The history of human communication follows cyclical patterns of media development that sometimes throw members of a culture together, only to have newer developments pull them apart again. Thinking broadly, before widespread printing after the 15th Century the institutional church had informational dominance over most communities in the western world. After that century, the clergy increasingly had to compete with printed manuscripts not under their control.
The same pattern repeated itself in the 1960s. At that time television networks had some of the same power of the medieval church. If citizens wanted to know what was going on in the world, they certainly had newspapers. But if they wanted the immediacy of fast-breaking stories they only had two dominant television networks with mature news divisions. For example, the bloody Vietnamese fighting of the aptly named “living room war” came home to Americans at dinner time via film rushed across the Pacific Ocean in time to air on the CBS Evening News or NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report. Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley were familiar chroniclers of its horrors. They usually had audience shares that news outlets today can only dream about.
What the printed book did after the 15th Century is being replicated with digital media in the 21st Century. American lives are no longer dominated by the same cultural narratives. Indeed, with the proliferation of choices online and on various video platforms it’s increasingly obvious that we have drifted into different “communities of discourse.” That phrase is a slightly fancy way to say that the fragmentation of the informational world means that we no longer share a core of common national experiences. Early moonshots, the Vietnam War, the World Series and even the Watergate affair in the 1970s were all defining events to be collectively celebrated or mourned. Even the least public-spirited Americans could not help but be caught up in the net of their compelling stories.
All of this makes it possible to notice that we now have an informational universe that separates more than unites. We are a nation that sees fewer events as compelling moments to be understood in the same way.
YouTube, Facebook, “Google Play” and are their clones will learn what we like, giving us more of the same and less of the alternate media and narratives that used to be baked into the national mix.
The evidence is all around us. Most strikingly, and with many exceptions, younger Americans do not typically follow national journalism, which was the birthright of their more activist counterparts in the 1960s. For many of these “post millennials” “news” has been redefined as a form of satirical or “reality” programming. Similarly, films are increasingly budgeted and planned on the basis of their narrower demographics. We have adult films, “tentpole” films built around serialized comics or toys, and some durable family features that try to bridge the divide. But viewing a top Oscar winner is no longer a family event. All of this is symptomatic of the fact that Americans have retreated to bubbles of media content that can be customized to screen out the ‘wrong’ political attitudes, or to skip over materials meant for a distinctly different demographics. YouTube, Facebook, “Google Play” and their clones will learn what we like, allowing even more information segregation, and omitting alternate narratives that used to be baked into the national media mix.
For most of us, but especially for some younger Americans, the bubble has shrunk even more to a word-starved social media world of friends they interact with or celebrities they “follow.” As a result, as college teacher I share less of the American cultural universe with my students than was the case even two decades ago. We mostly follow very different paths through the cultural wilderness of popular music and popular film and video. Hard news reporting has become an island that is rarely visited. In practical terms I can’t mention current and consequential congressional hearings, major presidential addresses or ongoing crises like the unraveling of the European Union, expecting that we are still in the same informational world. And they might find me equally clueless about new musicians, video games, or new “breakout” performers.
The point is not to define fault, but to notice that if our society seems less like a society and more like a federation of tribes, that’s because it is indeed what we have become: changed by media developments that have made fragmentation possible and the once-potent judgment of “ignorance” passé.