Fred Turner: What happens when you free media

05.01.2017

Social media was meant to protect us from too much power of mass media. It brought Trump to our living room instead and helps mobilize angry masses. In our “Outlook 2017“ Stanford professor Fred Turner shows why our expectations on new media haven’t been met.

One of the deepest ironies of the rise of Donald Trump is that he has risen on the back of a medium, social media, especially Twitter, that was originally designed to prevent the rise of fascism. In my books “The Democratic Surround” and “From Counterculture to Cyberculture“ I trace the pushback against mass media in the hope that individuating media and individuating media experience would produce the kind of personality that will in turn be free. In the arc that I trace, media becomes more individuated, meaning that they are all around and are individually accessible, they become much more diverse but the actual mode of power on those media becomes more personality driven. So we have a situation with Donald Trump now where he is able to project his personality into the most intimate parts of lives, using the same medium which we use to follow friends and family. He’s able to enter our house in a new way by projecting personality – an outsize narcissistic personality which he can convey through this medium that ironically came out of a decades long movement to free media so people could use them as free whole personalities.

Since the Second World War, we’ve seen the rise of things like air travel and communication networks that we take for granted but are in fact radically new. We’ve seen a dramatic acceleration in the mobility of many people and concurrently a very rapid pattern of cultural collision across the world. People can move very easily across national borders.  But not everyone can move. Those who can move tend to have a great deal more power than those who cannot, power of all kinds. If you can’t move you begin to resent the mobility of those who can. In a lot of media, the media constantly trumpet the ability of anyone to become cosmopolitan but in fact most people can’t and they know it – who can blame them for getting seriously angry?

This is one of the challenges faced by global cosmopolitan elites today – we have been raised inside an individualist meritocracy in which we are taught to imagine ourselves  as open to any others, as flexible people, as collaborative, all the things we need to be if we’re to be effective cosmopolitans. And we’re taught these things in very privileged institutions such as elite universities and it feels like we’re having our characters developed to be better people  – as though anyone could do this if they put their minds to it and worked as hard as we do. What we don’t see is our cultural access to these things structures our access to resources. We’re officially open to everybody – but people without the same cultural capital don’t find themselves in the room.

Fred Turner is the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Stanford University. He is the author of three books: “The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties”, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” and “Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War”.

“Outlook 2017”: These days are not just the beginning of a new year, they carry some transition or even disruption feeling: new conflicts, new actors, new risks. And, obviously, new opportunities. In the context of the “Future of Power“ conference the GDI asks speakers and further global experts, what they think what we are to expect. Their answers add up to our “Outlook 2017“.

Further reads: Venkatesh Rao: The need for a blue collar cosmopolitanism