Advantages of social media are poorly understood

 

My grandfather began school at a time when trust was defined by physical locality, and often marked by the boundary of the parish. In the spring of 1879, aged seven, he was part of the first generation of Irish kids to attend national school in Fanad, Co Donegal.

It was his first lengthy engagement with the English language; and it’s likely that the main technology he used during the six years of his formal education was a stone slate.

Three generations – and 120 years or so – later and, at half that age, his great grandson’s favourite educative tool is already an iPad.

He has no teacher, and bobs randomly through various games and puzzles, constantly moving and charting his own individual paths of learning.

The youngest of four, he is taking his first steps in what will rapidly become the connected world of the autonomous learner, in which trust is much more intuitively wrought from what he himself senses will work.

This emerging world is already populated with a range of autonomous – and unbiddable – publics.

It is full, in equal measures, of both danger and promise; where established authority – be it church, politics or banking – is under constant criticism and challenge. “Belief”, “credibility” and “credit”, all key units of trust, are in short supply.

As ordinary citizens we can access and read data more freely than before. Even if we can’t, social networking allows us to quickly find a man who can. We can even build whole communities of interest and trust on a global scale, sometimes within days or weeks.

Public gaze

Those in power are almost universally fearful of a public gaze which is multiplying, intensifying and, scariest of all, apparently ungovernable. That’s a fear that probably needs to be listened to. The technology has changed, and so must we.

Much of the fear in Ireland has focused on Twitter since, within a few short years, it has adopted an almost ubiquitous presence in Irish public life.

Twitter is certainly a powerful tool. It allowed locals in Pakistan to alert the world to the US assassination of Osama bin Laden.

According to David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla, social media more generally has enabled civilians to “rush the field” in conflict zones.

The greatest casualty is what he terms the “presumed consensus” within the wider population. Now they have the means to talk, compare and come to independent judgment, they can – and often do – disregard the advice of a lofty or disdainful elite.

The problem is poorly understood by politicians and some of our most senior and erudite commentators. It’s simply not the case that the internet is populated with ill-grammared louts.

Well actually, yes, it is. Of course. Yet it is also beginning to describe new ways of developing authority and knowledge. You don’t get one without copious amounts of the other.

And it introduces a new dimension to good old-fashioned conversation that’s still ill-understood even by those of us who’ve been working in the medium for the longest time: an endless capacity to link information and people in networks of trust and belonging. (See technologyreview.com/featuredstory/427640/people-power) It has transformed the development and transmission of knowledge by extending social memory to a degree and on a scale we’ve simply never experienced before.

This change is replotting the future cultural, social and political life of my youngest son, and the rest of his pre-school cohort.

The contrast with the relentlessly local life of his great grandfather could hardly be more stark.

There is little evidence that school made much difference to my granddad. Though he understood it, he rarely spoke English, and he made only his “mark” on my dad’s birth certificate.

I doubt he travelled further than the few miles to Mass or the fairs in Kerrykeel and Milford.

His cultural milieu was both oral and rich. According to academic Breandán Mac Suibhne, the Filí Mhicheál, whose work was known the length and breadth of Ireland, were a group of poets and songmakers who lived and worked in my grandfather’s townland.

Little of that intensely local culture survived the rollout of the national school system. It’s rarely a cause for national anguish today because, over time, we’ve come to appreciate the huge advantage it bequeathed subsequent generations.

Plato’s terror

No less a person than Plato worried about the effect of writing things down.

He feared that men would “ . . . cease to exercise memory [but] rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks”.

The journey to literacy of the wider public was similarly fraught with the same kind of anguish we see today. The digital era requires of us another generational journey towards a new social literacy that will be hard to refuse.

The technology will continue changing and posing new problems. But our ability to re-establish communal “trust” within a networked cultural landscape will be the critical difference between future success and failure.

* Mick Fealty is a founding editor of the blog Slugger O’Toole

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