14 Feb 2022 Dreaming of the common good
By Dennis Smith
Since time unremembered, humankind has used language, gesture, and other symbolic systems to create meaning in common. And from these distant beginnings to today’s social media platforms, competing power elites have struggled to control access to and dictate the terms of distribution of these systems.
Economic elites have sought to dominate them for profit and competitive advantage. Religions have sought to sacralize them, designating gatekeepers to control access to the sacred. Political and military elites have sought to set the terms of public discourse, and to define the limits of acceptable expression so they can consolidate, protect, and expand their own power.
We have come to describe those spaces where communities create meaning in common as “public space”. They are the spaces where a community develops its understanding of the common good, building a life together, exploring ethical values and experimenting with aesthetics, but also sharing information and analysis as people hold one another accountable, debate and advocate for public policy.
While those in power have always sought to exert hegemony over the systems humankind has used to create meaning in common for their own benefit, no attempt to control public space has ever been completely successful. Today’s digital, online, and legacy media platforms – even when they are privately owned and operated to promote the interests of sectarian groups – are still public spaces where human communities express the creative impulse and question what it means to belong.
When elites attempt to control public space, it is not uncommon for them to stigmatize or even criminalize difference. In such contexts, to be excluded from public space is to be silenced, made invisible. Nevertheless, humankind has always found ways to resist tyranny and dream other realities into existence.
The consumer society
Today, these platforms are dominated by a neoliberal consumerist ideology that defines the value of human beings as being a function of everyone’s ability to consume ever-increasing amounts of goods and services. Such an emphasis on the individual and his or her capacity to consume has contributed to a social imaginary where both the powerful and the powerless are consumed with the power of capital. The consumer society spawns a culture of desire that dangles before individuals the promise of instant gratification and cultivates seductive visions of achieving status through the act of consumption.
Neoliberal consumerist ideas are so deeply embedded in many communities today that many people – and the political leaders who “represent” them – cannot conceive that other value systems are possible. Global trends indicate an increased sense of tribalism, manifested in suspicion and fear of the other. In such circumstances, it can become difficult even to contemplate interactions outside of one’s “tribe”. Not surprisingly, the breakdown of common public space has contributed to the breakdown of many communities’ ability to imagine the common good.
In a consumer society, digital conglomerates consolidate their control over large scale data collection and manipulation. By doing so, they turn individuals and communities into the subjects of forms of manipulation in which, almost from birth, they are exposed to feedback and confirmation loops in “public” spaces – although these spaces are privately shaped and controlled – in which our characters, beliefs and aspirations are formed.
In this context, we must ask, “Who is our community?” Traditionally, our communities are the groups with which we collectively interact in a public space. Indeed, these interactions are what create the public space. Here we ask, How are the boundaries of membership set? Who sets the rules of engagement? How does the community decide what issues are to be raised and how they must be decided?
As communities learn to navigate these issues in the emerging media ecosystem, they have learned that the social media now reign supreme. The problem is not the social media per se, but that the driving force behind them is the maximization of profits and, thus, the monetization of all human attempts to create meaning in common.
A matter of life or death
Instead of people being able to organically shape public spaces, including through trial and error, they are driven and deliberately manipulated by this consumerist ethic. While social media create the possibilities of all kinds of new public spaces to emerge, those that emerge tend to be infected with this mercenary virus, shaping the space and thus the “communities” that are shaped by them.
This dual process of both creating new forms of digital public space, and polluting it in specific ways, also exerts major influence over existing non-digital public spaces. In the most practical sense, existing media (many of which are also manifestations of an earlier generation of corporate elites) are strongly affected by their loss of income. By hijacking traditional income streams – especially advertising – emerging digital platforms weaken the legacy media.
One notable result has been to limit the creation of news, narrowing the range of sources available to communities to deepen their understanding of the wider world. Precisely the world in which they must learn to discern the flow of power and build alliances as they seek to apply democratic principles and build the common good.
Now that most of humankind has access to digital and online social media, the stakes for excluded and minority sectors of society are high. As ownership and control of these media has been consolidated in the hands of a tiny number of global corporations, their owners have grown more powerful than nation states.
To be excluded from such spaces means not only to lose access to the cultural commons where communities build their identities, but also implies the risk of physical annihilation. To be silenced, to be made invisible, can be a death sentence. Whether we are speaking of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon defending their lands from usurpation, the Uyghur community in Xingiang, African American young people insisting that Black Lives Matter, or non-binary youth discovering and celebrating their identity, to know one’s self as a member of a community with common interests and common struggles and for such communities to be able to represent themselves and their point of view is quite literally a matter of life or death.
As a member of an excluded social group, one quickly discovers that today’s social media landscapes can be rife with carefully crafted manipulation and lies, caustic rumours, hate speech and fear-mongering. From the outside looking in, excluded individuals and communities discover that they are not white enough, heterosexual enough, young enough, thin enough, or with sufficient disposable income to match the projected ideal. Transcending the personal, power elites have learned to use social media as tools of disinformation for the manipulation of public opinion to exacerbate existing social divisions and prejudice and to provoke violent confrontations that consolidate their hold on power.
Theologians note that the current neoliberal consumerist system functions very much as a voracious, bloodthirsty idol that demands human sacrifice. To cast the excluded, the silenced, those made invisible, onto the garbage heap of history is justified by the elites as collateral damage in their drive to perpetuate the current system. The author of the New Testament letter to the Ephesians describes this almost mystical power in this way, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Corporate capture of public services
The growing power of the social media over public space also demonstrates new forms of “corporate capture” of government functions and responsibilities. While city planning, medicine, education, communication infrastructure, transport, and governance generally are only very slowly waking up to the potential of artificial intelligence and the use of data to improve services and create new ones, these corporations are moving into government sectors, offering “free” data and services (just like social media do to individuals) but at the price of impunity and freedom from existing regulatory frameworks.
Yet, these key government functions and services each act like a miniature public space, bringing people together to provide shared services and enabling people to interact. Even these little eddies of interaction are now being occupied by digital corporations, closing off small but vital conversations within and between communities and between communities and government, and subtly imposing new ways of operating which further empower the corporations and erect barriers between people.
Despite all the very real limitations of this emerging media landscape, we must remember that the very existence of social media has changed the way many people (particularly the younger generations) think about media, having moved from a largely passive process to one that is essentially interactive. Even if only a minority of those that consume social media produce content, it’s a much larger group than what the legacy media have accustomed us to.
A democratic renaissance?
The long-term impact of all this is hard to foresee, but it is unlikely to return to the top-down, unidirectional model characteristic of traditional media. This may lead to a reshaping of the public sphere and of people’s expectations in which a greater level of participation – a sort of democratic renaissance – becomes the new normal. The character of that participation, and the possibility of its contributing to a more just and sustainable society, will clearly depend on factors of social and political organization that go beyond the digital realm.
The pandemic (and the climate/ecological crisis) have further polarized our societies between extreme individualism on the one hand and, on the other, a greater awareness of the need for community as well as the importance of public services and policies in defence of the common good. This is likely to be a major confrontation in the coming years.
Civil society organizations, of which the ecumenical movement is one, are called to defend access to and the integrity of public space as uniquely important in developing a shared vision of the common good. This is not easy in the current system, where corporations exert unprecedented dominance over the economy, politics, and culture, but it is both urgent and necessary.
We must be committed to participating in the creation of democratic public communication spaces, spaces for considered dialogue – both analogue and digital – that would explicitly strengthen excluded voices; guarantee citizens the right to own and control their data, information and knowledge, free from commercial, state or other co-option; and contribute to, uphold, and validate social justice, communication rights, and the common good. ν
This article is a synthesis of discussions by a study group, made up mostly of researchers from the global South, to prepare WACC’s contribution to the Symposium on “Communication for Social Justice in a Digital Age”, Berlin, 13-15 September 2021.
Dennis Smith, a past President of WACC, has recently retired as Presbyterian Church (USA) Regional Liaison for South America. For 43 years, Smith worked in communication training, advocacy, and social research with churches and civil society groups in Central and South America. Later research came to include comparisons of the influence of religious media on partisan politics in Central America and Brazil and the growing impact of religious, economic, and political fundamentalisms in the region.