Writing about Factual Media in an Age of Extremes

Our 'Manhattan Project' moment

Several months ago, my friend and colleague Daniel Kreiss and I were discussing something extraordinary: communication research, and communication researchers, suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Prompted by the role played by digital platforms in the election of Donald Trump and the undeniable power of media and communication companies in establishing (or disfiguring) the tenor of public deliberation, there was a sudden demand for the expertise of media scholars. There were lengthy white papers that managed to break out of the boundaries of the academic cul-de-sac, media researchers prominently featured in the Washington Post, and the scene of digital media company lawyers hauled before the US Congress to answer for their industries’ behaviors. What was once largely the domain of digital gurus and industry cheerleaders seemed to have acquired a new gravitas.

Daniel, one of the leading scholars of the use of data and digital media in American political campaigns, had noticed the change too. Our work as communication researchers had never been more important. Our generation’s political crisis had arrived, and communication technologies lay at the heart of it. “This is our Manhattan Project moment,” he said.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase — “this is our Manhattan Project moment” — for the last few months, and this introductory editorial post to the new “Media/Publics” vertical at Public Seminar seemed a good place to ruminate on it a bit further. I think this is a particularly relevant forum for this conversation, in fact. One could make the argument that the debates animating the New School were born in the aftermath of that original Manhattan Project, the Cold War it indirectly spawned, and the questions it raised about political responsibility, the meaning of liberalism, and the purpose of intellectuals in an irrational age. As I’ve browsed this website, it seems clear that these topics continue to inform the pages of Public Seminar. And so I would like to briefly take five of these issues, detach them from their Cold War context, and reframe them in order to talk about the role of media and communication in our new “age of extremes.”

The Liberatory Potential of Digital Media

In the years immediately preceding and following World War II, thinkers on the left struggled with how to reconcile their hopeful, perhaps even retrospectively naïve beliefs in the power of emancipatory social movements with the on-the-ground realities of actually existing communist governments. Today, thinkers must come to terms with the gap between what many of us hoped for in terms of the liberating power of digital technologies and the reality of “platform power” that is evident all around us. And while there may be one or two digital media scholars who “knew all along” that technology alone could not save us from politics, the vast majority of people writing about the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s were at least tangentially infected with the virus of optimism. The key struggle we face now is to remember what, if anything, of our early optimism might be salvageable in today’s social media age.

Empiricism, Facts, and Irrationality

To my mind, many liberal writers talking about the “self-obvious” nature of political facts and the irrationality of Trump voters who continually consume “fake news” and vote against their own obvious self-interest resembles nothing more than the gnashing of teeth that occurred when the working classes failed to recognize the obvious and rebel against capitalism. These parallels ought to lead us to think twice before placing too much emphasis on journalistic fact-checking, data journalism, or any of the other elite forms of digital news production which are touted as solutions to the irrational whims of American voters. Generations of Western Marxist scholarship demonstrated the importance of culture, identity, emotion, and affect in composing the various classes of society, and we should take their lessons to heart as we probe the supposed irrationality of the digital polis.

The Role of Art and Culture

Speaking of culture: it is important to remember that the struggles of the Cold War, and the contradictions they contained, were not fought on the grounds of politics alone. Art, music, theater, film — each of these domains was shot through not only with a struggle over ideas but with questions of aesthetics and the very possibility of an ideology-free art. We must be careful not to limit our analysis of the digital era to an analysis of the political or the economic alone. In this spirit, we hope also to feature posts on culture and art.

Should We Abolish or Reform (Digital) Capitalism?

In an article on the Hutchins Commission and its role in shaping American media policy in the 1940s, University of Pennsylvania media historian Victor Pickard captures the stakes of the debate with his title: “Whether the Giants Should Be Slain or Persuaded to Be Good.” The giants in question here are the media monopolies of the mid-20th century, and the argument in the Hutchins Commission circled around whether the United States should adopt a more statist and socialist regulatory media policy or whether it should instead tweak the existing system by more explicitly stating the normative expectations of the press while forsaking a heavy regulatory hand. The decision made in the 1940s and 1950s was to reform the media system while leaving communicative capitalism largely unchecked. Today, with regard to Facebook, Google, and other “digital media giants,” we face similar questions. Should Facebook be shamed into behaving better? Should Google be broken up? Should Twitter be nationalized? Understanding paths taken and not taken in the early Cold War can help us as we navigate today’s debates about digital media power and the public good.

Patriotism and the State

Finally, the role played by Russia in disrupting the 2016 American election and helping elect Donald Trump raises a host of questions about the role of media experts in the digital age. It is no secret that many critically-minded media experts have had a contentious (to say the least) relationship with the American state, often criticizing it for its imperialism, liberal hypocrisy, and racism. But today, many of these critical scholars are being explicitly called upon to defend the U.S. (and perhaps even democracy itself) from authoritarian subversion. How should we react? Like the “Cold War Liberals” of the 1950s and 1960s, should we rise to the occasion with a tough-minded but ultimately supportive defense of American ideals? Should we focus on other topics and issues less implicated in the exercise of American power? Or is there a third path for digital media scholars, one that avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of unthinking patriotism and unrelenting anti-statist hostility? It is with this question, perhaps, that the implications of what we mean by “our Manhattan Project” snap most clearly into focus.

* * *

Finally — and I promise I won’t make a habit of this — a brief personal note to wrap up. This chance to contribute to Public Seminar marks the convergence of a variety of “pasts” in my intellectual life so far, one that makes the chance to write here particularly compelling. For starters, the original invitation came from my friend, intellectual comrade in arms, and fellow (along with the brilliant Shannon Mattern) co-editor Julia Sonnevend, who I first met as a PhD student at Columbia University. Now that she is happily ensconced on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her new family, it’s nice to be reunited with Julia virtually. But an even older past is also present here. As I was scanning the pages of Public Seminar in order to understand what it was all about, I was delighted to see that one of my undergraduate mentors at Indiana University, Jeffrey C. Isaac, was a regular contributor and had even started a new PS column, “Blue Monday,” about music and politics. When I was an IU undergraduate, Jeff’s scholarship and his example of critical public engagement were an inspiration for me as I contemplated taking my first steps on the long path to an academic career.

So this is a public thank you to both Julia and Jeff. Having just begun a new job (Professor of Media and Communication) at a new institution (The University of Leeds) in a new country (the United Kingdom) it is heartening to be reminded of the continuity of academic life and the threads than connect places at diverse as Indiana, New York City, and Leeds.

Chris Anderson is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds.

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