Tag Archives: digital media

The Disappearing Agora

For most of us, the agora is electronic rather than physical. We now meet mostly online, missing the shared ‘witnessing’ known to early democracies and even early television viewers.

The idea of a central meeting place goes hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy.  A location where leaders and citizens are can be heard and exchange ideas is an essential feature of a civil society. Of course it was one thing for the several hundred citizens of a young democracy like ancient Syracuse in the 5th century BC.  They would gather in an open space.  It’s quite another thing when the political unit is scaled up from a city-state to a nation spread over a continent.

The romance of a New England town meeting retains some of the aura of a simple agora.  We have sentimentalized the idea even in classic television programs like Newhart or the Gilmore Girls.  Yet there is still truth in the romance. Even if most of us live in larger cities, we can still interact with local leaders. And though most of us rarely exercise the opportunity, it can be empowering to put a municipal leader on notice with our grievances or occasional praise.

Living within political boundaries containing thousands or millions obviously changes how we can connect to each other.  With regard to the federal government, most of us have only known the quasi-agora of national television news. Growing up in the 50s, my family mostly used one of three choices for connecting with the rest of the country.  NBC, CBS and a weaker ABC beamed out seemingly urgent news, such as the 1969 landing on the moon.  Life paused in most Colorado households in time to catch early evening newscasts narrated by Walter Cronkite at CBS or David Brinkley at NBC.  The announced death of President Kennedy in 1963 came to most of the nation through the words of the venerable CBS anchor.

CBS News announces president’s death

Nov. 22, 1963: In an emotional moment, Walter Cronkite tells the world that President John F. Kennedy has died, half an hour after being shot in Dallas, Texas.

The agora is now clearly electronic not in real time. We now “meet” mostly online: a change from early live television, where limits on technology meant that Americans witnessed the same momentous events more or less at the same  time.

We need to be careful about citing digital “advances.” To be sure, chatter in the culture has never stopped.  We are engaged with others in an endless spectrum of online communities.  But in no sense should we consider Twitter or Instagram as comparable vehicles for meaningful public “discussion.”  If we need a comparison, the typical social media post more closely resembles a shout issued from a passing car.

At the same time, the idea of a common civic space has withered. Readership of the nation’s largest newspapers is in decline.  Reliable online news (much of it aggregated from the remaining national news outlets) occupies less of our time.  The resulting fragmentation of the nation into specific audiences means that it is less likely that Americans will pay attention to significant events, or even  the same informational sources. If you ask friends what they are watching on online or via networks such as CBS or Netflix, the odds are good that “their” programs are not what you are watching. Neil Postman had it at least half right: we are “amusing ourselves to death,” but now with ever more esoteric ‘narrowcasting’ that satisfies personal rather than national interests.

I see this most dramatically in younger Americans, who have not only lost the newspaper habit, but the news-seeking habit as well.  There are too many other choices that offer more immediate forms of gratification.  Add in the double-threat of disinformation efforts from sources ranging from this White House to the Kremlin, and we are ill-prepared to enter any kind of agora as informed citizens.

Of course a national disaster brings lots of us momentarily back to CNN, NBC or Fox news.  But many more of us stay in touch–if at all–through other online venues offering their own unique perspectives and agendas.  Given these changes, its little wonder that the congressional Agora envisioned by the founders of the republic is now dysfunctional.  No one looks to Congress for momentous debates on the issues of the day.  In structural terms, it has always run a poor second to parliamentary forms of government for hosting spirited legislative debate.  The mute Congress is a symptom of our problem, but our fragmenting media now also seem ill-equipped to bring us together to ponder great national issues.

The Decline of the Dialogical Model

A common view of communication is that it is a process of exchange.  We listen.  We talk. The arrows flow in two directions.  Conversations become sustaining in ways that disembodied messages can’t match. 

                                                 Pixabay

With notable exceptions, the dialogical model of communication is in decline. The persistence of effort required in sustained conversations is in short supply. We find it harder to maintain the attention needed to hear what another is saying, struggling to engage brains that have been rewired to accommodate the pace of  the digital drumbeat. To get my car serviced, I now explain a problem while the service agent enters data on a screen with its own fill-in-the-blanks rubric. Many patients describe the same experience when they see a doctor. And even that minimal level of connection is lost as digital robots take over the customer service functions of more businesses.

Communal spaces designed to encourage easy exchanges between individuals now function as ersatz phone booths. The phones come out as individuals sharing a public space drift into their own informational worlds.  Devices of all sorts have become forms of protection against expending energy in direct engagement.

Even if fewer real bodies ever make it to our front door, our digital threshold is traversed all the time.  And so what is obvious is also consequential: the din of intruding messages are seen as welcome  opportunities to avoid the eyes of another who might expect a response.

Why does the retreat from direct conversation matter?  Innovations can enhance or disrupt our species’ innate inclination to seek relationships with others.  Some can serve as extensions of our natural tendencies for sociality: tendencies that show up in birthright impulses such as empathy and other-awareness.  But personal media often do the reverse as well, pulling us further away from the lives and experiences of others. Smartphones make it easy to mistake the disembodied fragment of another person for the real thing. 

Another sign of the decline of the dialogical model is how quickly we now fatigue of the effort required to sustain attention on another.  Communication has always had a performative function that makes us duty-bound to at least fake interest.  But for many, face time with another hardly seems worth even that minimal effort. Richard Linklater and others may write movie scenes featuring direct and revealing conversations.  That’s the method of his remarkable trilogy about a couple that concludes the film Before Midnight (2013).  But the rich conversational palette of his films stands in stark contrast to a world of Americans with eyes shuttered to the sensate world in favor of the small screen.

The favored pattern now is better represented with self-obsessed figures defined more by their strong interjections than their willingness to be a witness to others in the flesh. The preemptive rhetorical strikes of the President or a stand-up comic seem to reflect the times.  We now have many more models of figures who need to exercise their expressive urges as short judgmental rants. The President’s preferred medium of Twitter come across as shouts issued from a person unaccustomed to listening. They are the functional equivalent of the honk of an annoyed driver, a middle finger raised in a gesture of defiance, or a rant unleashed as a digital “comment.” Each is the same one-way form of communication-as-declamation.

All of this means that our expressive muscles get a workout, much more so than those tuned to the rhythms of another in an authentic conversation. To get conversational muscles back in shape and functioning again, consider a few modest suggestions:

  • Never give preference to a device over another person in the same space.
  • Ask yourself if your ‘screen gaze’ is becoming your public face.
  • See if you can find the time to hear another person out. 
  • Save the tough stuff for a face to face conversation, but… 
  • Find time to also talk about the fun stuff.