly developed resistance to such simple appeals, and advertisers had to look for more psychological approaches, such as appeals to fear, group inclusion, and sex. Today, we have such savvy viewers that advertisers have to pretend they're not really showing us commercials at all, and we get surreal dream sequences, computer-morphed special effects sequences, and anti-ads: "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst," which is itself an image, of course, just an image pretending not to be an image. In other words, an ever-more inventive advertising industry pursuing an ever-more skeptical customer.

Does any of this matter to us morally or spiritually? Of course it does. Everything matters, and certainly the way we spend our leisure time creates mental habits that spill over into the rest of our lives. As Neil Postman once said, "Embedded in every technology is an idea. People think of technologies as machinery, but no one has stopped to ask what are the ideas underlying these machines, some of which may be wonderful ideas and survival enhancing ideas, some of which may be destructive ideas." Certainly this is true of the electronic media. It is a technology, but it is also a set of ideas, a set of ways of seeing the world. Joshua Meyrowitz, in a very insightful book entitled No Sense of Place, observes that the mass media have helped to change our idea of social groups. Once we defined our communities either by location -- block, neighborhood, town -- or by family connection; today we talk of groups identified by a single lifestyle characteristic -- smokers, birders, Notre Dame alumni, history buffs, and so on, When we talk about the "senior community," or the "gay community," we are redefining community into something much broader, but also shallower. And when we think of the commercial motive that drives the mass media, we realize that the most significant source of information in our daily lives is dealing with us strictly in our roles as consumers, we begin to define ourselves primarily as consumers. And when I think of myself as a consumer, one consideration dominates my thinking: what's in this for me? What do I get out of this? Traditional reasons why we involve ourselves with other people get pushed aside in favor of the desire for self-gratification. Consumers are defined by what they consume, how much they consume, how rare or expensive or socially favored it is. And that's one of the ideas that underlies the powerful technology of TV and radio.

So will the Internet change any of this? Does it represent a revolution in technology? I don't think so. As I watch myself, my daughter, my students, my friends, use the Internet, what I see is the same process that happened with radio and TV, only more so. There's that same sense of isolation in a mass, only even more extreme, because one really can't use a computer in a group, the way several people can enjoy a TV show at once. And there's the same deification of the self. Using the Internet, an individual is the ruler of a self-created universe. Don't like one Web site or chat room? Click -- gone; on to the next. The metaphors used for Internet use are so accurate: browsing, surfing. Skimming along on the surface, going everywhere, committing to nothing. And if television has turned all of experience into entertainment, computers have turned all of experience into information. To quote Neil Postman again:

"Embedded in computers is this idea. That what the world needs is more information because the computer can store information and retrieve it and more of it and in a more accessible way than any other technology was able to do. So people begin to believe that the problem that they have to solve is how to get more information faster. That's the idea of the computer. But that's not the problem. If America and Russia blow the world up with nuclear weapons, it won't be because they didn't have enough information. And if children are starving in Ethiopia it's not because we don't have enough information. And if you're not getting along with your wife or children it's not because you don't have enough information."

And as with radio and television, the technology of the Internet is increasingly being taken over by commercial interests. Again, not to say that this is especially bad or good, but it does change the idea behind the technology, the way that the technology presents itself to us, and the choices that are made available to us. Just one example: more and more search engines are set up so that companies can pay a fee to have their Web site jump to the top of a search. So that when I visit Infoseek, for example, and type in "cowboy songs," the first few sites returned may be from record companies, ticket sellers, dude ranches, or whatever, anyone who has paid Infoseek to have their Web page jump to the top whenever someone uses the keyword "cowboy" or "song." The folklore and history sites may be buried somewhere a few pages down. This is not a big deal, I know, I can still find the site I'm looking for, but what's important is the shift in idea: once again, I'm a consumer above all else, and I have to keep developing ever-more-crafty Internet use strategies to stay ahead of the companies that are trying to sell me something or track my habits or drop little ID tidbits onto my hard drive.

So as we surf into the Internet era of the 21st century, we should remember that technology taketh away at the same time that it giveth, and we should be aware of what is being taken away. Can a person be an inhabitant of this media-saturated era without falling prey to its twin influences of superficiality and self-absorption? Yes, I think so, and the first step in working toward that goal is becoming aware that those influences exist. It becoming harder and harder to exist in America in this day and age without participating in the information technologies that drive so much of everyday life, and really there is no reason not to participate in them. The key is to make sure that you are using the technology, and not the other way around.

©2000 Steve Wiegenstein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegenstein, Steve. 2000. Surfing Toward Bethlehem, (accessed July 4, 2020).

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