We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. Marshall McLuhan
The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorise messages. Twitter Help Centre Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. George Orwell
The best chance of navigating the binary smog of our contemporary media-saturated society is a traditional liberal arts education and deep engagement with technology. In an era where communication is powerfully enhanced by shiny technologies – which would have resembled magic to humans born before the production of the microchip – there is a deep need for technological savvy. Consumers in a capitalist society are encouraged to purchase powerful telecommunication and computing tools but as citizens we need to consider the impact of this hyper-connectivity on our civilisation.
Honing critical thinking skills, especially ethical reasoning has never been more important. Heritage education systems are largely failing to prepare citizens for the challenges and opportunities of citizenship in a contemporary world. There has been a decline in the study of history, philosophy, civics and language with the rise of outcomes-based business models of schooling and standardised testing. Ironically, there has also been a failure to develop a systematic approach to studying and using technology in our media-saturated environment.
Six years ago, my students followed the #LondonRiots hashtag on Twitter in preparation for a school visit to England. That was not the original plan. We had intended to look at an overview of literature written in the capital and discuss the cultural sites to be visited on the tour but the reality of what was happening in London was like a brick through our classroom window. We read, watched video, examined photographs and reflected on what was unravelling in the streets of London from information fed to us by disparate individuals tweeting on this hashtag. This felt like a very fresh, innovative, exciting and contemporary approach to learning at the time. My students were Danish and this was English class so we considered the metalanguage of the medium, the history of the printing press and the impact of a democratising, social media platform like Twitter on politics and the discourse of the day. We discussed the power of the hashtag, metadata and concepts like folksonomy (which my word-processor still places a wiggly red line underneath) as well the historical impact of technology on society, including Barack Obama’s social media campaign to win the US election just a couple of years before.
Geeks, theorists and tech enthusiasts had been analysing these concepts for some years but they were certainly not taught in (m)any classrooms or omniscient in the mainstream media like today. In real-time, projected on a screen and via their personal devices, we watched the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, Prime Minister, celebrities like Russell Brand, eye-witnesses, rioters, shopkeepers effected by vandalism and the people of London (and elsewhere) commenting on the event as it unfolded shaping both political and mainstream media responses to the riots. Television news has done something similar since the 1960s beaming footage into the family home from war zones, disasters and riots which impacted, for example, on citizen support for war in Vietnam. However, access to broadcasting using the medium of television was limited to government or those wealthy enough to own a station. Now anyone with a smartphone in their pocket and access to the World Wide Web can broadcast using the hashtag.
My class were challenged to answer the question, “Why did riots occur in London and other cities in England during August 2011?” in any form they chose with close reference to sources. This is a very traditional essay-style task but the difference was they had the resources to explore a multitude of different perspectives during the same month the event happened. Citizens now had the hashtag. So did students. The classroom experience had changed utterly. However, on reflection, at no stage did we discuss the concept of paradox or think about our own context analysing an event where the dust had barely settled. The paradox, that a growing percentage of humanity can communicate almost as fast as the speed of thinking and has access to enormous amounts of information but does not possess the skills or knowledge to effectively analyse or evaluate before this very poorly understood information changes how we think. The “fake news” phenomenon during the recent American presidential elections and the growth in “alternate facts” is old-fashioned propaganda but many citizens lack the skills – or the motivation – to sort the wheat from the chaff.
There is good reason for quoting Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) and George Orwell (1903-1950) in any piece exploring communication, language, media, and “fake news”. They often saw clearly what was happening in their own times; understood the importance of language and technology and were interested in popular culture studies before such a notion existed. Their ideas continue to educate a wide and growing audience. Concepts they coined are daily currency – “global village”, “Big Brother”, “Thought Police” – and epigrams like “the medium is the message” and “some animals are more equal than others” are powerfully important ideas for our times. In an era where the notion of a ‘public intellectual’ has been thoroughly debased, Orwell and McLuhan help us to see things as they truly are.
The trouble is it is getting harder to see things as they truly are. Ironically, we have more access to information and analysis than any time in history but the sheer volume of real-time information – the noise – makes it hard to discern the signal. Orwell’s, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (1949) is no longer necessarily as important a lever for wielding power. William Gibson, more than fifty years later, posited “We have no future because our present is too volatile. We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.” Orwell did know about pattern recognition though and this was evident to readers of Animal farm and Nineteen eighty-four who marvelled at how accurately he portrayed their experience of revolution and totalitarian techniques of control.
This constant connection to the events of the day, via social media hashtags, appears to be a very new phenomenon fuelled by the rise of smartphone technology late last decade. It really is an evolution of citizen-participation found in the city-states of Greek and Roman times for what is now our world-state. The daily handwritten news sheets, posted by the government in the Roman Forum from circa 59 BCE was known as the “Acta Diurna” (Events of the Day) and reported on politics, trials, scandals, military campaigns and executions. The chatter is now via open online forums and membership is not restricted to the elite but there are many similarities as well as differences. How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians (64 BCE) by Quintus Tullius Cicero is a two-thousand-year-old tract, by the brother of the Roman orator, Cicero. Written to him as advice about the upcoming consular elections, it feels very familiar:
…remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.
Cicero won the election. Does this advice still have resonance and relevance for contemporary elections? Many politicians are exposed for their corrupt dealings via leaked recorded private conversations as well as public utterances which resurface compromising their integrity. “The mob” is now virtual. Paradoxically, the recent presidential election in the USA exposed many unsavoury aspects of Donald Trump’s character and behaviour but he became the successful candidate. The rise of “fake news”, distributed via platforms like Facebook, looks like a good old-fashioned smear campaign from Roman times in support of a demagogue. The more things change the more they stay the same. The medium is the message and our tools shape us.
Societal values are always contested. Australia legalises same-sex marriage, Indonesia punishes homosexuals harshly. Now, we know it all happens at once in forums that are no longer virtual other than in name. The paradox is real. Poor digital citizenship, in the form of abusive online attacks, trolling and ugly vilification exists at the same time as crime and injustice are exposed via a hashtag in the next tweet. It is all part of the rich tapestry of life. Traditional skills – critical thinking, high levels of cultural literacy, historical knowledge and ethical understanding – are essential kit for citizens in a media-saturated democracy. Ironically, living with an understanding of paradox strengthens citizens to intellectually reject notions of a truth-free world of alternate facts and Orwellian 2+2= whatever suits the events of the day. Learning to live positively with paradox is different to accepting untruths.