It Takes All Kinds – But will we choose them?

by Goldie on October 12, 2009

in Society and Culture

(This is a second attempt at capturing the ideas from my conversation with @shamirkatsu on new media, de Tocqueville and the challenges of choice.)

During the holiday of Sukkot (last week) we take and shake something called a lulav. It is made up of 4 items, The frond of a date palm (lulav), branches of myrtle (hadassim), branches of willow(aravot), and a citron fruit (etrog). It takes all four to make up what we call the lulav.

When you look at the mystical teachings on them, they note that each of the 4 types has a different combination of taste and smell. The date palm has taste but no smell, the myrtle has smell but isn’t something you taste, the willow has neither taste nor smell, and the etrog has both. Symbolically taste corresponds to Torah study, and smell corresponds to mitzvot, or good deeds. So each type corresponds to a different type person with different interests and strengths. However, it takes all four for it to be complete.

In a local community you also need all types. Perhaps not as simply denotes as intellectuals and doers and those who combine both, but in a community you have people with different interests and different focuses and different beliefs. Within a strong community they come together, and the struggles and debates that come from these different views bring out more completely developed ideas and often solutions that are better than those that would have come from a homogeneous community that all held one view. It was this kind of debate within a local community that de Toqueville was admiring and seeing as the potential of the United States of America in his work Democracy in America.

Productized news, with its broadcast only medium in some ways created a passive environment where that kind of dialogue fell by the wayside. The local political information cold be received from your TV without the bother of discussing such things in the local gathering places. Discussion of politics with friends and co-workers was even discouraged. With this pushing away of the public areas of debate why would a person feel that they should become involved with political discussions or matters of the laws. That was the job of politicians. “Not my problem”.

New Media/Social Media has the ability to change that. The news and information rather than being one way has become a dialogue or even a full discussion. There have been places where I’ve seen people with different views on various political issues discuss these views and still be friends afterward. I see great potential in new media, and great importance in an involved populous. The challenge comes from the mobility of new media versus the presence of old physical exchanges of information.

On one hand new media gives us access to more points of view and more information than what could be gotten in a local town hall. The difference is, in the local town hall the debate was relevant to a person’s life, and the decisions mattered. While peer pressure might be stronger in a physical location at the same time a person has to deal with the consequences of not speaking up, not opposing that which is opposed to them. There is no walking away without consequence.

With new media, we can engage in these debates, and the medium encourages this involvement. At the same time given the variety and choice of media and discourse if a particular discussion does not share the views you have, you can simply walk way at the click of a button. The consequences are not ones that will impact a person’s day to day life. Now technically the local laws still matter and the debates are still as relevant as they were 200 years ago, but we have live so long with so many being passive participants in the local issues that that consequence no longer seem relevant. This means that new media can bring involvement and engagement with how our lives our ruled, but it is not a guaranteed thing.

With so much information from so many places and so many discussions to engage in, it is necessary to filter. One simply cannot listen to everything or participate in everything that is available to them. This is a great opportunity but at the same time a challenge. On one had I see the potential for people broadening their views and engaging in debates, but at the same time with the “if the news is relevant it will come to me” technique of information gathering it is also quite easy for people to narrow their views and only consume that which reinforces what they already believe, or limit their knowledge to areas they already know.

Which path people will the majority of people chose? That I can’t tell you. I hope it is the path of broader views and greater knowledge. What I wonder now is what will influence peoples choices, and are there ways to encourage a broader view rather than a narrower one.

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