The end of “we”

by Terence MacNamee

It is often said now that we are witnessing the decay of “mass society”. In the 20th century, it is reasoned, the mass media reflected, and to some extent created, the preferences, values and tastes of the man-in-the-street. Today such homogeneity is neither desired nor required. With the help of newer technologies, there is a proliferation of different media content, and these media can be directed to the groups who want to consume them. Everybody can be freer in their tastes and have their needs met.

I wonder if people who argue this way are aware of the full implications. When the consensus of media disappears, other forms of consensus disappear too. For consensus is cultivated and nurtured by mass media. The American historian Benedict Anderson called modern nations “imagined communities”, as they consist of people with a fellow-feeling but who don’t know each other personally like the members of a clan. “Imagined communities”, as Anderson pointed out, are communities of readers: they depend on sharing things like newspapers and books. That is what forms “public opinion”, a phrase more and more neglected because it has become so problematic. The great imagined communities of the past are crumbling at the edges. That is what is really meant by the end of “mass society” with its homogenized consumer tastes.

Previously in this place I mentioned Popper’s idea of the “abstract society”, where no-one knows anyone else personally. In an abstract society, ultimately, there is no “we” left. There is no common ground. It’s every man-in-the-street for himself. Popper’s 1950 vision of a future society is now coming true thanks to computers. There is a whole shadowy world out there of people with computers (and similar devices) all on their own. I notice I am a part of it. I look at the morning papers on the Internet, and I shake my head. They don’t speak for me with their pretended consensus. Some of us have ducked out of the meeting and cannot be spoken for. We are flying under the radar. We may not have extreme ideas, but we do not subscribe to the usual blah-blah. Politicians can’t hook us. Advertisers either. Just count us out.

Ironically, I find myself saying “we”. But this is no basis for an imagined community, a cohesive group – any more than people with blue eyes, or people suffering from a particular disease. It is just a growing fringe of people who don’t fit into to the mainstream. Whether this augurs well or not for the future of society, I do not dare to think.